Until moving to Calgary, the closest I came to balcony gardening was the flower bed in front of our old apartment in Edmonton’s Belgravia neighbourhood, which the owners actively encouraged us to plant with veggies and herbs. Try as we might, the soil was kind of grotty, and the local rabbits trashed much of the scraggly growth we managed. Still, we got enough basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley and mint to make the effort worth our while.
So, why balcony garden? Because it’s handy, and it’s a cheap way to add some zip to your cooking with minimal effort.
While it’s a little late in the season to be starting a garden in Calgary, hopefully these pointers I’ve picked up over the past year of growing a tiny garden on our balcony will be of some help come spring.
Reasonable expectations: Nobody is going to grow all their food on a balcony, but if you pick your plants carefully, you can add flourish to many meals through the growing season. It takes a lot of space to grow a few pounds of carrots, but not a lot of space to grow a wide selection of herbs. Don’t get too ambitious in your first year.
What to plant: Depends entirely on what you like to cook. If you love pasta sauce, plant plenty of herbs, and maybe a few tomato plants. If you like hot peppers, plant some of those. You’re better off planting things that don’t all ripen at the same time. If you’re thinking about the cost benefits of planting your own garden, consider planting the herbs you spend the most on during the year, or that you use most often.
From seed or seedling?: We picked up seedlings from the greenhouse, mostly because we were late to get the garden going and didn’t have time to start any seeds indoors. Starting from seedlings costs more, but you know you’re getting a viable plant right from the start. From seed, I imagine you’d get the satisfaction of knowing you grew something from scratch.
How much to plant: Basil is great in tomato sauces or as a topping on pizza, but how much are you realistically going to use? If you’re a pesto-head (and who could blame you?), you’re going to need to plant a whole lot of basil if you want to use a whole lot of basil. In my case, I wish we’d planted more basil (and rosemary). Know that a little bit goes a long way with some herbs, but other herbs must be used liberally. You know your favourite recipes better than I do.
What to grow your garden in: Huge lesson here. Flower planters don’t necessarily make good veggie gardens. Drainage is key, as a few good prairie downpours can leave your fledgling herb garden waterlogged. My dad bought us a fantastic purpose-built planter at Lee Valley (pictured in top photo), and it was great to work with. Soil is also very important, so make sure you buy the right kind at the garden centre. (If in doubt, ask someone.) Good dirt ain’t dirt cheap, but bad dirt could ruin your plants.
The cost advantage: Over the course of the summer, the $25 cherry tomato plant we bought at the Enjoy Centre in St. Albert easily yielded twice its price in ripe, juicy tomatoes. Similarly, our oregano, thyme and rosemary plants saved us a bunch on fresh herbs that we would have purchased in grocery-store clamshells for $3 a pop. Similarly, while I wouldn’t ever consider buying four different packs of fresh herbs to add to a Saturday morning omelette, having a handful of herbs I can pick in small amounts when needed meant rarely having to resort to dried herbs during the summer.
Beware of pests: In our case, birds. They kept pecking at our ripe cherry tomatoes, so we learned to pick them as soon as they were ready instead of leaving them on the plant. I hear you can get netting that will keep the birds away, which is something we’ll probably do next year.
What to make with it: Again, depends on what you planted. We’ve got lots of herbs, so we made pasta sauce, marinades and omelettes with our abundant supply of fresh herbs, and even a few batches of rich herb-and-cheddar savoury scones. If you don’t have time to whip up a tomato sauce from scratch, adding some freshly chopped herbs to a jar of sauce as you heat it up on the stove can take your pasta supper from ho-hum to yum. My wife loved having ripe tomatoes for cooking, and she used them regularly in sauces and on salads. I’m just about to pluck the first of our crop of mole peppers, which I intend to use in some tex-mex cookery. I’m also hoping to make a batch of lemon verbena ice cream from the lemon verbena plant I’ve been growing. Having a garden, however small, invites endless creativity in the kitchen.
Anything I missed? Any tips you’d like to add? Leave a comment below?