Most gardening magazines and websites are written for people with large yards and lots of space to plant. For the average apartment dweller, these resources are nice to look at, but don't give any useful information. However, it is certainly possible to have a successful garden in a small space without excessive equipment or money. Container gardens make a beautiful addition to any patio, balcony, or even a sunny kitchen window. With the right plants and a little patience, anyone can grow healthy, vibrant herbs and vegetables almost anywhere.
Organic gardening is growing fruits, vegetables and herbs in such a way that they are as close to nature as possible. Most health conscious people have a long list of reasons they prefer organic vegetables to non-organics, including better taste, higher nutrient content, and lower levels of pesticides and poisons absorbed into the food. For someone trying to grow vegetables in containers, organic gardening is the safest and healthiest choice. Most potting soil, fertilizers, and pesticides available at the local grocery store or hardware store contain chemicals that are cancer causing or potentially lethal if ingested by people and animals.
Anything in a home garden that may be consumed by people should be grown in potting soil designed for vegetables, ideally an organic variety. The same is true when choosing a fertilizer or pesticide. This may seem like common sense, but many of the warnings on soil and fertilizer packaging are not easy to find. Whenever possible, look for the organic label.
While almost any kind of plant can be grown organically, choosing the right plants for your apartment patio or balcony takes a bit of planning. The most important consideration is the size of the gardening space. Obviously trees and large bushes will not fit on a balcony. It is also important to keep in mid that plants that look small at the nursery may need to be repotted within a few months. It is best to stick to herbs and small vegetables, which thrive well with limited space.
Goods herb choices for a patio or balcony garden include basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, and rosemary. These plants are hardy, easy to maintain, and take up very little space. If space is extremely limited, these species will even grow well in the same pot. Pets can even enjoy the garden with the inclusion of catnip, which also grows well in pots.
As for vegetables, it is best to try for miniatures. Cherry and grape tomatoes grow and ripen quickly, and one plant will continue producing throughout the summer. Jalapeno and chili peppers also work well in pots, as can pole beans as long as they have room to grow upwards and a support structure for the vines to climb.
Soil and Composting
A major concern for most vegetable gardeners, and organic gardeners in particular, is soil quality. It is inadvisable and can be potentially life threatening to grow edible plants in the wrong kind of potting soil. For a truly organic garden, it is best to choose commercial organic compost and mix it with home compost.
Compost is a soil-like mixture prepared specifically for garden use. Essentially, it is organic matter that has decomposed to a point where it can be absorbed by plants. Commercial compost can be made from a variety of organic materials, including mushrooms, general plant matter, worm castings, and manure. While most varieties are available at the local gardening store or plant nursery, compost containing manure is not a good choice a balcony or patio garden as the smell can be a bit overwhelming in a confined space and may attract flies. Vegetable composts are a much better option.
Commercially available composts are great for starting a garden, but maintaining it and keeping it truly organic takes the extra step of home composting. Mixing home compost with store bought varieties both gives the plants a nutrient boost that helps them grow and thrive and is also an excellent way of getting rid of kitchen waste. Home composting is incredibly simple, requiring only two things: a container for composting and material. While traditional composting is done in a large bin or open heap, it is equally effective on a smaller scale. There are several small, commercially available composting containers on the market, ranging in price from $50 to over $200. However, it is just as easy to create a home composter using a 32-gallon garbage can with a tight fitting lid or a large paint bucket with a locking lid if space is a major concern. On a very small scale, vermiform composting (or composting using worms) can be done in a small bucket and is perfect for an apartment.
The key to good composting is putting good things into the compost. Any uncooked, vegetable waste (such as peels, rinds, stems, moldy vegetables, etc.) will make excellent compost, especially when mixed with plant trimmings, dead leaves, sticks and branches, coffee grounds, small amounts of old newspaper and paper grocery bags, and egg shell. Try to make sure that pieces are small, chopping them if necessary, as they will degrade more quickly. DO NOT put meat, dairy, bread products, cooked food, or trash into a compost heap, as these will attract insects and pests and cause unwanted smells. Also avoid waste with excessive amounts of seeds, as they may germinate. A healthy compost heap will shrink in size as it looses water, give off heat, and have a damp, earthy smell.
There are literally as many anecdotes on pest control and organic remedies as there are organic gardeners. Most will agree, however, that one of the safest, most reliable methods of defending against the worst pests is a substance called Diatomaceous Earth, or DE. DE is essentially the skeletal remains of diatoms, prehistoric animals that were so numerous that their shells are now mined for horticultural purposes. The skeletons are crushed to form a fine, white powder that acts as a physical insecticide. The DE particles act to puncture the exoskeletons of most insects, mites, fleas, ticks, etcetera, causing them to die by dehydration. It is completely safe to eat and is environmentally harmless.
To apply DE, simply wet the plants' leaves so that it sticks and sprinkle the powder over the plants. Take care to avoid inhaling the dust, as it can cause serious respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma. A simple surgical mask or the like works well. Also try to avoid sprinkling on the flowers of fruit bearing plants such as tomatoes, peppers and beans, since Diatomaceous Earth will kill helpful insects such as bees and ladybugs as well as the more harmful varieties. A small bag two pound bag can cost as little as $5 and will last throughout the growing season and beyond.
An organic harvest
Any container garden is an excellent addition to an apartment or condominium, but an organic garden is something special. Harvest and enjoy organically grown herbs and vegetables throughout the growing season, and keep composting throughout the winter. When spring comes back around, a new batch of compost will be ready to revitalize the garden for a new planting season.