Gardening on Balconies or Small Spaces

Alison Limoges    The lack of a backyard doesn’t mean a garden is out of the question. Follow some simple guidelines to get a small-space garden going.

Although the city of Alameda and Bay Farm Island historically had considerable farm land, and still have some large yards, many of us live in multifamily units that, at best, have small patios or balconies. With some thought and planning, these areas can still provide adequate space for gardening. 

There are a number of things to consider when planning a garden for a small space. Since all plants need some sun, healthy soil and water, first assess the space. Where, what time of day and for how long does the sun shine on that space? The answer will change throughout the year as the sun moves. How close is the nearest water source? 

Does the site get a lot of wind or moisture from the bay? Too much wind and salty, moist air can stress plants and make them more susceptible to insects and powdery mildew. 

Is there room for a raised bed, shelves, hanging planters or a variety of light-colored containers? Dark containers can become too hot for plants’ roots. Is there a wall or fence that that will provide plant support and the use of vertical space?

It’s also important to decide what kinds of plants best suit your space, needs and interests. Ornamentals provide color and attract birds, bees and butterflies. Succulents usually prefer lots of sun and require low water and maintenance. Herbs, greens, vegetables and dwarf fruit trees will need more sun, plenty of compost and regular watering. If the space is mostly shady, then ferns, some succulents and herbs will be happy. It is possible to grow a mix of ornamentals and edibles by moving the pots around to follow the sun. 

Since the balcony or patio is close by, visit it often to check on and make use of the plants. Look carefully under the pots and at the leaves and soil for evidence of snails, slugs, caterpillars, white flies and aphids. It’s easy to pick or wash off most of these invaders, and then put them in the green bin. Pruning, trimming, thinning and pinching will help keep the plants healthy and productive, as will frequent application of organic compost. Now that our nights are getting warmer, it’s possible to plant seeds outdoors directly in pots. With greens it’s a good idea to do repeated seed plantings to keep a steady supply year round. 

Stagger and mix the height of the plants to provide more light or shade as needed. 

Stake taller plants or attach them to a wall, fence or railing to encourage climbing. Plant dwarf fruit trees, if possible, in a half-wine barrel. Tomatoes should be planted in pots at least 18 inches deep to provide room for their deep roots. 

Then enjoy the beauty and the culinary delight of adding homegrown herbs, fruit and vegetables to everyone’s favorite dishes. Bon Appétit! 

Alameda Backyard Growers (ABG) is a network of gardeners in Alameda who grow and donate fresh produce. Find the schedule for ABG’s monthly education meetings at www.alamedabackyardgrowers.com. ABG’s Project Pick is always looking for fruit trees to pick and volunteers to help pick and deliver fruit to the Alameda Food Bank. To sign up, email info@alamedabackyardgrowers.org or call 239-PICK (239-7485).