How to create a permaculture balcony and grow your own food
It’s absolutely possible to grow some of your own food on a balcony with container gardening. But permaculture?
Perhaps growing vegetables on a balcony isn’t 100% permaculture in the truest definition of the word – with all crops interconnected and working together – but I absolutely think it’s worth the effort to get as close as you can.
One of the main reasons we chose our fifth-floor apartment in Copenhagen was because of the 20 metres of balcony space split between two balconies: one facing east, the other west. Perfect. (Even if this is at the expense of space actually inside the apartment.)
Two summers in, we’ve had time to experiment with balcony gardening and figure out a few things that work for us. We’re talking tomatoes, aubergines, green beans, raspberries, and even lemons.
If you’re blessed with balcony space, here’s how you can turn your balcony into a teeny urban permaculture food forest with clever use of space and containers.
You’ll find that some plants work better for you than others, and alongside local research, often all you can do to work this out is trial and error. For instance, as we’re on the fifth floor, we really have to think about the wind.
But to give you some inspiration and a head start on your own balcony permaculture journey, here’s what’s worked for us in Denmark.
How to make the best use of space in your balcony garden
First up, if you’re growing a garden on your balcony, every centimetre of space is valuable.
Space will be one of your main limitations, so it’s worth thinking carefully about how to optimise your use of it. Here are some tips we’ve found useful for optimising balcony space for container gardening…
Grow upwards using railings
Many balconies have railings, and when creating a balcony garden, these are your friend. Look for plants that happily grow up railings, like green beans, some tomatoes, and even cucumbers.
Trailing plants like these will also help to create a privacy screen on your balcony, which can be combined with non-edible trailing plants like clematis, sweet pea, and jasmine for some extra flowers and colour.
Choose fabric pots for breathability and portability
I’ve found that using breathable fabric pots works best for our aubergines and tomatoes, so if you’re growing plants like that, give them a go.
Not only do fabric pots help with drainage, but they also make it so much easier to move things around. If you want to avoid the wet fabric sitting directly on your balcony floor, you can place the pots on stands (some have wheels that make it easier to move them around).
Use larger planters instead of lots of tiny pots
Larger pots tend to look better on a balcony than loads of tiny pots, and they allow more space for companion gardening, too (planting multiple plants that get on well in the same container).
You’ll also get better yields from your balcony veg in larger containers, so choose the biggest you can considering space and how much weight your balcony can safely hold.
The best food to grow on your permaculture balcony
For an edible balcony screen interspersed with bright red flowers, you can grow runner beans against your balcony railings and let the vines trail around them.
I’ve also grown dwarf french beans which didn’t grow as much vertically, but still needed the support of a cane.
Tomatoes are the star of our balcony garden. They’re one of the few plants that we can actually grow enough of to cover our kitchen needs and even have more to spare.
I like to grow a small San Marzano variety and a larger plum tomato variety. Last summer we had just two tomato plants, but they did incredibly well. This year, I’m thinking four plants…
I love growing aubergines on our balcony. For whatever reason, they just work for us, regardless of the Nordic climate – probably the long hours of sunlight we get up here in summer.
While the nights are still cool, I bring the aubergine pots inside overnight (which is a good reason to have fabric pots that are easy to move).
What to do with the aubergines? This excellent moussaka recipe is a great place to start, which we make with a vegetarian mince alternative.
One indestructible herb even on our windy fifth-floor balcony is rosemary, which has lasted beautifully through the winter with no complaints.
Our mint plant also refuses to die, and is now making a valiant effort to grow back after dwindling in the winter. The same for our chives and parsley.
Other herbs can be a bit hit-and-miss on our balcony, including basil and coriander, but I like to companion plant them under other plants they get on well with. For example, basil under tomatoes and aubergines.
Kale & leafy greens
Our balcony space can be too sunny for leafy greens in the summer, and I’ve had pak choi bolt a few times.
However, kale is something I love to grow in the cooler months. (Rumour has it that it tastes the best after a frost.) I especially love picking it when it’s still at the baby kale size, which is perfect for adding to a bean stew.
Try planting greens you love to eat and see how you get on. A few good options are fast-growing pak choi, kale, lettuces and salad leaves (I love the Japanese Mizuna variety).
I bought just one raspberry plant last year, but absolutely want to make room for another. I chose an Autumn Bliss variety and was surprised to discover that I really didn’t have to wait until autumn for raspberries – they started early and kept coming all summer. After some pruning towards the end of winter, I’ll see how it gets on this year.
We have two small blueberry plants that produce only the tiniest of berries, but they’re still extremely welcome for passing-by snacks and to accompany breakfast.
Our biggest gardening surprise in Copenhagen has been our trusty lemon tree, which finally delivered us with beautifully ripe lemons to last us through the Christmas period. If you have a climate that will make citrus trees happy (or lots of sun in summer, like our balcony), why not try growing citrus on your balcony?
We bring our lemon tree inside from about October to May when temperatures are consistently below 15 degrees celsius.
The best flowers to attract pollinators to your balcony
If you’re growing vegetables on your balcony, bees and other pollinators are your new best friends. But how to get their attention and welcome them with open arms?
Some vegetables will do their own advertising, but you can also use these plants to attract pollinators to your balcony…
Not only does lavender smell fantastic, but bees also love it. Lavender loves warmth and heat, and it can be a bit finicky. Which comes to…
I love, love, love Scabiosa. You can think of it as a less fussy alternative to lavender. It has gorgeous purple flowers (although you can get pretty varieties in pink, white, and other colours) and a super long growing season in most places.
Scabiosa doesn’t care about wind, can handle hot weather, and survives our Nordic winter. What more could you want for a hardy balcony flower that looks great too?
I love planting bee-friendly seeds and tried out several last year. One of my favourites included various bee-friendly seeds such as marigold, nepeta, verbena, cosmos, and cornflower.
That said, the bees went utterly wild over pots of the Lacey Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) I planted. Bees also love our mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius) that acts as a privacy screen between our neighbour’s balcony.
How to have the most productive balcony garden
Start your seeds early
I’m sometimes guilty of starting my summer planting too early and filling our apartment with pots that can’t handle being outside until after the last frost.
But that said, I think it’s good to get a head start. Sometimes this involves pots on windowsills, but I also love using our Berlin Green Indoor Garden to start veg and warmth-loving plants indoors, especially if they need predictable light, moisture, and temperature.
This is how I started our aubergines last year, which worked really well. As soon as plants start to outgrow the Berlin Green soil pods, I plant them in a pot and sit them next to the window until they’re ready to go outside.
Make use of companion planting
If you’re doing container gardening on a balcony, you won’t have quite the same synergy and advantages that come with planting in the same soil or raised beds.
But that said, this doesn’t mean you can’t do some companion planting on your balcony. This looks like combining plants and flowers that get on well in the same soil so they can work together.
I love this fantastic infographic of good and bad options for companion planting. Some good options for companion planting on a balcony include…
Tomatoes and basil
Just as tomatoes and basil taste delicious together, they also grow well together. Tomatoes also grow well with parsley, nasturtiums (which are said to improve the flavour of tomatoes), and calendula.
Aubergines and marigolds
Great companion plants for aubergines (or eggplant) are marigolds, which also are fantastic for attracting bees and other pollinators. Marigolds are also said to repel aphids and some other pests.
I’ve found that basil grows happily with aubergines too, which I planted together in my fabric containers last summer.
Enrich your soil with compost
As permaculture teaches, the quality of your soil is everything. You can enrich your soil by purchasing compost, but an even better permaculture option is to create your own compost.
How to create compost on a balcony? Your options are more limited, but Bokashi is the easiest way to turn kitchen scraps into compost.
This is something I do with a small Bokashi bin that fits nicely in the same cupboard as our bin. You just add food scraps, cover with a layer of the Bokashi yeast, and then press down the lid to compress it.
However, keep in mind that:
- It will take a pretty long time before the bokashi compost is ready. You need to fill the bin, leave it sealed for two weeks while removing the liquid, and then mix it with soil for another few weeks.
- Bokashi can involve some smells which you might not want to deal with on your balcony oasis.
For me, the best option has been doing smaller amounts of bokashi occasionally but not continually (and otherwise putting kitchen scraps in our usual bio waste that’s collected by the city).
I do this at times when I can put the bokashi tea to use as a (heavily diluted) liquid fertiliser, and/or when I can put the bokashi scraps directly at the bottom of larger containers to then infuse through the soil.
Help plants along with a seaweed fertiliser
There are all sorts of organic fertilisers that your balcony veg will love, but one plant treat I use all the time is liquid seaweed fertiliser. It seems to make everything in my balcony containers happy.
Gardening expert Monty Don shares how he feeds all container plants weekly with liquid seaweed or homemade comfrey feed. Monty explains that both are high in potash to encourage flower formation and keep the plant going strongly into autumn.
Pick your fruit and veg regularly
Of course I’d pick all the fruit and veg I grow myself, we all think. But all so often when plants are ready to harvest, before you know it lettuces are bolting and tomatoes are rotting on the vine (a sad sight).
If you can, take a tour of your balcony haven every day during summer to check for the fruits of your labour. The better you are at picking what’s ripe, the more you can harvest.
The same goes for deadheading flowers that have passed their peak – as soon as you pick them, more energy can go into new blooms.
So there you go, this balcony gardener’s take on growing veg and attempting permaculture on a balcony. If you’ve got a balcony, why not give container gardening a go and see how you get on?
A good place to start is with some of your favourite fruit and veg that have a good chance of liking your climate and environment. If something works, that’s a great lesson learned, as is something that struggles to thrive.
With a bit of patience, planning, and experimentation, you can absolutely grow vegetables on a balcony. Happy growing!1 Enjoy this article?