Condo and apartment balconies can be drab, desolate spaces. Even for green-thumbed urban dwellers, these concrete slabs in the sky can pose a real challenge due to extreme sun, rain and wind conditions. But growing your favorite herbs, vegetables and flowers in outdoor containers isn’t as daunting as it may seem — that’s according to best-selling gardening author Niki Jabbour who has penned three books on edible gardening.
“The biggest misconception about container gardening is that it’s hard to do. It’s really quite easy, and it’s such a nice way to green up your outdoor spaces,” says Jabbour. Here the author of The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, Groundbreaking Food Gardens, and her latest book, Veggie Garden Remix, shares eight tips on starting a container garden from scratch.
1. Evaluate your outdoor space
“Before you go to the nursery, take a look at your patio or balcony. Is it sunny? Is it shady? Is it super windy? Look at that because you’re going to have to match the plant to the conditions,” says Jabbour. Observe your outdoor space at various points throughout the day, noting the number of direct sunlight hours your balcony receives. “There are a lot of shade-loving plants, and there are a lot of sun-loving plants, but you want to make sure you purchase the right ones,” says Jabbour. “It helps if you ask questions at your nursery — if you are new to gardening they are happy to help!”
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2. Pick the right container
“Almost anything can be a container — old wine boxes, breathable fabrics — but you want to make sure it has drainage. If you don’t have drainage holes, it’s the quickest way to kill your plant,” warns Jabbour. While there are countless upcycled planter ideas on Pinterest, you’ll want to ensure that your tea tin-turned succulent garden has a few hammer-poked holes. “If your planter is made of plastic or wood, you can always add your own, but ceramic is harder to work with, so I’d say it’s best to avoid those.”
3. Choose compact plants
“Thankfully for container gardeners, plant breeders have been creating lots of new compact varieties for patios and balconies,” says Jabbour. “If you’re looking through seed catalogs or at the nursery, words like ‘dwarf’ or ‘bush’ mean the plant is going to grow relatively small.” Jabbour recommends Patio Choice Yellow tomatoes, which grow about a foot tall and yield over 100 fruits per plant. There are also compact varieties of peppers, eggplants, bush beans, zucchinis and carrots that can be grown in containers. “If you’re a first-timer, read labels, ask questions, and try to pick varieties that will stay compact and under control!” notes Jabbour.
4. Don’t forget about potting soil
“I use Pro-Mix potting soil, they have a nice organic vegetable and herb mixture that I use for my containers,” says Jabbour. “I do two-thirds Pro-Mix, one-third compost — which you can buy at any garden center — and that gives you lots of water-holding capacity.” If you consider yourself a forgetful gardener, add some slow-release organic fertilizer when potting your plants. “Every time you water, it’s going to release a little bit of fertilizer to your plants,” explains Jabbour. “You don’t have to think about doing it all summer long.”
5. Experiment with unusual edible plants
Veggie Garden Remix is all about growing your palate *and* your gardening skills, and Jabbour’s recommendations do not disappoint. “Cucamelons are a cucumber relative that taste like a cucumber with a hint of citrus. They’re fun and easy-to-grow grape-sized vegetables that look watermelons.” Jabbour suggests using big planters to grow cucamelons because their roots require plenty of space, and adding the support of a trellis or railing that allows them to climb. “I also love ground cherries, which are a tomato relative, but they taste like pineapple-vanilla-butterscotch,” says Jabbour. “They’re also super easy to grow in a container.”
6. Save some serious cash by growing your own herbs
“If you’re just starting a container or herb garden, you should grow the herbs you use most often in the kitchen,” suggests Jabbour. “Herbs are the number one way to save money in the garden. You can even freeze or dry out excess herbs to use in the winter.” Jabbour likes to grow basil varieties such as dolce fresca, which she describes as “super productive and compact.” Chives, curly and Italian parsley, thyme and oregano are also good choices for beginner gardeners.
7. Opt for indoor-outdoor plants that will thrive year-round
“You can grow tropical, heat-loving herbs such as lemongrass, bay and basil on a balcony, and bring them indoors before the first frost in fall,” says Jabbour. “Some people use additional lighting, but if you have a sunny, south-facing window you should be fine.” She also recommends growing microgreens, shoots and sprouts indoors, and then planting them outside once the weather improves. “If you have cold-tolerant veggies, such as kale, in containers on your patio, you can put a tomato cage in the pot and cover it with a clear garbage bag. It’ll create a mini greenhouse and you can harvest until January,” notes Jabbour.
8. Blend food and flowers for a burst of color
“I like to mix food and flowers together,” says Jabbour. “Edible flowers like nasturtiums and pansies are awesome, but you can also grow sweet alyssum, which smells really nice and will attract bees and beneficial insects and pollinators.” Jabbour is a fan of zinnias, which bloom in a variety of eye-catching colors, as well as Swiss chard for its vibrant stems. “Don’t be afraid to mix and match!” emphasizes Jabbour.