Balcony Vegetable Garden: an Illustrated Step-by-Step Guide

Balcony Vegetable Garden: an Illustrated Step-by-Step Guide

A short guide to starting and growing your vegetable garden on a balcony.  This guide includes links to where to buy all of the needed ingredients, online resources and tips.  My own balcony garden in San Francisco, California, on the 3rd level above ground and is now 4 years old.

Table of Contents

  1. Location
  2. Planters
  3. Soil and Fertilizer
  4. Seeds
  5. Seedlings
  6. When and How to Plant
  7. Plants I like
  8. Drip Irrigation


I have a balcony in the city of San Francisco, but if you have a backyard then it is even better. I am in Bayview neighborhood, which gets a lot of sun, but also a lot of wind. Do check with a compass (your iPhone has it) if your location is South/South-West facing; those two are the best. In my case, the sun is traveling from left to right, and I get plenty of it. The key here is to pick a sunny spot and to position your planters correspondingly.
My Urban Garden

There's a great website that can help you visualize Sun's trajectory near your house: SunCalc.  All you have to do is type your address and the website will show you Sun's trajectory today, and also on any other day in the year.

SunCalc Sun's trajedtory

For example, in this image it shows where the Sun is now (it's about 2pm in January, the line with the orange circle), where the Sun was in the morning at 6:50am (orange line on the right), and where the Sun will set 5:24pm today (dark orange line on the left). 

Use this information to position your planters for maximum Sun exposure, and to place shade-tolerant plants in places with more shade.  


At first, my sister gave me a couple of German-made, self-watering Lechuza planters. They are great, but kind of expensive. So while I still have them, my current preference is Keter Easy Grow 32-gallon Raised Bed Planter. I bought mine for $80/each pre-Covid. Since Covid-19, the prices went up, and they are in very high demand, so if you get one for under $100 (with free S/H), it's a good deal. I have seen the prices go up as high as $240/each.
Keter Planter for my urban garden
Keter Easy Grow 31.7 Gallon Raised Garden Bed with Self Watering Planter Box and Drainage Plug
At first, I bought one, then the second one and now I have four of them.
Why I like them:
  • They are well constructed with soft and durable plastic.
  • They are BIG with a lot of surface area and, even more importantly, depth.
  • They are inexpensive; you get a lot for $80.
  • They have double-bottom for self-watering capabilities, so they maintain a more stable moisture level in the box (never seen it dry out).  
  • I like their height, easy to work with
  • They look good!
  • UPDATE April 2022: I am still happy with these planters. They feel like small raised beds and I have been growing massive tomato plants (3 in each) along with other veggies.
  • UPDATE August 2023: still happy with the planters.  Plus, I noticed a lot of earthworms in them (great sign!) which means they don't dry out, and earthworms fertilize the soil
  • UPDATE March 2024: still love them. I stopped turning soil last year, so now have plenty of earthworms in them (yay!)
I also have a couple of Lechuza planters, and while I think they look great indoors, for outdoors, they did not work for me as well as Keter, probably because they are just too small.
Lechuza planters for my urban garden
Lechuza Cascada
Here is what my current layout looks like. The key features I see for planters are:
  • Self-watering is really effective, i.e., a water reservoir to store excess water when it rains and to provide water when the weather is dry.
  • Volume, the more, the better. More volume, more soil, more nutrients. In smaller volume planters, the soil gets too hot or too cold. In smaller containers, roots do not have enough space to grow.


My balcony garden, after the rain

My balcony, March 2020 after a rain

Soil and Fertilizer

For soil I use Kellogg Garden Organics Patio Plus Organic Potting Mix:
Kellogg Organics, Patio Plus soil
Kellogg Patio Plus, Outdoor Potting Mix
Why I like it:
  • Good, light soil with a lot of organic content (wood chips, I think).
  • Inexpensive and easily available from Home Depot.
  • It is not loaded with fertilizer like some others.
  • UPDATE Jul 2020: based on my recent experience, their organic content will only be enough for a few months to fertilize your plants. Don’t forget to fertilize in 2-3 months, or your plants will suffer.
  • UPDATE Jan 2021: I think this soil alone can get too heavy and compressed over time. This year, I am adding peat moss, perlite and a bit of compost to it.
  • UPDATE Apr 2022: I decided to add Chicken manure to this soil.  Plus I noticed that with peat moss in it, the soil really compacted in a year, so I have to add more.  
For fertilizer, I decided to stick with the same brand for now with their Organic Plus, Tomato, Vegetable and Herb Fertilizer.
Kellogg Organic Plus fertilizer
Organic fertilizer from Kellogg
When I fill the planters, I mix the fertilizer with the soil according to instructions. I also added a few other things like eggshells or banana peels. And I am experimenting with other fertilizers (like Epsom salt), but try not to add too much of it.
UPDATE Jul 2020: one issue with the fertilizer above is that it is not water-soluble, so it is harder to apply later in the season. So I am also using two water-soluble Miracle Grow fertilizers.
First, 24-8-16 is high in Nitrogen and good for leafy greens and overall plant growth. Remember to add this monthly to your garden. Your organic, non-water-soluble fertilizer will last for 2-3 months and then will run out. So after 2-3 months, start monthly watering with Miracle Grow or other soluble fertilizer (organic options are also available).
Miracle Grow Plant food for my urban garden
Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food
And the second one for Tomatoes specifically, more balanced (18-18-21), less Nitrogen and more P/K for better roots and blossom:
Miracle Grow Tomato food
Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food   
  • UPDATE Jan 2021: One additional soil fertilizer/additive I am introducing in 2021 is lime. Lime is meant to balance pH in the soil. For example, peat moss and compost will make it more acidic, so lime which is alkaline, will bring the pH back. Add lime to your soil mix early on, or sprinkle it on top of the soil.
  • UPDATE Oct 2021: my tomatoes developed blossom end rot towards the end of the season, so I will be adding more Garden Lime sprinkled on top and dissolved in water.  Garden Lime contains Calcium which is an antidote for blossom end rot.
Also, a note on organic (Kellogg's) and non-organic (Miracle Gro) fertilizers.  This organic fertilizer is slow-release and takes months to release its nutrients, so non-organic Miracle Gro is my quick-release, quick-fix fertilizer.  I use a combination of slow-release organic and quick-release non-organic when needed.  With Miracle Gro, you'll see results in 1-2 weeks or sooner.
Espoma Garden Lime
Garden Lime for pH 


I do not have a preferred supplier of seeds at this point. I get them from multiple sources:
  • Sprouts Farmers Market seed rack (usually by the entrance), Botanical Interests brand. Good experience so far, can’t complain.
  • (the owner has a petty cool YouTube Channel that I watch a lot). They have issues with inventory and are often sold out.
  • Home Depot (I do not like them for some reason, probably the packets are too bright), Burpee?
  • My mom (she gets hers from all sorts of places, including making her own)

My seeds packets from Sprouts and other places

Small part of my seed collection 

Sprouts Seeds rack, my favorite hangout spot

Seeds rack at Sprouts Farmers Market in Daly City, CA


Some plants you'd need to plant indoors first, grow seedlings, then replant them outside. Below, I’ll refer to the online resource, which will tell you which would need to be started indoors. In those cases, I found this old method to work quite well: egg cartons!
You take an empty egg carton, fill it with seed starting mix (link below), find a tray for it (like an aluminum baking tray), plant seed and water once a day. Water the tray itself for best results. Because it's a paper carton, it acts as a sponge and keeps the soil nice and moist. As an additional benefit, it's fully biodegradable, so you can plant this carton right in. I usually cut out individual casings (12 total) and plant them as-is to not disturb the roots.
Egg Cartons for seedlings
Egg cartons and aluminum baking tray
Seedlings in egg cartons for my city garden
Egg carton with seedlings
Note that you want to use the special Seed Starting Mix, not regular soil for this, like this one from Home Depot. No fertilizer is needed.
In the beginning, seeds usually have enough nutrients to get started on their own, so the seed starting mix doesn’t have to have nutrients. What it does need is a clean substrate free of other (weed) seeds and fungal/other diseases. You can also make your own mix from a) peat moss, b) perlite, c) vermiculite.  My experience with my own seed starting mix wasn't successful so far, the one below is better.
Jiffy Organic Seed Starting Mix
Jiffy Seed Starting mix
UPDATE August 2023: I now no longer use the egg carton.  They're too small, don't hold enough soil and tend to dry out too quickly.  So instead, I recommend Epic Garden Seed trays:
UPDATE March 2024: I still very much love Epic Garden seed trays and have 10 trays now that allows me to start 240 plants.  Very well made product, worth the expense!
They cost a little more, but they're very well made, they'll last and they are designed well with enough depth for the roots to grow.  I actually bought 8 trays with 32 cells in each and love using them.  

When and how to plant

Different veggies and herbs like different weather, different watering, and different neighbors. The best online resource I found is the following website:
The first step here is to figure out which USDA Hardiness Zone you live in. Basically, are you in Alaska climate, Minnesota or Florida?  Interestingly though, in San Francisco Bay Area, we have 3 different climate zones.
Follow this link to determine your hardiness zone from your zip code (mine is 10b, for example, in southeast SF):
USDA Hardiness Zones
USDA Hardiness Zones
Remember the zone for your zip code and pick it in the dropdown on
For every major vegetable, will tell you:
  • What months are best for planting (e.g Mar, Apr)
  • Should it be started in seed trays or outside
  • How to plant it
  • What neighbors does it prefer and which it doesn’t (e.g., cucumbers don’t like tomatoes) guide for 10b zone for cucumber guide for 10b zone for cucumber
Alright, now you’re dangerous
The next steps are seed planting and watering daily. Then, watching the plants grow and eating them, of course!
Happy Gardening!

Plants I like

You probably have a good idea of what you want to plant. A general rule of thumb: Plant what you like to eat. 
In five years of gardening, I developed a second rule of thumb:
  I’d rather eat a little bit every day than a lot during the summer harvest.
So it means I like to plant a lot of greens, herbs, radishes, chives, Swiss chard, plants with a short planting-to-harvesting cycle.
My favorites are...

Leafy Greens for Salads:

  1. Swiss Chard. It has a better texture than kale in salads and just as nutritious. Plus, it’s super colorful AND it grows all season long. I now prefer it to kale
  2. Kale. It is hardy (survives droughts or over-watering). It grows fast. It is nutritious. It grows to relatively large plants. For salads, go for Red Russian Kale and Dinosaur varieties.
  3. Arugula. It grows fast. It tastes great. It’s nutritious.
  4. Lettuce. It grows fast. It produces a lot of volume.
  5. Mustard Greens. It is similar to kale but better tasting. Big plants, fast growing.
  6. Spinach. Nutritious, grows fast, medium volume though.

Herbs for taste and flavor:

  1. Dill. Tastes great and grows surprisingly fast under the right conditions, produces a lot of volume for an herb. Plant it in the winter.
  2. Cilantro. Tastes great, grows fast, not as much volume as dill, but still
  3. Parsley.  You have to be patient with it, it takes a while to get going, but once it does, you’ll be adding parsley to all your dishes.
  4. Mint. I love black tea with mint, and mint grows super fast and produces a lot of volume. Remember to plant it in a separate container, otherwise, it will take over and will force other plants out.  

Typical daily harvest

Typical daily harvest 

“Meaty” veggies:

  1. Radishes. Grow in 4-6 weeks, can seed close to each other, so produces a lot per row.
  2. Tomatoes. This is the first one that I have to wait for the harvest for a long time (4 months?), but its usually worth the wait. Usually, a hardy plant that grows very fast and indeterminate type varieties can be harvested for 5-6 months.
  3. Snap peas: great success in the winter months here in California.  
  4. Cucumbers: mixed success so far with inconsistent watering (which they hate), so this year, I am putting a more consistent watering system in place. I will update you later in the year.
  5. Beets: trying them out this year for the first time.

Flowers for decoration and pollinators:

UPDATE Oct 2021: Over the years, I started growing more flowers.  In my opinion they bring so many more insects to my garden and that's good overall.  This year, I am growing Nasturtiums, Violas, Salvia, Marigolds and Petunias.  I see bees in my garden every day now, as well as Hummingbirds.  That can't be bad :)

  1. Nasturtium. Grows very well and quickly in my climate, great germination rates and doesn't need much care.  I like it both for cute green and abundant leaves and for pretty yellow, orange, red flowers.  For them to blossom all year long and stay healthy remember to prune them aggressively, and they'll grow right back and blossom.
  2. Petunia. Esp. Laura Bush variety.  Love for the color and that they blossom all season long, hardy, drought-resistant, don't need much care (except deadheading once in a while)
  3. California Poppies Native flowers and our State Flower.  In my experience, not as hardy as the other two, especially in the first few months.  Need to be watered properly and have enough space around them
  4. Johny Jump-up Viola.  Super cute family of flowers, smaller and tender that fit in tight spots and self-seed.  Mine died several times but like Phoenix their self-seeding brings them back
  5. Red Salvia. Hummingbirds love them, and I love watching hummingbirds 

Flower garden on a balcony

Drip Irrigation

In my 3rd year, I decided to add a drip-irrigation system to my garden for a number of reasons:

  • It's just easier and takes less time to water my 14 planters with them.  I just turn on the spigot in the morning for a few minutes and turn them off.  And if you add a timer, you won't even need to do that
  • Less deceases of all sorts.  A lot of fungal deceases develop from overhead watering
  • Develops better roots and more even watering

After researching a number of drop-irrigation kits, I finally decided to built my own.  Unfortunately, I haven't found a way around it: you kind of have to design it to fit your specific garden, your layout, your planters, your veggies.  And that means, pen and paper and drawing a diagram of how it will look.

I went with a company Drip Depot as they let you pick individual components, have every single thing imaginable and relatively inexpensive.

My list of parts is long.  Yes, it takes time.  Yes, it's all worth it in the end, considering how much time you save watering your plants every morning.

First set of parts:

and the second part:

 There're roughly 3 parts to the entire system:

  • Main plumbing
  • Secondary plumbing
  • Connection to the main water source

Main plumbing is your main hose, in my case 1/2'' that distributes water to each planter. 

Main 1/2'' hose in two planters with an elbow/L connector

Another main hose line, placed inside the planters. A couple elbow connectors and an end plug.

Secondary plumbing are narrower tubes that distribute water within each planter.  I went with 1/4'' drip lines with water emitters each 6''.  These connect to main 1/2'' tubing.  Think of how your body distributes blood, main arteries and narrower capillaries.


1/4'' drip lines connected to 1/2'' hose with aluminum stakes

Barb tubing coupling for 1/4'' drip lines and main 1/2'' hose

You might also need regular 1/4'' tubing that doesn't drip water but just distributes it.

Regular 1/4'' tubing (no emitters) which then connects to drip lines with "L" connectors

Then you need a set of "T" and "L" connectors for 1/2'' and 1/4'' tubing and drip lines, endcaps for both 1/2'' and 1/4'', and a few valves in case if you want to turn off watering some sections of your garden.

Finally, all of this is connected to your main water source.  This one requires a few parts:

  1. Hose Vacuum Breaker
  2. Tee water filter
  3. Pressure Regulator
  4. Timer (optional)


Plan to have a few days to put it all together.  Have a bucket of hot water handy so that you dip vinyl tubing in it first before inserting plastic connectors (your fingers will thank you) and go slow.  This is a really fun high-school science project :). Trust me, you'll be super happy and proud to see it all working :)  


Happy Gardening!



Max with Alyona's workThis guide was written by Max Khusid. In his spare from gardening time, Max runs a small art gallery in San Francisco. 

Max's mission with Art House SF is to introduce more people to the amazing world of art.  I hope more people can have original, beautiful, eclectic artwork in the house.

Check out the rest of my website and maybe you can find a special art piece that will make your home even happier. 



Max Khusid

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