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A Beginner's Guide To Starting An Apartment Garden, No Matter Where You Live

Amy Pennington
mbg Contributor
By Amy Pennington
mbg Contributor
Amy Pennington is a freelance writer covering gardening, wellbeing, and lifestyle. She is the author of "Tiny Space Gardening," which will be published in March 2022.
Image by Eldad Carin / Stocksy
November 26, 2021

While not all traditional house perks are available to those of us living in small, urban spaces, gardening is a hobby that can be cultivated anywhere. Even apartments with limited sunlight can be turned into mini-farms where a handful of edible plants can be grown and harvested.

Whether you want more immediate access to fresh herbs, need some kitchen inspiration, or are committed to a whole food diet, an apartment garden delivers. Here's everything you need to know to start your own.

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Can you garden in your apartment?

Short answer: yes. But it may look different from the type of garden you're picturing. Here are the three best ways to bring the outside into your apartment garden: 

  • Start a windowsill garden: Windowsill gardening usually entails growing small things in small pots, thanks to the narrow space. Inevitably, this will affect the size of plants you can grow. (A lemon tree won't fit on your windowsill!)
  • Do a countertop project: If you have an apartment that faces north, live in a daylight basement, or don't otherwise have a lot of access to natural light, you can still grow food at home in an apartment garden—no soil required. Many seeds and nuts can be sprouted and grown on countertops. On their own, seeds hold all of the energy needed for germination as well as cotyledons—the first true set of leaves that allow a plant to photosynthesize as it grows. Seeds need only water and air to create that initial sprout. 
  • Create a balcony garden: This is the most forgiving way to cultivate an apartment garden. When plants have access to natural light, air, and elements, they tend to be stronger in disposition and taste. Growing outside, even in small spaces like a balcony, opens up a world of options for apartment dwellers.

Best plants for indoor growth.

These six low-maintenance edible varieties would do well in most apartment gardens. Here are some tips for getting them started:

1.

Arugula

A member of the Brassicaceae or mustard family, arugula is considered a cold-weather crop and does well in the cooler temperatures of early spring and fall. Bookmark this plant for an autumn or late winter sowing.

Arugula excels in north-facing windows—a rare trait for a house plant. The cooler temps keep arugula from bolting or going to seed. As with all apartment garden plants, keep arugula planters away from heat sources, which will dry out the soil and stress the plant.

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2.

Scallions

Scallions are part of the allium family (the same family as shallots and garlic) and are quick to grow. Even better, scallions are considered cut-and-come plants, meaning you can trim them for eating and the plant will continue growing.

Choose a narrow pot that is at least 6 inches deep and plant in a row, leaving 1 inch between seeds. Scallions can be planted nearly all year long but do better in direct sunlight, so opt for a south-facing window if you have one.

3.

Basil

Basil prefers warmer temps and won't last much more than a couple of months. The popular herb can be planted from seed or purchased as a transplant. When you get the plant home, trim any very long root systems to about 3 inches long and plant them into the potting soil or keep their roots in a shallow pool of water, like a vase.

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4.

Mint

This lively, perennial herb can be planted year-round and withstands a spectrum of light levels, from full sun to partial shade. Mint does not like wet "feet," so make sure its soil drains well, and do not let water stand in the drainage saucer. As with all plants, you are aiming for a consistent level of moisture in the soil. Don't let it dry out, and don't soak it, either.

5.

Microgreens

Teeny-tiny plants that are two to three weeks old and have only two true sets of leaves are considered microgreens. These baby greens are all the rage with chefs, and they're easily identified by taste—they pack a flavorful punch!

Microgreens need very little attention and can be grown right in a baking dish on your windowsill. Try arugula, basil, beets, celery, or cilantro.

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6.

Sprouts

Last but not least, sprouts are delicious, nutrition-packed, and easy to grow in any apartment at any time of year. 

Sprouts are essentially the very first growth a seed puts out before it develops true leaves. Seeds store all the energy and food needed to produce healthy plants. By eating them at a very early stage of growth, we reap the rewards of all that good energy. They add a fresh and crispy texture to dishes.

No soil or windowsill is required for these! From start to finish, they only take anywhere from three to five days to grow at home.

Apartment garden materials.

To start a garden in containers, at a bare minimum you'll need pots, soil, and water.

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Pots:

You might think choosing pots would be the easiest part of an apartment garden, but interestingly, it is not. Containers and pots come in many sizes and shapes and seemingly just as many materials.

Try to plant in a pot that's a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. I always go big: If you allow for some growth, you increase the odds of your plant growing to full maturity. The goal is for the plant to produce as much as possible. 

Soil:

All potting soils are not created equal! A high-quality potting soil mix will drain well while still holding moisture. Most soil mixes are formulated to maintain a certain level of lightness so that plants are able to breathe. (This also makes big bags of soil easier to carry upstairs and down long hallways.)

Your potting soil should also include a mix of compost or bark. These add richness and texture to the soil and will help to retain moisture.

Water:

Water is, unsurprisingly, crucial to healthy plant growth and a successful apartment garden. Water transports minerals to the plant, allows evaporation for cooling, and aids in photosynthesis.

Plants confined in containers will need extra attention, as water drains out quickly and pots expose individual plants to more sun, wind, and heat than a traditional garden environment. Water may also evaporate from pots, so plan to water every few days, if not daily.

Designing an apartment garden.

No matter what you're planting, a south-facing window is ideal as it allows for direct sunlight all year long. An east- or west-facing window won't have sun all day, and a north-facing window will provide no direct light at all, only offering ambient light to plants. 

Once you've nailed down your sunniest spot, here are some tips on how to set up your garden depending on what you're growing:

For seedlings:

  1. If you have a balcony, choose as big of a pot as possible for any of the veggies you'd like to grow. More room for roots to spread results in bigger harvests. If you're growing indoors, choose pots that fit your windowsill or can sit on a plant stand nearest the window.
  2. Fill each pot with plenty of potting soil. The deeper the root system, the stronger and more productive the plant will be.
  3. Place your plant starts in the soil. Water them as needed, so their soil remains moist but not soaked.

For microgreens:

  1. Fill a shallow tray with a seed-starting soil mix. Don't underfill the tray; add enough mix so it is flush with the top. You can use a plastic garden tray or even a shallow baking dish or roasting pan.
  2. Scatter the seeds densely across the surface of the mix. Spray with a water bottle to saturate the surface. Cover with plastic wrap to hold in moisture and create some heat.
  3. Place in a windowsill or a spot that receives good light.

For sprouts:

  1. Place the seeds in a quart-size glass jar and cover them with a bit of water. Cover the lid of the jar with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band.
  2. Rinse your sprouts with fresh water every few hours, three to four times a day.
  3. They should sprout and be ready to eat in three to five days. 

Caring for an apartment garden.

  1. Water regularly, not too much, not too little. Aim for soil to be consistently slightly damp. If you pinch some soil between two fingers and it holds together, that's perfect. You don't want it to be saturated, and you never want the soil to go dry.
  2. Follow the light. As the season changes, you may need to move plants around your apartment so they're getting maximum exposure. 
  3. Mind the temperature. When growing plants indoors, we automatically assume they want to be warm and cozy like us. Not true! Most plants do well in moderate temperatures in the high 60s/low 70s. If you crank your heat during winter and set plants too close to the radiator, you may actually cook and kill them.
  4. Think like a plant. If it's been cloudy, your plants are not getting much sun and may not need water. If it's a super-sunny day, they may dry out. Recognize that each plant is in its own microclimate and what works for one may not work for another, even if they're just across the room from each other. 

Benefits of an apartment garden.

If you need a little extra nudge to start your green oasis, here are some of the top benefits of apartment gardening:

1.

It's relaxing.

Research shows that plants and greenery can ease stress and promote a good mood. And when you bring plants indoors, you're inviting some of that relaxation in too.

2.

It helps you eat clean.

Growing food at home means you're the one in control. You know what kind of soil you're using, what the plants are taking in through their root system, and the environment they've been living in. And with a practically nonexistent carbon footprint, you can't get much more local than the room next door.

In short, homegrown food is the freshest, cleanest food you can eat! 

3.

It connects you to nature.

Whatever the size, all gardens cultivate a sense of connection to nature. Plants respond to light and temperatures, so in the winter, the low sun outside indicates to plants that it's time to take it slow. In this way, apartment gardens remind us to slow down in winter and ramp up in the springtime and allow us to stay connected to the natural rhythms of each season.

The bottom line.

Gardening means working with nature, and this is not an exact science. There are far too many variables to be able to definitively state what will grow best where. Sun exposure, latitude, time of year, watering schedule—all of these things and more will affect the success of any planting you do.

With that said, these go-to tips for a successful apartment garden will serve you well, any time of year and regardless of where you live. You do have a green thumb! It's just waiting for you to find it.

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Amy Pennington
Amy Pennington
mbg Contributor

Amy Pennington is a freelance writer covering gardening, wellbeing, and lifestyle. She is the author of Tiny Space Gardening, which will be published in March 2022. Visit her website at amy-pennington.com.