The Total Beginner’s Guide to Successful Indoor Gardening

published Jun 19, 2017
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(Image credit: Shannon Douglas)

Maybe you’ve tried to grow basil in your kitchen before? And maybe you were lucky to get four leaves — two of which you were actually willing to eat? Trust me, I get it. I didn’t always have a green thumb, but now I’ve literally written the book on indoor gardening.

The good news: Plants don’t require a ton to grow (the official list includes light, nutrients, water, and a little bit of love). Here’s how to make sure those needs get met.

Why You Should Start an Indoor Garden

There are so many reasons! For starters, it’s super easy. (I know, you don’t believe me because, well, there are a lot of words in this post. But that’s only because I want you to know everything I know!)

It will also make your kitchen look like a lush land of freshness. And you’ll feel like a wizard when you serve your family pasta with pesto made from the basil plant you nurtured yourself. Plus, you’ll save money at the grocery store.

Convinced? Yay! Now keep reading.

(Image credit: Shannon Douglas)

The Total Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Gardening

First, pick the right container.

The size of the container will affect the size a plant can grow. I’m not a huge fan of small pots for growing anything you’re going to want to eat. Plants in a small pot might not die, but many will not come to full maturity — so what’s the point? Small pots will also dry out very quickly.

The absolute smallest pot I recommend would be one that’s six inches deep and about the same width. If a windowsill is your only option, don’t worry — a long, narrow pot will also work well and can house one or two different plants.

It’s also important that your pot has drainage holes (or at least one!) so that the water can flow through the soil. If you fall hard for a planter that doesn’t have holes, you can usually get away with creating drainage by adding pebbles to the bottom of the pot before you add the soil. Just something to think about for now — more on this later.

(Image credit: Shannon Douglas)

Get the dirt on potting soils.

Not all potting soils are created equal. A good potting soil mix will drain well while still holding moisture. Most soil mixes are formulated to maintain a certain level of fluff so that plants are able to breathe. Fun fact: Air is right up there with sun and water in importance to healthy, thriving plants.

When shopping for potting soil, look for organic potting soil mixes from smaller regional companies rather than the national brands you’ll find in big-box stores. And look for a bag that includes a mix of compost or bark. These add richness and texture to the soil and will help to retain moisture.

Coconut fiber is another good ingredient to look for; the porous fibers of the coconut hair absorb and hang on to water and also let air circulate through the soil.

For everything you need to about the actual planting part, read this: What’s the Best Way to Start a Garden?

(Image credit: Shannon Douglas)

Here’s what to know about plants and light.

All plants need light to grow, although some do well in shade. Edible plants are sun-lovers and typically need anywhere from four to 12 hours of direct sunlight.

The best plants to grow in your kitchen garden are things like basil, arugula, mint, and scallions, all of which do well in somewhat-limited light and grow rather quickly.

(Image credit: Shannon Douglas)

Memorize these 4 rules for watering your garden.

Water is crucial to healthy plant growth and a successful garden: it transports minerals to a plant, allows evaporation for cooling, and aids in photosynthesis. Water’s function to any plant is of utmost importance. With that, there are some basic principles to follow when watering your containers.

1. Water regularly.

It is imperative that the potting soil doesn’t go completely dry at any point in a plant’s life cycle. If the soil gets too dry, when you go to water the plant, water will just collect on the surface of the soil and then pool down the sides of the container instead of wetting the soil uniformly.

To avoid drying out your pots, be sure to check for water daily by inserting a finger into the pot. The soil should feel damp (but not soggy) about two inches down. If the soil is dry, water it.

2. Water deeply.

How do you know how much to water? Add enough water to your pots so that some of it seeps out of the drainage holes. This ensures that roots at the bottom of the container will have access to water. As water pools in the saucer, be sure to empty it (see next rule).

If you don’t water deep enough, you increase the odds that your plant will have shallow roots. Shallow roots lead to weakened plants. And weakened plants have a diminished harvest. It’s a bad cycle to start and it is challenging to fix. It’s better to water fully and deeply every two to three days than to give your plants a little sprinkle every day.

3. Do not overwater.

Overwatering plants waterlogs the soil and keeps oxygen from flowing freely to the roots of plants. Plants need oxygen to survive, so this is a problem! Before you know it, waterlogging can lead to decay and rot.

To ensure that you do not overwater your plants, check for dryness in the soil before you water. Again, make sure you have proper drainage and that water is flowing through your container. You can also check the bottom of your pots for excess moisture. Carefully turn the pot over every now and again and feel through the drainage hole for dampness. If the soil is wet, give it a day or two to be absorbed by the plant before watering again.

4. Water with the seasons.

Your plants’ water needs will change with the seasons and depend on sun exposure and the size and material of your container, so there is no steadfast rule on how often you should be watering. You must be your plants’ champion to craft the best watering schedule.

However, seasons will often dictate a commonsense approach. Plants need more water in summer (when it’s hot and soil dries out faster) than in fall (when the days are shorter and less warm). In fact, plants may need two daily waterings in summer, depending on your sun exposure. (West-facing windows will get much warmer than an east-facing balcony.) Although if you have the air conditioner on all day, you might not need to water as often.

As far as timing, plants will do much better if you water them first thing in the morning before it gets too warm. This allows for proper soaking and eliminates immediate evaporation due to heat. It also gives the water time to work its way through the pot so that you are not causing “wet feet” or overly damp roots to sit overnight and cool.

Ready? Here are 4 no-fail things to grow inside.

(Image credit: Amy Pennington)

About me: I’m a cook and urban farmer, and I wrote a book called Apartment Gardening. I believe that growing your own food is a natural extension of eating healthy and eating well — and that anyone can do it, no matter how little space you have.