Biointensive Balcony Gardening – How To Grow Biointensive Gardens On Balconies
By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
At one point in time, urban dwellers with little more than a tiny concrete patio would chuckle if you asked them where their garden was. However, today it is being quickly re-discovered that many plants grow exceptionally well in small spaces using ancient biointensive-farming techniques. So what is biointensive gardening? Keep reading to find out more about this easy form of balcony garden growing.
What is Biointensive Gardening?
At the heart of the biointensive garden approach is the desire to use resources efficiently by doing more with less. Biointensive farming uses 99% less energy (both human and mechanical), 66 to 88% less water and 50 to 100% less fertilizer than traditional commercial growing techniques.
In addition, biointensive gardening builds a healthy soil structure and yields two to six times more food than traditional growing methods. The biointensive approach uses double-dug beds that have loosened soil to 24 inches. These beds help to aerate the soil, improve water retention and encourage healthy root growth.
Compost maintains soil health while spacing seeds close together protects the organisms in the soil, reduces water loss and results in larger yields. Companion planting is used to encourage helpful insects and the best use of light, water and nutrients.
Biointensive Balcony Gardening
Even for those dwelling in apartments, it is possible to grow biointensive gardens on balconies. Plant tasty vegetables in pots and use a light soil or soil-free mix along with plenty of compost for best results.
Deep pots are best, as they provide plenty of room for the roots to spread out. Tomatoes and cucumbers benefit from a pot that is at least 3-gallons, but herbs and smaller plants do well in 1-gallon pots.
It is essential to keep the soil in your pots very moist, they dry out quicker. Larger pots need water less frequently than smaller pots. It is essential that containers have adequate drainage. It sometimes helps to put a layer of gravel or window screen in the bottom of the pot on top of the drainage hole to keep the holes from getting plugged.
With proper plant selection and some care, it is possible to have healthy and large yields with balcony garden growing.
Biointensive Gardening Tips
Before beginning any biointensive gardening, do your research on the best plants to grow for your region. It is best to use open pollinated seeds and be sure to purchase only quality seeds from a reputable dealer. Also, consider saving your seeds for next year’s garden.
When growing vegetables in containers, provide a weekly organic fertilizer to help maximize yield. All pots and containers used in balcony garden growing projects should be cleaned thoroughly before use to avoid the spread of disease.
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Botanical Name: Lavandula
This perennial herb can keep spiders at bay with its distinct aroma. You can grow lavender in pots indoors and place it near an open window to ensure its fragrance flows all around.
2. Lemon Balm
Botanical Name: Melissa officinalis
Lemon balm is a citrus-perfumed herb that can prevent spiders and mosquitos. The strong aroma released from the leaves makes spiders uncomfortable and they stay away.
Here’s a list of flowers that smell like lemon and orange
3. Lemon Verbena
Botanical Name: Aloysia citrodora
Thanks to its strong fragrance, the plant is quite potent in keeping spiders at bay. It also drives off most pests and bugs. Plus, you can also make tea using its leaves!
Fun Fact: You can also apply a lotion with Lemon Verbena oil to keep mosquitoes at bay!
Botanical Name: Mentha
You can easily grow mint in containers indoors and use the plant to repel spiders. Spearmint and pennyroyal are especially helpful.
Botanical Name: Cymbopogon
The lemon-scented leaves are best known to deter a range of flying bugs and clear away spiders. Citronella oil found in lemongrass leaves is the key ingredient in many spider repellants.
Check out our article on Growing Lemongrass here
Botanical Name: Mentha x Piperita
The strong scent of peppermint is an excellent insect repellant and can be effectively used to prevent spiders from entering homes.
Pro Tip: Add peppermint oil diluted with water in a spray bottle and spray it on the spider-infested area.
Here are some amazing peppermint oil uses in the garden
Botanical Name: Ocimum basilicum
Keeping Basil in your garden and patio can effectively deter insects like spiders. Growing it will also help you to have a fresh supply for your kitchen!
Check out our article on the best types of Basil you can grow here
Botanical Name: Salvia rosmarinus
Spiders don’t like the fragrance of rosemary and stay away, which makes it a fantastic repellant. Place the pots in the areas that have spider problems.
Here’s all the information you need to grow Rosemary in pots
Botanical Name: Chrysanthemums x morifolium
Also known as mums, its flowers contain an insect-repelling compound called Pyrethrum, which is also found in many natural pesticides.
Check out our article on growing Chrysanthemums here
Botanical Name: Tagetes
The scent of marigolds not only prevents spiders but also keeps mosquitoes, lice, and other pests away. They also have lovely flowers that’ll add an appeal to your home and garden!
Here’s everything you need to know about growing Marigolds
Botanical Name: Anethum graveolens
The feathery and fern-like green fronds of this herb have many culinary uses. The strong and sweet fragrance of the plant is quite potent to keep spiders away.
Check out our article on growing Dill here
Botanical Name: Allium cepa
You can get rid of spiders by growing onions in pots or gardens. Growing onions will effectively keep red spiders and spider mites away.
Botanical Name: Nepeta Cataria
Catnip belongs to the mint family and spiders hate the strong aroma of this herb and stay away from the place where it is grown.
Here’s all you need to know about growing Catnips
14. Lemon Thyme
Botanical Name: Thymus citriodorus
You can repel spiders with the unique lemon scent of lemon thyme. It keeps bugs like spiders away and attracts bees that help to pollinate surrounding plants.
Check out our article on growing thyme in containers here
Botanical Name: Allium schoenoprasum
Chives are easy to grow and can be a great addition to your indoor herb garden. They have natural insect-repelling properties that keep spiders away from your home.
16. Osage Orange
Botanical Name: Maclura pomifera
Also known as a hedge apple tree, the skin of the fruit emits an oily compound, which has a citrusy smell that spiders hate and stay away.
Botanical Name: Eucalyptus
The strong fragrance of eucalyptus leaves helps in repelling spiders and other bugs. You can keep the plant in the desired shape and size by pruning regularly.
Botanical Name: Pelargonium
Geraniums are praised for a pleasant aroma, easy-growing nature, and range of colors. The strong scent of the plant is disliked by spiders and they stay away from it.
Here’s everything you need to know about growing Geraniums
Botanical Name: Petunia
Petunias are quite potent when it comes to repelling spiders. They’re also a great choice to keep leafhoppers and worms at bay too!
Check out our article on the best petunia varieties here
Challenges to Consider When Growing a Survival Garden
A survival garden is different than a hobby garden. It is not about growing your favorite vegetables for fun. It is about producing everything that you need to keep your family healthy and well-fed in a time of scarcity.
A survival garden is deadly serious business that involves challenges and obstacles that must be addressed.
- Failure is not an option. When your survival depends on your success in the garden, you can’t risk it on untried theories or inexperience.
- Limited Time – Just because life is collapsing around you doesn’t mean that you will suddenly have all of the time that you need to spend babysitting your plants. You need a method that provides the maximum return with the least amount of input.
- Limited Water – It is possible that you may not have irrigation or city water to keep your plants hydrated. Plan low water growing methods.
- Limited Resources – There may not be gasoline available to power a rototiller or you may not have fertilizers or pesticides. You may not be able to purchase valuable tools. Plan in advance to have what you need or develop techniques to produce food naturally.
- Growing Season – You need to eat every day of the year, yet depending where you live, you may only be able to realistically produce a crop for a few months. You will need to learn how to extend the growing season and preserve the harvest.
- Protection – Your garden bounty may be at risk from others who are also having difficulties or critters who want to devour your work. Be prepared to share, but also be prepared to protect or disguise your goods.
Let’s talk about each of these challenges and what you can do to ensure that these issues do not keep you from producing an abundance of produce to feed your family and share with others.
Failure Is Not an Option
Any experienced gardener will tell you stories about crop failures and what they learned. You cannot afford to fail. This is not the time to learn or to pull out those gardening books and “give it a go”. You need to have built up your soil, given fruit trees and bushes time to mature and have perfected your gardening and food production skills.
Plant only the crops that have been proven to grow well in your yard. Now is not the time to experiment. Stick with tried-and-true vegetables.
Growing food is only the first half of the challenge. When do you pick it? What can you do with it? How do you cook it? How do you preserve it to feed you through the winter months? We wrote a fun post on creative ideas for inexpensive a root cellars that may be helpful to you.
A survival garden needs to provide the maximum output for the least amount of input. When life gets tough it usually translates into having less discretionary time. Good design will help your food system produce well with minimal human input.
We have written a fascinating post on how we raise our chickens in a food forest which provides us with an abundance of eggs and a low-maintenance orchard. It is all about the design. Check out How to Create a Survival Food Forest in Your Backyard.
It is possible that you may not have running water for your survival garden. Carefully plan to raise your crops with a limited water supply. Investigate possible options such as clay ollas (Growoya Vessels), terracotta plant watering stakes, self-watering raised beds, or reusing household gray water.
Capture rainwater in barrels to water your tender plants, or better yet, create a series of swales that will water your trees, bushes and perhaps your garden beds with runoff and keep the precious water on your property.
Build the soil around fruit trees and bushes by deep mulching. Add a new layer of wood chips every year or two. The organic matter will help to regulate moisture and will significantly reduce the amount of water that you need to keep your plants happy.
Our large production garden is where we grow larger quantities of produce such as corn, winter squash, melons, beets, carrots, canning tomatoes, and chicken fodder. A few years ago we converted to a no-till method which is fantastic. The deep mulch pathway swales significantly reduce the amount of water the garden needs.
Establish your survival garden and the infrastructure now while you have the resources to do so. My “kitchen garden” is a series of raised beds that I do not have to till and that are designed to take advantage of verticle space to significantly increase production. Each fall, I add a fresh layer of compost. The soil gets better and better every year.
These raised beds produce a huge amount of food in a small amount of space and are perfect for a survival garden. I also have a traditional garden where I raise large crops like canning tomatoes, corn, winter squash, potatoes and other produce that takes up a lot of room. Any vegetables or herbs that I routinely use for dinner are in my “kitchen garden” that is right out my back door.
Stock additional gardening supplies such as shovels, rakes, pruners, hand trowels, gloves, seeds, and compost so that you have everything that you need when you need it.
The eating season lasts all year long, unfortunately, the growing season most often does not. How can you produce food to harvest throughout the growing season and beyond?
I plant crops intentionally with the goal of being able to harvest throughout the entire growing season. For instance asparagus, parsley, and last fall’s kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are ready to eat within a few weeks of the snow melting.
Honeyberries ripen in the late spring just before the strawberries begin to produce, then the black raspberries are ready to pick. We have planted varieties of fruit trees that will produce throughout the growing season so we have fresh produce every day.
I needed a windbreak and privacy hedge on the edge of our property. I decided to plant 10 semi-dwarf apple trees close together to create a beautiful edible hedge that serves the purpose quite nicely. The first apple ripens in early August and they ripen consecutively throughout the growing season with the last tree ripening in November after snow falls. It is a Black Arkansas and is a great storage apple. We have delicious, fresh apples throughout much of our growing season, and beyond.
How can you be creative and extend your growing season using a greenhouse, high or low row tunnels, or cold frames? I start my seedlings early by using a technique called winter sown. Learn more about winter sowing at our post, Winter Sowing Experiment.
This year I experimented with starting our tomatoes by seed and covering them with 5-gallon water- cooler bottles with the bottoms cut out. It was a great experiment. The peppers did not germinate (still investigating why), but the tomatoes did fairly well. It was a great way to add several weeks to our growing season.
A survival garden is an asset of great value. Plan ahead to protect it.
Protection from Trespassers
When you create a backyard food forest it comes with a natural form of protection. The fruits, nuts, and vegetables ripen at different times. If someone comes into my yard today, they will only be attracted to what is ripe and ready to eat. Next week I will have new produce to harvest.
We have fenced our property and have strategically planted thorny bushes on the perimeter to deter trespassers. I recognize that this is not at all foolproof, but it clearly signals they are not welcome.
We always produce more food than we can eat. Part of our plan includes sharing with those in need. Jon is generous, but also believes that people should work for what they get, whenever possible. He will loan them a pair of gloves and let them work to earn their food. I am more apt to just invite them to join us for dinner.
Protection from Critters
A skunk is a dangerous critter to have around chickens. Squirrels, gophers, and moles are not only a nuisance but can destroy crops and plants. Plan for ways to control the population and rid them from your property.
Protection from Insects
We discovered how dangerous insects can be when our garden was destroyed by a crazy invasion of grasshoppers. No one in our little town could successfully grow a garden that year.
Plan to control insects with whatever methods you are comfortable. I chose an organic approach because it is sustainable. I plant flowers and herbs that attract predatory insects. We have had guinea hens that do a great job of controlling the insects. However, guineas are noisy and not neighbor friendly.
Companion gardening is a great way to protect your plants from destructive insects as well as to improve the yield. I like this post on companion planting from The Green Thumb Gardener.
Chickens do a fantastic job of controlling insects in our fenced orchard. They are highly destructive in a garden. We also planted a variety of perennial insectary plants such as catmint, mint, and yarrow to control aphids, and use garlic around the base of our peach trees to deter peach bores.
Companion planting can definitely benefit a survival garden. Learn more about which plants help each other out and design your garden with that in mind.
Protection from Elements (Sun, Wind, Rain, Frost)
Mother Nature can destroy a garden within minutes. Pay close attention to the threats that the elements pose to your garden.
Sun Protection – Gardens in the Phoenix area can quickly wither under the intense summer sun and unrelenting heat. You may need to purchase shade covers to protect the plants or design your garden to take advantage of trees or a naturally shady area of the yard.
Wind Breaks – Strategically design windbreaks to protect your garden from strong winds. My raised bed garden is on the south side of our home. I planted a hedge of gogi berries on the south side to protect it from the wind. The hedge only grows 6 or 7 feet tall so it does not shade the garden.
Water Management – Flooding can be devastating to a growing garden. Carefully plan for adequate drainage to protect the garden. Designing swales to channel and hold excess water is a brilliant strategy.
Frost Protection – In our area, the big threat is early or late frosts which can result in the loss of tender plants or kill developing fruit. I prepare for this challenge by purchasing fruit trees that bloom a little later in the spring. I use frost covers to protect my vegetables from late spring or early fall frosts.
How to Grow a Balcony Garden
Spanish-Style Balcony Gardens Overflow with Beauty
It doesn't have to be big to be beautiful as seen from the exterior of these balconies, which use potted plants and window boxes to their full effect. The greenery, colorful flower combinations and the bright-striped awnings all create a bold statement against the white walls of these balcony homes.
No matter where you live, you can find space for an outdoor garden. If you're a city dweller, you can transform your balcony into more than just barbecue or bike storage. You can create a soothing outdoor retreat by selecting containers and plants that use every available bit of growing space.
Carol Senderowitz, who specializes in growing gardens in small spaces, suggests these design principles and growing tips:
- For balconies that are long and narrow, smooth out corners with groupings of multileveled trees, shrubs and plants.
- Repeat a plant, or plant grouping, throughout the garden area.
- Feature trees and shrubs, and use colorful flowers mainly for accents.
- Create focal points by using bright colors or interesting shapes and textures.
- Consider the view from inside your home when placing plants outside.
- Choose trees and shrubs that have four-season interest: ones that flower in spring, are green in summer, change leaf color in fall and display interesting bark in winter.
- Consider the conditions of your patio when choosing plants: wind, weight of containers, water access and drainage.
- In cold weather climates, line wooden containers with 3/4-inch builder's foam to protect plant roots.
When planning for your own space, start with a diagram that is to scale. Include the architectural features of your balcony: windows, doors, railings and walls. Use this initial diagram to get a sense of how much room you have for plants, containers and any furniture. Be sure to leave plenty of room for people to move around and enjoy the space, too.
Although annuals are a common choice for balcony gardens, you can also plant perennials and bring them indoors for the winter to avoid any damage from cold weather. You can also try to over-winter plants on the balcony by wrapping the container in packing material. However, you may have to replace less hardy plants or plants that have been exposed to extreme conditions from year to year.
If 2020 taught us anything, it was that getting outside into gardens or walking in parks and spending time immersed in nature was good for us. Seeds became almost impossible to buy as online suppliers of fruit, herbs and vegetables opened and shut their websites to cater for demand. Garden centres were busy providing online and postal services, cars gathered outside garden and forestry walks as their owners took the time to get some exercise. Gardening photos were shared across all social media channels beguiling us with their vibrancy and enthusiasts prowess.
That was all well and good for those of us who’ve been trying to encourage everyone to grow their own food or get outside for years, or who have some space to potter around. What about the folk who were stuck in apartments with tiny balconies, unable to get out and share in all the fun? It must have been very difficult to sit back and watch our enthusiasm as spring turned into summer, watching our gardens blossom from bare soil to an oasis of colour and calm.
The good news is that a balcony does not have to limit your growing experiences. With food supply chains expected to falter due to new import regulations this year might be the one to have a go at growing food, even if it’s just a few tubs of salad leaves.
In no particular order, for the next few minutes I’ll be sharing some considerations you might like to take into account if you’re wondering how to grow your own food on a balcony garden this year.
Photo Credit: Samantha Murray
Wind direction is a factor in any garden, but especially important on balconies. The wind can damage, break or blow over plants and planters and provide a ‘wind chill’ element that can freeze them half to death. Moisture can be whipped from plants leaves and compost may dry out quicker than you can sneeze.
If you have glass surrounding your balcony, it will benefit by stopping the wind in its tracks, while providing some additional warmth, acting like the side of a greenhouse. If not, you might like to consider adding a clear screen, securing your planters, choosing plants wisely, and adding a mulch on top of the compost to prevent drying.
Safety is always a priority in the garden and balconies are no exception. Ensure your balcony is capable of taking the weight of plants and planters. Think how heavy a bag of compost is then multiply it by the amount of containers you’re planning for your balcony. The weight of water will add even more of a load, especially if the containers become waterlogged.
Pallet Garden in Goresbridge
- Choose light weight containers.
- Mix potting compost with perlite as per the instructions on the bag. Perlite is a type of volcanic rock that should be available in all garden centres.
- If using large containers, don’t fill them up completely with soil. Crush some aluminium cans or food grade plastic and place in the bottom third of the container, before covering with a piece of weed proof membrane and topping up with compost. The fabric will allow water to filter through, while protecting the growing medium from the recycled materials.
- Some multi purpose composts, which are ideal for for container growing, weigh more than others. Shop around and look for peat free or sustainably sourced peat where possible. Enrich Soil Solutions have a great range of products if you’re struggling to find something suitable.
- Use the walls. Put up some vertical planters to take some weight off the balcony floor.
Infograph for vegetables that grow in shade
Choosing the sunniest spot to grow your fruit and vegetables is a mantra you’ll often hear but if you’re in a flat or apartment, you might not have a choice. If you are north facing with limited sunlight, there are still some vegetables you can grow. A more detailed article can be found here. South facing and you’ll have to consider shading to protect plants from being over exposed.
Balconies provide an opportunity to have a bit of fun with containers, either using upcycled household items or colourful pots from garden centres. You can find a more detailed post about container gardening here. A few tips worth considering include:
- Use the largest container possible or you will have to water more often.
- Unglazed Terracotta can get frost damaged.
- Plastic pots can dry out as they heat up so consider irrigation.
- If using upcycled materials, consider the following:
“Plastic that is safe to grow food in/with should have recycling numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom. Plastic with a 3 has PVC in it. In time chemicals leach out contaminating soil, which in turn contaminates the food. Styrofoam is made of plastic number 6 and has cancerous effects, Number 7 contains bisphenol A which is harmful to the behavioral growth of children.”
- You can grow pretty much any plant in a container if the container is large enough and you have ensured there is suitable drainage. As mentioned, the main considerations are the direction your balcony faces and how exposed it is. Tender plants such as basil may not survive windy conditions and thyme really dislikes it too.
- Variegated herbs can be slower growing, so good for containers.
- Perennials should ideally be replanted in fresh compost each year which is a good time to check the roots for pests
- If buying plants, choose dwarf varieties, varieties that are expensive or unusual to buy, herbs, or fruit that can be trained vertically to save space.
By its very nature, container gardening requires more watering than planting into soil or raised beds and windy conditions can add to the drying effects.
To save you popping out there twice a day with a watering can during the growing season, consider investing in a drip feed irrigation system, or stand plants on capillary matting. Look out for containers that have built in water reservoirs or stand pots in trays to catch excess water.
During the first COVID lockdown in 2020, Samantha Murray shared some videos and photo updates onto the Community Gardens Ireland Facebook Page from her Dublin balcony and has kindly given me permission to use them here. She was an inspiration to many. Take a look at one of Sam’s videos below that she published in April. You can find more on the Facebook page, including tips on some of the more unusual containers she used to start off seeds such as avocado shells.
For more garden hacks on using recycled kitchen waste to save you some money and the recycling centres from the additional waste, take a look at the Greenside Up YouTube channel here.
If you’ve figured out the best or unusual ways to grow your own food on a balcony garden and have any further tips or observations, please leave them in the comments. With more people growing their own food than ever, we’d love to hear your tips and help the communities of people growing food everywhere, no matter what their size or experience.
It’s Time to Grow!
Whether you’re an experienced urban farmer or trying to make do with a tiny balcony in a high-rise, growing your own food is never off-limits.
It’s an incredibly therapeutic activity that also comes with some mighty benefits for your health and the planet.
While it may feel overwhelming to start your balcony garden, breaking it down into easy-to-follow steps will have you producing delicious results in no time:
- When getting started, consider your growing conditions, gather the right supplies, grow vertically, upcycle if you can, and make a plan before you start
- Pick your plants by selecting healthy seedlings, choosing partial or full sun options based on your conditions, and maximizing space through companion planting
- Keep an environmentally friendly garden by composting, using less water, choosing natural insecticides, selecting organic fertilizers, and reducing waste through maintenance
The effort and planning will all be worth it when you prepare a dinner full of veggies that came from your hard work.
Time to get your hands in the dirt! What will you grow in your balcony garden?
Guest Author’s Bio
Rachael Smith is a freelance writer for hire specializing in health, wellness, and natural lifestyles. She offers blogging, copywriting, and web content services for B2C and B2B businesses, providing meaningful copy that keeps customers coming back for more. You can follow her love of writing, health, nature, and cats on Twitter.
It is easier than you think to plan a small balcony garden. With a just little know-how, you will be well on your way to creating a space that meets your every desire.
'You need to begin by thinking about what you want to use the space for,' explains Isabelle. 'Quite often, balconies are incredibly tiny, so they're usually a place where you would sit and relax. However, you can also use a garden balcony strategically to screen off sections of a view that you don't particularly want to see, which is often the case in cities. You can also use a balcony purposely – to grow herbs or something to eat. Think about zoning your balcony and how to use the space for one specific purpose.’
'In the end, balcony gardening is just about having a bit of fun. Include plants you like and don't take it too seriously. Everybody fails, even the best gardeners, so that's why you need to take things slowly and build up your confidence with time.’