In times when we spend more time at home and want to experiment with what we can grow, what better time than now to try growing some herbs and edibles on your balcony or roof terrace. High-rise buildings wouldn’t be the first place someone might think of growing food to eat. But this year I decided to give it a try and have had some pretty interesting results so far.
If you only have a balcony or small outdoor space to grow things on, don’t let it make your ambitions any smaller. Here are some of the ways you can make the most of your space, and have the fun of growing things you can eat.
Using lightweight containers is a must. This is so that you can move the containers around. Depending on the weather or how high up you are in a building, you may want to be able to move containers into the sun or out of the wind. For a few days last week, when my plants were getting started, I had to bring them indoors during a cold snap, so they would have the best chance of survival.
I use a planter made by Elho, a dutch company who make fantastic planters from recycled materials, using wind energy from their own turbine. These planters have the advantage of being on rollers, so they are easy to move around. They also have a water reservoir in the bottom, which gives the plants an extra supply if they run dry.
It’s really important to make sure your compost has some grit in it to help the drainage. Plants don’t like to have too much water, just enough when they need it! In exposed conditions even the slightest wind can dry out plants and containers so that the roots of the plants don’t have a chance to replenish the moisture. If you have an outside water source, you may want to consider an automatic watering system. These are operated by a timer switch with a battery and make sure the plants are watered at night when the plants do their growing by using all that stored sunlight as energy.
You’ll want your herbs and edibles to be on a sunny balcony or outdoor space if possible. They do grow quickly but need the sun to warm their growing medium and once they are established, the sunlight will help them grow. But equally keep an eye on them, so they don’t get scorched. If you make sure your plants always have enough water then they should always be happy. Balconies in the shade can be good for salad leaves and more fragrant herbs but it’s best to have a good balance. I have my herbs on a balcony with sunlight all day and my vegetables are in the shade until mid afternoon.
With taller edibles like tomatoes and beans you may need some support to help them grow. You can use small trellising in the container or bamboo canes to tie them to. There are any number of different products available online so you can just decide what looks best for you.
What plants to use – Herbs
Hardy aromatic herbs are often found on dry terrain or mountainsides. Think of those walks down to the beach on the Mediterranean when your feet scuff past the camomile and thyme growing underfoot. For these reasons woody herbs will tolerate the exposed conditions of a balcony. You can use thyme, lavender, rosemary, oregano and camomile as your main players in the herb container.
I’ve seen roof gardens covered in herbs and they happily survive throughout the British seasons. What’s more they smell great. I add sage and mint to grow happily among them. So with these you will have a fantastic collection of herbs for cooking all year round.
Softer herbs, like chives, tarragon, basil rosemary and parsley are a bit more delicate and require different treatment. These herbs won’t be so happy in the wind and they need sunlight to flourish. I start these herbs off in a container inside where they get lots of light and moisture. When I think they are strong enough, I put them outside and just keep an eye on them. You could also plant them with your edibles.
What plants to use – Edibles
Plants like tomatoes, chilli pepper, courgette, dwarf beans, salad leaves, radishes and beetroot can all be easily grown in a container. I mix them up so that the plants with the bigger leaves can provide shade for the smaller plants and the big plants like tomatoes provide support. So you could pop some radishes in and around the bottom of the plants and you will be rewarded with some little nuggets of peppery goodness. This year I added a fennel plant to my list too and it is happily growing up alongside the tomato plant.
It’s a good idea to keep your containers and the plants in them, well maintained. Cut away any leaves that don’t look good and make sure that it all looks healthy down at the bottom of the stalks, where the roots begin. In terms of pests, one of the advantages of being high up on a balcony or roof, means you are unlikely to have any problems snails or slugs – unless of course some passing bird happens to have dropped on on its way past! But you might get aphids or other insects which can fly very high into the air. So keep an eye out for them and look up on the internet for advice if you think there is a problem.
So you won’t be able to feed your family but you will have herbs for all your cooking. And salads with leaves and soft herbs, tomatoes and little green beans will be an absolute feast when you eventually harvest them. Popping out that red radish from the ground, that you have grown from seed, or halving a tomato, rich with the smell of real fruit, will be a fully satisfying sensory experience. And what an achievement to have grown food for yourself.