Small space gardening, cooking, and crafts

Balcony Gardening Part 1: Seedlings in a Small Space

Spring is here and I'm ready to garden! Unfortunately, the weather isn't much for supporting my enthusiasm. With some nights still dropping into the 30's, there just isn't a lot of hope for giving my crop a jump start.

Or is there...

Allow me to introduce the mini greenhouse. There are a number of brands and methods for starting your seeds early, but I'm fond of Jiffy. The tray & pellets are economical, reusable and do not make a mess, so this works great for apartment dwellers. Best of all, you will be able to plant the entire pellet into your containers once the threat of frost is over. It's small space gardening made easy!

So how do we get started? 

Make a plan of how many plants you intend to grow this season, and then use 1 extra pellet per plant type. If all of your seeds grow, awesome, then you have some seedlings to give away to friends and neighbors. You just don't want to risk your growing season on a couple of bad performers since it literally costs pennies to prepare each one. In my demo, I used the large sized tray and filled every spot, which will create far too many plants for a normal-sized balcony, but I like to give plant starts away -- especially herbs. Herbs also do well doubled up in larger containers, just be sure you're fertilizing enough through the season to support them. 


If you do not intend to use the full capacity of your small or large tray, don't space your pellets out. Bias them to one end and leave all of the empty spaces in an outer row. We'll get into the reason shortly.

Once you have all of your pellets placed, start drowning them. Over the course of 15 minutes, the pellets will triple in size by absorbing water. For a tray this size, it will take about 1/2 gallon of water. If you use too much, just drain them off.

After this point, proper watering is key to success.

In the picture above you see hydrated pellets, but note the pellet in the bottom left. It is a lighter tan color which means that it did not get enough water. If your seedling had already taken root in this pellet, it would be nearly dead. Similarly, the pods in the top center are very dark, meaning that they are too saturated with water. If your seedlings are left too long in this environment, they will mold and die. 

If you are doing a full tray, you are simply going to have to use a little caution when watering. Target the pods that are lighter, and water the darker ones less. If all of your pellets are dark, leave the lid off for a few hours to release excess water vapor. My method is to leave the lid on during the day so that the sun warms the seeds enough to sprout, but then I pull the tray away from the chill of the window sill at night and leave the lid off for circulation. 

If you have an empty row, however, you're in luck. You will be able to water your pods and then -tilt- the entire tray toward the empty rows to collect any extra water. If you have tried pellets in the past and had a mold issue, this is going to solve your problems. You'll also be able to leave the lid on longer and have faster growing seedlings. 

If you intend to grow a variety of plants, I would suggest a plot map. Though some seedlings have recognizable characteristics early on, many others can look quite similar at first, especially if growing different varietals of the same plant type. For instance, I grow three types of hot peppers every year, all of which look similar until they fruit. If one plant needs more sun than the others, I would want to control this right from the start.

Also, if you do have a seed that fails to grow, you can easily replace it thanks to your plot map. Simply make a grid where each box represents a space in your tray. If you did not fill your tray completely, just place an 'X' through any boxes that do not contain a pellet & seed. Now, mark each remaining box with the seed type used. As a bonus, you can save your plot maps year to year to keep track of what you tried and how many plants you grew. Use the back to take notes on how well different plants grew in your space, how much maintenance they required, and whether they provided enough yield to justify the space they took up.


So what kinds of plants would be good for your balcony or patio? The short answer is: the ones you'll most enjoy to eat fresh from your garden. 

-Herbs are always a winner, especially if you enjoy cooking. Some herbs, such as oregano, parsley and thyme even survive the winter if they are somewhat sheltered, producing aromatics year after year without the need to replant.  Basil is a fantastic container herb, but be sure to pick all of the leaves before the first frost (or transfer inside if you have room). I plant at least four containers of basil so that I can make fresh pesto, and to flavor the tomato sauce I can every summer. This year I am also trying out Chamomile, Spearmint and lavender for use in herbal teas. 

-Small peppers. If you enjoy spice, then many of your favorite peppers make great container plants. My personal favorites are Jalapenos, Cherry Bomb, Pepperoncini & Thai chilies. Eat them fresh, can them for pickled slices, dry them for spices, or my favorite -- Hot & sweet pepper jelly. I tested out a new recipe last summer, and we can not get enough of it, so check back for the recipe and video once pepper season is in full swing.

-Cucumbers. This comes with the caveat that you do need something for the vines to climb. Balcony railings work perfectly, otherwise if growing on a patio, be prepared to give your plants a guide line or trellis to cling to. I grow pickling cucumbers, and the yield is always impressive considering the little floor space the plant takes up. (I will also be showing you how to can crispy sweet pickle slices this summer that do not require chemicals or alum).  

-Peas. A great early season crop that tends to have a good yield. Same as with the cucumbers, you will have to provide support for the vines to climb. Peas are great since they produce while it is still chilly out, and right up until the first heat wave. After that, they die off, allowing you to plant something new in their spot that enjoys the summer heat (such as more cucumbers!). 

-Tomatoes. Let's begin here by saying that tomatoes do take up a lot of space, water and fertilizer. Of all the plants that I grow, tomatoes are the most needy. You can chose small container varieties of cherry tomatoes that will be a joy to have on your balcony, but I'm crazy. I love fresh San Marzano tomatoes, which are impossible to find where I live. Canned San Marzanos are my go-to tomato for chunky sauces year round, but a batch of marinara made with fresh tomatoes is simply incredible. I manage to grow seven plants on the sides of my balcony, which by August, looks like an absolute jungle. The yield per space isn't even particularly great compared to other produce options, but they are my indulgence. I look forward to a few pots of fresh sauce every year, and will always grow them.

-Strawberries. Fruit is typically a tough option for a small space. Trees & bushes simply don't fit in most areas, or they have more environmental requirements than can be accommodated. Ever-bearing strawberries are the exception. These plants are compact, hardy, have low watering requirements and unlike other varieties of strawberries, produce fruit all summer long. My favorite variety is Azore, though I am trying Seascape this season as well. Strawberries are the one crop that you will not be using your mini greenhouse to grow, but I wanted to mention it now so that you can plan them into your garden. My suggestion is to avoid purchasing hanging pots and root stock from bigbox stores, since my experience has been lackluster. Instead, find nurseries online with a solid reputation for plants that produce great fruit -- it's well worth the extra postage.

So now that we know what we're growing, let's take a moment to discuss how to keep our seedlings happy in their greenhouse long term. 

We addressed watering and how to use the lid to generate heat during the day, along with how its daily removal will help prevent rot. But what do we do when the seedlings become too big yet its still too cold to plant them outside? You have two options: 

-Just leave them in place and make sure they are receiving enough water every day. While you can't expect your seedlings to grow larger with such limited resources, they will be fine for many weeks. Once the plants hit the lid, just keep it off entirely while protecting them from drafts.

-Transfer them to temporary containers with potting soil. Jiffy makes peat pots that will allow your plants to grow deeper roots while still indoors and can be planted directly into your outdoor containers. Transferring your plants to peat pots will take up a lot more room, so save these for your largest plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberry root stocks (which will arrive with long, established roots). 

For my needs, I use a combination of both methods. Large plants get the peat pots while my herbs and slower growing pepper plants stay in the tray until the weather begins to warm. Just be aware that some people with seasonal allergies may not respond well to having potting soil indoors. Before potting your indoor seedlings, open the bag and make sure its presence will not cause issues. If it does, just leave your seedlings in the tray until the treat of frost has passed. 

After 4 weeks of care and attention, your seedlings should be going strong. Above are several rows of basil, only a few of which I'll be sharing. We love fresh pesto pasta, so I know by now to grow a bunch!

From left to right: Basil, Lavender (the first tiny sprout just popped up!), Chamomile & Spearmint. All of these can shelter in the tray for an extended amount of time if properly watered. 

And here is my future harvest. I have already removed some cucumbers and tomatoes into peat pots because they got too big. Next to be removed are the peas on the right side. Since we are beyond the frost point, I will be planting them directly into pots on the balcony, along with my new strawberry root stock. Everything else will enjoy the warmth of my windowsill for a few weeks more before finding their spots outdoors.

Next in our series I'll show you how to create the watering system I use to grow 30+ plants on my standard sized balcony without going crazy.

What plants have you tried growing on your balcony, patio or open space? Tell us about your favorites in the comments below! 


Categories: Garden, Highlights

Tags: small space gardening, gardening, balcony gardening, mini greenhouse, Jiffy, organic gardening, herb garden, indoor gardening, planting seeds, beginner gardening, urban gardening, grow from seeds, how to grow plants

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This article's still images and text by Sandra Rosner are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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