Now that spring is here, I've been thinking a lot about all of the apartment dwellers in our neighborhood: balcony gardeners, renters, and the townhome dwellers who have front yards designed and managed by landscape teams as part of the neighborhood, but small, bare back and side yards to work with for their own musings. This was my situation for over ten years before I, miraculously, ended up owning the equivalent of a 5 city lot property (which is so big, it has all of its own issues in planning). If I were to narrow down some tips/questions to ask yourself if you are an aspiring balcony and side yard gardener, this is what I would recommend:
1. Consider light, climate and microclimate first and foremost. Even if you're on a balcony, I would still plan for my location (my fellow Coloradans: just forget about begonias and hydrangeas until you move somewhere else). I would have an entirely different plan depending on what direction your unit/home faces, how high up it is, and pre-existing fences, large trees, and what buildings, roofs, or awnings block or don't block your light and climate factors (like wind). If you're north to northwest facing, you have to go for shade plants. If you face east or south, be prepared for intense drying afternoon heat, unless you can create partial shade with sun shades, awnings, gazebos or natural overhangs.
A few of my favorite container garden plants for balconies and tiny yards:
Edible plants: Tomatoes, peppers, any herbs that you cook with regularly, and leafy greens
Ornamental annuals - Sweet potato vine (shade or sun), Sedum, flowering oregano, Columbines (shade), Nasturtium.
Ornamental perennials - Mugworts, Geum, coreopsis, heucheras, and any and all small ornamental grasses (tropical grasses would fall under annuals in the Colorado climate).
2. Consider your lifestyle. Do you want to—and can you—water veggies and herbs every day? Do you work long hours away from home? Sometimes planter box herbs can scorch in one hot afternoon. Are you taking summer vacations where you will need a plant sitter? Or do you need to set up a scheduled self watering system (still have someone check in and make sure it's working properly while you are away). Also, from bad personal experience, I don't trust very many people with my plants. And as someone who has been a plant carer as well, this is no easy job if you take it seriously, as I do. So thank your plant sitters appropriately. A bottle of wine, or even dinner, is nice!
3. Where is your water? And where does the water go afterward (ahem, not too close to the foundation)? Do you have a spigot and sprinkler system? Are you transporting water from the kitchen sink to the plants by hand? This can be a big cost to change and is the not-as-fun and expensive part of garden planning. It's also a labor of love if you end up hand-watering everything. I’ve rushed through this part so many times, out of low budget, or because I was renting temporarily and not willing to set up a system. I made my gardening experience much more difficult than it needed to be.
4. What are your goals or purpose in gardening and plant parenting? Do you want an inviting balcony that looks pretty for guests? Do you want to grow your own food? Do you just want all the plant babies you can get your hands on to love? Or some combination of goals?
5. What's your budget? Hardscaping, fences, watering systems, maintenance, tree trimming and even planters can cost an endless amount of money. When I decided to really plan my yard, I made drawings, set up a spreadsheet with three phases (each phase taking about a year to complete), and planned the budgets accordingly. I considered my long term goals, thanks to my husband who constantly reminds me to think big picture (I am a chronic plant impulse buyer, but then regret later not keeping my designs and plans cohesive and organized). I decided to do a lot of the hard labor myself during 2020’s Covid lockdown, but would not have the time for that now. I definitely leave hardscaping (including new cement pouring), sprinkler systems, and fences to the professionals.
There are many ways to garden affordably. Planting seeds and getting cuttings from friends (or free Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace supplies) and amending your soil with at home compost can be great hacks. But when budget allows, I like to purchase more established plants, cohesive planters, quality outdoor furniture, and professional services that will last for years.
Finally, some favorite resources: Fiverr.com for affordable custom garden design plans, and so many books—Garden Anywhere: How to Grow Gorgeous Container Gardens, Herb Gardens, Kitchen Gardens, and More -Without Spending a Fortune by Alys Fowler; Dirt Cheap Green Thumb by Rhonda Massingham Hart (carried at the shop!); The Garden Design Workbook (also carried at the shop!); and lastly, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—some good fiction inspired by the much hated weed tree of heaven, or ailanthus.