Guide to Starting an Indoor Garden: Part I, Essentials for Indoor Edible Gardening

So, you want to grow vegetables in your apartment? Awesome. You can totally do that! But before you get carried away with visions of the multiple cornucopias of edibles that you’ll bear with you to impress your mother at Thanksgiving dinner this year, there’s a few basics you should understand first.

Set Reasonable Expectations for your Indoor Garden

A lot of people get stuck on the idea that you have to live in suburbia on a plot of land measured in acres, or at the very least, yards, in order to have a productive edible garden. That’s not true. Even if you only had 8 square inches of soil to work with, you could still grow a pretty-as-punch head of buttercrunch lettuce, so don’t despair. Something is possible, no matter how limited in space you think you are. This is one of those if-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way situations.

With that said, understand that if you are growing food in a normal apartment-sized area, you will not be producing the volume of produce that your suburbanite neighbors are. We don’t all have the means to grow 14 varieties of heirloom tomatoes with the aim of putting by enough to fill the pantry with homemade spaghetti sauce for a whole year. But urban apartment dwellers can still manage small-scale food production to enhance that Prego and add freshness to the meals you prepare in your kitchen. You simply have to scale back your expectations, because you will probably only be able to grow one or two of the big producers (your squashes, tomatoes, or melons) instead of 4 varieties of each. And that’s okay.

Big time vegetable gardeners feel sheepish when they have to run to Costco to buy carrots because their homegrown supply ran out. That is not your world. If you are apartment gardening, you will need to view each fruit, vegetable, root, tuber, leaf, and stalk as a pleasant gift that you can supplement your market-bought produce with. In other words, this is not urban homesteading. It is gardening because gardening is fun, and green is a nice color, and plants are cool, and it’s fun to make dinner using something you just pulled out of the ground. Adjust your expectations accordingly and you will set yourself up for success.

What you need to grow food indoors

Indoors or out, all it really takes to grow something you can eat is:

  • Light
  • Space
  • Nutrients
  • Water
  • Patience
  • Basic Equipment

I’ll discuss each of these in separate posts this month to help get you started, beginning with my thoughts on equipment.

Indoor Gardening Equipment List for Beginners

Don’t let start-up costs detract from your initial enthusiasm to grow something. You can—and arguably, should—start your indoor garden with just the essentials. One of the perks of working with a more limited space, as you will no doubt be, is that it’s quite beneficial to your wallet. If you’ve ever been inside a good nursery, you’ll know what I mean: you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on non-essential gardening equipment (Williams Sonoma garden forks, anyone?) marketed to those 1 – 5 percenters.

Other than a set of fluorescent grow lights, I don’t have a lot of fancy equipment. I have grow lights because I used to spend a lot of time planning the garden at the old house so that we had fresh, homegrown produce in each of the four seasons. Accomplishing that goal required precise timing within different planting windows, so it was essential to use lights to get transplants ready in time for the fairly aggressive planting schedule I was keeping. It’s not necessary in an apartment, but it’s kind of fun to start your lettuce a month before any of your neighbors are able to, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you’re just starting out, here’s what you need to start an apartment garden.

List of Essential Indoor Gardening Supplies

  • Trowel – Invest in one that will hold up, but don’t feel obligated to spend more than $10.00. I still use the same garden trowel that was passed on to me when my green-thumbed grandfather passed away nine years ago. Mainly I do so out of sentiment, but it holds up to all my practical needs quite well.
  • Potting soil – This is important. Don’t just scrape up some dirt from outside. Potting soil contains the right mix of organic matter and nutrients to keep your plants happy, plus, you never know what many-legged hitchhikers can find their way indoors through the soil. It’s like $5.00 per cubic yard at Home Depot. Just go buy some.
  • Containers and saucers – There’s a lot to say about containers, but we’ll go into detail later. For now, just make sure the containers you use have drainage, are big enough for your plants to grow into happily, and are light enough that you can lug them up your stairs. Make sure you have plastic saucers to protect your floors from water spills.
  • Watering can – Smaller, with a single spout rather than one of the shower-head “rain water” types is better for indoor watering so you don’t overshoot and spill water where it shouldn’t be, like around electrical outlets or on unsuspecting pedestrians if you’ve got an outdoor area.
  • All-purpose vegetable fertilizer – Because your contained soil won’t be continually plowed by earthworms or replenished by organic matter, you’ll need to fertilize your plants more frequently than those that live in the ground or in raised beds.
  • Seeds or transplants ­– Obviously.

That’s all you really need, honestly.

Optional Indoor Gardening Supplies that You Can Live Without

In addition to the bare essentials, you might want to pick up a few other things as you go along. I recommend a pair of gardening gloves, but 70% of the time I work without mine anyway because it can be hard to grasp tender little seedlings through leather. Clippers or kitchen scissors are useful for pruning, but a sharp knife will do if that’s what you have. Working with what you’ve got will be a strong theme in this blog. I like to keep a roll of twine around, too, which can be handy for small projects. For example, I just used jute twine and a tension rod to build a trellis for my pole beans and snap peas, both of which can climb 8 to 10 feet tall (!). If you are a forward thinking person, you may want to pick up some neem oil, which is an all-purpose remedy for whatever may be getting your plants down, be it pests, fungus, or something indeterminate. Kind of like a hot-bath-and-cup-of-tea-and-chick-flick remedy for your plants, it always seems to help. Additionally, it’s organic, which is especially good since you don’t want a bunch of chemicals being sprayed in your apartment or around your pets or kids.

What’s on your list of indoor gardening essentials? Did I miss anything?

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