How to plant edible plants for small spaces – Baltimore Sun
Q: Now that the frost is almost gone, I can’t wait to start growing some of my own food. All I have is a balcony, so what are my options?
A: You can be quite creative with container types and planter arrangements to try and make the most of horizontal and vertical space (while keeping load limits in mind for structural safety). The most limiting factor in choosing plants will be the amount of direct sunlight the space receives during the summer. Full sun, the ideal exposure for most edible plants to maintain good health and productivity, is at least 6 hours per day (continuous or cumulative). Some plants will tolerate less, but may produce a reduced yield or grow softer and less compact.
The second limiting factor will be container volume, with larger pots being more insulating, less prone to rapid drying and more conducive to root growth. Make sure containers drain well – don’t block drainage holes or fill the base of the pot with rocks or shards of pot – and if you need a saucer to protect a downstairs neighbor floor of the drops, make sure it is emptied after each watering or rain. Otherwise, this accumulated water can seep into the ground and drown the roots (or breed mosquitoes). If drips aren’t a problem, just skip the saucer.
Herbs are relatively easy, especially if the soil tends to dry out quickly. Not all survive the winter, but many can. For veggies, leafy greens can also work well, and lettuce doesn’t shy away from the cooling benefits of afternoon shade. Smaller bush-type cucumber varieties won’t spread as much as typical cucumbers, although their melon relatives are too bulky unless you have an expansive bridge.
Compact varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, as well as summer squash, lemongrass, and other warm-season crops benefit from a minimum container size of about five gallons per plant. A hardware bucket with holes drilled for drainage can work quite well if you don’t want to spend a lot on the container. Winter squash and full-sized varieties of the above need nearly ten gallons of soil volume per plant. You can explore more container sizing tips on our Vegetable Growing Container Types page.
For fruit, you can try strawberries, but use neutral varieties for fewer runners and a longer harvest season. Compact cultivars of blueberries and bushberries (blackberries, raspberries) have become available in recent years and are ideal for growing in containers. Lowbush blueberries, the “wild blueberries” of recipes, are naturally compact and can also give you enough harvest for some breakfast toppings or a batch or two of muffins. Cross-pollination between different cultivars improves berry production for blueberries, but is not necessary with brambles or strawberries.
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Fruit trees can be difficult to grow in containers, and balcony space is usually too limited. There are a few genetic dwarf varieties that stay smaller than varieties dwarfed by grafting, such as some peaches and apples, but container-limited root spread can further restrict their growth. Also, maintaining them to prevent pests and diseases from injuring the tree or ruining a crop may not be worth the effort when space is limited. You can grow tropical fruits like citrus fruits instead, but they will need to come indoors for the winter.
Q: Some of the vegetable and flower seeds I sowed have not sprouted yet. What could be the reasons?
A: There are a few potential reasons, and the most likely factors will depend on the type of seed. Planting depth is important because while some seeds need darkness to initiate germination, others need light from close to the soil surface. If you purchased seed, the packet or catalog should tell you the ideal planting depth.
The constancy of soil moisture also has an impact, not only so that the seed can absorb moisture through the seed coat, but also because emerging roots (which appear before foliage) are very vulnerable to desiccation. Overdrying from uneven watering will interrupt germination and can kill a seedling, which is why newly sown lawns are watered so often, for example.
Soil temperature influences germination, with heat accelerating the process. Indoors, try using a horticultural heating mat under the pots; outdoors, be sure to sow cold-tolerant crops or wait for the soil to warm up a little more, or use a greenhouse or cold frame for those that need more insulation.
Indoor germination facilities should have good air circulation to discourage fungi from attacking seeds or new growth. Outdoor germination facilities should be protected from seed loss due to predation, such as insects, birds, and squirrels or other soil-dwelling rodents. Once in a while, the seeds don’t grow because they aren’t there anymore.
The Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Request Extension” to submit questions and photos.