Article: Asha Jhamandas
Images: Asha Jhamandas
I spent my second winter in Ottawa devoutly watching Rosemary & Thyme, a show about gardening sleuths, and bided my time in between episodes dreaming of sun-kissed English gardens. When summer came, I put my dreams into action and grew my first-ever garden, all-Canadian and on my balcony with many native plants. It ended up being a success, but the experience also made me realize I still have a lot to learn — a few plants does not a gardener make!
In addition to the trials and tribulations associated with being a novice gardener, my balcony space presented additional challenges as it is windy, pigeon-ridden, very small, east-facing (and thus only receives a meager two to three hours of sun) and on the eighth floor of a high-rise building close to downtown Ottawa. So this article recounts my experiences with many things beyond the learning curve, such as how to choose the right plants for a "problem" balcony, watering while you are away for a weekend, solutions to the problems of weight, wind and pigeons, how to determine why some plants thrive and others do not, all the while accomplishing everything at the least possible expense (meaning you got to get creative)!
Before I started my garden, I called my property manager to ask if there were any weight restrictions on my balcony. As it happened there weren't: My building has 70's-era concrete balconies that are pretty much indestructible. Nevertheless, I kept the weight to a minimum by using lightweight pots and filled their lower halves with plastic egg cartons and nursery planters or chunks of Styrofoam that had once padded my new DVD player. On top of that I overlaid some porous gardening cloth and then filled the top half of each pot with a mixture of compost and commercial soil that contained lightweight vermiculite and perlite.
Before this experiment, I was the proud owner of a single black witch's kettle, a large, lightweight plastic pot in which I had grown a few herbs the previous summer. You can fit many plants in these kettles, so I bought two more for my botanical charges. I also went to Home Depot and purchased some fibreglass pots. These are incredibly light and are so well decorated as to resemble bamboo, marble, and pewter, among many other textures. I used old plastic boxes from my workplace to lift some containers off the ground.
In addition to these pots, I found some free plastic olive barrels at an Ottawa restaurant, and took them home for potential use as containers. Anything can be used as a planter, provided you drill a hole in it for drainage — old kitchen pots, vintage metal prams, olive barrels. The possibilities are endless and will give your garden a unique and whimsical appeal that no one else can match.
I was told by a couple of nursery owners that I had really challenging conditions for growing a garden, so I looked for plants that were deemed hardy and "beginner-proof," grew in dry to moist soil and, above all, were shade or partial-shade tolerant. I also wanted plants that flowered at different times so as to have colour in the garden all summer long.
I grew five native plants: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).
I also grew six herb species: lavender (Lavandula vera), highland cream lemon thyme (Thymus 'Highland Cream'), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), Arp rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis 'Arp') and English (Mentha spicata) and chocolate mints (Mentha piperita).
Then I chose some non-native plants as well: Cranesbill (Erodium reichardii 'Stork bill pink'), coral bells (Heuchera 'Gypsy dancer'), coleus and a young columnar yew tree (Taxus spp.). Some were given to me free-of-charge by kind friends.
After planting, my balcony was transformed into an urban oasis of pink (cranesbill), orange (coleus) and green (everything else).
The herb pot
There were many happy surprises this summer, as some plants that I didn't expect to thrive did just that. For example, the rosemary, creeping thyme and lavender, all native to European or Middle Eastern regions with hot, sunny climates, all got bigger, and the lavender even flowered at the end of July. These herbs were in a pot together in the sunniest corner of my balcony, but even at the height of summer they only received about three hours of sunlight.
The mint pot
The English and chocolate mints did even better in a perpetually shady corner of my balcony, spreading so much that they threatened to take over the whole pot. They were barely kept in check by the equally aggressive coleus in the same pot, which also thrived and kept bright, beautiful colours all summer.
The other plants that did exceptionally well were the blue-eyed grass, harebell and wild geranium, all of which grew bigger and flowered; the wild geranium in June and the harebell and blue-eyed grass at the end of July.
The coral bells flowered three times during the summer and the cranesbill never stopped flowering from March onwards. The cranesbill is a novice gardener's dream - this miniature member of the geranium family is wind-hardy with thick, densely matted stems and always shows off an indomitable spray of pink flowers. The yew also did well, although it didn't grow very much.
Unfortunately, some of my plants eventually died, including those that initially did well. My lavender was a mature plant (about four years old) so I thought it would do well. But some experienced gardeners say lavender roots prefer to be crowded in tight spaces and recommend growing this plant in a container only a few inches larger than the root ball. I haven't tested this theory, but it might explain why my lavender died, as it was surrounded by lots of soil in one of my roomy witch's kettles with only creeping thyme and rosemary plants for company.
Another consideration is that lavender prefers relatively dry soil and six to eight hours of sun. The large witch's kettles retain moisture very well and there were only a few hours of sun, so perhaps the roots got soggy and this type of container isn't a good choice for lavender. But I can't explain why the rosemary survived when the lavender didn't, as both are Mediterranean herbs that thrive under similar conditions.
I also lost two native plants - the harebell, after its big show of flowers, and the Solomon's seal. The harebell shared a pot with the cranesbill, and the Solomon's seal with the coleus and mint. I chose these combinations because I knew the cranesbill, coleus and mint would become dense or leafy enough to shield the more delicate native plants from the driving wind on my balcony. Unfortunately this strategy backfired, as they all ended up being such aggressive spreaders that they choked out the native plants by outcompeting them.
My biggest gardening disappointment was the fact that my Virginia creeper didn't take over the north wall of my balcony as I had hoped it would. It hovered in a strange state of equilibrium where new leaves would grow at the top as others on the bottom would die. This species is usually quite robust and can tolerate shade and a range of soil moisture, but it didn't get much taller than the cuttings I rooted and planted. I also had problems with some mould in the soil after waterings, even though I didn't water excessively. Its poor growth may have been because the pot had a single drainage hole atop a built-in water-catching tray, which I noticed didn't drain very well. The pot was porcelain and rectangular-shaped. I didn't make additional holes in it because I thought it might crack.
High winds can quickly dry out soil and plants alike if allowed to blow unchecked on a balcony garden. I knew that my balcony was particularly windy because I am on the eighth floor and my building is the only high-rise within a radius of a few blocks. A friend put up a fine plastic mesh bought at Home Depot, part of a kit for replacing the screens in screen doors. We mounted it against the north wall of my balcony, which is concrete lattice with many holes. This mesh did a really good job of filtering the wind to a minimum. Blocking it out completely would have created a lot of turbulence in other areas. We then mounted a wooden trellis against the mesh up which the Virginia creeper could climb. The south wall of the balcony also has concrete lattice, but a continuing wall of the building creates a barrier against winds from the south and southeast, so a bamboo shade sufficed on this wall instead of mesh.
Containers on balcony gardens should really be watered every day, but I found that I could let two or three days go by depending on the weather. This meant that I could go away for the odd weekend without having to invest in a special watering system. That said, if you don't want to rely on friends or neighbours, you can make a homemade wick by threading wet pantyhose close to the root ball with a pencil and placing the other end in a bucket of water that is higher up than the container. Gravity will keep the wick wet. I did notice that the large kettle pots seemed to retain the water the longest; the smaller pots I had to water almost every day.
Great numbers of pigeons invade the balconies of my building on a daily basis. Fortunately, my neighbours above and below had really messy balconies and let the pigeons essentially take them over. I would have to chase the odd courting pair away from my balcony (usually at five a.m.), but on the whole, they frequented to the places where they knew they were welcome. My neighbour found an effective way to keep the pigeons off his balcony. He strung thin single wires horizontally across the open front of his balcony, spaced about 20 to 25 centimetres apart, and installed bamboo screens that folded up or down like Roman blinds. It is less of an eyesore than the mesh that people staple across their balconies and more durable.
I let all plants flower and go to seed in an effort to attract wildlife, especially pollinators. Before I planted anything, a pair of house finches visited my balcony one afternoon to court each other, which I took as a good omen. Over the course of the summer, I saw countless pigeons, a pair of sparrows, a monarch, bats, bees, ladybugs and many smaller insects that I couldn't identify flying in or near my balcony garden.
I started this experiment terrified that it would expose me as a bad gardener, but now I have confidence that I am in possession of a few green fingers at least. Some plants did die under my care, but for most of them, I think I know why and can test my theories next year. Other plants really floored me by showing robust health in an environment where I didn't think much would grow let along survive to flower.
I also have a better idea of which plants go together in pots and which combinations I should avoid next time. I also learned how container size and design can influence moisture levels, drainage and subsequent plant performance. I can improve the life expectancy of my plants next year by researching what kind of confinement and moisture levels their roots prefer. In short, I threw caution to the wind, gave everything a try, and saw how it all worked.
For more information about container gardening, see our tips for building your own container garden oasis.