Top tips on growing veg and herbs on an urban balcony from RHS Horticultural Advisor Julie Henderson
We’re often told we can grow edible plants in even the smallest of spaces, but there are challenges: where to sow seeds, prick out and grow on, store compost, pots, watering can. With the luxury of a garden it’s easy to take these background facilities for granted.
What can I grow in my balcony garden?
My first thoughts when I recently moved into my third floor flat with a balcony from a house with a garden were: What can I grow? Throughout my search for a flat, I daydreamed about growing possibilities: a lush tropical effect, a pollinator paradise or a cocktail hour plot with lemons, limes, mint and basil to garnish?
Excited to see the Balcony Gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022, I looked for inspiration, but although inspiring and fun, they didn't work for my own balcony. My west-facing balcony is 295cm x 105cm (9ft 8in x 3ft 5in), and has just enough space for a table, chairs and a few pots.
I brought with me a collection of plants I’d found it hard to part with but didn’t contribute to any of my daydream planting schemes, except two blueberries. I wondered, would pollinators find their way up three stories and would pigeons decimate the fruit. The pollinators came and the blueberries are ripening nicely. The pigeons, although frequent visitors a couple of months ago, eyeing up my balcony as a potential nest site, abandoned that idea and have left my blueberries alone.
Tips for growing edibles on a small balcony
- Choose larger pots rather than lots of small ones to reduce watering frequency.
- A peat-free John Innes No 3 is best for long-term planting, with 30% horticultural grit mixed in for drainage. For annual planting a peat-free multi-purpose is lighter but needs replacing each year. Where do you dispose of it without garden borders to mulch? Communal gardens might be an option, but check with whoever maintains them first.
- Consider the total weight limit for your balcony and the effort of transporting everything up there.
- Only grow what you love – keeping it simple and fun is the key. If you overcrowd your balcony, you’ll be tripping over pots and lose that vital relaxation element. If you find your balcony filling up then maybe an allotment is your answer.
- Monitor regularly for pests and remove by hand as soon as you see any, as although pests may arrive, their natural predators will be sparse at height.
Which veg and herbs to choose?
- Select plants you can grow from seed in situ, as small plugs or ready grown plants, eliminating the need for pricking out and potting on.
- Low growing plants will reduce wind damage in exposed locations.
- Try dwarf beans, interesting salad leaves, a couple of bush tomatoes, some choice herbs, including mint for tea, black peppermint is my favourite.
- For a sheltered sunny spot, chilli plants provide a dash of spicy colour, lemons should be happy in summer but need a suitable overwintering site.
- If you don’t have direct sun, but plenty of light you could try mizuna and mibuna, Spinach ‘Missouri’ (beware of pigeons) and a regular supply of crisp radishes.
Consider your aspect, you are likely to only have one, so go with it and choose suitable plants.
What are the benefits of balcony gardening?
I haven’t spotted any slugs so far, but perhaps they haven’t reached me yet and harvesting is more convenient, with no trudging down the garden path in the rain.
Additionally, not aiming for self-sufficiency, or even sufficiency, you’re free to pick and choose your favourites. Your reward will be tasty treats you can harvest with the stretch of an arm. Happy growing!
Pick of the crop
Look for the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) when buying vegetable seed or small plants. You can also download the RHS lists of recommended cultivars.
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About the author - Julie Henderson
I’m an RHS Horticultural Advisor based at Wisley. I recently moved from the south west where I worked as Propagator for the National Trust, Plant Conservation Centre, taught Horticulture courses at The University of Bristol Botanic Garden, and gave talks to Garden Clubs.