Gardens several stories up don’t happen by accident—people put them there. It’s no wonder, then, that balconies and roof gardens are often so highly individual, bringing out all your latent creativity, giving you your own domain to play with, however small. They open up a whole world of possibilities for not only the crops you grow, but the way you choose to grow them.
Forget terracotta-colored plastic pots, there are far more exciting ways to show off your edibles—some quirky, some unexpectedly beautiful, and many of them completely free.
Save me: the salvaged balcony
Recycled, salvaged, rescued—call them what you will—so many materials that were once at the center of domestic life are these days more likely to be found gathering dust in junk stores, architectural salvage yards, or yard sales. History’s galvanized baths, buckets, tubs, teapots, and cans are a balcony gardener’s treasure trove. Old tiles, bricks, clay pipes, hat stands, have a real beauty in their own right and often make surprisingly good planters. They bring a lived-in charm and individuality to any space, and provide humor too.
It’s great fun to track down salvage items; whether it’s finding the perfect twin handled tub in a market and snapping it up for a few dollars to grow carrots and marigolds in, or garlanding a hat stand with hanging baskets. If the idea of spending money on salvaged materials doesn’t appeal, try free online swap sites and keep your eyes out for dumpsters—it’s amazing what people throw away. After all, one man’s dented kitchen colander is another man’s tumbling tomato hanging basket.
Turn old junk into great plant pots
As long as you can punch or drill drainage holes in the bottom, any old container will work to grow plants in. The only real limitation is weight. Do you really want to carry a heavy sink up flights of stairs, regardless of how cute it might look filled with herbs? The key before you buy or “save” containers to use as plant pots is that you actually want to look at them. There’s little point in going to the trouble of preparing and planting in a rusty old can if it just ends up looking like garbage that should be in landfill. But everyone has their own taste, and the real fun of salvage-style balconies is that they let you express yourself—so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Wood is good
Old wine or fruit crates are sturdy and hardwearing and look great overflowing with greens or herbs. Drawers work well, too, and are often deep enough to take large plants such as tomatoes, zucchini, eggpants, or chiles.
Old wine barrels can look good and are deep enough for a fruit tree, but they are heavy, so keep this in mind. Don’t underestimate the humble wicker wastepaper basket either. If you like, you can even make planting troughs for free from old scaffold boards or pieces of wood discarded in dumpsters—just make sure there are drainage holes in the base and, obviously, if you are at all concerned about the weight of any container on your balcony or roof, ask advice from a structural engineer, builder, or surveyor before you go ahead.
Balconies overhung by others above them will be protected from the rain, so in this situation you can use salvaged pieces that may not last long when exposed to the elements. Bookcases and dressers make perfect plant stands with much more character than those you’d get from a garden store, while old chests of drawers can become fabulous planters, with staggered drawers revealing bumper crops of bush beans, chard, lettuce, or strawberries. Look out, too, for old wooden hat stands or umbrella racks that can be useful for growing climbing plants up, such as beans, or that you can hang baskets of strawberries and tumbling tomatoes from.
Any wooden container will eventually rot when filled with damp potting mix, but they’ll last much longer if you paint them with a natural non-toxic preserving oil such as Danish oil and strengthen their corners with metal corner braces, otherwise the corner joints are prone to coming apart. Don’t use varnish, as this won’t allow the wood to breathe and if water does get in it can’t get out, so it will rot the wood. It’s also a good idea to line any wooden boxes or drawers with plastic before you plant in them in order to prolong the life of the wood. Make sure there are generous holes in the plastic aligned with those you’ve drilled in the base so that excess water can drain away easily.
Vintage galvanized domestic containers such as old laundry tubs, cattle troughs, baths, buckets, and trays make great planters, with their mellow, silvery color bringing real softness to a space and catching the sunlight beautifully. They’re much lighter than they look, retain moisture well (since water can’t evaporate through the sides) and come in lovely shapes, often with attractive handles. Of course, because they’re galvanized they don’t rust either, so they are ideal for using outside. Drill holes in the base (or punch them using a nail) and put a layer of broken crocks or polystyrene down before adding the potting mix. A galvanized tub filled with carrots and marigolds is a lovely sight. Or how about silver-leaved thyme in an old teapot?
Even rusty buckets with holes can look fabulous lined up on a bench filled with herbs or flowers. Enamel breadboxes and other vintage kitchen containers, with their big retro lettering, add a nice humorous touch, and wrought-iron shelving or racks can come into service as quirky climbing frames for squashes and beans.
The recycled balcony
Have a look around your kitchen; chances are there are dozens of containers, boxes, bottles, and cans that you throw away every week, destined for landfill or your recycling center. Venture into your garage, your attic, or the back of your cabinets and you’ll find unloved or imperfect items you never quite got around to throwing out— shower racks that don’t stick to the tiles anymore, or hanging shoe organizers you never used. Yet why spend money on expensive and generic pots from the garden store when, with a bit of imagination, you can turn much of this household detritus into ingenious planters—from a hanging bottle herb garden to self-watering planters or pockets of strawberries to hang over your railings?
The only rule is, there are no rules—as long as it’s recycled. If you don’t have anything suitable lying around the house, try asking at friendly local delis for things they are throwing out—old food containers or olive oil cans are often quite stylishly designed. Farm stores are usually more than happy to share some of their wooden fruit-packing boxes (line them with plastic first and don’t expect them to last more than a season), and fishsellers their polystyrene crates (these are particularly good for a balcony as they are so light). Plastic storage boxes with lids are also ideal—if they have wheels, so much the better, since large ones will become heavy when filled with damp soil. The addition of the lid turns them into handy cloches to protect young spring seedlings, too.
Once you start looking at recycled objects with your garden in mind, it becomes surprisingly addictive and all the more satisfying when you know you’re giving a new lease of life to objects otherwise destined for the bin. And don’t be afraid to be eccentric: in an experiment in Chicago in 1997, 1,000 lb. of vegetables were grown in 38 children’s paddling pools.
SAVE MONEY ON SEEDLINGS
Don’t feel you have to spend money on pots or module trays when starting off seedlings—plastic fruit and yogurt containers and the bottoms of cut-down plastic bottles all work equally well. Just make sure you punch generous holes in the base —or, even better, the bottom of the sides—first. Fruit containers are particularly good since they already have ventilation holes, so there’s no need to punch drainage holes. They also often come with clear plastic lids, which make them instant free cloches for starting off tender seeds such as chiles, bell peppers, and tomatoes.
Make your own gentle watering can Seedlings are easily drowned if they are subjected to a gush of water from a watering-can spout or tap. You can transform a plastic bottle into the perfect watering device for small seedlings by piercing lots of little holes in the lid with a bradawl or any other small spike. Fill the bottle, then squeeze it for a gentle shower that will water your plants without upse