Some of my happiest childhood memories include summer days spent digging around in my nana's garden, helping her weed and harvest foods and flowers. It was magnificent, full of carrots, peas, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, raspberries, flowers — a riot of colourful blooms, from peonies to snap dragons to forget-me-nots — and so much more. I spent summer days pulling carrots and potatoes from the earth, snapping green beans off the vine, washing off carrots in the rain barrel so I could snack, and sitting on the patio shelling peas into a bowl for dinner.
Ever since those early years, I've loved plants — but I wasn't always so great at keeping them alive. It wasn't until I moved into my current apartment, with its huge east-facing windows and not-so-huge east-facing balcony, that I've managed to begin to figure out the growing things thing. It started two summers ago with a couple of flower-filled window boxes (hung on the balcony railing) and a couple of pots with herbs and tomatoes. I won't lie — the tomato plant didn't yield much at all, and the kale, well, it barely grew a single leaf. But my flower baskets were pretty, and my basil, rosemary, thyme and mint thrived. I had figured it out! (ish).
Fast-forward a year, and I went a bit crazy with the plants last summer. All told, I probably spent $600 (maybe more) to make myself a little 4x8-foot balcony jungle, and it was worth every penny. It was my oasis, my happy place. Geraniums were nestled in window planters hung on the railing, with an abundance of fuchsia trailing down toward plants below. I grew a glorious canna lily (along with a smaller tropical leafy plant I can't remember the name of) in a big pot, offering lots of privacy from the neighbour's very-close balcony, especially as stalk after stalk shot up from the pot, its large leaves unfurling. Wandering dude flourished in a little shallow dish. I had begonias and other annual flowers spilling from a barrel-look planter and a coconut-fibre-lined wrought-iron planter. The feather-like Dragon's Breath celosia was stunning, and I grew tons of basil, as well as rosemary. I also tried my hand at tomatoes once again, with two cocktail varieties. And I even made a late-season attempt at a miniature carrot and a leafy lettuce (bad idea; it didn't work at all). By August, I had to rearrange the pots of plants to deal with my growing jungle.
I learned a lot last summer, both from trial and error and also from asking a lot of questions at the garden centre. Case in point: while I love perennials, I was told that they need room to grow; at a minimum, that would mean a big, heavy pot — not ideal for a balcony. And I quickly discovered which plants are just not suited to the conditions on my balcony (RIP Celosia spicata). A commitment to daily watering was rewarded with a lush paradise. I also discovered that a bunch of houseplants can thrive outdoors (and be transferred inside with relative ease come fall). And by the fall, I had concluded that tomatoes aren't worth the effort in such a small space — not when I have a fantastic farmers' market in my neighbourhood.
While I didn't plan well enough to be able to transfer my herbs indoors (another lesson learned — plant them in their own pots), I managed to bring in the wandering dude, a spider plant and a tiny ground-cover plant I can't remember the name of. And while the canna lily seemed destined for death after all the leaves turned brown (a sad result of my neglect), after I cut back all the stalks to give the other tropical plant a chance to live, the lily came back and is shooting up a half dozen stalks, with healthy green leaves. I can't wait for spring so I can put all the lessons I've learned to use as I make plans for my little oasis in the city.