By Vina Medenilla
Having a green space at home is like having a mini station to escape from stress. This is why even in small spaces, growing plants is recommended as a way to lessen everyday stress.
If you have an empty balcony or terrace, you can turn it into a garden, but make sure that it will fit the requirements of balcony gardening first, especially if you live in an apartment or condominium.
Balcony gardening may be achieved through different methods, including planting in containers or through hydroponics.
Dida Ballaran, an urban gardener and the owner of an online enterprise called Lokal Natural, does this type of gardening in her home on the 19th floor of a building with a north-east facing balcony.
Since she loves cooking, she started growing herbs on her five square meter-wide balcony. Though not all plants are easy to maintain, there are crops that can be grown and harvested easily like kangkong, alugbati, and kamote, she said. In just three weeks, she gets to harvest vegetables like pechay, lettuce, and arugula in her own garden.
She also regrows kitchen scraps like tomato, lemon, chili pepper, onion, and lemongrass. She does this to make good use of the scraps and to decrease the amount of their trash. According to Ballaran, there are many plants that one can grow on the balcony as long as there is enough sunlight that will provide energy and nutrients to the plants.
Container gardening techniques
There are countless ways to start container gardening. This may involve trial and error before people can actually find the right procedure that will work for them and their space.
Some people grow roots in the water before transferring them to soil. Others plant seeds or seedlings directly to the soil. Some do marcotting (a process of plant propagation where a part of one branch of a parent plant is girdled and wrapped with moss to grow its own roots), and other processes. Above all, researching through books and online, as well as asking advice from people with experience would be a great help, especially for newbies, Ballaran said.
When it comes to seeds, she sows them in an egg tray, waters them, keeps the soil moist, and places them in a shaded area to sprout before replanting. For cuttings, she either puts them directly into the soil or grows the roots in water first before planting to soil.
Things to consider before balcony gardening:
If you live in a commercial building like a condo or apartment, you must know the rules and regulations of the management first with regards to balcony gardening before you start one. This is to avoid inconveniences to your neighbors as well as for the safety of all the residents.
Ballaran said watering plants in containers is the most challenging part of this type of gardening. Knowing when and how much water to give to the plants will lessen the possibility of root rot. To avoid overwatering, you must have proper drainage in every container.
Ballaran’s watering routine used to entail proper scheduling, but even with the discipline of following a watering schedule, her plants did not grow due to overwatering. So what she did instead is to regularly check soil moisture. She digs the soil using her hand and feels if the soil underneath is still moist. If the soil one inch below the surface already feels dry, that is when she waters the plant. There are plants that don’t require watering every day, so she does this soil moisture check to ensure that the plants will not be overwatered.
Ballaran, who lives in Metro Manila, does not use tap water for her plants. This is due to the chlorine in tap water that led to the death of her plants in the past. A tip from her is that an alternative way to water plants is to take an empty water container, put the tap water in it and let it stand for at least 24 hours before using.
Know how long the sun shines on your balcony before choosing your plants. This way, you can find out which plants will thrive in that particular amount of sun exposure. Most plants need at least three to six hours of direct sun exposure.
Make sure to have enough holes in your planters. If you have no proper drainage, the plants will drown. This is important as this is a common cause of death for some plants, Ballaran added. The right size of containers also matters as this will allow the plants to grow freely and healthy.
Choose a good type of soil especially for container gardening. Garden soil will not be enough as it is too heavy and compact, which may lead to root rot. Unless you have plants that require moist soil conditions, garden soil may be used but is not preferred as it is too heavy for the balcony setting, Ballaran said. For the potting mix, Ballaran recommends loam soil or the soil mixture of carbonized rice hull, compost, garden soil, and cocopeat as it is not bulky and compact.
This refers to the heaviness of the containers with soil. Make sure to know the weight limit or capacity of your balcony per square meter for you and your neighbors’ safety. Avoid using terracotta or clay pots and ceramic pots, especially if planting on the balcony, because these are heavy materials even without soil. You may opt to use plastic pots, soft pots, sacks, fabric grow bags, and others.
When it comes to compost, you may use compost soil that can be bought in the local markets or you can make your own compost at home, Ballaran said. You may use banana peels by cutting it into pieces and scattering it into the soil. The same with eggshells: wash them with water, let dry, crush them, and place on top of the soil. Teabags and coffee grounds can also be spread on the soil. There are coffee grounds that can be obtained for free in some coffee shops.
Positioning is very important as well. If you are living on a higher floor of a building, make sure to plan and research first before putting your plants in their places. In Ballaran’s case, she lives on the 19th floor with two balconies; one facing north-east and other facing south-east. She cannot use the south-east balcony for her plants due to strong winds. If this is the case, there are also plants that can be used as windbreakers such as rosemary and blue ternate.
Time and care
It will take time and proper care to maintain healthy plants and to monitor for possible pests and diseases. If you have limited free time due to work, it is recommended to start with low-maintenance plants. This way, you can observe if planting is something you can keep and commit to before buying more.
Small spaces are not a problem. There are many ways to get around this, such as vertical gardening. Ballaran uses a wire mesh where she can hang planters. If you plan to hang the plants, just make sure not to go beyond the railings of your balcony and to secure them so the plants will not fall and will not cause accidents.
Lastly, gardening does not have to be costly and big at first. You can start small by buying plants that you can grow one by one until your collection grows bigger. To save money, regrow the vegetables that you consume. Do not throw away stalks of vegetables like kangkong. Soak them in water until the roots grow up to two inches long. Change the water every day to keep it clean. After the roots grow, transfer the plant to a five-liter container. Keep the soil moist, or you may put a plate with water underneath the container for the same effect. On the first day, place it in the shaded area. You may place it in an area with direct sun the next day. You can also put a trellis for climbing plants to provide them with support.
She also does DIY banana peel tea fertilizer. Put banana peels in a container and add water. Cover tightly and after two days, you can take the water where the banana peels were soaked and apply them into the soil. The banana peels can be added to your compost bin. You can also chop them and scatter on top of the soil. This can also be done with other fruit and vegetable peel and leftovers.
Ballaran said, you can also get the water used for cleaning rice. When boiling eggs, do not throw the water as it can also be used for watering the plants. Almost all of the kitchen scraps can be used as fertilizers to the plants, Ballaran added.
To prevent ants and fungus gnats, just sprinkle cinnamon powder onto the topsoil.
Benefits of balcony gardening
For Ballaran, planting edible plants in your balcony is a big help for you to produce fresh vegetables, herbs, or fruits. This will save you from expenses in your grocery shopping, plus you can assure that you eat healthy, pesticide-free food.
This can also be beneficial in purifying the air quality in your home. Aside from that, it can reduce stress and can provide you happiness, especially when harvesting your edible crops. The only challenge in balcony gardening is wind. Since pests are very minimal, they can be reduced using homemade insecticide.
Location, plants, placement, planning, and research are major factors to focus on as you start balcony gardening. Gardening is a commitment where you should exert time and effort so exploring and learning about it is important before you decide on starting one. If you have access to the internet, finding ideas, videos, and lessons online will certainly help.
Photos from Dida Ballaran.
For more information, visit the 19th Floor Balcony Garden.
This article appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s May to June 2020 issue.