I’m beginning this article with a confession: I’ve never had a “green thumb.” In fact, I couldn’t keep plants alive if my life depended on it. Until, that is, I learned how to create an indoor garden. This works for me for a few reasons:
➀ I forget about my plants, so unless they are right under my nose, I won’t remember to water them. (Thank goodness I don’t have this problem with my dog!)
➁ An indoor garden doesn’t require a lot of real estate or resources to start – just an area you’re willing to devote to your garden and the natural light (or an artificial lighting system) to grow your leafy goodness.
➂ It’s very rewarding, especially if you are like me and don’t inherently know how to grow anything. Whether just a handful of herbs in the kitchen or a vegetable and fruit garden somewhere else, growing your own produce can save you money in the long run and you’ll feel more secure about what you’re eating; knowing you’re not consuming dangerous pesticides or purchasing produce that’s labeled “organic” only to learn it’s really not.
If you’re considering your own indoor garden, here are the 10 steps you should be sure to take to get yours thriving.
1) Find your space. If you don’t have a large yard but do have a windowsill, well then you’re in luck! Any space with direct sunlight or that receives some sunlight during the day will work well.
2) Choose what to grow. Once you’ve decided how much and which space you have for an indoor garden, determine what you’ll grow. Start by thinking about the things you need most often. For example, do you find yourself running to the market for fresh herbs often? Does your cooking require a certain ingredient, which as a result, you always need to have on hand? These are natural selections for your indoor garden. Maggie Villalobos, a 70-year-old woman who has maintained both an indoor and outdoor garden for nearly 45 years, says she focuses on growing herbs and vegetables in her indoor garden that she needs most often. For example, herbs like basil, mint and cilantro are staples for Villalobos, along with occasional seasonal additions like figs.
3) Evaluate lighting. You’ll need to think about how well your plants will play together. Studies repeatedly find that natural sunlight is always best for most plants since it’s generally more powerful than artificial light, and it’s more equally distributed among the different wavelengths that help photosynthesis occur. With that said, indoor lighting systems can make areas or dim apartments available for growing your garden; The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel quotes two university studies that tested fluorescent light for plant growth and found that fluorescent tubes, preferably a combination such as cool white and warm or cool white and daylight, yielded the best results. You can easily decipher light needs on plant tags with these easy rules of thumb:
- “Direct light”: plant needs at least six or more hours of sunlight hitting it directly per day
- “Moderate light”: plant needs direct sunlight about four hours a day
- “Indirect light”: plant needs to be out of direct sunlight – these plants are best for artificial lighting if you have areas you want to garden in that don’t receive a lot of sun
- “Low light”: plant needs no direct sunshine and little ambient light
4) Consider temperature. Most plants grow best between 65 degrees and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. An occasional increase or decrease of 10 degrees or so is fine to continue strong growth. If you keep your home warmer than 75 degrees on average, you may want to consider plants that do well in warm environments, like tropical and desert natives like salvia and succulents.
5) Figure out how to grow your garden. You can get pretty creative with this part. Got an old boot lying around? Or some vintage glass jars grandma gave you that you don’t know how to use? They’re prefect for your indoor gardening project! Find the containers you’ll use for each plant – and judge based on typical full growth size. If you’re placing any of your growing plants in a wooden trough, on a table, windowsill or other area that can either be damaged or isn’t easily wiped down, line the bottom with a shallow drip container to catch any excess water, otherwise, you’ll have quite a mess on your hands and possibly eroding flooring as a result!
6) Use or make a potting mix of well-draining soil. Well-draining soil (which actually isn’t really “soil”) allows water to percolate through it a lot more quickly than garden soil and does not pool, which helps to ensure plant roots are not deprived of oxygen – a common effect caused when water sits on top of soil. Using a potting mix that’s full of nutrients and minerals helps plants to better absorb them. Something to consider when using potting mixes, however, is that they tend to dry out more rapidly than regular soil, so they may require more frequent watering. To account for this at seeding time, you can soak the soil in a bucket of water so it retains more water and is easier to work with when you begin to seed.
7) Take your pick: seeds or seedlings. You’ve come a long way; you’re ready to get started by either seeding your own plants, or beginning with seedlings you can get from any gardening store. Before you decide whether to start from scratch or a small seedling, consider these two questions:
- Does the plant transplant well?
- Are you looking for mature growth in a short timeframe?
If your answers are yes to both, you can begin with a seedling. If not, stick to seeding your plants yourself, then consider some best practices for seeding from Purdue University’s Department of Horticulture:
- Fill your pot (or other container) with approximately ¾ of your already pre-wet, potting soil.
- Level out and gently press your soil’s surface. Make sure not to press too firmly since doing so can lead to poor aeration.
- Set rows, of about 1-2 inches apart, for your seeds.
- Sow your seeds uniformly and thinly in the different rows, ensuring not to overseed.
- Cover seeds, other than those that are very fine like petunia seeds for example, with moss or soil. Spray a light mist of water on top of your soil or put in a pan of warm water to absorb from the bottom of the container (if possible).
8) Mark your plants according to feed instructions. A small, but critical step in the process of starting your indoor garden is marking your plant(s) with what it is, when you planted it and how often to water and/or feed. This will help you create a system that is manageable to care for all your plants, as well as to help you gauge each plant’s individual growth and troubleshoot when there are issues with growth.
9) Mulch it up. Besides having aesthetic appeal, mulch helps keep soils at even temperatures and prevents the loss of water that happens through evaporation. Get in the habit of covering all your growing plants in mulch in order to keep them healthy and growing strong.
10) Harvest and transplant as necessary. Once your plants have produced ripe and delicious produce or have grown large enough to clip, you’re ready to harvest. No doubt, this will come at different times for different plants, but be sure to keep an eye on them to make sure you catch when they need to be transplanted, or, switched to another, larger container. Some plants grow very shallow roots and some grow deep roots. When you’re ready to transplant something, moisten it with transplant fertilizer one to two days prior to moving it. Then, repeat steps 5 and 6 above – using a container one size larger than the one you’ve had the plant in and carving out a hole in the potting soil for your plant to fit in nicely.
I can bet that once you start seeing your vegetables, fruits and herbs produce, you’ll be hooked on indoor gardening. Personally, I’ve found gardening, whether indoors or out, to be one of the most therapeutic tasks; touching and caring for Mother Earth is rewarding in many ways that even the person with only a little “green thumb” will enjoy.