If you are like my daughter, and have a black thumb (you kill every plant you try to grow), then this post is for you! I’d like to teach you a couple of things about growing things — especially things to consume! I grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm, so you might think it comes “naturally” to me — WRONG! I’ve certainly killed my share of things, whether houseplants or vegetables or fruits I’ve tried to grow.
After I got married, I spent some time living abroad (military wife), and living in apartments where we had no available gardening opportunities. So when we bought our first house with a yard, we tried our hand at growing a vegetable garden. It was a lot of work, and was semi-successful. In other words, we didn’t kill everything — but neither did we get as much out of it as we put into it!
With my failures (and successes) in mind, let me give you some suggestions which I hope you will find helpful. No matter where you live, even if you live in a studio apartment, if you really want to, you can grow some things you can consume — and you can do it successfully! But like most things that have value, there will be some work involved, and some expense. Growing consumables outside require different work than those grown indoors. Also, growing in containers requires different techniques than growing in the ground. So let’s begin with indoor growing, which is especially appropriate for apartment-dwellers.
If you’ve never grown anything successfully before, I highly recommend you start with sprouts or herbs. If you live in a small apartment, this may be all you have room for!
Sprouts: Sprouts only require a jar (wide mouth mason jar, for example), screen (cheesecloth works well), water, light, and of course, the appropriate seeds. These take the least amount of time to produce a crop. They also require some diligence, to make sure they are rinsed often enough, and have adequate light, but not direct sunlight. Any plant that you eat the stems and leaves of are appropriate candidates — but make sure the seeds are labeled “sprouting seeds” — they will be clean and pathogen-free, but not treated chemically. Some stores carry them, but organic food stores are a better option, or look online. Okay, now how is it done? Here’s a simple outline:
1. Place 1-2 tablespoons of seeds in jar and cover with warm water (about two inches). Let sit overnight.
2. Strain the water off using a fine screen or cheesecloth. Rinse the seeds by adding water to the jar, swishing gently around and again draining. Do this twice a day until they are ready to harvest. Place in lighted area, but NOT in direct sunlight.
3. When the sprouts start to turn green, they are ready to harvest. Drain and place in air-tight container with paper towel to absorb extra moisture, and refrigerate. Use within a week.
Image courtesy of James Barker / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
For herbs, you will need appropriate containers, soil, good lighting, seeds, and of course, water. The seeds should be packaged for the year/season you are planting them. Older seeds have a much poorer gestation rate (in other words, not many of them will grow). The containers could be almost anything, but need to be deep enough to allow for a minimum of a couple of inches of dirt on top of some small pebbles. They also need to have a hole at the bottom to allow drainage of excess water. With that in mind, choose pots with the size of grown plants in mind, with drainage holes, and something to set in to catch the run-off. If you use clay pots, your herbs will need more frequent watering than in plastic pots. Also, a south-facing window will require more water than any other direction. If the light is low, then the temperature needs to also be lower. Ideal temperature for growing herbs is 70-80 Fahrenheit, but ideally, it would be cooler at night than during the day by up to 10 degrees. Best choices for herbs to grow would be: basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage or thyme. There is a little variation between what the herbs need. Rosemary, for example, prefers a drier soil and fewer nutrients, while basil requires more fertilizer and more watering. If you have room for larger pots, I would also recommend dill, cilantro (if cilantro goes to seed, you end up with coriander, a great spice) and lavender.
Put some pebbles in the bottom of your pots for drainage, fill with potting soil to within 1/2 inch of the top, plant 2-3 seeds near the center of the pot (or transplant seedlings), cover seeds (read the packet for appropriate depth), water gently, and set in area which will be well-lit but not in direct sunlight. Water again as soon as the soil feels dry to the touch. Once the herbs have sprouted and grown to a height of about an inch, place some mulch on top of the soil to help retain moisture. You will need to be able to feel UNDER the mulch to determine when to water your herbs. Wait until the herbs are approaching maturity before beginning to harvest. In the meantime, continue to water as the soil dries out, and occasionally aerate the soil (done by sticking a fork in the soil and moving it a little to keep it loose. Fertilizer may also be necessary. If so, use a liquid fertilizer, following the directions carefully. If you are not sure what to do, ASK someone, preferably where you bought the fertilizer — you could easily “burn” your plants and destroy them, so you want to do it right!
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Vegetables grown in containers are grown pretty much the same way as herbs, but usually take longer, and definitely require fertilizer. However, most fruits and vegetables require pollination, so most do not do as well indoors as they do outdoors. Hand-pollinating can be done, but is tedious, as I understand it. I’ve never tried it, so I would have nothing to suggest for that process. Raised beds are similar to container growing as well, in that they require watering more frequently than those grown in soil at ground level, though not as often as those in smaller above-ground or off-ground containers. The key here is to watch the moisture levels carefully and water as necessary. Even grown in the ground-level soil, watering may be necessary from time to time. However, in the case of watering ground-level vegetables, make sure to water enough to do some good. Remember that the roots go down as deeply as the leaves grow above the ground — and water accordingly! There are various things sold in garden shops which can give you an indication of when to water your plants, whether they grow at ground-level, or are grown in containers off the ground. If you are having trouble determining when to water, a few of these items might help you have better outcome on your crops.
Before growing any vegetable or fruit, do some research to make sure you know what type of soil they will need, and what kind of care they will need. For instance, blueberries require an entirely different type of soil than strawberries. They also take longer before they will be ready to harvest (3 years, minimum on the blueberries), but will also yield a lot longer. Everbearing strawberries are the only strawberries that should give you a crop the first year. Those are the kinds of details you need to know before deciding what to plant. Most of us have limited space, limited time, and limited other resources, so we need to know what we are getting into before taking on a project, such as growing a garden!
The biggest disadvantage to growing things outdoors is the likelihood of contamination. In other words, weeds and pests. If the rabbits don’t eat your lettuce, then maybe some insect will — and you will definitely have to do some weeding, even if you mulch to maintain moisture and keep the weeds at bay. By the way, I highly recommend mulch for both of those purposes! Definitely helps, but of course, is not fool-proof! My family, with a fairly small-scale fruit and vegetable farm (under 50 acres), used a lot of black plastic to keep weeds at a minimum with some crops. Other crops, we used mulch. We did a lot of hand-cultivating (hoeing)! Our farm was NOT organic, so I can’t give you much in the way of hints for that! There may be some preventative techniques you should use BEFORE you start, so if that is the route you want to go, do the research before starting!
If there are specific crops or techniques you want to know more about, leave a comment, and if I know enough to help, I’ll be glad to do so! If not, I may have resources I can direct you to.