Fern Richardson makes maximum use of minimum space growing her own food and plants on her balcony.
Fern Richardson knows her stuff. She’s a certified Master Gardener and a serious green thumb, blogging about gardening tips, tricks and methods at her blog. But Fern doesn’t have sprawling acreage or even a front yard—she does all her gardening on a 50-square-foot condo balcony in Orange County, California.
Fern and Life on the Balcony prove that space (and a “black thumb”) are no excuse to not grow at least some of your own food. We interviewed Fern for her top tips on getting started (and not giving up!).
Life on the Balcony is a fantastic niche blog. How did it come about?
FERN: For the longest time, I was waiting until I had a big job and could buy my own big house with a glorious garden. But that sort of never happened! I had an epiphany: it’s really stupid to put off something I really, really enjoy—gardening—just because I don’t have the exact situation I thought I would. So I decided to make the most of out of my patio!
I decided to take gardening more seriously, and was looking around for websites for people like me, who don’t have a real yard. I realized there weren’t any, so I thought, “OK, I’ll share what I’ve learned.”
What are some challenges unique to container garden that other gardeners don’t have to worry about?
In the summer, especially for us in the southwest and other really hot areas, if the pots aren’t big enough, you’re watering twice a day sometimes. The best way around that is to, one, use good quality soil, and two, use bigger pots. Smaller pots dry out really quickly. Also, you’re limited on what you can grow in containers. If you have your heart set on some huge old-fashioned rose, it’s just not happening, no matter the size of the container. Some challenges are specific to certain kinds of balconies: if you’re way up in a high rise it can be windy, or the next building over can shade you out.
You have a great 10 Questions to Ask Yourself post on Life On The Balcony for readers looking to get started. For food specifically, though, what are some things to look for right away?
If you’re growing fruit trees, it absolutely has to be dwarf root stock, not even semi-dwarf [see Fern’s post about growing apple trees in a pot!]. That’s not hard to find these days, because even people in regular backyards want shorter trees because it makes the fruit closer to ground-level and easier to harvest. As far as vegetables go, there are a lot of compact varieties of vegetables. There are a ton of tomato varieties where the whole plan will spill over the side of the pot for only 18”, maximum. Spacemaster cucumbers are small and won’t take up your whole space with a huge vine.
For a lot of vegetables, you can just grow the regular kind, but in a bigger, deeper pot. Deep is more important than wide, though: with a 24 to 30” deep pot, tomatoes and broccoli will do really well, as they can extend their roots further.
What are the biggest excuses you hear from would-be gardeners?
A lot of people think that they are “black thumbs” and that they kill plants! I say that there’s no such thing as a black thumb—you just haven’t killed enough plants to be a green thumb yet! When some people have bad experiences, they think something is innately wrong with them, and that they can’t grow plants. It’s just a lot of learning by doing, getting out there, trying, and if something goes wrong, doing a simple Google search to what the deal is. Or go down to the garden center and ask them!
In urban areas, it’s sometimes tough to find good resources or mom-and-pop garden centers. Do you have any suggestions on where to find help?
Almost ever area has an independent garden center. I’m not a Home Depot and Lowes hater by any means, but those guys in there just don’t have 20 to 30 years of horticulture background. At an indepdent garden center, they have a degree, have been doing it forever, and really do pride themselves on being resources to the community. They won’t just sell you the plant: they’ll help you grow it.
Maybe I’m biased because I am one, but Los Angeles has an excellent master gardener program and we’re associated with the University of California. Everything we tell you has to be scientifically backed up by the university. [Find a Master Gardener Program in your area here.]
What food do you recommend starting out with, for the new gardener? I.E., what’s hardest for a beginner to kill?
A lot of the Mediterranean herbs—rosemary, thyme, oregeano—come from a little dryer climate, and so are not as finicky about being watered all the time. Plus, even just growing a few pots of something, you’re going to have enough to actually cook with, Say you want to make tomato sauce, but your tomato plant only yielded 8 tomatoes—you’re going to be hard pressed to get a full crop. With herbs, you can easily grow as much you use.
What’s one crafty project you’d like to give our readers? (Our pick: turning a dingy BBQ into an herb container garden!)
The most fun I’ve had is taking weird containers, things that aren’t really pots, and growing things in them. Colanders do really well! It’s fun to have kitchen garden and then using kitchen utensils and materials in it! You can also take inexpensive plastic pots and make them into something special with paint or other materials. Container gardening lets you have fun and do something unique to this style of gardening.
What’s your favorite fresh-picked meal?
I made the most delicious upside-down tomato bread! I diced up cherry tomatoes, tossed in salt and herbs, put them in the bottom of pan, put herbed bread dough over the top, and baked it! It was so good! The tomatoes got all caramelized and made a crust. [You can see Fern’s recipe on the blog and give it a try yourself!]
Are you going to give container gardening a shot? Post your adventures and fresh-from-the-garden recipes at our Facebook page!