We grew up in the suburbs with decent sized backyards, but for the past year I’ve lived in Montreal for school. I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetic of older, unique buildings (as opposed to new cookie cutter builds) with metal fire escapes, spiraling staircases, and hanging flowers. With this being my first summer with a balcony, I had to try my hand at having my own balcony garden. I should preface this by saying that I’ve only gotten into gardening the past two or three years, and my gardening attempts have been limited to: having my father drive me to a gardening centre; randomly picking out tomato plants and whatever else I thought would be easy; having him pay for it all; having him drive us back home; running off to play on the internet while he put the seedlings into the ground; occasionally watching him water the plants for the entire duration of their growth; picking the vegetables when ripe and leaving them on the counter for my mother to wash. So basically, I’m very skilled and knowledgeable when it comes to gardening. Sometimes I even look into how to care for my plants after I’ve bought and planted them.
There’s a bit of an investment required in gardening on balconies since, unlike backyards with soil, you can’t just buy seedlings and let them grow as they are. You need to buy containers that are deep enough for the plants to grow into, keeping an eye out to make sure you don’t overcrowd your containers, and then you’ll need sufficient soil. Then there’s the issue of tools like gloves, spades, trellises or sticks for support, twine, and perhaps clippers for pruning. Factor in living downtown in the city where department stores are fewer (read: no Wal-Marts 😦 ) and require public transportation to get to, and lugging these things up to your apartment. My friend who is experienced with gardening in Montreal apartments actually called a cab to the Rona and laid a tarp down in the trunk in order to transport her 12 large bags of soil back to her apartment. If setting up a balcony garden for the first time, bribe friends to help you buy and move things. While any container with sufficient depth and width can be used, the two most useful containers I’ve found have been those large, deep plastic containers often used for moving, as well as these wonderful new containers that I found at Dollarama that have built-in false bottoms. The benefit to the moving containers is that they’re large (two to three plants can live in there) and can be used for their intended purpose of storing things when they aren’t being used for gardening. The downside is that you’ll need to create a false bottom or drill in drainage holes. The Dollarama containers seem to have no downside that I’ve found, except for the fact that I didn’t know about them until after I planted my spinach into a garbage bin I wasn’t using.
I would provide links for making a false bottom, but to be honest, I didn’t do it and I couldn’t say which one is the best for it. To be even more candid, I’m not entirely sure how they work. As you can see with the Dollarama bin, there’s a gap near the bottom and that’s actually a detachable piece. The upper part is a container as usual, but at the bottom, it has half a dozen holes (each about the size of a paper hole punch) and I think the water drains into the bottom detachable part. I think these false bottoms are supposed to be more useful than simply letting the water drain out into a plate or something since the roots will soak up water as they need? It’s a reservoir of water that’s available to them. Even with the big moving containers, you can create a false bottom and add water into the reservoir through a tube or something. I’ve also read that you’re supposed to water plants enough that water comes out the bottom, knowing that the soil is moist but not building up at the bottom, as you would without draining holes. Every site mentions the possibility of root rot if you don’t have proper drainage.
I suppose I could mention that I didn’t do the false bottom because I didn’t prepare sufficiently for gardening… I excitedly bought my seedlings from a famers market, but didn’t actually have any gardening supplies. So I hastily made my friend go to Canadian Tire with me and we wandered around aisles, pointing at things, asking each other questions, and using our phones to search the internet for answers to our very basic questions (e.g. the difference between potting soils?? I bought one with pictures of vegetables on it and another that just said it was normal potting soil, and mixed the two in each of my pots. So far so good, but I’m sure that’s not really how you’re supposed to do it). It turned out that I hadn’t bought quite enough soil to fill my big bin, but I needed to transplant my seedlings, so I put them in anyway. This meant not having a false bottom, not having drainage holes, and later, with my poor farming skills, essentially uprooting my plants to attempt to add soil under the existing soil so that they wouldn’t drown in dirt but would have more to work with. Obviously, I should never teach anyone to garden (…as I write this entry).
(Hopefully having this in brackets minimizes my stupidity, but my solution to not having drainage holes in my big bin and garbage pin was to make one hole near the bottom of my containers and leaving the bins at an angle so the excess water drains out. I first tried to do this with a hammer and nail because those are the only tools I really have here, but that didn’t work, so I took the time to gouge out a single hole with my kitchen scissors. Please, please, please do not follow in my footsteps. Plan ahead with your garden.)
I should also point out that I foolishly bought two ceramic pots (the white and black pots pictured above). The black rim is painted with chalkboard paint so that you can label your pots. Cute! But when I got home, I realized I don’t have chalk. After I potted my basil and rosemary, I looked into how I was supposed to care for them and found that they needed really good drainage. When I looked at the bottom of these cute pots, I found that they have no drainage hole at the bottom. Goddamn it. But… they’re cute. Form over functionality, right??
Other than that, it isn’t so hard having a balcony garden! I face west so I get sun all day and my tomatoes are decently happy. I gave my mom some of the seedlings I bought (I bought them from McGill’s market, and they only sold things in backs of six) and her cucumber and yellow cherry tomato plants are growing much faster than mine. Probably partially because I took longer to plant my seedlings and really let them settle, but my mom says it’s just because she’s better (which I don’t contest). (If you’re wondering, when I brought the seedlings home, I left them on a bench, telling my mom I’d deal with them, until she went out and did all the gardening that I usually got my dad to do. For the sake of your parents’ sanity, I implore you, again, to not follow in many of my gardening foot steps.) Tomatoes are probably the best plant for anybody to start gardening with since other than needing a lot of sun and support (trellises, wire frames, etc.), they’re easy, resilient, very fruitful, and beautiful. We do both cherry tomatoes (red and yellow, but there’s also brown) and regular big tomatoes. We tried beef tomatoes last year (my uncle gave us a transplant), but they never got past green and I think they look horrible in any situation.
I’ve also tried carrots, but whether in a pot or in the ground, they take forever to grow and they end up small and wonky. I would suggest everybody trying to grow carrots once in order to gain better appreciation for farmers and what we buy in markets and the store.
I’ve heard green beans and snap peas are super easy and fruitful, and nice because you can grow them along anything. If I had prepared more this year, I would have been able to let them grow sideways along my balcony railing. Next year though. Cucumbers are supposed to be just as easy, so we’ll have to see, but mine has been slow.
After last year’s farm crawl in Hamilton and trip to Wier’s Lane lavender and apiary farm, I became slightly obsessed with having my own lavender plant. I didn’t know what they looked like before they flowered, what sort of soil, sun, or water they need (I still haven’t looked it up, despite having a plant), or the different types. I simply went to Jean Talon market, pointed at plants, and ended up with the one that I wanted. The leaves also smell like rosemary when you touch them, so that’s an added bonus.
I feel like everybody might come to love gardening if they tried it, just a little. I’m not child-oriented, but maybe this is what people feel like when they’re pregnant? To be responsible for something’s life, to provide them with the conditions for their optimal growth, to check in on them incessantly to wonder if they’ve changed at all. There’s beauty in everything, from the smell of their leaves to the colours of their flowers, the unexpected benefits from your intended purpose for them. It makes you appreciate what you buy in stores because of how crazily slow it takes to grow things and how small the yield can be. It can amaze you how much soil, water, and care goes into each of these plants. I can’t get that sort of satisfaction or understanding from farmers markets; I only get it from my own experiences and attempts. It takes a bit of set up to get the containers and soil and plants, but once you have the containers and tools, those are yours. Everything from thereon in is fairly straightforward and only beneficial (until the squirrels and birds fight you for the fruits of your labour).