Monday, April 7, 2008

Welcome to my Balcony Garden

7th April 2008 - Richmond, BC

I am creating this blog in case it is helpful to others and so I have a record of the garden's evolution.

I began this balcony garden in 2005, so this is the third seasonal round. I did it because I wanted to look out of my kitchen window and see beauty and because living in a town house, the postage stamp garden is part of the common area and under strata regulations.

The success of the garden so far is the due to the initial planning stage that took into consideration what would be necessary for long term success: large containers, taking care to select plants who's needs matched the conditions (eg. hours of sunlight) available on the balcony.

The Role of Compost

I cannot stress enough the importance of compost for the continued, long term success of my garden. I turn out about 4 batches of compost a year in modified, inexpensive, plastic garbage bins. The compost is from the waste generated from food preparation in our kitchen.

I have a compost centre, downstairs under the balcony overhang. Everything I need to compost successfully and produce balanced compost is on hand in about a 1 meter by 2 meter area. I add compost during each season. In winter as a mulch to protect the plants from the cold. In spring so the new growth has the nutrients it needs to flourish. In summer as a mulch to preserve moisture in the soil. In fall after the fall clean up, in preparation for dormancy.

Spring on the Balcony

The Spring Parade starts early on the Balcony. First up are the residents of my "winter" container. Most the plants in this box are evergreens ... they have a presence year round. This is the container that is visible year round from within the home, so I selected plants so that box always looks alive and active. First up, probably as early as February, was the Hellebore flowers. Ninteen stems in all, each with a number of flowers. Now the flush of large new leaves are emerging.

In a neighbouring container the four little daffodills sent up a flower each and the Brunnera slowly is emerging with netted blue grey leaves and clusters of tiny sky blue flowers.

Caterpillars Be Warned

I must say that I have been most anxiously awating the emergence of the scarlet, baby leaves of the Japanese maple tree. Every year so far, the tree is invaded by leaf rolling caterpillars that devour the first flush of leaves. Perhaps I should let the caterpillars have the first set of leaves but I won't. I have sprayed with BTK, a bacterium that infects and kills the caterpillars when they eat the leaves. BTK is made by Safers and is considered an organic method of pest control.

The "spring" container, which you have to go out onto the balcony to see, already looks lovely. The Bergenia and the tiny yellow and green leaves on the variegated honeysuckle (lonicera), both evergreens, have been maintaining a pretty presence. The bergenia with large deep maroon leaves coloured by the cold. A few weeks ago it pushed out sturdy stems of hot pink bells. The Jacob's Ladder began emerging feathery leaves in early March followed more recently, about the end of April by the fernlike, leaves and tall flower stalks of the Bleeding Heart.

Then the small clay pots on the railing hold the white violas that preformed valiently all winter long but really took off as the temperature began to warm up. Slowly the tulip and daffodil leaves, planted last fall, began pushing though the thick layer of compost and fortuitously the scarlet of the emerging tulips understoried with white violas, backdropped with flowering pale pink cherry blossoms and matching scarlet Japanese maple leaves in the foreground all combined, by happy serendipty to create a pretty picture.

Starting Veggies

Some vegetables tolerate cooler weather well and some actually prefer it, such as lettuces, spinach, radishes and chinese vegetables. I have to say I am no expert at growing vegetables and am in a steep learning curve at the moment. I started the first year with herbs. The second year with potatoes grown in buckets for a children's program. Last year with lettuces and salad greens and figured that I this year I would let fly and see all the different things I can grow.

To date I bought some inexpensive clay bulb pots, which have straight sides so the top and bottom circumference are the same. In them, on the 4th of April, I planted spinach, beets, radishes, swiss chard, carrots and salad greens seeds. I have placed a clear plastic bag over each pot. The bags are held aloft with a bamboo skewer, so the rain from spring showers we are having, run off. The bags help to temper the temperature fluctuations and keep an even moisture level. I will remove them as the seelings begin to germinate and get strong.

Potting Soil

I use my own mix of potting soil. I mix a base of peat moss with compost, vermiculite and organic fertilizers and store it in inexpensive garbage bins in the garage. Whenever I need potting soil it is available in quantities.

Planting seeds is very simple. Others might have a better strategy but what I do is, I put a square of black landscape cloth over the pot drainage hole so the soil does not wash away and usually a curved shard of pottery to keep the hole clear so water can drain. I fill the pot with potting soil (the level will settle) and I scatter small seeds over the surface then sprinkle more potting soil over the seeds. I then water them with the spray hose in the kitchen sink (though rain water is better). It has a gentle spray which minimizes the seeds floating away. Larger seeds like swiss chard I place individually and push down about 1 cm into the soil.

A Lesson Learned

It seems that ensuring there is adequate moisture for the germinating seeds is key. I recently planted up three trays of lettuce in small individual cells and not one germinated. The diagnosis seems to be not enough moisture at a critcal point of seed germination.

Dealing with Unwanted Visitors

I like having visitors to the garden. Little snails visit, grazing on the algae growing on the clay pots. They are very cute. If they begin muching on leaves though the welcome mat is withdrawn and they are tossed overboard.

Aphids appear in droves every spring. Usually they congregate on the new shoots sucking the sap from the tender tissue. I keep them on their toes by wiping them off by running my fingers along the stem and then crushing them or spraying them with a blast of water.

At present, I notice that thrips are gathering on the strawberry leaves. They are also sap suckers and will weaken the plant so I may spray with soapy water.


I have had very poor results with the strawberries. My diagnosis is that the flowers which the three plants produce readily are not being pollinated. So I am going to test this theory and cross pollinate them myself, spreading pollen around the flowers as they open with a Qtip. I have also been very generous with the compost and I drenched them with a foul smelling tea made from comfrey leaves so they cannot say they are not well fed.

Other Methods of Adding Nutrients to the Garden

Happily in summer of last year I came upon a large and lush patch of comfrey growing wild at the community garden. Comfrey (and nettles in spring) can be soaked in water until they decompose and the resulting putrid smelling "tea" can be diluted and used to add extra nutrients to plants. From what I read, comfrey plants have very deep roots and pull up minerals from deeper in the soil. Those nutrients, stored in the leaves then become available in the tea. I love using these "free" resources whenever possible.