Photo credit Markus Spiske.

Resilience Gardening is a new feature during the pandemic in which Director of Horticulture Leigh Talmo gives tips to new gardeners interested in regenerative gardening. This month, we discuss starting a new balcony container garden. 

AG: What is the first thing to do to get started with a food garden? What if you only have a sunny balcony?

LT: If you are gardening on a sunny balcony, you will need some kind of container. Get creative with this! You can build a box, reuse a shipping crate, or repurpose old nursery pots. I have even planted in a recycled French Horn! Almost anything will work, so long as you put good soil in it. The most important thing is to grow your food in healthy soil.

If you have a sunny balcony, and you don’t have access to compost, buy a nice potting soil. Make sure that you purchase potting soil and not “planting mix.” Planting mix is designed to amend the soil that you already have – unlike potting soil, it isn’t a good medium for starting seeds.

If you dig up soil from an empty lot, you are not going to have a lot of success in growing food without amending it, and you won’t know if the soil is toxic.

AG: What should new gardeners plant during the pandemic?

LT: I always tell everyone to start small. Begin by listing your favorite vegetables – don’t waste effort planting things you aren’t going to want to eat.

After listing your favorites, you need to figure out what when they should be planted in Southern California. Look for planting information specific to our local climate. Do not always trust what you find available commercially. There might be lettuce seedlings for sale at some nurseries in the Spring, but they will burn in our hot, dry weather. Here is my basic list for planting in Southern California in the Spring:

Fruits in Solanaceae: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant

Fruits in Cucurbitaceae: squash (summer or winter), cucumber

I would also include beans (not peas — plant those in the Fall) and potatoes, which are really fun to grow! If I was growing on a balcony, I would plant pole beans because they grow vertically and save space.

AG: What is a good plant for new victory gardens that feeds not only humans, but also insects and birds?” 

LT: I always like to have something in the garden that attracts pollinators, and plants with umbels of flowers [an inflorescence with many individual flowers radiating out to form a miniature parasol] tend to do that. Fennel and other members of the carrot family (such as celery) are typical examples of plants that form umbels.*

Letting some of your food plants flower and go to seed can also attract both pollinators and seed-eating insects and birds.

AG: For new gardeners looking to start planting more-or-less immediately, what is a good place to buy organic potting soil in Los Angeles County?

LT: Artemisia Nursery in El Sereno is one of my favorites! They have a custom organic mix which is really good, and they carry Arlington Garden marmalade. You can also buy organic blends of potting soil from Fig Earth Supply in Highland Park. And Armstrong Garden Center in Pasadena sells good organic potting soil and also our Arlington Garden marmalade!

NOTE: All three nurseries have curbside pickup. Armstrong and Artemisia Nursery also offer home delivery options.

* many poisonous wild members of the carrot family also form umbels. It goes without saying that you should never use wild members of the family without consulting experts.

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