If I could have a massive garden that took hours and hours of work and cost me an absolute packet, I would. But I've adjusted to my circumstances. A small balcony that gets almost no sunlight is all the space I have to work with, and the Sophie-wages wouldn't cover the kind of gardening spending habit I'd love to have (hello, acres of roses). Between full time work and post-graduate study, I probably don't have time to maintain a massive and exotic garden just now anyway.
My limited experience creating and maintaining my balcony garden has taught me a few things about what to do and what NOT to do if you don't want to waste time, energy and money but you want great results.
Learn the limitations of your space.
As stated above, my balcony gets very little sunlight. Your garden space might get hot sun all day, or no sun at all. It might have sandy soil or rich, dark dirt. You might live in a dry area or one with plenty of rainfall. Think about these factors: they matter.
Choose plants that match your space.
Boy, did I get this wrong. I killed miniature roses, petunias, pansies, gerberas, tomatoes, salad leaves, all kinds of herbs, portulacas, cordylines, flax, and about twenty other kinds of plants before I realised that my choices were all wrong for my space. I wasted about $300 on plants that were never going to survive in the environment I had available. Some day I'll have a wonderful vegetable patch, herb garden and more rose bushes than you could imagine, but it's not going to happen on my balcony. Now I grow ficus, calanchoes, rhea, philodendrons, and even a small umbrella tree, amongst other things.
Phone a friend.
Unless you're already a gardening expert, there's bound to be someone in your life who knows more about plants than you do. I finally caved in and asked my Dad for help after several rounds of "oh gosh all my plants are dead" and he was a huge help! If you don't have someone to ask, ask the internets. Googling "shade tolerant plants" is a fantastic way to find endless resources on your particular gardening issue.
Don't go out and buy enough plants for your whole garden. You have no guarantee that you'll still be interested in gardening a month or a year from now, or that the plants you pick will be right for your space (even if you've done your research). It's a bit like borrowing your neighbour's dog for a week to teach your kids about the responsibility of pet ownership. If you can keep your first selection of plants alive for more than three months, it's time to buy a few more. Take it slow. Nature will still be there once you're sure you won't forget to water the roses.
Don't buy at the usual places.
Large plastic pots with good drainage cost about $20 each from Bunnings, or $3.50 each from the Reject Shop. Plants are far cheaper bought from wholesale nurseries, market gardens and community plant sales than from a retail nursery.
I bought the wrong kind of pots initially - no drainage! One of my aunts took one look at the pots and asked why I didn't just use a hammer and nail to knock drainage holes in the bottom of the pots. Duh. I use stools and mini-shelves I already owned to stand pots on at different heights for the look I was after on my balcony. Think outside the square and your garden will be even more unique.