April 13, 2022
Greetings from the (balcony) garden! I’m Sig, resident blogger and amateur gardener for PBS Wisconsin’s Let’s Grow Stuff. I’m here for the 2022 growing season to chronicle experiments, triumphs and great big belly flops in container gardening from my tiny apartment balcony in Madison. Along the way, I’ll gather helpful tips from our expert Let’s Grow Stuff co-hosts, Ben Futa and Qwantese Winters (thanks, friends)!
Are you new to gardening? Have you delayed taking the growing plunge because you lack access to a backyard or in-ground plot? Do you live in multifamily housing? Have you dreamt of loading a small porch, front stoop or back patio with plants while your inner critic (sworn enemy of gardeners) argues: No way, not me. I could never! I’m all thumbs and not a single one of ’em is green!
Then we are kindred spirits! Join me and let’s try our darnedest to grow stuff together.
The “Hail Mary” container garden
To date, my gardening resumé is short — just two growing seasons (2020, 2021) planting a few containers on my balcony ledge. During our pandemic summers, I’ve cherished sitting outside, looking over the park across the street, comforted by watching people, plants and the pond carrying on. Unadorned, however, my deck is stark and uninviting — a heckuva lot of brick and concrete — so, two years ago, I took a very formal approach to sprucing it up called, the “Hail Mary” method of container gardening. This consisted of me finding some used railing planters, wandering around a garden center and asking the staff, “Do ya think this pretty plant will grow in this box?” If they said yes, I bought it, planted it, faithfully watered all summer and crossed my fingers.
The Hail Mary method, based on my experience . . . works. . . and it’s fun. You can start there and have a great time! This season, though, I look forward to building some new skills, with advice from Ben and Qwanteseusing more of the balcony space and growing things I’ve never tried in containers – like food!
April space planning
It’s April in Wisconsin, a month I’ve renamed Spring: Let’s Not Rush It. The nights are too cold and unpredictable to start growing outside, so I’m spending time planning and trying to size up my growing space more thoughtfully.
My balcony is approximately 72 square feet, located on the second floor corner of my apartment building, with one ledge facing 240 degrees southwest, and the other facing 315 degrees northwest. I have two brick walls — each 8 usable vertical feet tall — 40 horizontal inches of wall facing southwest and 30 inches facing northwest. No adjacent buildings overshadow the space, so by noon the balcony is bathed in full sun through the end of the long summer days.
I reached out to Ben Futa, our Let’s Grow Stuff co-host, to describe the growing space. He explained that gardeners can use the heat retained by brick to their advantage, choosing heat loving plants to grow vertically up the walls — that the heat and the brick form a “microclimate” that can even extend a plant’s growing season. He reminded me to determine how windy that balcony gets during storms (it gets pretty windy), and to think carefully about support structures for my plants and capacity to move and protect them.
Dreams of a kitchen garden
Sig: I wanna grow food on the balcony, Ben!
Ben Futa: Cool! What kind of food?
Sig: Um . . . vegetables? Maybe some herbs, too.
Ben: Awesome. What do you like to eat?
Sig: Hmm… let me think about it. Also, I’d like to grow some colorful plants, too. If I grow only veggies, will that be a sea of green?
Ben: Not entirely, some veggie plants, like okra, have beautiful blossoms and are a gorgeous color. And don’t forget edible flowers.
Sig: I changed my mind. I don’t think I can do this! I’m not a farmer, Ben; I just work on a computer all day!
Ben: You can totally do this. You don’t need to be a farmer, Sig. Just begin and have fun!
Ben is helping me dream up a small kitchen garden for the season. And here is what we’ve come up with so far:
- Rotating crops in existing ledge planters: Use my five existing ledge planters, which are shallow in depth, to grow varieties of salad greens and leaf lettuce in the cooler portion of late spring and early summer. Switch the greens in the hottest months – which is when salad greens will bolt, or go to seed — to drought tolerant herb varieties like thyme, sage, rosemary and oregano.
- Rotating crops on the northwest facing brick wall: Exploit the verticality of this space to grow two different tall container crops throughout the season. Start with peas in late spring and early summer — like sugar snap peas or snow peas — which thrive in cooler temperatures, and switch to okra in the warm weather months.
- Southwest facing brick wall: Take advantage of the hot microclimate of this brick wall to plant a few varieties of tomatoes, which will grow tall, supported by cages, throughout the growing season.
- Color: Adding to the okra, which will grow flower blossoms, plant smaller pots of marigolds, pansies and nasturtium around the space for warmth and brightness.
Wish me luck!
I’m so excited to grow brand new stuff this summer — to caretake, observe and learn what works (and what doesn’t) in small space gardening. I hope you’ll do so, too, and share your stories with the Let’s Grow Stuff team. Also, I’m thrilled to be an urban gardener! As a person who has a deep affection for cities, one thing I love most about them is the way they combine the material and synthetic landscape with a vast diversity of urban nature(s) — wild or cultivated — living all around our buildings, streetscapes and sidewalks. I feel lucky to participate in that beautiful contrast with all of you in the coming months.