Bounty on Your Balcony

Just because you don’t have a yard, doesn’t mean you can’t have a garden

June 28, 2013

Kim Ward hopes to one day have a garden like the one her grandparents had. For now, she grows herbs on the balcony of her apartment in Alexandria.

Kim Ward often thinks back to her grandparents’ large garden, filled with edibles.

“I remember helping in their garden growing up,” says Ward, who would pick and wash vegetables.

Ward, 27, a receptionist at a labor union, rents a two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria and dreams of someday cultivating an in-ground garden like her grandparents did. In the meantime, apartment gardening offers her a small-scale taste of agrarian life.

Apartment dwellers typically don’t have the luxury of a backyard — and even those who have one may not want to put a lot of effort into a garden that won’t move when they do. So many renters who want to exercise their green thumbs turn to container gardening, growing plants in small pots on balconies, patios or even windowsills.

“You can grow all sorts of things in a container,” says master gardener Sarah Pak of Alexandria. And not just flowers. Lots of renters have kitchen gardens — in their kitchens.

Want to get started? Below is our handy guide to making your garden grow in a rental.

Check With Your Building

Ask about any rules your building may have for growing plants. Large apartment buildings in particular may have regulations about where and what you can plant.

For example, Ward’s building doesn’t allow tenants to have fruit or vegetable plants because they could attract pests.

If you’re growing on a balcony, check in with your landlord or the building’s maintenance team. Pots and soil are heavy, so make sure your balcony can handle the load.

Follow the Sun

Look skyward. “You need to know how much sun you’re going to get and at what time of day you’re going to get the sun,” Pak says. Look for plants that can thrive in those light conditions.

Ward’s balcony gets a little bit of light in the mornings. It’s a challenge for growing her mint, basil, rosemary, parsley and oregano.

“In our old place, we got a lot more afternoon sun, and the plants just seemed to get a lot bigger and fuller,” Ward says. “My basil would just go crazy.”

In her new place, she can grow basil, but it doesn’t get as full. “We’re still managing,” she says.

Pick the Proper Pot

Choose your container carefully. Terra-cotta pots have an earthy aesthetic but are heavy and porous. They’ll dry out quickly and you’ll have to water the plants in them more often. Consider plastic, fiberglass or resin, all of which are lighter-weight and easier to move.

Smaller pots work well for aggressive plants such as mint or lemon balm, while larger containers can hold a few plants.

“I think it’s nice to put several types of plants in one larger container,” Pak says. For a beautiful container, think structure — such as pairing a taller plant with a cascading plant — as well as varying leaf size and color.

Don’t Forget Drainage

Without drainage, roots can rot.

“Containers need to have a hole — preferably more than one — for drainage, and something to collect the water that seeps through the dirt, particularly on a balcony,” Pak says. “Make sure if you’re watering your plants, you’re not showering your neighbor.”

To prevent soil from washing through the hole, cover it with a window screen, coffee filters, shipping peanuts or stones before filling the pot with soil.

Think About the Soil

“Nutritious soil is critical,” says Georgiana Bloom.

Bloom, 62, a writer and communications strategist, grows lettuce and spinach in her Adams Morgan apartment, in addition to about 10 pots of garlic and around 20 basil plants for her annual pesto-making. She started with rich garden soil from a home in Arlington, and every year, she mixes in new potting soil and rotting leaves from friends’ yards.

If your friends won’t give you dirt, Pak recommends purchasing potting soil, a mix that’s specially designed to hold enough air and water to help houseplants thrive. There are lots of commercial mixes available at garden or hardware stores, all with their own special blend.

Choose the Right Plants

Even though renters can grow a wide variety of plants, not all work well in a small space.

When choosing tomatoes, for example, Pak advises container gardeners to look for the term “determinante” on the label. That indicates the plant will be shorter, more compact and more container-friendly, as opposed to “indeterminante” varieties that grow unwieldy vines.

Good choices of plants for summer container gardening include peppers, eggplants, bush beans and herbs, all of which are smaller plants that don’t require trellises or other supports. Buy them from a nursery, garden center or farmers market and transplant them into your own container.

Lettuce greens — such as Swiss chard, kale, spinach and romaine — can grow nearly year-round, and you can sow the seeds directly into the container’s soil. “[They’re] a really simple, easy thing to start with if you’re a beginner,” Pak says, but she advises gardeners to wait until late August to plant them.

Make Mistakes

Gardeners learn through trial and error, so make mistakes early and often.

Ward could never get cilantro to grow. “I thought I was the one doing something wrong,” she says. She later learned that D.C.’s heat hinders cilantro. Oh well. “It’s just a plant,” she says. “You can get more. It’s worth a shot.”

Can’t Contain Your Questions?

Call or email the help desk at a local office of the D.C., Virginia or Maryland Cooperative Extension, an educational network run by the Department of Agriculture. Experts can answer questions, make suggestions or troubleshoot problems.

Chat up a master gardener at local farmers markets (many offer free plant clinics with master gardeners). Check with local markets to find out if and when master gardeners will be on site at a table.

Seek such online resources as gardenweb.com. “They have a container garden forum with people with some real expertise that I have learned a great deal from,” says Barbara Heil, an apartment gardener in Adams Morgan. C.M.

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Carrie Madren | June 28, 2013