In the garden: fruit and vegetables at sky level

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Fresh fruit and veg just a few steps from the kitchen? That may be true for homes with a yard, but for apartment and condo dwellers, it can be a long road to a community yard. That might be enough to sway a preference for grocery stores, where everything is washed, wrapped and shrink-wrapped – and has traveled extensively.

But a fine selection of vegetables and herbs can also be successfully grown in a simple container on the balcony. Who wouldn’t prefer fresh basil and a sun-kissed tomato just steps away? Cherry tomatoes would be like a living bowl of candy.

Your balcony garden needs to be on the sunnier side of the building, so check the orientation. The north side will be too shady for anything other than leafy greens and they will struggle, although young leaves handle the shade better than mature ones, allowing you to occasionally harvest enough for a small salad. Most vegetables need at least six hours of sun.

The other weather concern is wind. It can be annoying on a tall building when accelerating to tornado strength between neighboring high-rise buildings. A screen may be needed to ward off the extremes, or your kale could end up at Dorothy’s in Kansas.

Once that’s sorted, there’s one rule when growing vegetables in planters: the bigger and deeper the better—at least 30 centimeters (one foot) deep, even deeper for carrots and other root vegetables. Provided it’s big enough, anything that holds soil and has a drainage hole will do. Vegetables absorb a lot of water, and they don’t thrive well when stressed when there’s a lack of moisture in the soil, so never let them dry out completely.

There is no need to add gravel to the bottom of a planter. However, it’s worth covering the holes with something like a coffee filter or window film material to prevent the soil from flushing through. It’s best to have a tray underneath to catch excess water, or the neighbors downstairs might bang on your door if you have too much water.

Access to water means a hose connection for the kitchen faucet or having to carry a bucket up to once a day as balcony planters tend to miss the rain. Large containers reduce the need for watering just as often. Self-watering containers are an option – there are many on the market. They contain a reservoir in the ground, which directs water up into the ground, but these take up space that the ground could hold. If the ground is deep enough, it acts as its own water source. To reduce evaporation, add mulch to the soil surface after planting. Chunky coconut works well or bark nuggets.

Choose a soil that is light and drains well. These typically consist of peat moss and vermiculite for water retention and perlite for drainage. Some contain fertilizer, but that’s not essential since you’ll need to feed these veggies. A balanced, granular, slow-release fertilizer is fine, or a water-soluble one. Instructions are written on the sachet or bottle. Fertilizer is not a panacea, so don’t use more than necessary.

Herb and vegetable plants are available now, or you could still sow seeds. There can be mistakes for beginners, so start with a few simple ones like lettuce, basil, tomatoes, or peppers. They don’t have to be in separate containers. With some climbing, pole beans will do well and produce a good harvest. Success comes with experience, so treat setbacks as a learning experience. If everything goes wrong, there’s always the grocery store.

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