Living in an apartment or small home without space for a garden doesn’t mean growing your own food isn’t possible. Most plants, including edibles, can grow happily in a pot on a balcony or in a courtyard. Pots can be placed on hard surfaces or suspended from railings or walls. If there’s a little more space, grow a few vegetables in a raised vegetable bed.
Food and water
To get the best from a productive plant in a pot, make sure the pot is as large as possible and use a good quality premium potting mix. Liquid feed regularly while the plant is growing. Water regularly – this may mean watering daily or twice daily in hot or windy weather – but water should be able to drain via holes in the base of the container.
Exposure to the elements
As your balcony may often be exposed to windy conditions, some vegetables including tomatoes may require staking to avoid their stems breaking in strong winds. Most vegetables need full sun, but a position with at least six hours of direct sunlight is suitable for many veggies. A position with sun from the early morning to early or mid afternoon is an ideal aspect for growing edible plants.
Pests and problems
Although it may seem difficult for pests to find plants growing on a balcony, it does happen. Keep a careful watch for caterpillars, snails (which may hide under the rims of pots), aphids, whitefly and scale. Fruit flies will attack soft fruits including tomatoes and chillies, so use fruit fly baits. Cover pots overnight on balconies that are accessible to possums.
For more general information about plant pests and diseases, check out this article.
Top balcony choices
Here are our top 10 plant choices for your productive balcony.
This leafy evergreen fragrant herb has blue (or white or pink) flowers from winter to early summer. Plants grow well in large terracotta or other well-drained pots. For a containerised plant, select a trailing or prostrate form, which will spill over the side of a container. Shrub varieties can be trimmed to maintain size and shape. It is best in full sun. Water well when it's dry.
Plant strawberries in winter to produce fruit in spring. Grow them in hanging baskets, troughs, pots, vertical gardens or strawberry pots (however these need to be kept well-watered). Strawberries need regular fertiliser, water and sunshine to produce fruit. Renew plants every two years to keep them productive. After fruiting, strawberries produce lots of runners (long leafy stems). While these can be used to grow new plants, it is best to remove runners from potted plants. Be on the lookout for snails or slugs as they can attack fruit. To avoid diseases that affect strawberries growing in the ground (such as brown rot), encourage fruit trusses to hang over the edge of pots. Most varieties fruit in spring, but day-neutral varieties such as ‘Alinta’ produce fruit through into summer and are a good choice for a pot. ‘Pink Panda’ is a pretty variety with pink flowers.
This is a fast-growing, sprawling herb that is productive year-round and will add a strong scent to your balcony garden. It is best grown in full sun, but does tolerate some afternoon shade. Grow it to cascade beautifully from a pot or trough, in a hanging basket or vertical garden. This plant needs very little in the way of extra fertiliser, but should be watered when it is feeling dry. Pick leaves as needed to add flavour to home-made dishes including pastas, roast meats, sauces and breads.
4. Lemon tree
Dwarf lemons are both decorative and productive as they are evergreen with fragrant flowers and yellow fruit. Select a large pot (40cm or larger) with good quality premium potting mix. Elevate pots on pot feet to ensure good drainage. Position in full sun. Apply small amounts of citrus food monthly from August to March or a slow release 6-9 month fertiliser in spring. Dwarf plants are grown on dwarf rootstock (‘Flying Dragon’) so plants grow just 1-2m high. Varieties include ‘Meyer’ and ‘Lots a Lemons’.
5. Lime tree
Dwarf Tahitian limes are decorative and productive. Select a large pot (40cm or larger), again filled with good quality potting mix and place in full sun. Elevate pots on pot feet to ensure good drainage. Once established, apply small amounts of citrus food each month from August to March. Dwarf plants are grown on dwarf rootstock (‘Flying Dragon’). Plants grow 1-2m high.
For more helpful tips and advice on growing dwarf fruit trees, click here.
For a potted tomato, select patio tomatoes, compact plants that thrive in containers. Plant in late winter or spring to grow through the warm months. In warm climates tomatoes can be planted in late summer for an autumn harvest. Once flowering begins, keep plants growing with regular application of liquid fertiliser for fruiting plants and provide daily watering. Tall vine tomatoes are only suitable for large sheltered sunny spaces where they can be gown in a large container (40cm or larger) with a support such as stakes or a trellis at least 1.8m high.
Yes – potatoes can be grown in a container, or even a large bag! Select a large pot (40cm or larger) and plant one or two seed potatoes (small, sterile tubers) in a half-filled pot. Plant in late winter or spring. As the potato shoots, cover the growing stem by placing more potting mix around the stem. This encourages lots of tubers to form. Over 5-6 months potatoes make leafy growth, flower and then dieback. For large potatoes, water thoroughly until the plants dieback when they can be harvested by emptying out the pot or carefully lifting the plant from the soil and shaking the tubers free of dirt.
Want to know more about growing potatoes? Click here for our five steps to potato perfection.
While most vegetables are annuals, chillies can live for several years and can be grown in pots 20cm and larger. Select larger pots for tall varieties. Avoid growing hot chillies where they are accessible to children. Water when dry, liquid feed occasionally and lightly prune in autumn. Overwinter in a warm spot.
Whether your variety of choice is Italian or curly, parsley is a handy herb to have on a balcony and can be grown from seed or seedling. Grow in a deep pot that’s at least 20-25cm in size with a good quality, premium potting mix. Keep your parsley regularly watered and in a sunny spot. Plants that dry out may bolt to flower. Liquid feed every two weeks, and cut leaves as you need them for cooking, making sure to take the outer leaves first.
Mint is often grown in a container to restrict its spread as it grows by runners and can become invasive in garden beds. It likes to be kept moist and tolerates some shade. Water regularly and liquid feed to encourage larger leaves. Small green caterpillars often attack mint. Watch for signs of chewed leaves and squash any caterpillars. In cold climates mint dies back in winter but reshoots in spring.
Check out this article for more advice on growing and using herbs.
Other edibles for containers: Loose-leaf lettuce, sweet potato (train the runners up a plant support), herbs, cucumber (train vine up a plant support), snow peas (train vine up a plant support), garlic, spinach, silverbeet, dwarf (bush) beans, blueberry.
For more advice on growing plants in containers, read this article.