A few friends have asked me this year to help them with their gardens. Most of them are starting from nothing so it got me thinking about container recommendations and I decided to post up a few tips. Like all my tips, these are based on observation and speculation, not scientific experimentation. I would love to run experiments but with such a limited space, a short growing season, and a job, it’s hard to create the right controls. If you have other experiences please feel free to share. 🙂
1. The Larger the Better!
I’ve been gardening on my balcony for 4 years now and initially I started with 16 inch round planters (the green ones), then moved to larger, maybe the equivalent of 18 inch diameter planters but they’re square (on the far right, a little hard to see), and now I’ve moved to 20 inch (beige containers) and wish I started with these all along and would even go larger if my balcony had enough space…
Large planters are easier to manage on a balcony.
They retain water better so they are less likely to dry out if you skip a watering.
Container gardens need a lot more watering than in ground gardens, sometimes more than once a day if its particularly hot and dry. And since most balconies are covered and don’t catch much rain, watering and water retention is crucial!
They are also better for companion gardening. Most plants do better with other plants and you can plant more plants together in a larger container. Tomatoes with basil, eggplants with tarragon, cucumber with dill. Squishing plants too tightly together will inhibit growth and not enough air circulation around the plant will increase the likely hood of pests and disease. Even if you can squish the plants together in a smaller planter initially, it’s less likely to produce great results so bigger is better…
Just be sure to mix compatible plants and pick a mix of large, deeper rooted plants like tomatoes, cucumber, eggplants and mix with lower growing plants like spinach, lettuces and herbs.
Which brings me to my last point on why size matters…
Larger planters help deep rooted plants develop better and make it more likely for perennials to survive the winter. Perennials should survive the winter in ground and come back every year but container plants are usually smaller and left more exposed to the elements. Moving them inside isn’t ideal because they could have outdoor pests in the soil that are fine outdoors but you probably wouldn’t want them in your home. And they should go through their natural cycle of renewal with the seasons each year in my opinion.
Larger planters allow the plants to grow larger and hopefully last the winter but there are other tricks to survival as well if you read on.
2. Stackable Containers!
If you’re like me, no matter how big the balcony, you’ll probably fill it with plants. 🙂
Stackable containers help manage the limited balcony space because if a planter isn’t needed you can stack it in another planter and use it later.
I usually grow out my garden over a few months in the spring as garden centres bring out plants throughout the season and as I visit centre to centre looking for the perfect plants. It’s nice to have space to move initially as I start. And in the winter I stack all the planters and make room for large garbage bags of soil with worm compost for the next year.
Finally stacking containers can help insulate perennials. The extra 2-3 layers of planters can add a little extra insulation and help them make it to the next year. This year my mint and sage both survived the winter with 3 planters protecting them. I’m hoping to test this with my blueberries this coming winter.
Your garden will likely have annuals (plants that only last a season) and perennials anyway so use the annual planter s
3. Plastic… yes plastic…
I generally avoid plastic but when it comes to planters it really is best solution I’ve found so far.
They’re lighter and easier to move around than clay planters.
They last longer and are less fragile. Clay can crack, metal can rust, and wood can rot. I’ve yet to find a structural issue with plastic.
Some things to keep in mind is that there are ratings for plastic and some are better for food than others as plastic can give off toxins as it breaks down. It’s usually found as a number in a triangle often on the bottom of containers.
1, 2, 4, and 5 are considered safer than 3, 6, and 7 which should be avoided. You can try to avoid plastic all together but personally, for a balcony garden, I think plastic is a necessary evil.
It’s also more affordable in many instances unless you’re building planters out of recycled material.
But I’m always open to suggestions as well if anyone has a better solution. 🙂
4. Shape matters!
It’s not that one shape is better than another but certain shapes are better for certain purposes.
If you’re planting one big plant or a symmetrical grouping I like round planters because you can turn them easily and give each side equal sun. I try to turn them every 2-3 weeks but in truth I usually remember to turn them when they start tilting in one direction.
Turning your plants is a great advantage to planters. Unlike planting in the ground where one side is bound to get more sun than another, containers can be easily turned to balance out the growth. And on a balcony, one side is bound to have more sun than another.
Round planters are also good for odd shaped balconies and spaces, they don’t look as out of place if they don’t fit perfectly.
Square planters are great for climbing plants, cucumbers, snow peas, beans. You can add a trellis easily and rest it against a wall or railing. It’s usually harder to find a trellis for circle planters, tho for larger planters sometimes I like to put the trellis right in the middle and have plants grow from both sides.
Rectangular Planters/Window Boxes
Although in general I find window boxes harder to maintain, they dry out faster and are pretty shallow. They are good for plants that you need a lot of with shallow roots and that grow low but need a lot of sun. For example, a row of arugula, cilantro, strawberries. These plants do not need a lot of depth and planting them in a row makes it easier to harvest them than grouping them with other plants.
I also find they are good to use between different height planters, like in the photo above. It can add a bit of height to allow those plants that need a bit more sun an added advantage. I find it’s best to turn window boxes as well so they don’t cascade over to one side but I think that’s more for ascetics than anything to do with production.