Going potty on your balcony

Your plants can be ornamental, flowering, fruiting or even vegetables --the choice is yours

Do you live in an apartment with a balcony perhaps the only space to grow something? What can I grow on my balcony you may wonder. The answer is literally any pot plant.

Plants for your balcony can be chosen according to the medium they’re grown in- those growing in soil, in water (aquatics like the water lily) or those attached to supports. Ephiphytes like orchids grow attached to tree trunks and boughs. Then there are the xerophytes, like the cactii which prefer a dry growing medium.

So balcony plants can be ornamental, flowering, fruiting or even vegetables the choice is yours. In my undergrad days at the Arunachalam Hall of the Peradeniya University I had a room with a balcony. It was clean but empty and I used it to study my Zoology, Chemistry and Botany. Finding it lacking in life, I went trekking up Hantane hill and there in the patchy forests discovered a vast array of plants which I would selectively bring back and grow on my balcony.

Orchids are hardy plants. The ones I collected from Hantane were epiphytic (growing on other plants). Epiphytes derive nutrients from which they grow. Growing them was easy and fun. All I had to do was attach the plants to a piece of decaying wood and thereafter spray it with water every morning.

My balcony soon blossomed with colour, with orchids in bloom and those waiting to bloom. Two years later when I left Arunachalam Hall, the Senior Sub-Warden had the orchids transferred to his balcony. Like me he too obviously loved living with nature.

If you’re in a seaside apartment, you may find salinity in the blowing wind. One that thrives in such conditions is Aloe Vera. This xerophyte (plant growing in a dry environment) can grow in your balcony totally unattended. It can be grown in a pot or wooden box and requires no watering. It produces attractive panicles of flowers from time to time. Aloe has tremendous medicinal properties and is a useful natural remedy that can be applied on a burn, immediately after it happens.

Edible mushrooms

Aloe is also good for treating mild gastritis, for relieving the burning sensation that one sometimes experiences. I first shave off the green outer covering of the aloe leaf, cut it into thin long slices, then immerse the slices in pre-boiled water for 15 -20 minutes, finally draining off the slimy water. I add the prepared slices to a salad or eat them fresh. So aloe can be both aesthetic and healing.

If you’re into fruits, then conisder turning your balcony into a place for dwarf varieties of fruit plants like ambarella, guava, star fruit and Anoda or custard apple.

Of course these plants need a suitably big pot and once placed may be difficult to shift around. They may also require periodic pruning to keep them manageable but once fruiting starts you can enjoy a feast of guava or ambarella.

These fruits are good sources of Vitamin C when fully ripe. Biting through a hard fruit like guava is good for the gums. Raw ambarella is good for those with mildly raised blood pressure.

Your balcony can also be a place to grow lime, which is such an important ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking. Imagine being able to pluck your own limes off your balcony than having to pay for some measly looking fruit. While I haven’t experimented with dwarf lime myself, its cousins lemon and lemonine are easily grown in a balcony space.

Another epiphyte worth considering for a balcony is the mushroom, which grows well in cool, shady places.

Mushroom protein is of high quality and it also has nutritionally excellent trace elements zinc and chromium, required for body growth and functioning. Mushroom also produces phytosterol which reduces absorption of cholesterol from foods of animal origin.

Mushroom has to be trained to grow in an enriched medium of saw dust. Mushroom for home growing is prepared by inoculating the spawn in this sawdust medium.

Polythene packs of ready to germinate mushroom spawn can be got from plant sales outlets.

Place them in a cool shady space (away from sunlight or under a dark covering) and follow the package instructions. Experiment with a few till you get it right. You should have a steady supply of mushroom for your table.

And if it’s flowers you want, especially the fragrant kind, try araliya or better still the gardenia, another hardy and free blossoming plant. You won’t want to leave your balcony!

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