Growing tomatoes and aubergine in balcony containers

Adventures in balcony gardening on the windy fifth floor in Copenhagen

Over the last couple of years, I’ve fallen in love with growing. Or rather, fallen back in love with it after a long absence.

As the eldest of three siblings, my parents had firm ideas for my upbringing that were gradually disregarded as my sister and brother were born.

I didn’t go to a supermarket until I was nine or ten, and I was fed home-grown veg every day. Growing up on a sheep farm, I knew where meat came from and chose to become vegetarian before finishing primary school (a decision that still stands twenty years later.) 

I’ve always known how much better a carrot tastes fresh out the ground, the joys of stealing runner beans straight from the vine, and even the virtues of a few chives as a snack when you pass by. But I’d somehow forgotten that it was in my power to grow things as an adult.

With a few gifted tomato plants, aubergine seedlings, and young lettuces while I was stuck in my hometown in the UK during Covid-19, I rekindled that dormant love. I remembered how much I love to nurture plants.

A year or so later, on nearly twenty metres of balcony space in Copenhagen, I’ve been trying to fit as many plants and vegetables as I can into overflowing containers.

Outdoor space and light were two of the top reasons why Iain and I chose this apartment. We have one balcony facing west and another facing east, which makes for a good balance of shade and sun throughout the day. The windows are big, and on the fifth floor we catch a lot of the sparse, precious light of Danish winter.

Purple flowers of scabiosa and lavender in our balcony boxes
A more chaotic – or permaculture-inspired – area of our balcony space, featuring San Marzano tomatoes and runner beans growing against the railings
The sitting space on our front balcony, surrounded by some herbs, cosmos, salvia, lobelia, buddleia, heather, an acer, and a raspberry bush on the far right

In my little eden I’ve grown strawberries, tomatoes, kale, blueberries, a plethora of herbs, and even lemons in the last year. This year, I’m trying French beans, runner beans, raspberries, and aubergines.

Some things have worked fantastically (Autumn Blush raspberries, San Marzano tomatoes and even aubergines), while others have resisted all love and affection and looked in continual disapproval at their windy location.

After an early harvest of French beans, a new batch of runner beans are now taking off, winding up the balcony railings and unravelling their beautiful red flowers. Right next door are the tomatoes, which also add to the edible privacy screen covering some of the balcony railings.

Most of the vegetables are closer to the ground and slightly more sheltered, while hardier (and mostly aesthetic rather than edible) choices get the bulk of the wind.

One of four aubergine plants, which thrive after warm sunny days and with plenty of watering
San Marzano vines offering an edible balcony screen, accompanied by some runner beans coming into flower

Dotted around in most containers are wildflowers with no particular order – cornflowers, cosmos, calendula, echinacea, poppies, and other flowers from a bee-blend pack. Earlier in the year we had masses of bee balm (Lady Phacelia), which the local bees did in fact flock to, alongside our Philadelphus coronarius (sweet mock orange) which is stunning in June.

Philadelphus coronarius flowering in June. We have this in one of our balcony’s “privacy screen” containers. At this time of year it certainly does its job.
A butterfly visiting our buddleia (butterfly bush)
Optimistically growing lemons outside in Denmark. Our lemon tree comes inside from about October – May, or when the weather dips regularly below 15°C.

Other than my winter kale, which stoically endured frost and wind this last year, leafy greens have mostly eluded me in summer. Either they don’t grow fast enough, or they bolt in the sun.

Some herbs have been easy, especially mint and chives, which never seem to have any problems whatsoever. Basil is great while it lasts, and parsley is generally easy to keep in stock for when recipes demand it.

Coriander? Nope. It would sometimes play nicely with my hydroponic GreenBox from BerlinGreen (which satisfied my veg growing itch over the winter), but it doesn’t seem to be a great fit for life outside in Denmark. Either it would be unhappy, or I’d harvest all of it for a single Mexican, Thai, or Indian side dish.

Grow, little salad leaves. Last winter I used my GreenBox for some salad and herb production (as well as a welcome additional light source when I’m working in our living room).

I’ve tried to allocate my growing space to as many edible plants as possible, but I’ve increasingly listened to Iain’s feedback to choose more flowers, colour, and order. (“Is it meant to look like such a mess?” has been a recurring question.)

Last year I opted for geraniums, my favourite for my previous Swiss house’s windowboxes, to grow on our balcony railings, but after reading about how my friends the bees really aren’t fussed about them, I decided to take a different approach this year.

Last summer’s geraniums in balcony boxes
This year’s scabiosa and lavender, with a container of bee balm beneath it

Scabiosa has become our reigning windowbox champion this year, asking for nothing but an occasional water and giving never-ending purple blooms in return, despite the wind being thrown at our balcony. We’ve just picked up some more scabiosa for our front balcony, where it’s also leaping into action.

The pre-growing season months are a bit less glamorous, with containers taking up all valuable space by our windows inside. But when spring arrives and they can go outside at last? It’s absolutely worth it.

While living in a city, I feel like I need this. Sure, I’ll never grow as much as I could in a real garden, but it’s more about the contact with the soil, nurturing something into life, and watching its slow progress and interaction with the world.

It’s also about learning what I love to grow, understanding what I actually can grow, and playing around with ideas and experiments before potentially having more garden space in the future.

That said, being able to snack on berries throughout the summer, harvest three aubergines at once if I’m lucky for a moussaka, or not need to buy tomatoes for a few months is still a huge prize by my standards.


 

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