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I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. It's in wintertime that we relax and enjoy photos and memories of last year's garden. Maybe you even canned or pickled some of the vegetables you grew, and are now enjoying the fruits of your labor. Not to mention that all the glorious seed and plant catalogs come in--you guessed it--winter.
It is also during winter that you get to plan and dream of next's year's garden. Here are some questions to help you focus your plans for your 2011 container garden.
What type of sunlight does your balcony or patio get?
Full sun (6-8 hours)? Filtered light? Partial-shade (Some direct sunlight, but less than 6 hours of it)? Full shade (no direct sunlight)? While you're eying all those gorgeous plant catalogs, and magazines, keep in mind your sunlight situation. Matching plants to light conditions and watering correctly will solve the majority of problems container gardeners face. Believe it or not, you can prevent many pest problems by simply growing full-sun plants in full-sun conditions, full-shade plants in full-shade conditions, etc.
Do you have a long growing season or a short one?
Another way to increase your odds of success is to choose plants appropriate to your zone (i.e. tomatoes that don’t need a lot of heat for colder climates, or low-chill fruit trees if you live in an area with mild winters). Never heard of "zones" before? The USDA divided America into zones based on the average winter low temperature. You can find out your zone by entering your zipcode into this website.
Sometimes, even though you live in a certain zone, specific conditions on your balcony can be warmer or colder than the area as a whole. For example, building walls attract heat during the day, and release it at night. This can help keep tender plants happy on chilly nights. Unfortunately, the only way to learn about the micro zones on your balcony or patio is through trial and error.
Do you like to cook? What about bouquets of flowers?
If you enjoy cooking, or even if you just enjoy the flavor of fresh picked fruits and vegetables, you should definitely try growing some of your favorite foods. Or at least grow a few of your favorite herbs. Chives clipped fresh from the garden are so much better than those slimy ones stuffed into plastic boxes and sold at the supermarket. Trust me.
And if you like tucking fresh bouquets of flowers in every room of your house, you definitely need to grow a cutting garden. Flowers cut directly from the garden will last even longer than the ones you buy at your favorite florist. You'll also be able to grow interesting flowers not available in most shops. Or you can grow only flowers that match your decor. Whatever you decide to grow, growing your own will be cheaper than buying a dozen roses, that's for sure!
Would you like to attract birds? Butterflies? Are you concerned about the plight of honey bees?
If you like watching mother nature at work, choose plants with birds, bees, and butterflies in mind. That means using plants that provide food or shelter to your winged friends. For example, hummingbirds are attracted to red, tubular flowers. Have you ever noticed black spots or splotches on some flowers? Those are actually signals to bees, directing them to the flower's pollen. If you live in Monarch butterflies migration path, their caterpillars will only eat the leaves of a plant called Milkweed (Asclepias). Thus, they will only lay their eggs on that particular plant.
Also, remember not to spray with pesticides if you’re trying to attract wildlife!
Are you into DIY or crafts?
For the DIY'ers and craftmeisters out there, why not grow your own supplies? You can grow birdhouse gourds (Cucurbita lagenaria) along your balcony railing, or plants commonly used in crafts, like lavender. How cool would it be if you could give lavender sachets as gifts, when you not only made the sachet, but grew and dried the lavender?!