Growing a Potager (a French term for a small kitchen garden ) on your balcony is an excellent start to becoming a little more self-sufficient and contribute to your food security. During WWII just about everyone had a little Victory garden. A balcony kitchen garden or Potager can be fun and easy as well as practical.
Since being at home because of the stay-at-home order, I shop for groceries only a couple of times a month. The problem is that fresh fruits and vegetables, except for maybe potatoes and onions, don't last that long. I love fresh strawberries, tomatoes, and herbs and use quite a lot of them during the summer. As time goes on I'll add more goodies to my Potager including Rosemary, a few Carrots, and possibly some Beans. Lucky for me I/m garden in Zone 10 which means I have a longer growing season.
In the morning before I sit down to telecommute I turn on the grow lights, then around 10 AM I check the soil to see what needs to water. Right before sunset, I turn off the grow lights and say good night to my plants. I wonder Will I be able to eat them, they have become like pets!!
What is a Potager?
It's a fancy French name for "small kitchen garden" and is pronounced pow·tuh·jei. Why don't you just say small kitchen garden, you ask? Well, the potager sounds so beautifully elegant. I prefer to go to the Potager and harvest some fresh herbs and tomatoes rather than go to my balcony and pick some maters :-). It's just one of the elegant frugal things I like to do.
What I planted in containers on my balcony
- San Marzano tomatoes- fingers crossed that they grow well.
- Tiny Tim Cherry Tomatoes
- Leaf Lettuce
- Seascape Strawberries
- Nasturtiums - pretty and edible!
Growing A Potager or Kitchen Garden on Your Balcony
- Use a high-quality organic potting soil.
- Fertilize plants according to their needs. Potted plants need nutrients. I'm experimenting with using coffee grounds as a fertilizer.
- Watch how the sunlight moves across the balcony over the course of a day and place the containers in the areas where they will get the right amount of sunlight to thrive. If your balcony does not get good sunlight and you have an outdoor electric outlet consider purchasing some grow lights. I purchased two clamp lamps and grow light bulbs that are working out nicely. before I bought the clamp lamps I was using my photography stands with the umbrella and my grow light. This worked surprisingly well and looks kind of cool, but it does get a little cumbersome on the balcony so I streamlined by using my clamp lamps.
- Containers can dry out fast so water daily or twice a day in extreme heat and consider self-watering pots. Garage sales are a great place to find inexpensive containers.
- Plant a few flowers to attract birds, bees, and butterflies. Hyssop or Anemone might be a good choice. If you have pets, always research the possible toxicity and only plant pet-friendly varieties. Plant List
- Grow herbs and lettuce easily in containers.
Most important to only grow in your kitchen garden what you know you will eat, or flowers you find pleasing. Something may be easy to grow, but if you don’t have a use for it, then it’s just wasting valuable growing space on your balcony.
To allow for good drainage and air exchange you need a porous soil, if it’s too sandy it won’t retain the moisture, and if too fine like clay it will compact. Good potting soil should be easy to find at your local nursery or the garden section of Lowes or Home Depot. The gardening salespeople will be happy to help you pick out an appropriate soil for your purpose.
My go-to potting soil is Dr. Earths - Pot of Gold. You can find it in some Ace Hardware stores, online directly from Dr. Earth and at many independent Nurseries.
What Type of Containers to Use
The containers need to have sufficient size drainage holes, so they allow water to escape. If they clog up, the plants will ‘drown’ and suffer from lack of air to their roots and be susceptible to disease and rot. Containers can get expensive so try the garage sales first. Always wash any used containers with hot soapy water before using it.
If you have space, but not enough light, then look for suitable plant shelving and place near an outlet and attach grow lights. If you don’t have access to an outdoor electrical outlet, make sure your plant stand is on rollers so you can move the plants to the light as needed.
I'm using Smart Pots this year and LOVE them. Not too expensive, lighter than a clay pot and has good root aeration and comes in a variety of sizes.
I planted the herb are in six-inch pots and hang in small plant holders over my balcony railing.
Watering your Kitchen Garden
Roots of container plants are restricted and need constant care to watch for signs of wilting in particular. It’s easy for pots to heat up and fry the delicate plant roots. I don’t recommend plastic pots due to the potential for overheating and I don't like plastic potentially leaking into my organic soil. Clay pots are also prone to drying out their soil quickly so keep an eye on these days, another reason I love using Smart Pots. Self-watering planters might be a good option depending on the water needs of what your growing.
Sometimes it's good to place mulch on top of the soil in the container, especially when plants are small, pots are big, and there’s lots of soil exposure. This will help slow evaporation and keep the surface temperature of the soil cooler.
I’m not an expert on irrigation systems or how to create them, so I just water my plants in the morning before heading off to work. On a hot day I’ll check and water again when I get home. A lack of water even for a short time, will more often than not result in the vegetable plants producing fewer fruits or vegetables Also lack of water may make your plants more susceptible to disease, or in some varieties, like lettuce, they may bolt to seed.
My lettuce is planted in a terra cotta pot that sits on a table that gets mostly indirect light, so it's never got too hot.
What about Light?
My balcony gets a couple of hours of sun in the afternoon along the edge of the balcony and on one corner of the wall. I'm pretty limited on where I can place my plants. I got brave and decided to try and grow a San Marzano tomato plant in a 5-gallon smart pot located in the corner of my balcony which gets the most amount of sunlight, albeit, not much. I researched all sorts of grow lights but I wanted a minimalist, inexpensive, and aesthetically pleasing solution. I also need the lights to be somewhat portable so I can move plants around if I choose.
Luckily I have an outdoor outlet to power the lights. I bought an outdoor extension cord form Target, this is the one I purchased, and it's working perfectly.
Next I started using my umbrella photo light stands and it worked nicely except they are too in your face to use long term. The umbrellas are like wind sails so if it catches wind, down it goes, I lost a good grow light bulb this way.
On the tomato plant, I purchased a cute red three-tier tomato plant cage and can clamp the lamp to the cage moving up as the plant grows taller I purchased a bird feeder hook that can be attached to the railing and used to hang the clamp lamp.
The lights are turned on before work and off when I finish work. The clamp lamps are rated for indoor use so I always bring them in at night, but it takes 10 seconds to disconnect and bring them indoors. I'm currently looking for socket rated for outdoor use that will fit the clamp lamp fixture, then I can just turn off and leave them outside. I'm sure someone makes such a thing, I just have not come across one yet.
Johnny's Seeds has excellent grow light information which is straightforward and easy to understand without getting technical.
Feeding Your Plants
When I was a little girl, my aunt would put eggshells in the water she used for her plants. Turns out it's a real thing. I'm also using coffee grounds as another type of plant fertilizer. The two posts below are good at explaining how to use these methods.
There are many more varieties that do well in a container, and there are many well written and useful books on container gardening.
Not ready for kitchen garden yet, then start small with an herb garden.
Keep it simple, start small, and don’t go out and buy expensive stands, pots, and lights. Enjoy the fruits and vegetables of your labor. It’s a great feeling to go out and pick a meal, but not when that plate of lettuce ends up costing you a $100 bucks.
I'm learning as I go, but I am happy to answer any questions you may have about my little Potager!