Planning for Our First (Tiny) Garden

As you’ve no doubt gathered if you’ve been reading here regularly, Jesse and I are moving to a new apartment in about two weeks. One of the reasons that I am super excited about our move is that for the first time we will have a little bit of outdoor space in the form of our very own balcony. The balcony is on the smaller size, but it should still be big enough to do a little bit of gardening. As this will be my first garden, I thought I’d share how I’m preparing for the experience.

Before I go any further, let me first state that I have just about ZERO background knowledge on gardening. As a result I have been doing quite a bit of reading to try to learn some of what I need to know. Please forgive me if I say something wrong and/or dumb. Please also feel free to leave corrections/suggestions in the comments. :)

What We’re Growing

Since our garden will exclusively reside on our balcony it will, of course, have to be a container garden. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it does somewhat limit our growing choices since not everything does well in a container. There are, apparently, particular plant varieties that are particularly well-suited for containers, so I know to look for terms like “dwarf,” “bush,” “patio,” or “compact” when buying plants.

I’m inclined to fill up nearly all of the balcony with plants, but Jesse is trying to convince me that we should start small this year, both because we don’t really know what we’re doing and because we don’t want to get overwhelmed right away. I think there is a lot of logic in this so I’m attempting to restrain myself to just a few plants. So, we’re tentatively planning on growing:

Tomatoes: I love tomatoes and ripe, homegrown tomatoes really cannot be beat. I still remember going out to in my backyard as a child to pick warm tomatoes that I would then eat whole like apples. My love of tomatoes would have me grow many, many tomato plants, but I think we’ll just be doing one cherry tomato variety and one other variety that is supposed to perform well in Colorado, such as Early Girl or Celebrity.

Basil: Last year we did not get ANY basil from our CSA, which was a tragedy because Jesse and I LOVE fresh basil. To hopefully avoid another basil-less summer, we want to grow a lot of basil in our garden. I’m not really sure what “a lot” will be – five plants? Less? More? I originally jokingly suggested fifteen but I doubt we’d have space for all that. Jesse actually has had some success growing basil in the past so we feel a little more confident about taking on more in this area. And if they do well, I don’t really think you can have too much basil – that’s what pesto is for.

Mint: Between chocolates and mint-flavored ice cream we go through a lot of mint extract. It’s not exactly cheap so I want to try making my own with homegrown mint. I have read that mint is very invasive so it’s actually a perfect candidate for container gardening. There are a lot of varieties of mint but I think that I just want to grow basic peppermint.

Lettuce: We’re mostly interested in experimenting with lettuce. I do buy a lot of lettuce from the store so it seems like a good thing to try growing ourselves. Romaine is my favorite variety so I think we will try that.

Peppers: I’m still on the fence about growing peppers, but they are supposed to be a good plant for Colorado so I’m tempted to try them out. We shall see how much space we have after getting all the other containers. Jesse wants to try a hot pepper while I prefer sweet peppers.

Types of Containers

I’ve learned that there are many types of containers available for container gardening, such as terracotta, glazed clay, stone, concrete, wood, metal, plastic and fiberglass. You can also use repurposed containers like old plastic buckets.

I am not yet sure what type of containers we will use. We have a couple of containers (plastic, I think) left over from a few years ago so I think we will try to put those to use. As far as buying new containers, we need something that is not particularly heavy, since I think we may want to rearrange pots without too much difficulty. On the other hand, though, it can’t be too light because at times it gets excessively windy here in Boulder. I also want something that is not likely to crack in cold weather (a concern with some types of containers) because I do not envision us having the space to store containers inside during the winter. Finally, I don’t want to invest a ton of money in containers since I’m not yet sure what type I’ll prefer and we also may not be able to bring them with us when we move out of Colorado in the next few years. Durable, well-made containers are a good investment but not if you have to give them away after only a few years.

So…I’m not entirely sure what that leaves me with. I’ll have to wait and see what the garden store has and decide based on that. I’m thinking probably either plastic or fiberglass because those will be less expensive. I also have several palm and coconut oil buckets that may work as repurposed containers. They’re not exactly pretty but they might be worth planting in anyways.

As far as size and shape, getting square or rectangular containers would be ideal because of our limited space. I’ve read conflicting information on size requirements, but it seems that larger vegetables may need four to five gallon containers while herbs can do well in containers that are one gallon or smaller.

We will also be trying these gardening “socks,” which were a gift from my mother-in-law several years ago. I’m not sure whether you can tell from the picture but they are long tube-like shapes made of some sort of green tarp-like material. I think we will plant lettuce in them and hang them over the balcony railing on the side closest to the apartment.

When to Plant

The ideal time to plant your garden is dependent on your region. According to the USDA’s plant hardiness map, my zip code is in zone 6A. Most of the information on Front Range gardening is for zone 5, but 5 and 6A are quite similar to I think I should be okay following the guidelines for zone 5.

Although it’s more economical to start plants from seeds indoors, this year at least we will just be purchasing seedlings at a garden store as we don’t currently have any space to grow inside and it will be too late to start seeds after we move.

For the crops that we’re considering, here are the dates to plant seedlings outdoors:

March 20: Mint

April 15: Lettuce

May 27: Peppers, basil and tomatoes

We already missed that March 20 date, obviously, and we’ll also miss the April 15 one since we’re not moving until a week afterwards, but I figure that we’ll just get the mint and lettuce going when we can and hope for the best. If things don’t turn out, well, this is our year for experimenting. :)

These planting dates are based on your hardiness zone. Visit the USDA plant hardiness zone map to find zone data for your location.

Resources I’ve Found Helpful

In planning for our garden and writing this post, I found the following books useful:

The Colorado Gardener’s Companion, by Jodi Torpey

Month-by-Month Gardening in the Rocky Mountains, by John Cretti

Crops in Pots, by Bob Purnell

Successful Container Gardening, by Joseph R. Provey

Those first two books are obviously location-specific, but I think the last two would be useful for anyone doing container gardening. This page from the Colorado State University Extension also has helpful information on container gardening.

This post is shared at Sunday School, Fat Tuesday, Simple Lives Thursday, Freaky Friday and Monday Mania.

Are you gardening this year? Are you still planning or have you planted anything yet? I love hearing from all of you so please leave a comment sharing your thoughts! 

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10 Responses to Planning for Our First (Tiny) Garden

  1. Janis says:

    Hurray for your new garden! You’re smart to include some local Colorado titles in your book pile – specific climate info is crucial to garden timing, which is the key to success. And mint will grow any time, so don’t worry about getting it in late.

    What do you know about mint extract? Since I didn’t contain my mint, I would certainly have enough to process!

  2. Janis says:

    I think I could do that! And if you have any interest in spearmint extract (in addition to peppermint, just let me know.

    I bet a thrift store would be a good place to find containers that you wouldn’t mind leaving behind in a couple years.

  3. Deborah says:

    One of the most important things to check before you start your balcony garden is where will the water runoff from your plants go? If it’s going to run right down to the balcony below you, your neighbours will not be happy.

    Is the roof of your balcony suitable for hanging things? You can get the TopsyTurvy style of hanging upside down plants and save some space on the floor. Also, consider planting vertically. A multi tiered plant shelf will work great for small pots like herbs.

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Deborah. I hadn’t considered where the water runoff will go. I will have to investigate that once we move in. I haven’t gotten a chance to inspect the balcony yet (they’re actually renovating at the moment) but trying to hang some plants is a great idea. Thanks so much for your suggestions!

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  5. Taryn says:

    I hope you have better luck that I did planting pots at my apartment. We were in superior and our plants got decimated by the sun in our southern facing balcony. I could never get them to thrive- but you seem to be doing way more research into it that i did when I first started. your choices sounds awesome. Let us know how it goes!

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks, Taryn! Our balcony is south-facing, too – we looked for that on purpose because we thought it would let us grow more. I’m excited to see how everything goes!

  6. Mom says:

    Meghan, you might want to divide up your balcony into areas of different sun exposure. You will have microclimates! You can figure out the amount of sun time each area gets, which will help you select plants and their placement. Oh, and morning sun is a lot more gentle than afternoon sun, but your probably already found that out in your books. Happy planting!

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks for the advice. :) I I haven’t been able to think about gardening yet with all the unpacking, but hopefully we’ll get to start next weekend. I hadn’t thought about measuring the sun exposure in each area. That’s a good idea.

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