How I Transformed My 140-Square-Foot Queens Balcony Into a Garden Oasis

Susan Howell

When my wife Lindsay and I bought our Queens apartment in 2011, I couldn’t wait to start gardening. We had lucked into a rare New York amenity: a proper big balcony, 7 by 20 feet and all to ourselves. That first winter, I nursed tomato and chili plants from seed under a grow lamp in the back room. In spring, I moved them outside, eyes always on the thermometer lest a late frost arrived. All summer I carefully watered and fed them, hand-pollinating the chili flowers each morning with a small paintbrush. Out of 14 plants, I got one sad pepper and a handful of flavorless grape tomatoes. I didn’t plant anything else for a decade.

Then the pandemic hit, and like many people, I turned to gardening again. After a couple of summers of mixed results, I finally cracked the code in 2022. It didn’t happen overnight—nor without setbacks—and I owe almost all my success to my friend Zack, a landscaper by trade and a green thumb since he was barely out of diapers. Much like a well-tended garden, the advice that follows looks neat and tidy but is actually the result of a lot of trial and error. I hope the lessons I’ve learned help you grow a vibrant balcony or deck garden of your own—without the pain of a wasted season or three.

Container growing 101

Use potting soil

Since pots trap water by their nature, using potting soil (instead of garden soil) provides better drainage. Because most of my plants hate being even a little moist (“don’t like having wet feet” is a phrase you’ll run across in plant catalogs), I add a bunch of pumice pebbles to my soil to improve the drainage even more. Vermiculite also does the trick; it’s cheaper and available at any garden store.

I recommend using whatever brand of potting soil your local landscaping pros use and avoiding the stuff you usually find at big-box stores (it rhymes with Spiracle Glow). I’ve found the professional stuff to be of higher and more-consistent quality, and it usually doesn’t come with added ingredients such as wetting agents and premixed fertilizer that you don’t need. In 2022 I used Valfei’s Potting Soil because it’s what they had at Verni’s, a standout local garden center. It smells as rich as a forest floor, drains like a dream, and the plants all seem to love it.

Valfei Potting Soil

It’s mostly available at local gardening centers, but you might find some online availability for local delivery in NYC.

Improve drainage in large pots

Small pots can be filled with soil alone, but anything above 10 inches or so in height benefits from a layer of coarse, sharp-edged gravel on the bottom to ensure that any extra water drains completely away. I now use white marble chips (also found at most garden centers), because they don’t leach any kind of stain; the red mudstone pebbles I started out with left rust-colored puddles every time I watered. A layer of Sandbaggy Landscape Fabric between the gravel and soil will prevent clogged drainage, which can cause, in Zack’s words, ”anaerobic disgustingness.” (The funk of even a small plant whose roots have decayed in standing water is nauseating and unbelievably persistent on your hands. Ask me how I know.) Zack gave me a big piece of fabric from the huge rolls his landscaping company buys, but there’s a thrifty way to get the few square feet that you probably need: Buy a handful of grow bags and cut them up.

All that great drainage you’ve carefully created comes with a minor downside: Every time you water your plants, nutrients leach from the soil and drain away. To add them back in, a diluted 20-20-20 fertilizer is good for most things green and growing. Zack recommends a weekly feeding for container plants, versus monthly for in-ground gardens. My plants have certainly been happier since I started following that advice.

Throw shade

The biggest improvement to my garden’s happiness this year over previous years isn’t down to better soil and smarter fertilizing, it’s down to controlling sun exposure.

I was out on the balcony one June day, fretting over my spruce and junipers, which were beginning to go brown. It suddenly struck me what the problem was. Pots get hot in the sun—really, really hot if they have a ceramic glaze. I was roasting my plants’ roots alive, and no amount of water and plant food could help. So I picked up a couple of rolls of inexpensive reed fencing at the local Home Depot (about $20 for a 4-by-8-foot piece). I trimmed them into pot-height sections with kitchen shears, and folded them over themselves a few times to create multilayered mats.

Close-up of some natural, peeled reed fencing providing shade to a potted plant.
I trimmed down some inexpensive reed fencing and layered it around my pots to provide shade and avoid overheating. Photo: Tim Heffernan

I then wedged the mats between the outermost pots and the balcony railing. They provide dense shade and insulation against the afternoon sun—pots that used to get almost too hot to touch now stay cool—and the effect on my plants was immediate. The browning gave way to new growth within days. And I rearranged the garden so that the taller pots on the edges cast shade onto the smaller ones in the center, keeping them cool, too.

Pick container-loving plants

Zack helped me fill out my garden with colorful additions. His company landscapes a lot of penthouse patios and corporate rooftop gardens—places akin to the balcony. One afternoon he sent me home with some hardy leftovers from the plantings: five coleus, two sweet potato vines, and an angelonia. I spent a few hours getting them into various containers, kept them watered, and within weeks had the garden you see in the pictures. (I later added a few more things, but these were the main event.) This helped me realize a couple of things:

One, I had previously paid attention only to hardy perennials—plants that can overwinter and return to life year after year. But I now recognize that annuals like the ones Zack gave me have values all their own. They go in fast, tend to be energetic growers and vigorous recoverers, and when they’re done flowering—or when they die with the return of winter—they come out fast, too, ready to be replaced by something else. An all-perennial garden would be a static exhibit; adding annuals to the mix means I can have an ever-changing garden canvas, framed by my stalwart survivors.

Group of potted plants of various colors and various shades of green.
Coleus, dracaena, sedums, sweet potato, and basil provide a wealth of color. Photo: Tim Heffernan

Two, I need to get better about planning. One fall I spent $100 or so on a bunch of perennials. They were all appropriate to my conditions and location, but I asked too much when I tried keeping them on the balcony all winter as little more than seedlings. The casualty list included two lavenders, a Russian sage, and a blue fescue. The Artemisia sage barely scraped by, and the same for the pair of blue globe thistles (aka echinops). And even with the arrival of good weather, the thistles weren’t happy growing in pots—something I should have recognized by the fact that High Country Gardens didn’t list “good for containers” among their attributes. (One went to and did well in Zack’s garden, and the other went to the compost bin in the sky.)

Be honest about what you’re working with

Of course I wanted to grow heirloom tomatoes. Who doesn’t? Visions of luscious Black Krim tomato sandwiches danced in my head. I also wanted to grow superhot, uncommon chilis: chocolate habaneros, datils, Bonda Ma Jacques. But as much as I wished otherwise, they just weren’t made for the conditions I have. Dropping the dream of being an urban farmer was the hardest and smartest thing I’ve done with regards to my balcony garden.

Here’s the reality I had to recognize and accept: Basically, I’m gardening in the urban equivalent of a canyon in the Western high desert, with the addition of occasional soupy humidity and drenching rain in summer. The balcony faces west, which means it’s shaded all morning and gets full sun all afternoon, amplified by reflections off the brick wall and windows. It’s also eight stories above ground—with a neighboring building 30 yards away that creates intense wind-tunnel effects when it’s only mildly breezy. So my “anchor plants”—the literal palisade of my garden, walling off and protecting the rest—need to be hardy, adaptable, drought-, wind-, and heat-tolerant, and able to take a soaking.

Zack helped me bring in ground-covering junipers, a blue pine, a creeping cedar, and bulletproof Mexican sedums. Quintessential toughies. I added Mediterranean herbs, desert sage, and a blue fescue—also no wimps. Arrayed against the railings and on the garden’s southern exposure, they take the brunt of the sun and wind, and act as a sort of hedgerow protecting the more delicate plants behind them—coleus, basil, sweet potato, dracaena, and a bowl of wheatgrass for our cat Uli.

Close-up of the blue-tinted needles on a blue pine’s foliage.
I love the color and scent of my little blue pine. Photo: Tim Heffernan

Conditions on your balcony or deck will be different from mine, but you can find plants that are adapted to it. The important thing is to find the right ones, not to try forcing a plant into being something it’s not. People on the effectively sunless north side of our building, for example, raise shade-loving things like hostas. My neighbor Mike, a fourth-generation Queens florist, grows lemon trees on his south-facing furnace of a balcony (and brings them indoors in winter—they can’t take a frost). Friends in West Virginia raise bumper crops of purple Thai basil on their shade-dappled deck; I have better luck with Genovese basil (the classic Italian variety), which thrives in the sun.

So, seek out a few local garden centers and speak with the staff about your conditions and wants; they’ll be able to recommend plants that will work well. And many mail-order companies specialize in regionally appropriate plants. I frequent High Country Gardens, for example, because they have lots of beautiful xeric (dry-adapted) offerings that can handle my little mediterranean patch.

Go big and be bold

Last summer’s successes helped me focus my approach to this year’s balcony garden. The coleus seem to love it out there, and I certainly love the wild colors of their leaves—electric greens, bold magentas, dark purples, watermelon pinks. I’ll bring them back. Same for the sweet potato vines. They grow quickly, and I adore their trailing form and the way their dark foliage creates a backdrop that highlights the brighter stuff. Angelonia is another no-brainer: It flowers seemingly forever and basks in brutal heat and sun.

Close-up of the foliage of a sweet potato plant, displaying a mix of green and purple leaves.
The sweet potato leaves start out green, but soon turn dark purple. Photo: Tim Heffernan

The sedums—the shaggy lime-green things in the reed-fence picture—I also dig, but they seem a bit one-note on their own in those big pots. I’ll probably chop them in half when spring arrives and stuff in some contrasting companions, like dark-leaf succulents or hardy cacti. Ground-covering thymes in various scents (I’m thinking bergamot, lavender, and caraway) will fill gaps in other pots. Adding more scented stuff, period, is on my mind (gray creeping germander, I’m looking forward to meeting you). I’m also paying more attention to plant forms, leaf shape and colors, and flowering habits. So a long-flowering creeping rosemary will crown one of my six strawberry pots, and I’ll put all of them to better use—I started too late last year to utilize all their many planting-holes to full effect. Heck, I’m pretty sure I can use the back side of the big one to grow ferns: It never receives direct sunlight.

The idea that a single pot can be a garden unto itself—that you’re not limited to “one pot, one plant”—also came from Zack. His philosophy seems to be “more is more.” Check out this hanging planter, which he made from a hollowed-out widescreen TV:

The lush and colorful foliage of various plants in a planter.
Zack’s riotous planter shows off the benefits of overstuffing your containers. Photo: Tim Heffernan

It’s only 4 inches deep and gets full sun, yet it might as well be a rainforest. (That’s coleus, sweet potato, verbena, lantana, petunia, and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten). On a lesser scale, my pot of basil, sweet potato, and coleus is one of my favorites.

One last benefit to gardening with annuals I appreciated only after last year’s growing season ended: It made winterizing my garden easy. I was sad to see the annuals die when the frost arrived, but I didn’t miss the song and dance I went through trying to keep my perennial seedlings alive through the winter a few years ago. Every time bad weather threatened, I’d bring them all inside; every time it was nice, I lugged them back out. That wasn’t gardening—it was babysitting. I want to enjoy my plants, not worry about them, and I finally know how to do that. Now I can focus on the happy, hopeful task of making my garden truly my own.

This article was edited by Daniela Gorny and Harry Sawyers.

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