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Spring Tips for the Balcony Gardener

I am one of the thousands of city-folk, who dream about a luscious and prosperous balcony, roof top of terrace culture, planting boxes in parks and on yards, and guerilla cultivation in the nearby forest. From the urban dream balcony one collects herbs, salads and tomatoes for cooking and at the end of summer one lifts hefty potatoes from the planting boxes. In the best case scenario there are crops left over for the autumn: kitchen shelves are filled with pretty herb jars and the freezer is bursting with kale and strawberries harvested from the balcony.

I know some Helsinkians who have succeeded in city cultivation immaculately, but I believe I speak for many when I confess that the yields of my balcony are in the end quite symbolic despite the great enthusiasm and industriousness for cultivation. Time, energy, care and memory don’t always bend to the plants’ demands, and the species-specific instructions often go unnoticed. Aporia takes over the balcony cultivator’s mind, ant the plants themselves don’t provide satisfactory answers for withering away. For the failures it is easy to blame the wrong orientation of the balcony, the weather or the neighbour in charge of watering the plants. The disappointments about chilies filled with aphids, salad leaves dead from dryness, tomato seedlings without fruit and chives arms thin as thread are all well forgotten during the long winter and the new growing season is always approached with powerful optimism. This spring the optimism may be somewhat grounded, because after the Institute’s course on balcony and terrace plantation I was so enthused that I could hardly wait to open the soil sacks I heaved on the balcony, and start to scoop the black soil into jars and boxes of different sizes. Gardener Marko Ahola had arrived from Ostrobothnia to Helsinki to guide us clueless city-folk into the secret world of cultivation. The lecture introduced an enormous amount of information from pot selection and the pre-growing of seedlings to the multiple uses of herbs and the wintering of plants. The overarching theme of the evening was that in principle you can grow any species of plants on the balcony or terrace, even fruit trees and berry bushes, as long as you take care of sufficient supply of nutrients, warmth, light and moisture.

With Ahola’s guidance we went over the most common plants suitable for balcony cultivation and the most important tips in their care. The course focused most on useful plants, which was a pleasant emphasis, at least for me. The teaching encouraged participation and with that the listeners opened up to share their own triumphs and failures and asked for tips for the coming summer. We progressed swiftly, and the thick pile of study material helped to remember it all later as well. I had multiple aha-moments during the course, starting from the fact that I have not understood the importance of fertilization before. The gardener advised us to fertilize even daily, if we wished to have at least some kind of crops. The best fertilizer is liquid fertilizer mixed with water, but also used coffee grinds are a good mix for the plant water.

There is still a way to go until self-sufficiency, but I believe my own cultivation success will somewhat improve in the following summer. By trial and error I have also learned that for certain plants the light on my balcony is simply not sufficient, so I will no longer forcibly attempt to grow warmth-loving tomatoes, chilis and sunflowers on my shady and windy open balcony, but will rather focus on herbs, cabbages and salads, which like the partial shade.

Lastly a checklist on the most important things from the course:

  • You can buy seedlings straight from garden centres, if your time or patience does not permit sprouting seeds.
  • Condition the seedlings grown indoors gradually to outside weather conditions, the best way to succeed is to keep them out for a longer period of time each day and bring them indoors for the night.
  • It is beneficial to perforate or drain the pots that do not have a hole in the bottom. Small stones and pot pieces prevent the water from engorging and the roots from rotting.
  • The best time to water plants is in the mornings before 8 or in the evenings after 9. Always use stagnant water for watering! Pour water preferably on plates, it is easier for the the plants to suck up the water through their roots.
  • Fertilization with every watering promotes flowering and crop forming.
  • Salad easily collects air pollution, so at the balcony it should be situated on a lower level, and put other plants on the upper levels to shield the sensitive salads.
  • If possible, don’t grow tomato and cucumber next to each other, because tomato wilts the cucumber (the same is true about their storage in the kitchen!).
  • Herbs and salads grow to be more bushy, the more you trim them.
  • You can help plants to pollinate by tapping their flowers with a pen.

I wish a verdant summer to all my co-cultivators!

You can obtain tips for understanding the inner life of plants and seeds for spring from Hyötykasviyhdistys (Useful Plant Association) ja Maatiainen ry. Dodo ry. is an expert in sustainable city cultivation.

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Written by: Venla Rainio, The Institute of Adult Education in Helsinki