Insects winning the battle

Hello all!
I only have a very small east-facing balcony and this was my second year trying to grow vegetables (lettuce, rocket, radishes, beetroot, kale, swiss chard and carrots). I say trying because the results have not been spectacular. Of course, in such a small space (about 4ft x 3ft), you can’t expect too much. But there are so many pests attracted to my balcony that it feels like I’m fighting a losing battle. This year I’ve had aphids, whitefly, weevils, leaf miners and caterpillars happily munching on my veg and, in some cases, destroying them completely. On top of that, my swiss chard is now covered in powdery mildew.

There’s not really enough space to grow a variety a flowers in addition to veg. I have a few (fuchsia, lavender, marigolds, campanula) and I see hoverflies and bees, but no ladybirds.

Netting is an option, but it doesn’t look very good and I enjoy sitting out on the balcony and looking at the plants. It’s my only outdoor space.

Honestly, I’m thinking of giving up on veg and growing flowers only. Maybe some spaces really are too small to grow veg? I wonder, does a larger space create a better ecosystem to prevent pest problems? What would you recommend growing in extremely limited spaces? Is there any way to stop my balcony from being an all-you-can-eat buffet?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated, so I can decide what to do next year.

Hi there! I feel your frustration, but don’t give up! I grow veg on an east facing terrace which is larger but enclosed by glass balustrades. I’m afraid that this means that the air flow is reduced, and this makes it an ideal environment for insects and mildew. I have reduced my expectations and now grow mostly salad leaves, pea shoots, tomatoes and herbs. I usually manage to overwinter some cavelo nero kale and Swiss chard but otherwise nothing much over the winter. You will need to be vigilant and deal with any infestations at the earliest signs of them beginning. My cucumbers and beans quickly succumbed to red spider mite this year so I am going to have to clean thoroughly and use a biological control next year.
I often think that I will give up, but then when spring comes the urge to grow something edible takes over again!

I really do feel for you both. Balcony growing is not easy - either they are too windy or not windy enough, too hot or too cold, too wet, or too dry. Is the balcony 4 x 3 or is that the growing space when you’ve got your chairs and table out? I find growing around the chair is usually better than chair at one end and plants at the other, just for air circulation. Given the time of year I think I’d stick to hardy herbs over the winter. Thyme and rosemary are great balcony plants because their natural habitat is rocky hillsides. And parsley is realty easy too. As are marjoram and oregano - not quite the same thing although they are very closely related. Marjoram as a more gentle flavour If you don’t get frost on your balcony you should be able to manage mint and sage through the winter. And lavender is another plant that enjoys those winter hillsides. Of course it is easier to have a good eco system if you have more space, but actually hoverflies will do more to protect your plants in a small space than ladybirds will. Do you have bird feeders out? bluetits are great for keeping aphid numbers down. On the powdery mildew front spraying the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves with water will help to control it, or you can go in more aggressively with one part milk to three parts water but on a balcony this can lead to less than desirable smells. As can garlic based sprays. Forensic gardener your best bet to deal with spider mite in a small area is (after the cleanup you mention), making sure you mist under the leaves morning and evening. They hate cool damp conditions.

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Thanks very much for your replies. I’ve realised that although my balcony is east facing, it’s actually indeed more akin to a Mediterranean hillside. The 4ft x 3ft space is the growing area, I have another 4ft of length but that’s where the door and the chair are. There is a wind tunnel effect since there are apartment buildings opposite to our building. The growing space is surrounded by a window and a white wall, so I think this makes it much hotter than you would expect. I noticed yesterday that although the temperature was only supposed to be 9°C maximum outside, my cavolo nero was wilting in the sun. That’s how hot it gets in that corner!

I’ve been working on the assumption that I have a shady balcony, but that’s not the case at all. So, I’m very tempted to switch to growing herbs, since it sounds like they’d thrive in this hot, dry, windy environment. Thanks Kathryn for suggesting herbs, I hadn’t thought about them!

Thanks for sharing your challenges, bad pest issues can be very demoralising, I know from my own experience. The good news is that often there is a solution.

I wonder if the wind and the heat is you have identified (good observation skills) might be a clue. The thing about container growing is that it is quite easy for plants to get stressed - lack of water is probably the most common cause, but others include wind, poor compost and lack of enough sun. And when plants get stressed, just like us, they are more prone to pests. The situation you describe sounds as if your plants are stressed - so if you can identify why that it is, you should be able to significantly reduce the pest problem.

If the plants are drying out fast, one thing I really recommend trying is containers with water reservoirs. By providing a more reliable and consistent water supply, these are excellent for reducing the stress caused by lack of water.

Also thinking about if there is anything you can do to reduce the wind might also really help. There is an article on wind here: https://verticalveg.org.uk/growing-in-the-wind/

Writing this is a bit of rush before I have to head home, does it make any sense?

PS there is a post on water reservoirs on this forum here.

Any tips for growing parsley Kathryn? It is the one herb that I completely fail to grow successfully so I’m interested that you say it is easy. What type of compost do you use?

Goodness, I’ve never had to think about this one before because I find it so easy! Most culinary herbs grow best in free draining environments - lots of them come from Mediterranean hillsides for instance. Thinking about it I usually grow parsley in a compost that includes soil, which makes for better water and nutrient retention. I mostly make up my own potting mixes, since I posses handy resources such as giant compost heaps, worm bins, comfrey beds etc, but if you are buying in, then a John Innes number 3 or (preferably) its peat free equivalent.
The other problem with growing parsley in containers is that it can be a martyr to whitefly, but this seems to be avoided if you can give it some air movement. My son grows it in a window box that sits inside the top of his north facing balcony wall and that seems to work well for him, with the foliage getting really hammered by the wind. He does find he has to compromise over flavour - he prefers the flat leaved kind but it doesn’t like wind and rain, which curly parsley tolerates well. So he grows the former in summer and the latter in winter.

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A slightly ‘cheating’ but easy way to grow parsley is to buy supermarket plants and split them up into a larger container (there are lots of plants in one supermarket pot). Often the parsley doesn’t look very happy for a week or two after moving it, but then it usually recovers and grows well. It’s quicker and easier than growing from seed. I usually do it in the spring and in late summer (for winter parsley).

i’ve not normally had many difficulties growing parsley but this year successive sowings and plantings have not grown particularly well. I haven’t worked out why! It might just be the overcast damp weather.