10 Tips for Starting a Balcony or Terrace Garden

What Can I Grow on a Terrace, Balcony, or Rooftop?

Dec 9, 2018
Balcony Garden

Beautiful terrace and balcony garden

Isa Long/Shutterstock

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How do you start a garden in an apartment or condo? If you have access to a balcony, rooftop, terrace, or patio, you can grow a wide range of veggies, herbs, perennials, flowers, and vines in containers.

10 Questions to Ask About Balcony or Rooftop Gardening

1. If you live in an apartment building or condo, does your building allow it? Be sure to check the rules for your building before you begin.

2. Can your balcony or rooftop take the added weight of pots full of soil? Terra cotta and ceramic pots are heavy, so you might need to use rice pots, plastic or fiberglass containers, or fabric grow bags combined with lightweight soil mixes.

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3. How will you get water to your plants? If you are growing on a rooftop, it is a long way to be lugging jugs of water. You might want to consider drip irrigation or self-watering pots. You can also invest in a watering can that is easy to fill from the bathtub. Will excess water from your plants rain down on neighbors below? Be courteous and put saucers or trays under your plants to collect the overflow.

4. What are the best plants to grow on a balcony or terrace? Choosing the right plants for your site is most important. Don’t waste space on something that is not going to thrive. The amount of sunlight is the most critical question.

  • Does your balcony face south and receive DIRECT sun all day long? Cacti, many flowers and most vegetables—if kept well-watered—will love it there. 
  • If your balcony faces north or is shaded by other buildings for most of the day, look to low-light plants such as coleus, ferns, impatiens, hostas, and begonias.
  • Some greens like chard, spinach, or lettuce can grow with less than a half day of sun. Some herbs manage, too, which is great for culinary uses! 

Many people overestimate the amount of sun they get. Keep in mind that most veggies need a minium of 6 to 8 hours of sun a day!

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5. Is your balcony or terrace windy? Be aware of any extreme conditions. The higher up you are, the more wind you are likely to have, and hot drying winds can quickly parch your plants. Get double-duty from a lattice or wire trellis that can block prevailing winds while providing support for climbing vines, too. It will also add a touch of privacy. Since wind is drying, you really have to stay on top of watering. Look into self-watering pots.

Some of your houseplants might appreciate an outdoor summer vacation. Expose them gradually to their new location to avoid sun and wind burn on the leaves.

6. How hot is your balcony or rooftop? Without the sun reflecting from windows, heat tends to be an issue. Lettuce would simply wilt. If heat is an issue, maybe go exotic with tropical plants! Just one pot of alocasia, banana, or canna can impart a jungle feel to the space. Succulents will thrive! Think of your balcony as a tiny outdoor room. If you have space, add a table and chairs and enjoy sitting among the greenery. If your location is too noisy, a burbling fountain or some wind chimes may help add a bit of soothing sound to the background noise.

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7. How big is your space? If it’s small, we would suggest starting small. Yes, you can eventually think of vertical gardening, but a beginner should start with a few pots. You need to get a sense of how much time you have to garden and not overdo it. Arrange beds and larger containers around the outside edges to define the space and spread out the load. Make use of wall space to hang half-baskets and wall pockets.

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8. Do you want to grow edibles? You probably won’t be able to grow enough food to meet all your needs, but some pole beans, a pot of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and a pepper plant or two will give you a fresh taste of summer. Be sure they are located in your brightest spots. Learn more about container gardening with vegetables.

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9. Do you have time to care for your plants? Maintenance is important in a small garden. When plant are in containers instead of the earth, they need to be watered more often. This is another reason to consider self-watering pots or drip irrigation. Fertilize, deadhead, and pinch back leggy plants to keep them in bounds and encourage bushiness. Be sure vegetables get picked when they ripen to keep the plants productive.

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Photo: Growing flowers urban balcony. Man floating flowers with a hose. Pots of flowers Echinacea, Platycodon, Campanula, Mandevilla. Credit: Isa Long/Shutterstock

10. Do you have the budget? Be careful not to just buy ready-grown plants unless you want to spend a fortune. Try finding pots at yard sales. Buy seeds or ask friends to share seeds. Get discarded seed flats from nurseries. Turn coffee tins into cute containers (poking holes in the bottom). The only thing you need to truly spend good money on is quality potting soil. Regular “dirt” is not sterile and brings disease and problems. Learn how to make your own potting soil.

Here are a couple more ideas!

Don’t forget a container or hanging basket filled with your favorite herbs. See how to make a container gardening planter!

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Even a window box, if well-planned, can still make a big impression. See our best plants and flowers for window boxes!

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Start small and see how tending those plants fits into your schedule; you can always add more. Limited space and time can be challenging but a bit of planning this winter will go a long way toward making your tiny garden a big success next summer.

Read more about container gardening with flowers.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

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