High Altitude Balcony Gardening in the Shade

High altitude gardening can be a real challenge. So can container gardening on a balcony or deck. And, so can gardening in the shade, since many plants prefer sunlight.


It takes a determined gardener to successfully grow plants at altitude, on a balcony, in the shade. But even if those are the conditions you’re facing, don’t worry — there are things that you could probably succeed with growing. At least, I’ve had some successes with growing various plants in containers on a tiny shaded balcony at 10,000 feet above sea level. The following are plants you have a good chance of successfully growing in these conditions:

Dwarf Nasturtiums

I chose to grow a couple of potted nasturtiums because my daughter begged for flowers. I was skeptical that they’d do well in our particular growing conditions, but was pleasantly surprised at how well they thrived. We enjoyed (and in fact, are still enjoying) multiple blooms on each plant.


My husband Mike observed that the flowers have done better than any of the edibles I planted. Amazingly, they also did better than other nasturtiums I planted in the ground in the past. These grew into massive vines and bloomed like crazy, whereas the ones we planted in the ground remained small and had 0-1 blooms each. I used seeds from the same pack for both crops – but they were grown in substantially different locations. The ones here are planted in flower pots that I think are too small for them, and they still managed to thrive.


So if you want to grow flowers in your high-altitude balcony garden, definitely consider dwarf nasturtiums as a possibility. I got my dwarf nasturtium seeds https://www.marysheirloomseeds.com/products/nasturtium-dwarf-jewel-mix from Mary at Mary’s Heirloom Seeds.

Mary was the one who introduced me to these in the first place; I wouldn’t have been likely to buy them without her influence. She wrote about nasturtium in her guide to companion planting, https://www.marysheirloomseeds.com/blogs/news/34317633-companion-planting which is where I learned about these flowers. She recommends them as being excellent companions to plant with broccoli, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squashes, radishes, and tomatoes.

Extra Dwarf Pak Choi

One of my best balcony garden successes for summer 2019 was the extra dwarf pak choi I planted. I also endured some failures with the same seeds.


The successful plants were ones I had planted in yogurt containers filled with ordinary local dirt collected from the ground. The unsuccessful plants were ones I planted in commercial potting soil, with commercial compost added to the top.


Weird, yes, but those were my results.


It’s also worth noting that the successful pak choi plants weren’t at all deterred by a bit of crowding. They grew to maturity successfully even when there were up to 3 plants packed into a 32 oz yogurt container.


The successes were particularly remarkable considering that my dwarf pak choi seeds were several years old and had endured some bouts of extreme heat while being transported in the car across country, several times. Many of the other seeds I acquired at the same time failed to germinate, but the pak choi germinated well. Most of the seeds remained viable.

Catnip

Catnip thrives in our cool, shady balcony garden – even when grown in too-small yogurt containers. The cat is happy.

Chives

My chive seedlings are only a few weeks old, but so far they are doing well. I am hoping for success with this crop – but we’ll see how they do. I’ll most likely be bringing them inside this winter rather than subjecting them to snow.


We live in one of the snowiest inhabited places on earth. In 2019, it didn’t stop snowing until around the first of June. Right now, it’s too early for us to harvest any chives from these plants; but I’d hate for them to lose out on any of what should be the spring growing season due to our standing forecast of spring blizzard conditions.


I’d like to plant a few more chives, but all of this will limit how many I should realistically plant. We have 3 people plus a cat living in 450 square feet of space (which might sound small to you, but it’s actually palatial compared to the boat we used to live in). If I bring the chives inside for the winter, we’ll all be tripping over them until spring – so I can’t overdo it with the numbers I plant.

Cilantro

In theory, cilantro should be a no-brainer to grow up here in the mountains. Cilantro loves cool weather, and our cool summers should have theoretically been ideal for growing this herb. As it turns out, though, cilantro isn’t the easiest thing to grow in a cool, dry environment. I found out through trial and error that this plant prefers a cool, moist environment.


Funny thing. Mike and I tried growing cilantro when we lived aboard a sailboat and were cruising the California coast (at sea level, obviously). The cilantro plants we grew in the sailboat thrived as we cruised around Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Catalina Island and the other Channel Islands.


In contrast, most of the cilantro plants I started in spring of 2019 (up on the balcony, at an altitude of 10,000 feet) did not reach maturity. I blame myself for this. The plants should have been watered 1-2 times per day. In most cases, when I lost a plant, it was because I was late in watering it.


There are days when life gets in the way of me watering the plants, despite my best intentions. So, unless I can implement a drip irrigation system (TOTALLY unlikely), I’m not planning to waste the space on growing cilantro in the future. I think it would be possible, but I’m personally going to stick with things that are easy. But if you’re determined to grow cilantro at altitude in a shady balcony garden, you could most likely do it if you are committed to watering the plants frequently. I encourage you to try it.

Radishes

If you want to grow radishes for their leaves, you can definitely enjoy success with that in a shady, high-altitude balcony garden. For me, the jury is still out as to whether it is possible to grow fully-developed radish roots at altitude in the shade in containers. I haven’t succeeded with that so far, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be done. If you have any experience with this one way or the other, I welcome your comments. (I welcome your comments anyway!)


I planted my radishes in 32-oz yogurt containers – which are obviously far too small for successful growing of root crops. I knew this going into it, so it wasn’t exactly a shock when my radish roots failed to develop. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how well the radish leaves developed in those cramped growing conditions. But, obviously, if you want to succeed with growing container radishes at altitude, you will need a bigger container than the ones I started with.


It’s also important to note that our radishes grew much more slowly than is typical. I’m guessing that’s because of the shade, but the small containers might have also been an issue.


The radish leaves we harvested were spectacularly flavorful. We used them to spice up our salads.


One more important note: I don’t actually recommend growing edible plants in yogurt containers or other plastic containers if you have the means to get better ones. It’s possible that chemicals from the plastic can leach into the soil and be absorbed by the plants. It is not at all ideal. I’m doing it this way because I think doing it this way is preferable to not doing it at all. I would like to upgrade my containers, but so far have had to prioritize other things instead of that.

Looking Ahead to My Spring 2020 Balcony Garden

I learned a whole bunch of important things this year. For starters, last year’s prolonged winter caught me by surprise. I started seedlings waaayyyyy too early.


I had stored all my containers out on the balcony, and when March rolled around, the balcony was still so covered in snow that it was impossible to retrieve them. I didn’t let that stop me; I started my seedlings in coconut coir pellets.


But, as March turned into April, the snow failed to stop falling. My seedlings outgrew the pellets, and they became leggy-looking and light-starved. As April progressed and the snow still didn’t start to melt even then, I endured bunches of failures before I even really had a chance to get started.


This is just one of those things you’ll occasionally have to deal with if you’re balcony gardening in an area with a short growing season. Lesson learned for the future: I’ll have to either delay seed starting a bit longer, or store some of my pots and soil inside so I can actually access them when it’s time for transplanting. Neither option stands out as being an attractive one, but that’s the situation I’m dealing with.


This fall, I’m planning to start some new chive seedlings, some mint plants and some more dwarf pak choi.


Right now, we’re spending around $80 per year on onions. I’m hoping that having fresh chives will help us reduce that amount by at least half. We shall see if it actually works out that way. I anticipate that the mint will save us a small fortune on teas if it is successful. Let’s hope it will be!


If you’d like to grow plants on a balcony, at high altitude, in the shade, I hope you will find this information helpful and encouraging. I’m not an expert at this, so if I can do it, I think anyone else could probably do it, too.