For all hobbits share a love for things that grow
Hi all, happy summer solstice! We’re a good way into June and if you are on my continent you’ll have noticed a certain football tournament has arrived with it. For those wanting a taste of the kind of scenes that brings along: during “our” first match the whole car park of my building was full of people arriving to come watch the game clad head to toe in team colours and at least one of them brought in a tuba. Ah, early summer, otherwise known as the season in which my neighbours perpetually raise eyebrows at the amount of photos I take of my plants (why is she taking 100 close-ups of that one odd leaf?). I thought it would be nice to do a balcony garden post to mark this longest day of the year and tell you about what we’re growing this year. I mentioned a while back that my partner and I had more ambitious plans for the balcony this year and for much of spring we have been busy making those ideas come to life.
We’ve had a cold and (until May) extremely dry spring. That combination made nature run behind on schedule for the entire season. Plants and trees were slow with flowering but, because of the cold, blossomed a lot longer, pollinators didn’t know what to make of the patchy weather and birds postponed breeding season. May was still cold for the time of the year but luckily (if you love all things green) caught up in terms of rainfall. The result was that everything outside was lush and green for the entirety of that month (the walks were glorious!). To be honest, after three years of extreme and dangerous levels of drought it is a relief to be going into the summer season with a good month of rainfall behind us. June arrived and with it the start of summer. We are only just at the beginning of summer here but it’s already been very hot and dry and much warmer than it’s supposed to be so early in the summer (we’ve already broken some records with a wave of tropical temperatures). So that makes me…uh…wary of what peak summer will throw at us. Anyway let’s talk about what that weather roller-coaster has meant for the balcony garden.
Spring was filled with garden work; various seed planting sessions spread over weeks that became months while collecting and making containers. When you are small spaced it is a good idea to have some sort of plan before hand as to what sort of things you want to plant and where. We made a couple of sketches of our outside space as it was and some options as to what we could work towards. Chances are those plans will still change somewhat as time goes on: not all seeds germinate or plants that won’t do well could die off. But it’s good to have some idea of space and sunlight hours and possible ways to make the most of your limits.
After winter we cleaned up the balcony and got rid of some of the plants that sadly did not make it through the winter. Despite our best effort the weeks of deep winter weather proved to be a bit too much for some of our plants and wrecked havoc on some of the plants that did make it. The colder weather in spring has not been of huge help for those that did survive and I’ve taken some cuttings of some of my plants just in case they don’t perk up. I’ve never done this myself before and it has been nothing short of magic seeing roots form and new growth form on little stems!
One of the main things we wanted to do this year is substantially increase the greenery on our balcony. We always had things growing on the balcony but this year we wanted to push further and really see what is possible in terms of gardening on this small piece of airborne concrete.
For this to happen we had to exponentially increase our container space and reshuffle and reassess what we already had. For growing stuff in a small space it is nice to have a variety of containers in different sizes and depths. This year we added some bigger wooden apple crates to the balcony. These are retired crates from the fruit picking industry that we picked up. We treated them with linseed oil (which we first heated for better uptake) against wood rot. We lined them with root cloth, mostly to keep the soil in. These are really nice for growing a variety of vegetables, plants and flowers in together, and for growing more substantial things in that need a bigger space. We got them to kind of mimic the bigger wooden container crates used in vegetable gardens. Additionally we got some more regular pots in different sizes.
I feel pretty good about were we are in terms of containers to grow stuff in, but there is definitely room for more bigger pots and crates if we need or want them later in the summer or next year. It’s amazing what you can grow in a small space if you stop thinking along the parameter both of what a garden traditionally is thought to be as well as what a balcony should be. Growing stuff on your balcony, even a few flower pots, is not super common in my area. Those who do though stand out more and I get so heartened when I spot them while biking or walking around. Overall it’s been really inspiring to see what balcony gardeners are able to do with their small space as well as organizations focussing on greening cities in my country (think for instance lifting a brick or tile and plant a plant instead).
Plants We Are Growing
We’re growing a variety of vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs this year. Some are returners like the tomatoes, strawberries and peppers others are newcomers and stuff we are trialling to see how growing them goes on the balcony. We grew most of our plants from seed and because of the cold spring had to keep them inside for a looong time. Our balcony catches a lot of sun in the summer and is demarcated by glass panes so plants that love heat like Mediterranean herbs, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and sun loving flowers like lavender, cone and sunflowers, sweet peas, hollyhocks and wildflowers do well. We’re growing 3 different types of tomatoes and 2 different hot peppers and bell peppers. We tried to grow bell peppers last year but it was mostly a fail in terms of survival rate of the seedlings. This year went better but still a bit hit and miss during the germination process, and in the end we bought two small plants as again a lot of our self planted seedlings did not last. I think for next year I might have to get a grow light or heating pad to have a bit more control and give the seedlings and edge against the weather. Apart from the peppers though, most of the veg seeds we planted has been a success – a lot more germinated than expected, so it’s a good thing we prepared plenty of containers!
We’ve also added a variety of different beans; runner beans, 3 different green beans (one being a yellow variety) and snap peas. Here at the Treehouse we really love our beans and I’m looking forward to see how these will fair on the balcony and in containers, both things pretty much every more traditional gardener advises against. But I figured we’d just give it a go just to see how it goes given we lack a garden so don’t have another option anyway. They have been growing up a storm since we planted them and they are now planted out in the apple crates. I’m really loving the variety in leaves and seeing the stems curl around the stick structures we’ve given them. We picked red, purple and white flowering varieties. This month they started flowering and this week after I blinked for a moment we could harvest out first handful of snap beans and green beans! I’m so exited! I think it’s going to be lovely the coming weeks when it’s (hopefully!) a blossoming sea of colour and green.
Similarly to the beans we are also trialling growing pumpkins on the balcony. This is something I wanted to do for a long time and basically everything they tell you you shouldn’t do with beans is multiplied for pumpkins. My only pumpkin growing experience is memories of my mum growing them one year, and she hated it because it spread everywhere in the garden. Ha, you can imagine she dreads what the plant will do on a tiny balcony! We’re growing two different types of pumpkins one I saved from an organic pumpkin from our dinner and the other from a packet of seeds. I’m considering these pumpkins specifically my retaliation for finding out that the queue to get an allotment here is now so long, that they’re not even accepting new people to join the waiting list.
Finally, we’re trying cucumbers for the first year. Not much thoughts behind them when we picked our variety to grow from seed but I’ve grown really fond of the plants; the big round leaves, sticky stem and the long curly grabbers they are growing long before they need them. They just started growing their first flowers so fingers crossed for fruit growth soon! The motto for the garden really is let’s just try it and see what works and sticks. It’s my favourite approach and way to learn!
We’re also growing more flowers than ever before and because we’re not at max capacity space wise yet I’m thinking of maybe getting some more annuals. In addition to these things we’re growing from seeds the apple tree and bramble bush have been growing steadily. The apple tree blossomed for over a month and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pollinators on our balcony. Truly a treat! I didn’t think we were going to get any apples this year because my mum’s apple and pear trees have long since started forming fruit. However a bit ago I was checking the garden and spotted at least two little baby apples! I ran inside so fast and from my expression my partner immediately guessed the reason. If they make it to the end it will be the first apples she has ever grown! Meanwhile the bramble has been growing steadily since we added her at the end of winter and we’ve replaced her structure for a bigger one already!
Another big change to the balcony came in the form of some non-plant balcony inhabitants. We had been thinking about ways in which we, as apartment dwellers, could compost. The idea of vermicomposting became more and more appealing, so this spring when my partner and I were celebrating being together for A Big Number Of Years, we decided to mark the occasion by getting a worm bin and our very first compost worm colony. You can make your own bin with two buckets, but given the balcony setting I wasn’t sure how escape- and stench-proof such a set up would be, so we bought one from a small company that specialises in them and by chance is also situated in the city we call home (for the curious: so far have not sniffed a single foul smell. A good working bin is supposed to faintly smell like wet forest)
The biggest benefit of vermicomposting for small place dwellers it that is takes up much less space than conventional composting, and is a quicker way to turn organic waste in to (vermi)compost. Having our own compost and organic fertilizer from the vermiculture will be great for out balcony garden where we can only garden in containers. It’s been a very exciting development for us and with so many benefits I keep wondering why we did not make this change before. All that being said the first 2-3 months or so are really a start up period in which the worms are getting used to their new habitat and routine. We got a week by week schedule which broadly indicates the developments you should be able to see each week and when you start feeding more etc. So far it all seems pretty intuitive and after 7 weeks our worm colony is on track. After this settle down period it should be plain sailing (so fingers crossed that proves to be the case).
If you were a blog follower around this time last year you’ll have seen my writing on how our balcony birds got on in spring and how we saw from up close the care and raising of the chicks of two of our Eurasian blue tits. This year we’ve had a Great Tit couple flying off and on throughout the day in an effort to feed their young. Their nest was in an crevice in the wall of our apartment building and you could hear the little ones screeching for food to mum and dad. Because the weather has been cold and wet the whole breeding season is postponed, fewer egg are laid and there is less food about. This year is definitely tougher for the birds than it has been in the previous years. The chicks have since flown out, after the stormiest and wettest weekend we’ve had in spring they decided they were ready to see more of the world than the opening of the shaft could provide. We’ve since regularly spotted them hopping about on the balcony, figuring out the bean trellis and exploring the balcony with mum and dad daily.
It’s been fun to see the reactions of our regular balcony birds to the changes we’ve made to the balcony and the growing plants. I could spot them looking about and studying the newly planted out stuff and overall they seemed quite intrigued by what we were up to. I think the added greenery and their grown familiarity with our balcony have made them much more confident in their exploration and they have been flying and hopping about on the floor checking out the newly created nooks and crannies. The newly put up sticks and support structures for our climbing plants have been quite fun for them to explore. They are also more comfortalbe with us and don’t might hopping in for a visit while we are watering the garden or doing whatever. As the small birds are growing up, we’ve also noticed two adults hauling birdfeed to and fro again. Could it be a second nest for the busy parents this year? Or maybe another couple?
The main reason we wanted significantly more growth on our garden is a deep love for everything that grows and a belief that it’s the best antidote against constantly being plugged in to the sharpness and pain of a capitalist world. Growing stuff is always radical and revolutionary but especially on places that are not designed for them. Another part of the reason we were so resolute in wanting to turn every inch of the our balcony space green was last year’s wildflower meadow drama. I don’t want to go to deeply into it but seeing such a vital piece of city wildlife teaming with life -insects, birds, plant and flower varieties- being met with such hostility from some of the people living in its surroundings, to the point that those people campaigned for over a year for its decimation in favour of a “neat” lawn has been quite traumatic, in all honesty. Both the seeing it all being cut down in the height of summer while it was teaming with life, it being replaced with a withered and dehydrated piece of lawn and the knowledge that a significant amount of neighbours wanted it this way (they still complain that it isn’t mowed enough, so go figure).
Anyway obviously a tiny balcony with some greens growing on it will never come even close to replacing it but it feels important to do at least something in the face of that destruction. It’s why we made a point of being a bird friendly balcony. It’s why we leave hiding places for insects in the winter. It’s why we have scattered native wildflower seeds along the stuff we are growing in an effort to help the native bees. My parents got us two different insect hotel houses for our native solitary pollinators which has seen it’s fair share of activity already (despite the weather not being great for insects).
Like a spare seed that you plant and that turns out to be a big, sprawling bush, this post grew into a bit of a mini-manifesto there at the end. But that’s just the unpredictability of gardening 😉. I hope you enjoyed this short tour through my balcony garden as it is now, at the beginning of summer. It’s not done yet, there is still stuff to be potted up later and we got some flower seedlings going still and everything will grow a bunch more ( I hope it will be very wild! Haha). I can’t wait to see it later in the summer!
Have a great summer and longest day of the year! xx