Tending a balcony garden takes just as much time and effort as tending a container garden -- and then some. While you won't be bothered with weeding or have to worry about damage from rabbits, balcony gardens have unique challenges of their own. Here's how to keep your plants looking their best:
Protect from wind
By now, you may have discovered that the wind can wreak havoc on your plants. If your balcony is buffeted by wind, it's best to stick with shorter, more compact plants. Plants with finer foliage are a good bet, too, because they're more likely to withstand wind damage than are large-leafed specimens.
Rearranging your plants can help cut down on wind damage. Place plants with tiny leaves where wind is worst. Move taller plants close to a wall, which can provide some protection from the wind, and stake them.
And remember, windy conditions cause balcony plants to dry rapidly.Water well
On a hot, windy day, plants can dry out surprisingly quickly, especially when they have south or west exposure. Be sure to water thoroughly and often enough to prevent wilting. Repeated cycles of wilting and recovery will stunt plant growth and cause leaves to drop. Tomatoes, undoubtedly the most popular container vegetable, can develop blossom end rot if the soil gets too dry too often.
That said, there's no need to overwater. Keep plants on large trays or saucers and water only until you see the excess water coming through the drain holes. Be sure to drain water from trays or saucers after heavy rains. (Leaving plants sitting in water can cause the roots to rot.)
While it's best not to water plants at night (the wet foliage makes them more vulnerable to disease), balcony plants may need to be watered several times a day. If you do water at night, try to keep the water off the leaves of the plant.Feed regularly
Balcony plants need regular fertilizing to stay healthy all summer long. Every time you water the soil thoroughly, some nutrients are lost. And these plants need to be watered frequently -- sometimes as often as three times a day.
To replace those nutrients, you can add a minimal amount of fertilizer to the water every time you water. (The exact amount will be suggested on the fertilizer label.) You also can mix the fertilizer a bit stronger (again, check the label) and use it once a week. Once every two weeks could be fine if the balcony is shady and the plants are growing more slowly.
Some potting soil comes with slow-release fertilizer pellets. Or you may have added the pellets to the soil before planting. Because they release a minute amount of nutrients every time they get wet, these pellets are a real labor saver. However, they don't last indefinitely. Check the label to see how many months they typically release nutrients, then supplement with additional fertilizer if it becomes necessary.Deadhead often
Grooming of plants takes on additional importance on balconies, simply because you're typically in such close proximity to them. To keep them looking their best, remove yellow leaves, trim back wind-whipped stems and deadhead all but the smallest spent flowers.Light lesson
It's critical to choose plants that are appropriate for the amount of sunlight they'll receive. Except for corner units with wrap-around balconies, apartment and condominium balconies often face only one direction. Depending on which side of the building you live on, your plants might have to withstand hot, beating sun or daylong shade. Finding the plants that will do well in those extreme conditions isn't easy. In fact, it may take you several years of trial and error to get the perfect mix. But once you do, you'll be set for summers to come.
Deb Brown is a garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-7793 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.