Miss Floribunda: Balcony gardening in an apartment

February 15, 2014

Left: Geraldine Hall, and her children Caelan Rice (10) and Jasper Rice (6) shop at the Hyattsville Horticultural Societyʼs 5th Annual Hart Seed Sale on February 8. Caelan is planning a butterfly garden,and Jasper is most excited about the muskmelon seeds. Right: A scene from Granny Greenawayʼs balcony. Courtesy Rosanna Landis Weaver.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I am an apartment dweller, but I looked in on the HHS seed sale February  8 because your January column promised there would be varieties of miniature plants appropriate for balcony gardeners.  I bought several packets of seeds from the patio collections, including red velvet lettuce, Easter Egg radishes, Spacemaster 80 cucumbers, jalapeno peppers, romano bush beans and container choice tomatoes. I chose seeds for little Johnny-jump up violas, dwarf French marigolds and Tom Thumb zinnias. Now I am wondering what to put them in.  There is a bewildering selection of  pots in hardware stores and nurseries. I wonder about sizes: Do you use mini-pots for mini-vegetables? I’m also wondering which are most space- and water-efficient.  I didn’t have time to wait my turn to consult anyone at the information tables. Maybe you can give me some pointers now.

Going to Pot at Post Park

Miss Floribunda

Miss Floribunda

Dear Going to Pot,

 I’ve looked at photographs of Post Park balconies and I see that they are covered and are surrounded by what looks like an iron railing around the floor space. Your more sun-loving plants, especially tomatoes, will have to be situated right against the railing where there is most sun.

I would not use clay pots unless you have time to water twice a day. Square pots and window boxes are most space-efficient.  Redwood ones would be handsome but plastic ones are fine. Don’t forget to place trays or saucers beneath them to make sure no water damage from drainage is done to your balcony or to the one below.

For maximum sunlight, there are secure bracketing systems with drainage trays that enable you to safely hang window boxes from the iron railings surrounding the balcony. Of course, you need to check with your apartment house management to be sure there is no regulation forbidding it.

Here is a plan: You could put your tomato plants in fairly large square containers at the front corners of the balcony, and the cucumbers in window boxes between them on the floor. Though the patio tomato plants don’t get terribly tall and the tomatoes are small, you want to give the root system plenty of room; the cucumber’s root system is pretty shallow. The tendrils of the cucumbers will climb the bars.

The boxes in brackets would look charming filled with the colorful dwarf zinnias, beans and peppers. Of course, marigolds are traditionally grown around tomato plants and they need full sun. The radishes, carrots and lettuce could be grown in window boxes reaching back from the sunnier area. Away from the heat of the sun, the lettuce will be slower to turn bitter and go to seed. The violas would look charming in pots around your doorway. When the heat makes them fade, you can always replace them with begonias and impatiens.

I well remember the enchanting balcony garden of my dear old Granny Greenaway, who lived in an apartment on Newton Street for nearly 15 years and developed a lavish display that some locals dubbed “The Hanging Gardens of Brookland.”  She lined the spacious roofless balcony with square-bottomed polyurethane garbage cans of a subtle shade of Williamsburg blue that was unobtrusive and complemented any color scheme. For drainage, she poked holes with heated aluminum “nails” used to hasten potato baking in those pre-microwave days.

As a result she could grow deep-rooted plants: rose bushes surrounded by larkspur come to mind.  She hung pots of red geraniums surrounded by white petunias from the balcony railing. Shallower boxes in the windowsills were filled with nasturtiums, and morning glories trained not only around the windows but over the door to the balcony.

Vegetables were not neglected, and I recall eating tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, beans and even potatoes grown on her balcony.  Perhaps my favorite memory is her delight when the larkspur self-seeded and its frothy white, pink and blue blooms surrounded the fire hydrant on the street below.

So you see, the possibilities are prolific. To get more ideas and advice, come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, March 15, at 10 a.m. It will take place at the home of Heather Olsen at 4915 42nd Avenue.