Easy crops for your balcony (Part 2)

  1. Strawberries

We’ve all despaired as the store-bought strawberries we bought with great optimism slump from rock-hard acidity to gray mold overnight. Why don’t strawberries taste like they used to, we wonder? Well, grow them yourself and they will—sweet, meltingly soft, and abundant, and as a bonus they’ll fill your space with the unmistakable scent of summer. So close to hand, they’re perfect for popping into your mouth as you breakfast on your balcony in the morning before work, for throwing into a smoothie, or onto cereal.

If you grow strawberries yourself you can enjoy some mouthwatering varieties such as ‘Mara des Bois’—which is like a giant woodland strawberry—the pointy shaped French classic ‘Gariguette,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Earliglow,’ or ‘Tribute.’ It’s always fun to include some real woodland strawberries, too, with their tiny, flavor-packed fruit. And for something really different, why not try a white variety?

Strawberries thrive in hanging baskets and other containers since they have fairly shallow roots, though they do need frequent feeding with a high-potash liquid fertilizer such as a tomato food or seaweed. They also make pretty plants with their buttery yellow and white flowers and fruits trailing over the edges of pots or dangling down from hanging baskets above your head, temptingly.

Strawberries are also great planted under fruit trees or other large plants, and they can even be shoe-horned into the pockets of fabric shoe organizers.

You can plant strawberry plants at several times throughout the year; in late summer/early fall they will arrive as spidery, bare roots which can be planted for a crop the following summer. Alternatively, you can buy them in spring as “cold-stored runners” (refrigerated by the supplier to confuse them so they fruit more quickly), which will crop that summer. From spring through the summer you’ll also find potted plants for sale in garden stores—check out online suppliers or visit your local garden store.

When planting strawberries, whether bare-root or potted, make sure the crown (the pointy bit in the center from which new leaves grow) is sitting on the surface of the potting mix—if it’s covered, it might rot; if it’s too high, it might dry out.

Easy tip

The classic terracotta strawberry planter looks great in a corner and can accommodate up to 12 plants, although be warned that the lower plants will struggle to get enough water unless you can get it down to them somehow. An easy way to do this is to cut a piece of PVC piping to the height of the pot and drill several holes along its length with a household drill. Put this in the center of the pot and pour the potting mix in around it, being careful not to get any in the tube, then fill the tube with shingle. When you pour water into this tube, it will seep out into the soil lower down in the pot, thus keeping the plants at that level moist.

Strawberries will last for a couple of years in a hanging basket or smallish pot before they have to be replaced. You won’t need to buy new plants; you can simply make new ones by pinning down any runners (the baby plants at the end of the long stems) to the soil until they root, then cut them off. Any runners that you don’t require should be snipped off close to the main plant. At the end of the summer, when the leaves turn yellow, cut plants back to about 10cm above the crown to keep them tidy (apart from “ever-bearing” varieties such as ‘Mara des Bois’, which can be left as they are).

  1. Carrots
balcony garden 09 carrots

Homegrown carrots are in another league from the shop-bought variety. Grow them yourself and you can pick them young, crunchy, and sweet. Eat them raw, make juice from them, or steam them to retain their delectable sweetness. Choose early varieties such as ‘Nantes’ and ‘Orange Rocket,’ but if you’re feeling more experimental, ‘Kaleidoscope Mix’ contains purple, yellow, white, and orange carrots, while ballrooted ‘Thumbelina’ can even grow in shallow window boxes.

Sow seeds from mid-spring, thinly and barely covered with potting mix, in large, fairly deep pots. If you resow a new tub every time a batch puts out its first “true” leaves, you should have a constant supply over the summer. Carrots don’t need rich soil, nor as much water as some crops, but they do need good drainage, so mix horticultural sand in with soilless potting mix (in a ratio of about 1 to 4). Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, thin them to about 2 in. apart. Pull up the carrots when they have reached a decent size, usually after two or three months.

Project : Carrots and marigolds in a colorful tub

 The carrots’ fresh feathery leaves look beautiful with the bright orange marigolds. Rubber or plastic tub trugs with drainage holes are ideal for growing as they are light, colorful, and you can easily move them around.

WHEN TO DO: SPRING

You will need

  •  1 plastic tub trug or similar Drill with 1 ⁄8 in. (min) drill bit
  • Crocks or polystyrene pieces
  • Soilless potting mix
  • Horticultural sand (optional)
  • 1 packet carrot seeds
  • Dry sand for seeds
  • 1 packet pot marigold seeds (Calendula of icinalis)

How to do it

Make about 10 holes (at least 1 ⁄8 in. in diameter) in the base of the tub using a drill. Then add a layer of polystyrene chunks or other crocks before filling the tub with a mixture of three-quarters potting mix to one-quarter horticultural sand (if using), almost to the rim.

Mix your carrot seeds with a handful of dry sand and sprinkle them thinly on the surface of the potting mix, then spread the potting mix with your fingers so that the seeds are hidden. Make a dozen or so holes in the potting mix with your finger, about 1cm deep, pop a marigold seed into each, and cover with potting mix. Water well and place in a sunny spot. Thin the carrots to about 2 in. apart and eat the young thinning raw in salads.

  1. Zucchini, squashes, and pumpkins

You’ll need a large container for these rampaging beasts, but they’re worth growing since they’re prolific producers and will quickly fill a space with their huge, sandpapery leaves and vibrant yellow flowers.

Grow zucchini in a large pot about 18 in. in diameter. Trailing varieties such as ‘Black Forest’ can be trained up railings and trellises, while even bush varieties such as ‘Sweet Zuke,’ ‘Limelight,’ round ‘Eight Ball,’ and yellow ‘Buttersticks’ can cover some distance when they get going. ‘Sure Thing’ is a good compact choice because it crops early.

Squashes and pumpkins need a big pot, too. They will sprawl everywhere, so to keep the plant tidy, either place it by balcony railings and tie it to them as it grows or push a wigwam into the center of the container and train the plant up around it. Summer squash varieties to try include ‘Sunny Delight,’ a relatively compact plant that produces masses of custard-yellow squashes that are delicious steamed and eaten whole when young. When it comes to winter squashes (hard-skinned ones that keep for months), it’s best to avoid butternuts unless you live in a warm climate, since they don’t ripen reliably. Instead, you can’t do much better then the beautiful onion squash ‘Red Kuri’ (sometimes called ‘Uchiki Kuri’), which is a hard-skinned, orange globe that decorates the vine like lanterns and will ripen even in a poor summer.

There is also a blue-skinned version—’Blue Kuri’—for the even more adventurous, or choose the weird and wacky, curly ‘Tromboncino’ or ‘Spaghetti’ squash, which may look nothing special on the plant—a creamy, egg-shaped fruit—but when cut open reveals pasta-like strands. Chop the squash in half and microwave it for a few minutes, then eat the flesh with plenty of butter, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Pumpkins will also grow well in a large container, but if space is restricted, try the relatively compact ‘Baby Bear’ for best results.

To grow zucchini, squashes, and pumpkins, sow seeds on their sides and 1 in. deep in small pots of multipurpose potting mix in mid-spring on a sunny windowsill. Alternatively, buy plants in early summer and plant them straight out. As long as they are given plenty of water—every day on hot days—and fed every two weeks with a high-potash feed such as organic liquid seaweed, zucchini, squashes, and pumpkins will flourish. If you can mulch them with a 2 in. layer of well-rotted manure, garden potting mix, or wormery potting mix, so much the better.

  1. Chiles

Few crops are as suited to container growing as these hot-blooded, compact plants. Even one plant on a balcony can produce enough chiles for all but the most obsessive chilephile. From the mild ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ to fiery ‘Jalapeno,’ ‘Thai Bird’s Eye,’ and ‘Etna,’ there are chiles for every taste, and of every color and shape, and as a bonus the plants are perky and cheerful and their colorful fruits look wonderfully exotic on a balcony.

Sow seeds inside in early spring in small pots, just covering them with potting mix, then switch them into bigger pots if they become pot-bound. Transplant them outside in early summer once all risk of frost has passed, into a sunny, sheltered spot. Feed every two weeks from flowering with an organic liquid seaweed feed and bring back inside in mid-fall to allow the fruits to fully ripen. Dry or freeze extra chiles. Water sparingly over winter and the plant should sprout new leaves come spring. Mulch with wormery or garden potting mix and the plant can then be put outside again in late spring/early summer.

  1. Blueberries
balcony garden 10 blueberries

A couple of potted blueberry bushes are a great choice for a balcony; they’re handsome plants with creamy flowers and leaves that often turn red in the fall. Blueberries are completely hardy, so no winter protection is needed, nor do they require much care or pruning (just trim away dead branches); their only requirement is that they are planted in ericaceous (acidic) potting mix, which is available from all garden stores. Choose a pot at least 1 ft. in diameter. Ideally, blueberries prefer to be watered with rain water, although if this isn’t available, tap water will do. They should be fed every two weeks once they start flowering with an organic liquid seaweed or wormery feed.

The best thing about blueberries, though, is the quantity of fruit that they produce from mid-summer right up to mid-fall, and how delicious it is—far firmer, tarter, and more aromatic than those rather mealy berries you buy in the stores. Good varieties include ‘Bluecrop,’ ‘Earliblue,’ and ‘Sunshine Blue.’

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