In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of gardening, and this year is no exception. I've lived in my current condo for five years, and have gardened on my balcony for just as long. As spring finally starts to emerge, I'm beginning to plan what I want to grow this year. Historically I've grown all manner of vegetables, and a handful of flowers here and there to add a splash of colour. I still intend to grow veggies this year, but I'd also like to consider some environmental causes that I could support with my little concrete platform in the sky.
In particular, I'd like to do something to entice bees and butterflies to stop by and feed, breed, rest, and recuperate.
Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed, a flowering perennial plant. Common milkweed is a particular (and–unsurprisingly–common) variety of milkweed that grows throughout much of central and eastern North America. Until very recently, milkweed had been viewed as an invasive, pernicious weed by most farmers and gardeners, and subject to numerous efforts to get rid of it. Fortunately for me, common milkweed grows in spades on my parents' farm, so I will be transplanting a bunch of it to Toronto this spring.
Toronto friends: If you'd like some milkweed for your own balcony, all you need to do is ask!
Aphids are assholes. Not a year has gone by that they haven't invaded my balcony garden, and in particular my bell pepper plants. Unfortunately, aphids will sap milkweed plants, and will actively discourage monarchs from laying eggs on plants where they are present. Luckily, controlling aphids requires nothing more than a bit of time and dedication–something I wish I'd known when I first started my garden. If you don't want to invest in any extra supplies, you can gently rub them off of afflicted plants with your thumb and forefinger. It's super effective! For aphids on the flowering part of a plant, I recommend spraying soapy water followed by a light clean-water rinse, as the flower is delicate and touching it will often break it off the plant.
Milkweed is all good and well when it's acting as a monarch caterpillar bed-and-breakfast, but in order for that to happen, I need to convince some monarch moms and dads to stop by. In order to do this, I'm going to plant some flowers that are "rich in colour and nectar". Apart from milkweed, most of the articles I'm reading mention zinnia and calendula. Another contender is buddleja buzz, also known as butterfly bush. You can see this flower in the header image for this post, which I took at Franklin's Pollination Station on Toronto Island–a destination that you should absolutely check out if you're looking for something to do on a sunny spring day.
A lot of the flowers that you can use to attract butterflies do double-duty in supporting bees, or even triple-duty in enticing hummingbirds–although I'm harbouring no illusions of seeing a hummingbird on our 14th-floor balcony in a high-density downtown neighbourhood.
Ok, I've covered a lot of what I want to do differently with my garden this year, but little of what I normally do. Back to basics. Back to what I know.
I love to grow tomatoes, and tend to switch up the varieties I grow every year. I got some seeds for a cute little tomato called Green Bee off the internet and I'm looking forward to growing some, although I need to get started on that since I'll be growing them from seed (more on this below). I love growing climbing peas such as sugar snap peas, because I can sit on my balcony, pluck them straight off the vine, and munch on them. I also like growing beets, carrots, and other root vegetables. You might be wondering how the hell I grow root vegetables on my balcony, and that's worth a quick mention. The answer is this: raised sub-irrigation beds, also known as self-watering planters. With the help of my dad I built two of these a number of years ago using the instructions linked above, and they've been serving me well ever since.
I used to use these planters for growing my tomato plants, but the over past year or two I've preferred to reserve them for root vegetables. Now I grow my tomato plants in hardware store buckets that I've applied the same sub-irrigation principle to.
Speaking of tomato plants, I mentioned above that I need to start my seeds soon. How exactly do I know this? Lining up all of the timelines of different plants can be a bit of a hassle, especially if you're reading the timelines from the back of multiple seed packets, but you can find some really good vegetable planting charts for the region you live in that consolidate all of the info in one place.
A parting thought: while you're dividing up your balcony between the birds and the bees (and the butterflies), spare a little space for your furry friends! A single catnip plant can go a long way 🐈