Edibles for the Lazy Balcony Gardener

by Krys Klassen is an enthusiastic amateur balcony gardener with twenty years on a southwest facing seventh floor balcony.

The lazy balcony gardener (me) really likes to grow greens and herbs. Being able to step outside and harvest parts of a meal, critical ingredients or last minute embellishments, is a great convenience. With a little thoughtful planning, those elements can also provide decorative touches.

ediblesSalad and garnish greens have two outdoor seasons, spring and fall. Summer is too hot, and the leaves turn bitter and bolt (develop seeds and get really, really inedible) almost overnight. Spring starts as soon as the daytime temperatures get above zero.

Gardeners on the ground (GOTGs) have to wait till they can work the soil, but balcony gardeners (BGs) have two advantages. First they usually are one to three zones ahead of the GOTGs (heat rises and cold settles in low-lying areas). So they can cheat and buy, or thaw, soil to fill pots and seed them with various exotic greens and push the season as early as March, or earlier with a little thought, sun exposure and cold-frame-like arrangements (glass-covered protection from old windows, etc.).

You can seed new pots every week or two until the end of May to have continuous green salad and garnish material till the end of June, or even July if you have cool shady places available. Start again at the end of August for a supply of greens until it gets really frosty, sometimes as late as Christmas.

I seed rather casually by sprinkling the seeds fairly generously and covering them with a thin layer of soil tamped down. You can cover the pot with clear plastic for a few days to keep them from drying too quickly and/or water frequently with a very fine spray. I begin harvesting the biggest plants when they get an inch or two high by pulling them out, root and all, instead of thinning. I’ve had good success with: arugula, leaf lettuce, mustard, and Italian greens of most sorts. Spinach works, too.

For the not-so-lazy gardener (you?) Swiss chard (beta vulgaris), frost tolerant greens and/or pansies seedlings can easily be potted as soon as March. You may have to wait a little longer for the produce of Swiss chard and cabbage, bibb or butterhead lettuce, romaine or cos, and crisp head or iceberg lettuces, but they can also provide attractive borders and leafy material planted among flowers. If it gets really frosty you might want to cover the plants for safety. I have rarely had any frost on my mid-town south-west facing balcony after March.

My pansies usually get aphids badly in the summer and since I avoid spraying, especially what I plan to eat, I tend to throw them out and plant new ones in the fall, since their frost tolerance will let them bloom till Christmas if you have enough sun. The flowers are delicious in salads, as are nasturtiums but those are better planted from seed as frost doesn’t suit them at all.