Urban balcony gardens provide practical, picturesque vegetation in small spaces. Urban balcony gardens provide practical, picturesque vegetation in small spaces. Urban balcony gardens provide practical, picturesque vegetation in small spaces. (Photo: Pabkov / Shutterstock)

How to start an urban garden

No space? No problem! Here are 5 easy steps to creating your own urban oasis.

Always wanted a garden but only have a few square feet? No matter how small your space, you are entitled to your own little patch of green.

But where do you start? We consulted two balcony gardening veterans to sow our seed knowledge: New Yorker Marie Viljoen, blogger and author of the book “66 Square Feet – A Delicious Life"; and Israeli chef Miriam Kresh, a frequent contributor to From The Grapevine thanks to her Israeli Kitchen series.

Instead of farm to table, Viljoen and Kresh have us thinking about terrace to table. “I’m a big believer in sitting down to share a meal,” Viljoen said. Whether you have a windowsill, a balcony or a rooftop terrace, follow these simple tips to see some sprouts this spring.

1. Scope out your space.

A dining area surrounded by urban greenery.A dining area surrounded by urban greenery. (Photo: Courtesy of Marie Viljoen)

“Define how you want to use the space. Outdoor sitting room? Kitchen extension? Leave room for table and chairs, prep areas, etc.,” Viljoen said.

If you want the space to remain functional, plan out your garden accordingly. Once you have the available space mapped out, think about what type of garden you prefer.

“Decide what you want from your garden: edible and aromatic plants, or form and texture and flowers,” she said.

If you enjoy cooking, you may consider growing herbs or vegetables. If you just want something pretty to look at, focus on flowers and colors.

2. Pay attention to the sun.

Gardening on the balconyGardening on the balcony. (Photo: Suzette - www.suzette.nu/Flickr)

Kresh enjoys growing native Mediterranean herbs and small bushes on the balcony of her home in Petach Tikvah, a city in central Israel. Before embarking on a gardening project, it's crucial to become familiar with climate and how much sun your space gets. “Start by doing a little research,” Kresh suggested. “Determine which climate zone you live in. Observe more or less how many hours of sun or shade fall on your balcony daily, then plant according to what you learned about your plants’ needs.”

Kresh adapted her planting and watering strategy to suit the bright and sunny Mediterranean climate. “In many parts of the States, for example, home gardeners allow lots of sunshine on their tomatoes; [in Israel] tomatoes need afternoon shade.” Spend some time observing your sun situation before you purchase plants or seeds. “Even a small balcony can have several micro-climates. Plants that flourish in partial shade should be placed against a wall where the sun doesn’t hit all day; plants that adore the sun can be set on a sunny ledge,” said Kresh.

3. Timing matters.

A snow-covered balcony in New York.A snow-covered balcony in New York. (Photo: Courtesy of Marie Viljoen)

You may only be thinking about spring and summer, but Viljoen suggested thinking about the year as a whole. “Choose plants that have interest (flowers, fruit, foliage, even bark) at different times of the year.” If you don’t know where to start, “visit a nursery if possible and ask for advice, or do some reading.”

For something that you can count on most of the year, Kresh favored “all-year-round herbs, like rosemary, lavender and sage.” These herbs are “Mediterranean natives and need little pampering; once they’re thriving on your balcony, they’ll be good for years.”

4. Fiddle with form.

An urban balcony garden in Jerusalem.An urban balcony garden in Jerusalem. (Photo: Brian Negin/Flickr)

“Think of form and mix it up: climbers for vertical interest, shrubs for structure, perennials and annuals for texture,” Viljoen said. Here you also have an opportunity to get creative. Consider repurposing something that is already a part of your balcony or terrace as a vessel for your plants.

“You don’t need a fancy setup to grow herbs and flowers. I set my pots down on the floor, or hang them from the ledge, or set them on a picnic table on the shadier side of the balcony,” Kresh said. You can also take advantage of shade to create visual appeal. “Sweet potatoes make a graceful vine, and grow plenty of edible roots even in shady conditions,” she added.

5. Don’t forget about the bees.

Bees landing on a flower.Support your local pollinators. (Photo: HABRDA/Shutterstock)

“Using plants native to your region helps support your local pollinators,” Viljoen said. Doing a little research will ensure that your efforts are encouraging your local ecosystem.

So, what should we plant in April? “I plant summer blooming lilies in April, and cool weather is a good time to plant leafy greens, as well as peas and fava beans," Viljoen said.

Herbs that add a flourish to Mediterranean recipes also fare well when planted in spring. “Annual herbs like basil, arugula and coriander [cilantro], I sow just at the end of winter, when a few warm days in between rains show that spring is on the way,” said Kresh.


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How to start an urban garden
No space for a garden? No problem! Here are 5 easy steps to creating your own urban oasis.