Urban Gardener

A lush and bountiful crop can be yours even if your garden consists of a balcony, a patio, or a windowsill. If you have the gardening 'bug' but not the space, take heart in some solutions for growing a healthy mini-garden. Proper light, soil and watering can help you grow fresh additions to your meals. When you need a handful of cilantro, a few snips of Arugula to spice up a salad, or fresh basil for a pesto pizza you can find it in your garden!

There are two main factors to consider when deciding on which plants to grow: light and space. The intensity of sunlight changes with the seasons: in winter, the sun is low in the sky resulting in less direct and less intense light; in summer, the sun reaches its highest point warming the earth and plants with more direct rays. It's important to consider the variations in light throughout the year. You may find that windows, balconies and patios receive varying degrees of light depending on the height and latitude of the sun. If your garden receives full light only in July for example, you will need to choose plants that can tolerate moderate light and a shorter growing season.

Too Little and Too Much

You may have had the experience of bringing home a healthy plant from a nursery only to find that within a month it's dead. If you watered it properly, chances are improper light was the cause of the plant's demise. In low light conditions, you may find the leaves becoming pale, wilting or the plant may simply not grow. Stunted growth is a sign that the plant is not getting adequate sunlight to produce food energy.

It is also possible to give a plant too much light, resulting in burned foliage. If this happens, move the plant farther from the window or put a sheer curtain on the window.

Windowsill plants tend to lean toward the source of light (photo kinesis). To keep houseplants shapely, give their pots a quarter turn every time you water.

Low to Moderate Light

You can grow several types of edible plants in east- or west-facing locales including:

  • Kale (e.g. Russian Red will add colour and flavour to meals)
  • Carrots (particularly miniature varieties such as Early Chantenay )
  • Swiss Chard
  • Arugula
  • Turnips
  • French Sorrel
  • Parsley
  • Peas *
  • Beans *

Strong Light

  • Tomatoes * *
  • Onions and Shallots
  • Peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini

Soil

Creating a good soil mixture is the third requirement for growing lush, healthy plants. Soil in pots tends to compress over time into a compact mass that prevents air and water from circulating properly to the roots. In order to create space in the soil for drainage and aeration, add equal amounts of vermiculite and peat moss to a standard soil mix. For indoor plants, be sure to use potting soil rather than outdoor soil in order to prevent bringing pests and their eggs into your home.

Sand is another good addition to standard potting soil. Add a small amount of washed sand to the soil mixture to improve drainage. You can purchase clean sand or use beach sand sterilized by placing it in a pot of boiled water. Allow it to stand until cool. Drain through a fine mesh or cheesecloth.

Potted plants do not receive the same nutrients from the soil as plants grown in normal soil. In nature, decaying vegetation and insects and well as a symbiotic relationship between various organisms and root systems make nitrogen and minerals available to plants. Because potted plants are in a controlled environment, less 'natural fertilizer' is present in the soil. Add a slow-release fertilizer to the mixture to compensate. By mixing tiny slow-release pellets into the soil, you can avoid weekly fertilizing for a month or more depending on the size of the plant.

A good mixture consists of 10 parts inexpensive potting soil, 1 part vermiculite, 1 part peat moss and 1 part sand. Add fertilizer according to the package directions. Be careful to measure it properly as too much can burn the roots even if it is a natural source fertilizer.

Lastly, herbs are another wonderful addition to small space gardens. Herbs can be medicinal, make delicious teas, add spice to meals and fragrance to rooms. The following plants grow well indoors and out and do best in moderate to strong light:

  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Mint (try Chocolate Mint for a unique taste sensation)
  • Thyme
  • Cilantro