A lot of folks get stumped when it comes to their gardens - especially renters or city folks. We’ll hear people say, “Well, I just don’t have enough space!” or “It’s not worth it if I have to move.” This does not have to be true! There are so many ways to garden in our homes big or small and some of these ways are even portable!
Step 1: Choose a Location for Your Apartment Garden
Location, location, location - it’s true in real estate AND gardening! You’ll have to keep a few things in mind in order to set yourself up for success.
Indoor vs Outdoor
Depending on the type of space you’re working with, you may have access to the outdoors or you may be limited to a sunny kitchen window! Do not fear, both of these are workable.
If you’re working with an outdoor area, think about how to maximize the space - can you use hanging pots as well as some that sit on the ground? Will a mess cause problems with neighbors? Where is the nearest water source?
When working with an indoor space, keep an eye on the area for a few days. Measure how many hours of direct and indirect sunlight it actually gets. Consider ways to maximize that space as well!
It’s important to choose the spot in your home with the most light. Many fruiting plants require a full day of sunlight (6-8 hours) which can be hard to come by in an apartment or certain urban homes. But, if you don’t have that much light there are still options! Salad greens (such as arugula and lettuce) and kitchen herbs (chives, thyme, and oregano) can all be partial shade tolerant.
Think about the spaces you have at your disposal - do you have a sunny window with a warm afternoon glow? A balcony that shines all day? Access to a rooftop area? These kinds of questions will help you determine which kind of plants you’ll be able to grow with success!
As you may know, water is extremely important for growing success. And access to water- arguably more so! A rooftop garden is all great and good until you have to lug gallons and gallons of water up and down the stairs. So! One of the most important things to consider is where you’re getting your water from. Tap water is just fine for plants, and a small watering can can make filling up from your kitchen sink a breeze.
For outdoor plants, it can be tempting to let nature do it’s thing, relying on rain for the water. But this can quickly become a problem if a drought hits your area so we recommend having a backup plan just in case.
Turning a lawn into a garden is one thing - but a cement block? Or a wooden deck? Different situation. Luckily for you, garden supply stores will carry a wide range of soils and other materials that you can fill your containers with. Typically, you’ll look for a soil mix that is some combination of top soil and compost.
You can also make a mix of your own, about 40% compost, 40% topsoil, and 20% some aerating agent such as perlite - all of which can be easily purchased. Or you can find a container garden soil mixture at any garden store!
Depending on how much soil you’re buying, we know it can get expensive. But the best part of container gardening is that you can take the containers and the soil with you wherever you go!
Certain balconies or rooftops can be prone to rapid winds which can tear through plant leaves or even flip over pots on certain days. If this is your growing space, it’ll be important to have some kind of windbreak like a railing or screen of some kind. Alternatively, choosing containers that are wide and low to the ground can help anchor them even in the face of winds.
Step 2: Decide What to Grow - The Best Plants for Apartment Gardens
Luckily for us, many common vegetables and herbs are amicable to being grown in containers.
Food vs Aesthetic
There’s no need to grow just food. You can also look into beautiful houseplants, flowering and otherwise that are a joy to grow inside in all light levels!
Growing herbs inside is a delight for many reasons. There’s nothing quite like waltzing over to your windowsill in the middle of cooking to pluck a fresh sprig of sage off of your very own plant. On top of that, you’ll find your home is constantly filled with the delicious smell of fresh culinary herbs.
When we’re stepping up our container gardening game to include vegetables, we’ve got to think a little bigger. These plants tend to be larger than herbs, so can require larger pots. Tomatoes are perfectly happy in a pot (no smaller than two feet wide) with a tomato cage to help support them. Tomatoes can also be put in hanging pots, hanging upside down over a railing. Plants like kale and swiss chard can also be grown in containers and offer a less sun-dependent growing option. You might consider filling a window box with baby lettuce so you always have fresh salad greens. Check out our lettuce mix or our herb salad mix for a more flavorful option. You might even consider experimenting with growing carrots and beets in pots that are at least 10 inches deep.
Believe it or not you can even grow melons in containers! You’ll want to be working with at least a five gallon container to grow these fruits. You’ll also have to train them to grow vertically, either trellising them or even using a tomato cage! You’ll have to use clips to attach the vines to the trellis in order to train them and also fruit slings. These will help hold the weight of the fruit so the stem does not get damaged. And while full size melons can be grown in this setting, you’ll have better luck with smaller varieties that produce smaller fruits and shorter vines. Try the Minnesota Midget Melon or Sugar Baby Watermelon.
If container landscaping is what you’re looking for you have endless options. Everything from daisies to daffodils can be grown in containers. Marigolds can also be grown in containers and can even offer some pest control benefits when around your other potted herbs and vegetables! For bulbs or any perennial plant grown in a container, you may consider bringing them inside during the hardest freezes as plants in containers are not as well insulated as plants in the ground.
Step 3: Create a Garden Schedule
Garden planning is just as important in your container garden as a large sprawling, natural garden. Arguably, even more so because you’re working with a smaller space and want to get the most out of it!
When to Plant the Seeds
If you’re working with seeds instead of plant starts, you always want to follow the planting directions on the seed packets. Seeds can be started indoors with just a few extra tools. Read our Starting Seeds Guide for all the information you need to get started!
When to Harvest
Different plants are ready for harvest at different times. With most herbs you can start clipping off little leaves here and there as needed and as they’re growing but always be careful not to harvest more than a quarter of the plant! Fruits should be picked when they ripen and peppers can even be picked early when they’re green! The “Days to Harvest” can be found on the seed packet and will vary depending on the species and variety.
Step 4: Purchase Equipment, Soil and Seeds
Plants will grow in any situation that gives them what they need - the look or price of the container very rarely matters! Coffee cans with drilled holes at the bottom or mason jars with rocks for drainage will work beautifully for many kitchen herbs. The most important thing about what you grow your plants in is that the pots have some way to drain, either holes or a layer of gravel at the bottom of the pot.!
Oftentimes you don’t even need garden tools for a small home container garden like we’re describing here but it’s nice to have a hori hori or hand trowel for digging up deep roots or transplanting into pots. A good pair of pruners are always handy too!
Soil & Fertilizer
Most garden stores will have all the materials you need to create a balanced potting soil for your container garden. Worm Castings can be an excellent addition to any garden, high in nutrients but extremely gentle, this amendment works wonders to help your plants produce as much as they can. For an all purpose fertilizer, we love Browns Fish Fertilizer which is water soluble (fast acting) and gentle on all plants. To read more about other ways to treat your soil check out this blog post!
Seeds & Bulbs
Check out our wide selection of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. If you can’t decide what to grow, perhaps start with our Urban Container Garden Collection Tin which features great varieties for your container gardening needs including tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, chard, and culinary herbs! Did you know you can also plant bulbs in containers? Set a flush of gorgeous early spring daffodils in a pot to enjoy as you’re walking in and out of your house!
Step 5: Start Growing Plants in Your Apartment
Ready to get started? Let’s do it!
Mise en Place - Arrange Containers for Success
When thinking about your arrangements, put your tallest plants behind your shortest plants to guarantee ease of maintenance and harvest. Consider hanging baskets to save space. Window boxes also make a great place to grow herbs and can hang outside of your limited growing space! Keep plants spread to limit the spread of disease and also not block any one plant from getting enough light.
Read all about planting and growing from seed here.
Apartment Garden Maintenance
It’s important to keep your plants watered. In fact, for folks growing from seed, not enough water is the biggest mistake that new grower’s make that inhibit seed germination! In general, you’re looking for 40-60% soil moisture. Here’s how to test the soil moisture with just your hands:
When you squeeze a handful of soil, water should not seep out between your fingers. But when you open your hand, the soil ball should stay intact on your palm and not crumble. This is the moisture level you’re looking for. It’s a good idea to mix your soil with water to this moisture level before planting so you can know you’re starting at a good place.
From there, keep your plants consistently watered! Every other day to one a week is a good call depending on the plant. Do your research and use your eyes! Look for dark, fluffy, and moist soil. If things look light, dusty, and cracked - it’s time to water.
Pest & Disease Prevention
Pests can be found even in the most well cared for gardens. Unfortunately, in small gardens and especially indoors gardens, certain pests tend to spread pretty rapidly. So it might require you to keep a close eye on things. Always check the bottoms of leaves and middle of plants for signs of infestations (small white dots taking over stems are likely aphids while small yellow eggs on the undersides of leaves are often cabbage moth eggs). Depending on the severity of the infestation, there are a few things you can do. If there only seems to be a few small signs of pests and you want to be careful, try a regular application of castille soap and water, sprayed on your plants covering all surface areas once a week to every four days. If this isn’t working or you have a worse infestation, try neem oil or Bt. Always try to identify your pest or disease before treatment to make sure you’re using the correct product!
Now here comes the fun part. For herbs and greens, try to avoid harvesting more than a quarter of the plant at any one time to avoid causing distress. On the other hand, harvesting little bits at a time can encourage growth in many plants! Fruits should be picked when ripe (or earlier to try out the different flavor profiles of the plant). Always use pruners or snips when harvesting to avoid the spread of disease and create a clean cut so as to not damage the plant.
Why Grow an Apartment Garden?
Many gardeners may find that as they start gardening, they start to feel better! Whether it’s the regular exercise or just having our hands in the dirt, we cannot deny that gardening makes us feel good. There’s even plenty of research out there to suggest that this phenomenon is not made up! Gardening helps our mental and emotional health.
Fresh Food On-Demand
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, there’s nothing quite like waltzing over to the windowsill to snip a pinch of fresh rosemary or grab a huge red tomato to slice for your sandwich. Having fresh food right at your fingertips is just an amazing thing! It can save you trips to the store to get that one vegetable you don’t have - and also impress all of your friends.
Oh, and all those trips to the grocery store? They produce waste! Why get your peppers wrapped in plastic when you could pick one fresh off the balcony? Even more so, having a garden is a great excuse to compost! Use your food scraps to give back to the soil from whence they came.
You feel ready to tackle it? Growing in small spaces can seem intimidating but anyone can do it! And I bet you’ll find that once you start with a couple herbs you’ll quickly move on to the tomatoes and beans and kale of your dreams!
Article Written by: Hannah Gibbons
About the Author: Hannah Gibbons, an employee at Sow True Seed since 2020, has nearly a decade of experience in the agricultural industry. Their passion for environmental education and regenerative agriculture has been the cornerstone of their work, aimed at making gardening accessible to all.