From Bleak to Blooming

How one D.C. apartment dweller turned her balcony into a veggie and herb oasis

July 5, 2013
Bad to Good balcony

Condo- and apartment-dwellers are experts in making small spaces live big. So why do we treat our balconies like junkyards? (Mine, for example, has been housing bikes, a neighbor’s cast-off card table and a Christmas tree stand.) Here’s a better idea: Let’s turn these unloved spaces into farms.

Some background is in order. This is the first summer I’ve spent in an apartment. Before this, my suburban yard featured a sunny 15-by-15-foot vegetable garden. But our gorgeous spring weather made me yearn to nurture baby plants with my 7-year-old son. I missed my cantaloupes, those golden globes of goodness that sprawled across my garden. I had to find a way, I realized, to tug flame-orange carrots out of the soil so I could dice them and mix with lemon, cilantro, garlic, cumin and harissa to create a crunchy Moroccan carrot salad that tastes like sunshine.

Yup. It was a balcony farm or bust.

First I cleared the balcony. True treasures found better homes, while a certain card table went to the dumpster. Two runs to Home Depot yielded chartreuse plastic pots and window boxes, 10 bags of soil, seeds for carrots and lettuces, and small veggie plants:  cantaloupe, pickling cucumbers, basil, jalapeno, and San Marzano and Big Boy tomatoes.

I planted the starts and seeds, then moved pots around until the layout felt pleasing. I’d brought two Provence lavender bushes from my old garden, so I treated them to larger pots and rich new soil. I tugged the lavenders over until they flanked the doorway, a nod to a formal garden entrance.
Then, I pushed my outdoor sofa to the balcony’s far end and — voila! — suddenly had the coziest-ever seating nook. Why hadn’t I appreciated that fabulous river view before?

As the sun fell, I poured a glass of rosé and flopped down to admire my handiwork. A lavender-scented breeze ruffled the cilantro. But I needed a place to set my wine glass and knew there must be other veggies I could cram in. And would my cantaloupe take over the balcony by mid-summer?

It was time for help.

I called Rose Marie Nichols McGee, coauthor of “McGee & Stuckey’s Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers” ($14, Workman), and asked her if I was insane to try this. Nonsense, McGee reassured me.

“There are numerous reasons for growing your own little farm in the sky,” she said. “Absolutely fresh flavor is a big one. It’s so handy. Plus you’re creating an environment that satisfies and nurtures you and your son.”

She helped me see the obvious: I could grow far more by going up! McGee showed me a tall greenhouse with a small footprint ($40, hayneedle.com). Its plastic cover can be removed after starting seeds, leaving a great perch for growing anything with shallow root systems. Going vertical created more space for pots, which McGee suggested I fill with eggplants, green beans and Sun Gold tomatoes.

A little creativity can yield a large crop.

“I’m growing carrots in good-looking containers that I purchased at the local dollar store,” McGee said. “We’ve drilled holes in the base, filled them with soil and seeded them. They’ll hang from cords on a railing. The tops will look like hanging fern baskets, and I’ll plant new seeds as we pull out ripened carrots.

“You can also attach wide gutters with drainage holes to your railing, or to a wood frame that you hang on the wall,” she said. “They will soon look quite attractive once you fill them up with mixed salad greens and Seascape strawberries — a day-length neutral variety that produces all summer and has a good flavor.”

She encouraged me to go big.

“Try growing fruit! There are some really small blueberry plants, like Top Hat and Sunshine, that produce well in containers,” she said. “Meyer lemons are a joy and will need to spend the frosty winter months indoors. However, the fragrant flowers will earn their space.” Other balcony-friendly fruits include apples, peaches, currants and figs.

And my beloved cantaloupe?

McGee was a bit more worried. Pollinating its flowers with a small paintbrush might stand in for bees unwilling to zip up to the seventh floor. But go for it, she urged. “Heck, a girl’s got to try!”

Next, local interior designer Dana Tydings (tydingsdesign.com) helped me prettify the space. A sky-blue tin mirror from Eastern Market, which Tydings hung on the brick wall to reflect the Potomac River, made us ooh and aah. She ducked back into the apartment and emerged with a jewel-tone rug I’d never used, placed it under the balcony sofa, and it instantly screamed outdoor room.

“You should splurge and buy a few enormous outdoor pillows,” Tydings said, “to make this corner look even more inviting.” Then she flipped over an empty ceramic pot and topped it with a tray to create a chic but inexpensive side table.

Tydings suggested that I hang some Moroccan-style candle holders (reclaimed from my bedroom) above the sofa.

So there you have it. A high yield on a shoestring budget. Summer lunch on the “farm” will feature sangria made from my own strawberries, that carrot salad and cantaloupe-basil sorbet. Not bad for a former junk yard.

Christie Findlay (for Express)

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