Been lurking around for a few weeks here, and I was excited to see there was a forum for urban growing... but 1/6th acre lots? 1/5th? That's hardly urban where I come from! I'd like to see more discussion about how to apply permaculture tactics in an apartment setting, so here's starting one about balcony gardens.
What's the highest yield balcony garden you've seen? What kind of containers? If you have a balcony garden, has the landlord or HOA given you a hard time about it?
I can't say highest yield, but this is one of the most interesting setups I have seen so far:
Window Farms are vertical hydroponic systems that you can mount onto a window. I think this design could be adapted to a balcony area by hanging the strings of bottles from the roof line or hanging them opposite of the side where the doors move into.
I was never very good at keeping track of my yield, but I used to do really well with tomatoes (south-facing balcony on concrete building = proper suntrap), and lots of herbs and salad leaves. Baby chard was a good one too -- I tried growing that in 2 litre soda bottles once, although I wasn't wholly convinced. A little bag of potatoes didn't have a huge yield but I do love salad potatoes. Courgettes didn't do so well as on the 1st floor there weren't any pollinators around and I couldn't get the knack of doing it myself.
If I was starting over, I'd have put more effort into self-watering containers (the ones I had were brilliant), and bigger containers to hold more water at a time. Keeping everything wet in hot weather was the biggest challenge and the thing that I find most annoying about containers.
Technically my balcony garden was illegal/against the building covenant as you weren't supposed to put anything at all on the balcony. This rule that was entirely ignored by everyone and the council didn't seem to care. (My suspicion is that the rule was there so that if something fell off a balcony they weren't liable.) I get the impression that this sort of thing is more acceptable in the UK anyway? I didn't quite have the nerve to take a chunk out of the drainpipe (for the entire building) in order to plumb in a water butt, though.
I do think it's possible to take a permaculture-ish approach to container growing but there are definitely challenges to overcome, and things which just aren't that possible. You're never going to get the same level of "looking after itself" that you theoretically can when gardening in the ground.
Pots -- as big as possible, & reuse where possible are my main criteria personally I have long been torn between ceramic (look nice, more sustainable, can use the pieces once they break), and plastic (hold water far, far better, lighter which can be important if on a roof/balcony). But I'm honestly not very picky about pots -- if it holds earth and drains, it's probably good though of course different plants need different depths/sizes.
You can absolutely grow trees in pots, although you need a pretty big pot for the tree to do well. A dwarfing rootstock is generally a good idea, probably self-fertile unless you have lots of space and want to grow lots of trees, and as with all container gardening, it will need more feeding and watering than a tree in the ground. I currently have a cherry in a pot but it's only 2 yrs old so not fruiting yet. Fig trees do better with their roots contained so could work well. I did try a satsuma tree but it never fruited -- possibly I bought the wrong cultivar and it wasn't self-fertile, possibly it never got hot enough for long enough, possibly something else. I live near Downings Road Moorings on the Thames, a collection of barges which have beautiful floating gardens all of which are effectively container-grown (though very big containers -- some of them are basically the whole top of the barge filled with earth -- more info here http://elainehughes.co.uk/?page_id=647 )
The plant in the photo is Swiss chard! It is in the process of going to seed -- they get absolutely enormous (5-6 feet sometimes) and then you have a vast quantity of seed. Unfortunately to breed true you have to remember to tie the tops in a bag at the crucial point, as they're wind-pollinated and will cross with any kind of leaf beet thing within half a mile. I am very bad at remembering to do this (and even worse at remembering to cut them back before the seed goes everywhere) so my 2nd generation seed tends to be an excitingly random selection of green leafy things with variously-coloured stems, popping up at random across the garden it all tastes OK though...
I'm not sure about the mycorrhizal network -- my suspicion is that it will develop poorly if at all, but that you might be able to help it along a bit? I've never investigated properly myself. I have found that in larger pots you can begin to get some soil life (especially if you're adding your own compost with the odd worm in to the pots) but it's pretty limited. In the same way that (in my experience) you have to expect to keep feeding potted plants, because you can't generate the same rich living soil in such a small space as you can in the ground, I very much doubt that you can get much mycorrhizal activity going. But I would be very happy to be proven wrong
Again, no direct experience with disease. None of my plants have ever picked nasty anything up! One advantage of pots is that you can change out the compost if you do have any problems. On the other hand I think plants in pots are or can be a bit less robust because they are more limited. Certainly they are more at risk from under watering which can definitely weaken plants -- I've had that experience :/ (I am a big fan of self-watering containers!)
You didn't tell me he was so big. Unlike this tiny ad: