Gardens In The Sky

Balcony Gardening Tips for Urban Condo Dwellers

By Karlie Justus Marlowe, Photography by Colburn Collective

When Amy Wagher relocated from a condo in PNC Plaza to a new space at The Lincoln Apartments on downtown Raleigh’s eastern edge, she deliberately selected the space to guarantee enough sunlight for an urban garden.

Creating a Concrete Jungle

Testing out your green thumb in a small space for the first time? Here are a few tips from Bryce Lane, horticulture instructor at NC State University, and Anne Spafford, associate professor of landscape design in NC State’s Department of Horticultural Sciences.

1. Keep in mind that east and west-facing balconies get only about three to five hours of sun. North-facing gets just an hour or two in the middle of summer, while south-facing is going to be very hot and sunny. Choose plants accordingly.

2. Always use a reputable, moisture-control potting soil with slow release fertilizer such as Miracle Gro. Browse Seaboard Station’s Logan Trading Company and Ace Hardware, gardening staples located on downtown’s southern tip.

3. The container is key. Buy sizable pots for planting, and make sure containers have drainage holes for excess water to drain. Containers that are small dry out faster.

4. Start small with eight- to 16-inch containers with forgiving herbs like rosemary and basil, or easy-to-care-for succulents. Vegetables like tomatoes and peppers require a minimum of six to seven hours of full, unimpeded sunlight, while leafy veggies do better in less sun.

5. Don’t kill your plants with kindness. Many people over-water their plants. Before saturating the plant by making sure the water runs all the way through the pot and out of the drainage hole, check soil moisture with your fingers.

6. Consider mixing plants with varying leaf color and texture, size and flowers. A golden standard is to include a ‘thriller’ that is tall and upright, a ‘spiller’ that trails over the edge of the container, and a ‘filler,’ an interesting middle-sized plant that fills up the rest of the space.


“I found myself always buying a few key items from the farmers’ market, and I thought that it would just make sense to have my own supply,” said Wagher, who cares for lemon and lime trees, basil, sweet mint, lemon-thyme and cilantro in her balcony garden. “And I wanted the little bit of greenery in my urban setting.”

Like many of the young professionals filling up downtown’s recent spat of new high-rise condos, Wagher didn’t want to sacrifice greenery for the convenience and vibrancy of the city center. Bryce Lane, a horticulture instructor at NC State, University, has noticed a recent uptick in this kind of urban garden.

“I think they are becoming more popular for a few reasons. First, the millennial generation is much more interested in living downtown than any other group right now,” he said. “It also reduces the ‘food desert’ effect, where there are no fresh fruits and veggies available for sale in many urban areas.”

Despite her prime sunlight, Wagher admits her efforts have been a work in progress as she learns the ins and outs of gardening without a spigot or dirt.

“Urban or balcony gardening is so different from managing a plot garden,” said Wagher. “For starters, everything is in pots. I had to come to terms with the fact that my lemon and lime trees will not get to full size as long as they stay in pots, but will stay more like a citrus bush.”  

Despite the drawbacks of potted plants, Wagher points to several advantages.

“You can control the growth of some plants and herbs that tend to take over,” she said. “And winterizing your garden is easier when you have everything in pots; you just bring them inside to escape the cold.”

In addition to easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, balcony gardens can also provide privacy.

“Vines in containers are a great trick,” said Anne Spafford, an associate professor of landscape design in NC State’s Department of Horticultural Sciences. “They can provide colorful flowers, interesting foliage, and even perhaps privacy from an adjacent balcony.”

And despite the limited space, these types of gardens can be just as therapeutic and addictive as their larger counterparts.

“I plan to venture into peppers next,” said Wagher with a smile.

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