You don’t need a lot of space to be able to grow edible plants. Starting your own balcony herb garden is the perfect way to grow different herbs for your food, cocktails, tea and more. And it’s easy too! In this guide, we’ll have a look at everything you need to know to get started.
Jump to: | First Steps to a Balcony Herb Garden | Which Herbs to Use | Design Ideas | How to Keep Herbs Healthy | Troubleshooting Problems | Winter Solutions
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What Is A Balcony Herb Garden?
Urban gardening has steadily been gaining popularity. More and more people have moved to cities and don’t have access to a full-sized garden, but that doesn’t mean edible plants are off the table (so to speak)! That’s where the balcony herb garden, with edible herbs grown in containers, comes in.
Herbs are a particularly good choice for a city garden for a few different reasons:
- You don’t need much space to grow them, for starters.
- Experience is not a prerequisite either, as many types of herbs are a breeze to grow even for beginners.
- There’s loads of variety possible, and you can design your own kitchen garden for your preferred style of cooking
- Gardening in general is relaxing and therapeutic and can be a chance to wind down from a busy day
- and finally, nothing beats the flavor of home-grown produce!
All this makes setting up your own balcony herb garden an attractive option if you’re looking for something small and uncomplicated.
What Are The Best Herbs For A Balcony Herb Garden?
There are loads and loads of different edible herbs out there, especially if you think beyond the obvious candidates. Many herbs will easily grow in containers, although some require a little more specialized care than others.
Before you start putting your herb garden together, think about what you actually want to grow (and eat).
You can go in so many different directions with a balcony herb garden. If you fancy yourself a bit of a mixologist, for example, why not go for a little cocktail herb garden? Mojitos taste a lot better with homegrown mint.
Or if you’re more into tea, that’s a great option as well.
Check out my post on themed herb gardens for more inspiration around cooking in different cultural cuisines!
Below, let’s have a look at a few herb species that should be easy to grow on your balcony. Almost all of them are “cut-and-come-again” (i.e., they don’t mind being snipped regularly). In fact, pinching them usually just makes them come back bushier than before.
Annual herbs live for one (or sometimes two) years. They generally have to be replanted every spring.
- Parsley (biennial)
- Caraway (biennial)
Perennial herbs come back every year. In warmer climates, they may not die off during the winter months.
- Lemon balm
- Bee balm
- Lemon verbena
Buying vs Seed Starting
Many herbs can be started from seed at home. However, whether you actually want to germinate them yourself is another thing: well-established seedlings for most herbs are pretty cheap. It saves quite a bit of work to just buy them, especially the slower growers like rosemary or lavender. The more vigorous ones like basil or cilantro you could consider growing from seed.
If you’re buying herbs, go for healthy-looking plants that aren’t squeezed into tiny planters. They should ideally already be hardened off (ie., ready to plant outside). If you’d like to buy online, Bonnie Plants has a variety of herbs available.
Balcony Herb Garden Design Ideas
Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to grow in your balcony herb garden, it’s time to think about “how” you’re going to do it. Space will be limited, so where will you be placing the herbs?
It’s all about finding a balance between giving the plants what they like without stuffing your balcony so full you can’t even sit or walk around anymore.
Below, let’s have a quick look at some of my favorite design ideas for balcony gardening. Not all of them will work for all types of balconies, but there’s plenty of ideas that can work for you.
Vertical Herb Garden
My favorite way to design a space-saving garden is to go vertical. You’ve probably got way more wall space available than precious floor space, so why not use it? There’s no need to go for expensive pre-made vertical gardening solutions either. Even just shelves and hanging planters can come in quite handy.
You can find everything you need to know about vertical gardening, including design ideas, in my full post on growing food without the land.
Balcony rail garden
If your balcony has a rail that’s just sitting there unused, you’ve got a little goldmine of gardening space on your hands. There are loads of different types of railing planters available, which can be hung from or suspended on the balcony rail to grow plants without taking up floor space.
If you’re going for this type of planter, be sure to choose something sturdy. You don’t want to wake up one morning after a windy night to find out your herbs have gone flying through the city!
If you do want to place some herbs on the floor of your balcony, the best spot to put them is, of course, along the edges. This is space that you’re unlikely to use much yourself. Long rectangular planters or square planters (rather than round pots) are a great space-saving option here.
Balcony Herb Care and Maintenance
Once you’ve picked the herbs you’re interested in and have more or less designed your balcony herb garden, the hardest part is over. As mentioned in my guide to growing herbs in containers, the plants should be easy enough to maintain as long as you keep these basic rules of thumb in mind.
The most important factors when growing herbs on a balcony are light, potting soil and water. Not all herbs like the same amount of sun and moisture, and some may require different potting soils from others.
It’s always a good idea to look up the requirements for a particular plant, just to make sure you’re giving it what it needs, but here are the key components to herb care:
Most herbs like plenty of light, with some actually yearning for full sun. Examples of these are the Mediterranean herbs like basil, rosemary, lavender, sage and oregano. Give these guys the brightest spots on your balcony if you want them to thrive and grow quickly.
Herbs that can do with a little less include mint, chives, lemon balm, parsley and cilantro. It’s not like these species like to grow in the shade, but you don’t need to give them prime sunny real estate to get them to grow well either.
The herbs you’ll find for sale at your local nursery are usually still planted in small plastic nursery planters. Their roots can be root-bound, so it’s usually a good idea to repot them into something bigger when you get the chance.
As we’ve already seen, there are loads of different options when it comes to potting: railing planters, hanging baskets, grow bags, good old terracotta… the world is your oyster! As long as it has a drainage hole in the bottom, it should work. There are even stackable, space-saving herb planters out there.
One thing I’ve been experimenting with a lot lately are grow bags, which should make a great choice for herbs that need excellent drainage.
Just make sure to plant slow growers with other slow growers, because space hoggers like mint can easily choke out other herbs if you give them the chance.
Just as different herbs have varying preferences when it comes to light, they also differ in the type of soil they like. Most of the high-light loving varieties, like rosemary, have evolved to adapt to arid climates. This means that their roots aren’t adapted to sitting in water, so they generally like a well-drained soil (breathable grow bags would be a good option here).
Other herbs like lots of moisture and won’t appreciate their soil drying out. For these, it’s best to include less grit in the soil medium, or use plastic planters that hold the water longer.Otherwise it can dry so quick that a single hot day can cause the plant to wilt. Examples include mint, cilantro and parsley.
It can be a bit of a challenge to figure out when and how much to water your herbs, especially if you don’t have much experience in maintaining a balcony herb garden yet.
I can’t tell you how often you should water your plants, as that depends entirely on factors like the season, the soil type, the plant type and the weather, but I can give you some rules of thumb.
- Leafy herbs (mint) need more water than woody ones (rosemary).
- Herbs may need water daily in summer and as little as once a week during fall/winter.
- You can pick up the pot to gauge its weight; if it’s light, that means the soil is dry and the plant probably needs a drink.
- You can also stick your finger in the soil. If it still feels damp down to an inch, wait a little longer.
- If your herbs start to wilt, you’ve either waited too long OR overwatered so much that root rot has set in. If the soil is regularly soggy, it’s probably the latter. Take it easy!
When watering, you can give the soil a good soak until moisture starts running out of the drainage hole in the pot. It should be able to drain freely into something like a saucer, after which you can discard the excess.
For hanging baskets and planters located higher up, it’s handy to use something like a watering wand to help you reach them.
If your herbs are doing well and it’s been a few months since you last repotted them, they might appreciate a little extra boost to keep them going. Usually they will show signs of depleted nutrition like yellowing of the leaves (which means they need more nitrogen).
Lack of phosphorus will show up as purple leaves and potassium is what helps overall health, sizing and flavor. A good overall fertilizer with balanced N-P-K should be fine for herbs. If you used a lot of good compost in your soil mixture you may not need fertilizer at all.
If you do think they need some fertilizer help before season’s end, you can use a few slow-release fertilizer sticks, but many gardeners prefer using fertilizer powders that can be dissolved in water.
Unless it stays warm year-round where you live, your herbs probably won’t need any fertilizer during winter, as they’ll be mostly dormant.
Take it easy on fertilizer, especially for the herbs which often don’t need much. Too much fertilizer can actually end up damaging the roots.
Some of it will depend on what kind of containers they are in also. If you need to water a lot and the containers are fabric or clay, some of the nutrients will wash out with the water.
In general, you will know when your herbs need fertilizer. They will let you know by the color of their leaves or the ability for them to re-grow after trimming.
With many herbs, pinching them back encourages them to grow fuller and bushier. That should be easy: you’ll be doing so anyway as you harvest them for your meals and drinks!
Woody herbs like rosemary and lavender should receive a good pruning once a year. Early spring is a great time to do this, but you can also opt to prune after they’ve finished blooming in late summer.
Lastly, in some herbs, like basil, flowering is discouraged. Letting the plant bloom can affect its flavor and deplete leaf growth, so most herb gardeners prefer to pinch off the little flowers as they appear.
You don’t have to throw those basil flowers away however. They have a mild flavor and look very pretty in a nice garden salad.
Most herbs can be harvested throughout summer. Don’t wait until their growing season is almost up: harvest regularly when they’re at their best. You can always freeze the excess, or use it for herbal salts or herbal compound butters.
With herbs that are grown for their flowers, like chamomile, keep an eye on the buds as they develop. They almost all taste best right after, or even just before, the flowers open.
Herbs that are grown (partially) for their seeds, like cilantro or dill, can be harvested once the seed heads have turned dry and crispy.
Pro Tip: If you need a lot of an herb at once, don’t worry. You can remove one-third or up to half of many species at once without any ill effect.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
As mentioned, growing your own balcony herb garden isn’t considered difficult. However, what you do need to keep in mind is that you’ll almost inevitably run into some type of issue at some point. It’s just part of gardening and working with things that are alive. I try to consider it a learning opportunity rather than a setback. 🙂
Yep, aphids, mealybugs and other crawly things are mighty good at finding plants to infest, even in the city. You can combat them by regular inspection of the leaves and then taking quick action. Insecticidal soaps or home remedies like a mix of water and dish soap will do wonders with most small bugs.
Wind is probably one of the biggest problems for balcony gardens. Balconies can often be pretty exposed to the elements and don’t benefit from surrounding tree cover or cover crops like in the garden.
Wind will dry your plants out quicker than lack of water and the stress it causes can be very detrimental. The most fragile plants are best grown against one of the balcony walls.
You can also reduce the soil level in the pots a bit to create a small “wall”, use protective wire cages or grow stronger plants in front of weaker ones to break the wind.
Here are 8 keys to remember when starting your herb garden on a balcony:
- Buy healthy herbs to start with – not root-bound ones
- Acclimate herbs before exposing them to bright light or harsh wind.
- Briefly research each species’ care requirements.
- Don’t plant too many herbs in a single container.
- Always keep drainage in mind. Excess water needs to be able to leave the planters.
- Don’t combine herbs with different lighting and watering needs or growth rates.
- Prune and pinch (most) herbs regularly for bushy growth and to prevent bolting.
- Watch for signs they need fertilizer
Solutions For Winter
It’s all fun and games ’till winter rolls around… or is it? Although growing your own balcony herb garden is definitely mostly a summer affair, this doesn’t mean you can’t grow anything in winter at all (in most climates, anyway).
Overwintering potted plants can often be done outdoors, although you should look up the temperature limits for the more tender plants. Some will die off or even need to go indoors, while others can stay outside just fine. It helps when urban balconies are more enclosed and protected from the elements.
If you do want your herb garden to keep producing in winter, or at least part of it, a few plants that may keep well include:
- Rosemary (from zone 6)
- Thyme (from zone 5)
- Mint (from zone 3)
- Chives (from zone 3)
- Lemon balm (from zone 3)
Most of these can be stretched another zone if you use extra protection like plant cloches or mini greenhouses to help combat the cold.
If you want to keep the “tender” herbs going all Winter, you may want to look at indoor gardening options. My son has the indoor garden shown below and absolutely loves it. He is a good cook and uses the fresh produce from his indoor garden year-round.