Our balcony garden began with that sincere question born out of a love of gardening since childhood coupled with complete denial that we live in an apartment. When the current health crisis began, we were determined to avoid the shops as much as possible and to try and live as ‘off the grid’ so to speak as we could manage, even though we live in an apartment!
Through our high producing balcony vegetable garden we only make 1 to 2 visits a month to the greengrocer, yet we eat something fresh from our balcony garden with most meals. How did we do it?
growing what’s in season now
Are you limited in space? I challenge you to give it a ‘grow’ and see how you go.
Let’s start a balcony gardeningrevolution!
Inspire others to balcony garden and share your pics on Instagram, tagging, #giveitagrow
I would like to share with you our strategy for having a perpetually producing organic balcony garden that grows most of our vegetables and all of our herbs.
A lot of people are surprised that we live in a unit and that we grow so much of our own fresh food right
Growing food on our balcony is a journey
Hitting this point of self-sufficiency has been a journey. We have had just as many successes as failures. With lost crops that looked like they were going to be bumper successful only to have them wither, be eaten by caterpillars or affected by something like powdery mildew. Every challenge inspires us to learn more about gardening and has contributed to our respect for gardening and gardeners. We have wonderful respect for our farmers who sustain us, and contribute to our quality of life and wellness.
We began gardening as toddlers
Our growing journey began when Tony and I were each little babies gardening with our families. Separately we both grew up gardening and enjoying growing some of our own fruits and vegetables for our families. When we met, part of the bond that we formed was because we shared this passion in gardening.
Gardening and growing our own produce organically on our balcony garden became the cornerstone of our relationship. When COVID-19 hit, we wanted to develop independence from the big supermarket chains. As we watched the news and saw new COVID-19 cases every day, even just a couple of hundred metres from where we live in the big supermarket. We couldn’t have wanted to be further away from the shops. The thought of going in there to get fresh food was not at all appealing. So, I am a perfectionist and a little bit of a scientist. I was curious about how self-sufficient it’s possible to be by using a balcony garden space.
My aim in the beginning was to be 30% self-sufficient from the greengrocer.
While my aim in the beginning was to be 30% self-sufficient from the greengrocer, we have achieved about 80% self-sufficiency from the greengrocer, all by growing really creatively in a 3×4 metre balcony garden. Read more here about How to start a balcony garden
Tower gardens and vertical gardens are the best way to grow food in a balcony
We have two tower gardens like these. Each tower garden has a blueberry, and the following plants respectively between the two gardens:
One cherry falls tomato, spinach, chilli, climbing spinach, parsley, basil, oregano and coriander as the mainstays.
Over the last four months we have also grown the following seasonal crops in the tower Gardens:
Potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash.
What foods grow best in a small garden
We have a smaller grow-wall, vertical garden beside our door way to the balcony and in that we grow lots of leafy greens as well as spring onions, chives and shallots. It’s very rare that we actually use onions in our home. We have found onions inefficient to grow in our balcony garden as they take too long. Using the garlic chives, shallots and spring onions, you can reach a level of flavour just as intense and delicious as that of onion and they grow extremely well in small spaces. They are also perpetual in their growth so you able to keep the plants in the ground, cut off the shoots and away you go.
The vertical garden beside our door is in part-shade yet we have found it extremely efficient at growing the Chinese veggies and our greens in general including:
Rocket, baby spinach, bok choy, perpetual lettuce.
We also have a long planter, almost 2 m. In that planter we have grown a couple of sunflowers which have given us the most rejoicingly beautiful happy smiling faces that have shone down at our neighbours bringing happiness to what could be otherwise just another apartment block balcony. We were very strategic in planting our sunflowers. Sunflowers are recognised for their beautiful large flower faces but they also have a range of benefits including, the seeds are edible. Sunflowers actually purify the soil by sucking up toxins like no other plant, they can actually remove metals from the soil by doing this. Sunflowers attract so many bees and beneficial pollinating insects.
Zucchinis, a watermelon and two large tomato plants, both have hit over 6 feet tall in that garden. I will be honest, as I write this I am trying to figure out who to move as space has become at a premium and we are now at a point where we have lost productivity of some of the vegetables in this bed. The zucchini is nearing the end of its productive life so it may have to go.
Around the base of the big vegetables in that container, we have baby carrots and radishes. We have a continual supply of both and I scatter seeds every other week so we never run out.
Our weekly vegetable shop from the supermarket usually consists of three things that I just cannot grow adequately at home:
3. Sweet potato
If we can’t grow it now, then we think, maybe we are not meant to eat it at the moment. Eating for seasonality is very important for the carbon footprint of our food and means we eat food tasting better and that is fresher because it didn’t travel as far and hasn’t been in deep freeze…
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( mm / dd )
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“Everyone must stay home”, Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister announces in his now daily press release. Tony and I sit in silence, blinking and just waiting. Journalists throw questions at the seasoned PM and he responds with a veil of political candour cloaking the most shocking global crisis of most of our lives. Our 18 month old toddler plays on the floor with his black and yellow diggers, moving piles of kinetic sand around a deep container.
I want to cry but I don’t. I want to ask, “but when will this end”, But I don’t. I want to go for a long boozy dinner with Tony and some friends and say, “Wow! That was a really intense movie. I’m glad it’s over…” But, most shocking, I can’t… because the horror is real. My baby boy looks at me and says “mummy, dig, digger”, and I smile with the reassurance that I don’t feel.
How do you facilitateresilience and growth for a toddler whensocial isolating in a unit?
Each and every day of my baby boys life he has felt the breeze blow against his face, watched the leaves fluttering on the trees and experienced the various fragrances met by going outside to explore. Thankfully we we’re able to go for a daily walk but that was the only adventure out of our unit that our son experienced.
Before COVID-19, we felt we were in an ideal situation. We live in a new apartment, situated 6 minutes by bus from a major train station and very close to a large shopping complex. Our apartment has a nice communal garden and we seemed like the only ones to really spend time in it. We have horses nearby and major bush land and we are only 20 minutes from the ocean.
We didn’t want to live in a house yet because, with starting a family, we felt it would be so much maintenance…
COVID-19 is bringing so much horror, pain and suffering to so many. I do not write this seeking sympathy but to show others how we are coping and in the hope that other people may find comfort from our approach.
I felt a lot of fear in the beginning of lock-down and wondered how I would cope with such intense isolation. Let alone, how I would support my toddler to continue to grow and thrive.
Toddler tantrums are real and intense displays of emotion
I started working from home when we went into lockdown and my toddler was mostly here too. My boy was not in day care because he had become so sick as a one year old going into the day care environment. We were lucky because between my son’s aunts, grandmas, Tony and I, we were able to look after our boy while I worked.
While I tried to work from home, my son would realise I was barricaded in his bedroom and would often come barging in or cry at the door. It was heart wrenching to know he had nowhere else to go, despite our families best efforts, and yet he was truly distressed by being so close to his mum and yet so far. Prior to lockdown he had a routine where he would see other children six days per week. Our son would ask to go to the park and we would say, “we can’t do that today, sweetie”, or to the library, and eventually he even asked to go to the shops. To everything the response was the same, “not today, there is a nasty virus”.
Relief came through our food garden on our 3×4 metre balcony…
As the sun rose each and every day, it was like it pulled us and our baby boy out onto our balcony. Tony and I learned gardening and growing our own food crops from our grandparents from a very young age. We have always had a garden but it was just a part of our home. What COVID-19 did was boost the central importance of gardening to be front and foremost in our home. Through gardening, our toddler found fun, learning and adventure, and we found daily mindful escape, all from our balcony.
Through hours and days spent inside, looking at the same, unmoving walls, the central change seemed to be a layer of dust and cat fur ever descending. Waiting in lockdown in our apartment felt like we were experiencing tremors from an earthquakes epicentre. Ours walls seemed to be a constant reminder that the world was in crisis. Our garden on the other hand offered creativity, learning, mindfulness and resourcefulness.
Our balcony food garden is a daily source of magic
As though it has its own life blood, our balcony garden changes with every day. There is a continual sense of journey among those plants as they flourish and bloom. Each day there are amazing transformations and surprises and tending the soil and feeling the cool gritty earth in my hands has grounded me on lonely days where I deeply longed for connection from within lockdown.
Harvesting, cooking and eating balcony grown food brings a level of indescribable love and connection between our home and our family. As though we are one with our garden, it nourishes our wellbeing, physically and psychologically.
Balcony gardening nurtured our toddlers wellbeing and growth
Our boy was 16 months old when COVID-19 reached our shores. He was just starting to really connect with the world around him. Our son was realising his own personhood, that he was an individual, separate from me and he was learning to speak. Our boy has an inquisitive mind and constraining him to a unit was very hard. However, we gave our son his own garden bed. He planted a range of seeds and we taught him how to water. The wonder in his eyes as he watched them germinate and reach up through the soil to make their own beautiful and strong leaves was magical.
Our son rejoices in spending time outside. He loves the fresh air, the feel of the soil and the excitement of growing his own plants. The wonder of watching a seedling differentiate into different vegetables is a great miracle of life for both us and our boy. Then to harvest and eat the vegetables gives our toddler a sense of pride as he helped to grow the food on our table.
Balcony gardening has decreased our need to go to the supermarket
Beyond the benefits to our well-being from gardening, we also saw a very practical advantage to balcony food gardening. Every time we went to the balcony to harvest food, we were decreasing the time spent in a supermarket and potential risk of catching COVID-19.
We feel a greater connection to the food we grow and have lovingly tended it and watched it day in day out evolve. Gardening is a mindfulness activity. It has profound positive benefits for mental health. Gardening has benefited myself and my family immeasurably through coping with being confined to our unit.
Where to in 2021?
I do not mean to write this like we are past lock-down. As I write this, our family, ten minutes from here, have been placed in lockdown again and there are cases of COVID-19 popping up through Sydney, as there are throughout the world. I hope that this post may inspire others who are living in an apartment and coping with social isolation to begin gardening and find comfort, peace and solace like found through gardening.
Through our gardens there is escape, mystery, abundance, health, wellbeing and magic. May 2021 bring some peaceful resolution for all.
Are you looking to start growing a balcony food garden? Balcony and small space gardens are a labour of love capable of providing you with a huge range of ever ready fresh, zero-carbon footprint, foods, available whenever you need them.
Whether you are looking for a continual supply of fresh herbs that can be adapted into each and every meal or whether you love your fresh garden salads, Mediterranean cooking or Asian stirfries, the layout and structure of your balcony garden depends on your culinary tastes.
No matter what gardening experience you bring, or the size or shape of your balcony, courtyard or small garden, you can live a more sustainable life by growing food at home.
Work backwards, from plate to garden
I broadly categorise six different types of balcony food garden plant choices:
Container herb garden; thyme, basil, coriander, parsley, oregano, chives
Mediterranean garden; basil, tomatoes, cucumber, garlic and onion chives
Asian garden; shallots, bok Choi, Chinese celery, water spinach, Chinese broccoli
Although I do recommend trying a small pot garden for a couple of months before making a big purchase, if you have gardening experience and know what’s involved in maintaining your garden then I recommend using a stackable solution like a vertical garden. This decreases the footprint but increases the amount of produce that you can grow tremendously.
Choosing the right vertical garden
We have grown two flourishing tower gardens for three years now and are absolute converts to this style of gardening. In fact we were discussing recently our bucket dream of one day having a massive property and we still feel that we would have two tower gardens by the entrance to our home because visually they are spectacular and practically, they are the most efficient use of space within a small garden like a balcony.
Tower Gardens also offer other benefits like they save on water and I have found the highest proportion of earthworms out of all our planters seem to live in the tower garden. Compost breaks down the fastest in the tower gardens and the plants seem to thrive the most in those gardens.
Nutrients are able to flow through the different levels of the tower gardens, so when you do you something like a liquid feed, nutrients will go further which saves you money.
We have put wheels on all our planters except the tower gardens as we are worried about destabilising them. However, we need to turn the gardens frequently which causes us more manual work. We strongly recommend a tower garden that is very heavy duty and sturdy and that does have wheels so that it is movable.
Planting up your tower garden
We recommend adding some good quality potting mix with light weight Perlite potting mix and compost. By investing in good quality soil at the start, you give your plants a helping hand to begin their growing journey.
Growing from seed
Growing from seed saves money and effort in the Longrun. If you have ever struggled in the past with growing from seed do not give up. Seeds germinate very well in a warm environment like a windowsill or you can use a Mini greenhouse seed raising tray to help the process along.
We find we tend to spend about 5 to 10 minutes a day caring for our balcony garden through, pest control, pruning, watering and weeding and the fun bit, planting and harvesting. Nowadays, the garden is so well-established we tend to spend about five minutes a day harvesting food. We tend to spend at least an hour a day outside, just enjoying the garden with a nice glass of wine, home-made dips and home-grown nibbles.
You will need to water your tower gardens every other day with a small amount of water into the top container. The water will infiltrate down and should collect in the bottom tray reservoir. You can tell if your garden needs to be watered by putting your finger about an inch into the soil. If it feels dry or if you notice any of your plants wilting, give them a drink.
Feeding your garden
There is no better plant food than compost. we petitioned our Owners Corporation to install compost bins on common property. They are working brilliantly and many residents are contributing. Compost is available to everyone to use and it is also serving to decrease the smell in our bin area and to feed the gardens on common property.
If you are unable to have a compost area on common property, we recommend a small composting unit, such as the Maze Indoor Kitchen Composter with 500ml Liquid Bokashi unit. This is an odour free, indoor composting unit that works quickly to break down all the food, including meats and fish, that you put in there. They are compact and very user-friendly and appropriate for apartment living. Another option is using a worm farm directly on your balcony to directly improve the soil. We also recommend a high-quality liquid fertiliser every two weeks such as Maxi crop organic seaweed liquid fertiliser
Next step is to plan your meals
There is wonderful joy in harvesting food that you have grown from your balcony and plating it up into an amazing delicacy. It is this process that keeps us going and inspires us to grow more in the space that we have. It’s also this joy that inspires us to promote balcony gardening to others.
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Our biggest predators have been caterpillars and slugs, although the Summer months have also brought their share of aphids and the dreaded mealybugs. Allowing the natural eco-system to evolve has supported the garden to manage pests naturally. We have several small spiders living on our balcony. Flowers are interspersed through our garden and these attract birds which eat the caterpillars and slugs.
We believe in organic gardening as a long-term solution
We garden organically so do not use snail or slug pellets or chemicals to deter any of our pests for several reasons:
Chemical pesticides are a short-term solution- They work by killing the pest but often kill beneficial insects too which can lead to more of the original pest with less beneficial pests
Birds, cats, dogs and even children can accidently ingest harmful snail and slug pellets which can be lethal.
Spraying pesticides on plants that are for human consumption means ultimately you too end up ingesting the pesticide
The pesticide can end up in the soil, leading to microbiome imbalance in the soil which leads to further problems down the track and inhibiting plant growth
Birds, cats and dogs sometimes end up eating slugs, snails or caterpillars that have died from pesticide. This can then harm or even kill them.
We see the health of our balcony food garden as intrinsically linked to our families health. It is too important to use harmful chemicals.
In small space gardening, if you spray chemicals there is a high chance that spray could enter your home.
What are organic solutions to pesticide for a balcony food garden
Plant flowers- We used to have a big problem with mealybugs and aphids but we planted a beneficial insect mix of seeds and we have had this incredible increase in the activity of ladybugs and even birds in our garden. These feed on the pests in our balcony garden and help the natural balance of our garden stay in check. We are now visited daily by birds in the local area.
Try a snail and slug beer trap- place some beer in a saucer, big enough for the snails and slugs to fall into and leave overnight. Be sure to cover it so the poor birds don’t get more than they bargain for with their breakfast…
Manual removal-The benefit of small space gardens in that it is actually not that difficult to spend 5 minutes a day checking for snails and slugs by torch light in the evening, and caterpillars during the day. You can relocate them to bush land or parks nearby and the birds will thank you for the feast! Tony and I laugh that before we started a family, we would bond late at night over a glass of wine in a candlelit room. Now, we have just as much fun bonding, still often with a glass of wine but now while on a slug and caterpillar hunt! We still find it just as fun though!
Focus on the health of your soil rather than on the problem at hand-often pests are opportunistic. Aphids for instance tend to thrive when a plant is not very healthy. By ensuring your plants have enough light, air-flow and well nourished soil, your plants health can improve and that can prevent pest problems.
Order beneficial bugs to destroy pests-We ordered Cryptolaemus larvae, the natural predator, of the mealy bug. Mealy bugs are incredibly destructive and infestations take off very quickly and spread from plant to plant. They will kill a plant if not dealt with. Only the females are visible to the naked eye. They feed on plant juices. Cryptolaemus for mealy bugs
Your balcony garden is its own micro-ecosystem
When you start seeing your balcony or small space garden as an ecosystem just like any other, you realise that by making slight changes you can actually maximise its ability to work symbiotically and the amount of work that you need to do decreases.
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