The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in Small Spaces

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9781609614102: The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in Small Spaces
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You don't need a sprawling backyard or spacious raised beds to grow delicious fruits, vegetables, and herbs of your own. In The Edible Balcony, longtime urban gardener Alex Mitchell shows how to transform whatever space you have, from a balcony or rooftop to a fire escape or window box, into a profusion of fresh, seasonal produce.

While raising your own produce is eco-friendly in itself, you'll learn how to plant, grow, and water as sustainably as possible to ensure your edible Eden remains green and productive all year long. Plus, with a collection of innovative, step-by-step projects for designing colorful pots and plant supports with recycled containers and other household paraphernalia, you'll double your eco-friendliness, avoid hours of shopping, and be able to infuse your space with your own personal flair and style. Who knew saving time, money, and the environment could be so much fun?

A collection of practical advice, fabulous container projects, and stunning examples of how gardeners around the world are successfully transforming urban spaces into abundant fruit and vegetable plots, The Edible Balcony is your guide to creating attractive, responsible, and thoroughly rewarding small space gardens—and perhaps never having to settle for grocery store produce again.

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About the Author:

Alex Mitchell is a writer and gardener who has grown her own fruits, vegetables, and herbs for ten years. She is a former gardening columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and the author of The Girl's Guide to Growing Your Own, a book for women with busy lives who want to have fun growing produce no matter how small their space. She lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Easy Edible Balcony

Many of us dream of growing our own greens, herbs, and tomatoes to eat at home, but worry that we can't spare the time and energy to do it properly. Visions of returning to brown, dry plants after a weekend away instantly come to mind, or fruit and vegetables that never ripen. But if you choose the right crops and follow a few simple growing tips your edible balcony can flourish without making many demands on you at all, even if you are a total beginner. It doesn't take long to set it all up, either; over a weekend you could transform your balcony to an emerging wonderland of shoots and fruits.

Plants not seeds

If you don't have the time or the space to raise plants from seed, buy seedlings from garden stores or online suppliers and set up your entire edible balcony over a weekend. Plants ordered from catalogs or Web sites will arrive via the post and can simply be transferred to the potting mix as soon as they arrive. You may not be able to choose from quite the number of varieties available as from seed, but the range is expanding all the time.

Large containers need less frequent watering than smaller pots.

Crocks away

When planting in containers it's traditional to add a layer of "crocks"-- pieces of broken terracotta pots--to the bottom to aid drainage. These are not always easy to source, so you can use chunks of polysytrene packaging instead--the trays that seedlings come in from garden stores are ideal. This material has the added benefit of being really light, too, which is perfect for gardening on balconies.

Easy peasy: tips for hassle-free balcony gardening

Big is best

When choosing containers, make life simple for yourself by not filling your balcony space with numerous tiny pots, as these will dry out the minute you turn your back. Instead, use large, lightweight containers, such as those made of plastic and galvanized metal. Troughs are ideal since they seem to hold their moisture better than round pots and fit snugly around the edge of a balcony, nicely positioned for, say, beans and peas planted in them to grow their way up the railings. Any "patio" planters marketed as being good for growing fruit and vegetables are great for the "no-time" gardener. Light and easy to set up, they can come in bright colors or with attractive woven willow panels to make them look attractive. Plastic bucket trugs are also perfect; they are readily available, cheap, light, and brightly colored, so they will cheer up the dullest of spaces. Do keep in mind that although the container may be light, wet potting mix is not, so check with a structural engineer if you're at all worried about your balcony supporting the weight.

Self-watering pots

There's no getting away from it: containers dry out more quickly than garden soil does, and if you're several stories up, the wind won't help this desiccation, but there are ways to take the hassle out of watering. Consider planters with a built-in reservoir--easily available in the stores or simple to make yourself (See Make a Simple, Self-Watering Container for Free, p. 71 )--which can keep even thirsty plants such as zucchini and tomatoes content for several days between waterings.

Timers of the essence

If you have easy access to a water supply, a simple automatic watering system is a great help. The most basic version is probably a timer fitted to your outside tap which is connected to a plastic tube with drippers coming off it at intervals of your choosing. This means you can direct these little drippers into your pots. Simply set the timer to come on for five or ten minutes twice a day and your plants won't need you nearly as much.

Mulch it

Another way to cut down on watering is to mulch the surface of the potting mix when you first prepare a container. This simply means spreading on a thin layer of well-rotted manure, garden potting mix, shingle, pebbles, or bark chippings so water cannot evaporate as quickly from the potting mix. You can use shredded paper, sheets of newspaper, plastic, or grass clippings too, but shingle is ideal on a balcony or roof since it looks attractive and won't blow away. To get the very best start, water the potting mix well before you first sprinkle the shingle on.

Crystal clear

Another handy watering tip, when planting in smaller containers such as hanging baskets, is to mix in a handful of water-retaining gel or crystals. These swell up, absorbing the water, and then slowly release it into the potting mix.

10 best easy crops

If you're short on time and expertise, the delicious crops--or groups of crops--listed here are a great place to start. The plants are relatively low-maintenance and their produce truly does taste better than the stuff you can buy in the stores. You can sow these from seed, but for a really easy life buy plug plants from garden stores or online suppliers, plant them straight out into their final growing positions, and leave them to flourish.

Tomatoes

However little time you think you have, you have time to grow tomatoes and no summer would be complete without the scent of tomato plants on the air. Grow a pot of basil near them and you can wrap a leaf around a juicy cherry 'Sungold,' then pop the whole package into your mouth, or impress your friends with purply 'Black Krim' or stripy 'Tigerella.'

From tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes to big, Italian beefsteak varieties, tomatoes come in all shapes and colors. Buy plants in early summer and plant them straight out. Alternatively, grow them from seed in mid-spring, sowing them about 1 in. deep in 3 in. pots on a sunny windowsill, turning the seedlings regularly so they don't grow crooked towards the light. Once all risk of frost has passed, plant them outside in a sunny, sheltered spot away from winds (these plants need the heat to ripen well) and feed them every two weeks from flowering onwards with a high-potash feed such as organic liquid seaweed or an organic tomato feed.

Easy tip

When planting tomatoes in a grow bag, don't cut out the whole panel as the instructions tell you to. Instead, cut three crosses in the plastic and then fold the flaps under to make holes to plant in. This means less water can evaporate from the potting mix, helping to cut down on watering.

3 easy ways...

There are three types of tomato available (with many varieties of each) and each type is suited to slightly different growing methods. The type you choose depends on what container you want to grow your plants in.

Bushes need no support and grow only 1 ft. or so high so are best suited to a large window box or pot. A 1 ft.-diameter pot will take one bush, while a large window box should fit two. The advantage is that there's no tying in to supports or pinching out of sideshoots; the disadvantage is that all the tomatoes ripen at once. For bush varieties consider 'Red Alert,' 'Maskotka,' 'Garden Pearl,' or 'Principe Borghese,' which is a mini plum.

Tumbling forms trail over the edge of containers, so are perhaps best in hanging baskets. Good varieties include the prolific 'Matt's Wild Cherry' and 'Tumbling Tom.'

Vining tomatoes grow tall, need supports and are best grown in a large pot or growing bag. The tomatoes ripen in stages all summer and right into autumn, so you can get a continuous harvest out of a small space. Good vining varieties include the sweet, orange cherry tomato 'Sungold,' classic red cherry 'Gardener's Delight,' 'Ferline,' and purply 'Black Krim.'

A 1 ft.-diameter pot will take up to four vining tomatoes grown up a teepee of bamboo canes. Grow bags are an easy option--and if you can find a double- depth bag, so much the better.

Either buy metal supports or position your bag at the foot of your balcony railings or trellis and tie the plants in as they grow. Pinch out any suckers that form in the joint between the main stem and leaves to channel the plant's energy into fruit production. When the plant has formed six clusters of tomatoes--usually in late summer--pinch out the top of the plant just above a leaf.

If you don't do this, the plant will keep growing upwards, producing fruit that won't have a chance to ripen before the weather gets colder.

First or Second Early varieties are best for growing in pots

Salad potatoes

There's something magical about tipping out a bucket of potting mix onto the floor and unearthing fresh spud treasure, then boiling it, and eating your crop there and then with melted butter and your own potted mint. Potatoes grown in garden soil tend to be a magnet for slugs and other pests, but those grown up high in a tub, large bucket, or bag show no such signs of damage. They're generally blemish-free and gleaming--needing simply a wash under the kitchen tap to clean off the potting mix.

Potato leaves provide welcome color in the spring and can soon turn your space into a verdant jungle. Grow Salad or Early varieties such as 'Chieftain,' 'Klondike Rose,' 'Red La Soda,' or 'French Fingerling' to get early new potatoes with an earthy, just-dug flavor. You can really tell the difference.

Project

SPUDS IN A TUB

WHEN TO DO--MID-SPRING

You will need

· 1 container at least 1 ft. in diameter--such as a rubber trug, large plastic bucket, pot or bag (not see-through). Avoid very deep pots since the plants need sunlight to develop the tubers. If using a bag, roll the sides down when you plant the tubers, then roll them up as you unearth the growing plants--this ensures the plants always get lots of sunlight
· Crocks or polystyrene pieces
· Soilless potting mix
· Seed potatoes (a 1 ft.-diameter pot takes two potatoes; adjust the quantity depending on the size of your container)

How to do it

First make sure your container has drainage holes, then add a layer of crocks on the base. Add about 8 in. of potting mix and place your potatoes, with their shoots facing up, on this, before covering with another 8 in. of potting mix. Water well. If a frost is forecast, place a couple of layers of newspaper on top for protection.

Keep the potting mix moist and after a few weeks the potato haulms (shoots) will break the surface. When they are about 4 in. high, cover them with more potting mix. Keep covering them each time they're about 4 in. high until they reach the top of the container. Then keep watering and feed every two weeks with a tomato feed or organic liquid seaweed fertilizer. When the potatoes flower it's a sign that the tubers are ready, but have an exploratory dig around before you tip them out; different varieties mature at different times, but First Earlies are worth investigating after about 10 weeks, Second Earlies from about 13 weeks. If you dig carefully you can harvest some potatoes while leaving the others to grow on.

Bush beans

A wigwam of climbing pole beans, with their pretty purple or white flowers, heart-shaped leaves, and twining stems, is a lovely sight in any space. Or why not let them climb up your balcony railings, screening your neighbors and creating a jungly wall of beans?

Beans are wonderfully prolific, particularly the climbing varieties, and are delicious eaten when they're so fresh you can snap them in half. They're ideal for containers as long as they have a sunny, sheltered spot and a nice deep root run, so make sure the pot is at least 8 in. deep (a hanging basket is too shallow). Grow either the bush sort, in which case you'll need no supports, save perhaps a few twiggy sticks, or the climbing pole varieties, which can clamber up a wigwam, trellis, or balcony railing.

Start sowing bush beans about 2 in. deep from late spring and, if space allows, have at least two containers on the go, resowing the second when the initial batch form their first true leaves. Or sow a new handful of beans every two weeks up to late summer, so that you keep a good supply of beans going right up to mid-autumn. Either sow in small pots inside and transplant them when they're about 4 in. tall, or sow direct into larger containers. A mixed sowing of green, purple, and yellow beans makes a fabulous display when they're growing at full steam. Good pole beans include 'Kentucky Blue Pole,' 'Fortex,' 'Blue Lake,' and 'Purple King.' For bush varieties try 'Beanonza,' 'Tenderpod,' 'Gold Mine,' and 'Purple Queen.'

Sow bush beans about 6 in. apart and climbing varieties about 4 in. apart around the base of a wigwam or other support they can climb up. Place them in a really warm, sheltered position, keep well watered, and feed every week with a high-potash liquid feed such as seaweed or wormery feed once they start flowering. In the early stages, watch out for slugs and snails.

Later, beans can attract blackfly, which can be squirted off with a jet of water or sprayed with organic insecticidal soft-soap solution. Pick the beans before the seeds inside start to bulge out of the sides of the pod. Keep picking and the plants will produce more beans.

Keep picking bush beans and they will produce more pods

Greens for all seasons

Greens are perhaps the easiest crops to grow on a balcony, and even a small space should provide you with fresh, springy leaves all summer long. Greens and containers make excellent companions--from large pots to window boxes and hanging baskets. The leaves of greens are shallow-rooted, so they don't mind restricted root space; are fast-growing, so you can pack in several crops a year; and come in a glorious range of colors and textures, so they look as beautiful as any flower-packed alternative. There's something undeniably satisfying about snipping off a few fresh leaves to put in a sandwich or make a quick plate of greens, and you shouldn't be troubled by slugs and snails when growing them up high.

There's no reason to stop growing greens when summer ends--plenty of lettuce varieties, and other greens, are hardy enough to grow outside over winter. In summer, though, the key with lettuces in small containers is regular watering, since any lettuce under stress will bolt (run to flower and turn bitter) and hanging baskets and window boxes need particular attention to keep from drying out.

If you'd like mature lettuces, an average 1 ft.-diameter pot will hold around five. The loose-leaved, open varieties work particularly well, brimming over the edges in an irresistible froth. Try mixing burgundy-edged 'Prize Leaf Romaine,' with acid-green 'Simpson Elite,' or oak-leaf varieties, with their pretty, scalloped leaves. Crunchy little lettuces, such as 'Little Caesar,' 'Ez Serve,' and 'Vivian,' are also delicious, their upright habit best suiting a window box or pot.

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