There is nothing quite like snipping some fresh basil into a pasta pomodoro or harvesting fresh mint for tea. Romanticism aside, however, growing a productive indoor garden is often much more involved than simply buying a pot of basil and setting it by a window. In fact, if you don’t have a window with direct light, you might just find your basil plant leafless after a few harvests.
"Indoor gardening has been specifically designed for certain crops that grow well in low-light conditions of an apartment," Peter Burke, author of Indoor Gardening, tells The Daily Meal. "That’s the key to gardening whether you’re doing it indoors or outdoors. Grow to the conditions."
When first planning an indoor garden, consider what space you’re working with. A tiny New York apartment, for example, won’t be quite as productive as a rather large balcony or patio. "A balcony or outdoor area is the only place to produce a large amount of food, versus growing a very small pot of chives on your windowsill," Amy Pennington, author of Apartment Gardening, says. "That small pot you’ll cut and use in one recipe, so it’s fine and cute, but not for people who want to grow food at home. You have to be a bit more strategic about it."
So here it is: Your guide to successful, strategic, and smart indoor gardening.
There are multiple methods of indoor gardening to choose from; Burke tends to keep a running line of single-harvest plants in his house. Plant a little every day, harvest a little every day, and there will be a continuous supply of broccoli, radishes, and pea shoots.
"The first four days after you plant the seeds, put them in a dark warm place, almost like an incubation area. You’re almost forcing the greens, and they grow about an inch before you even put them in the sun," Burke says. "When you put them in the light they green up, and they grow 6 to 8 inches or so in the next four or six days. You harvest and you start over again."
Pennington’s method is a much more traditional approach, and involves tending to plants throughout the year and harvesting when flowered. "Right now on my desk I have chives, cilantro, arugula, lettuces, mint, black tea, lovage, thyme, and one strawberry plant," she says.
The Question of Light
For certain plants, and for single-harvest gardening, a south-facing window isn’t necessary. "If you can see, you have enough light," Burke says. "You don’t need to have a lot." For those with less counter space, he suggests simply installing shelves inside windows to maximize light space.
But for most plants, light is crucial; it’s a source of plant’s food. "I actually live in a small Seattle apartment but I was just having a conversation with my sister-in-law who lives in Hoboken, N.J., and her apartment faces north," Pennington says. "I was like, 'Oh, you’re screwed.'"
Look to find a spot around your house with at least four to six hours of direct sunlight, Pennington says. "It’s not to say it’s impossible if you don’t have that," she says. "It just means the plant is not going to be at its fullest, strongest, vigorous self."
For basement-level apartment-dwellers and other unlucky gardeners, grow lamps are accessible and easy to use. "The first couple of years I used to do my stuff on dining room tables, and I had a few simple grow lights. You can clip them on the back of your chair and supplement indirect light with grow bulbs," Pennington says.
What Plants to Grow
Not everyone is going to be able to grow tomatoes, which require at least 10 hours of direct sunlight. "Grow for the climate you have," Burke recommends.
For low-light situations, try your hand at broccoli, radishes, and pea shoots, favorites of Burke’s. "Parsley loves to grow indoors and it’s fairly comfortable in the low light," Pennington also suggests. "Arugula and miner’s lettuce, all those will grow in low light."
Lemon balm is also a favorite for garden novices. "You can neglect lemon balm all year, and it will come back the following year with only a small amount of attention," Pennington notes in her book.
The best plants to grow indoors, though, are herbs. "Mint and thyme are really good ones. [With herbs] you can get away with using smaller pots as well and you’ll still put up a lot of leaf," Pennington says. "When you have a really small space, you’re asking people to put plants on a windowsill or a table, so to conserve space [is a] really good thing."
For a quick primer on light-loving and shade-loving plants, check out her article here.
What Pots to Use
For Burke’s "harvest-and-replant" cycle, disposable aluminum tins the size of a bread loaf pan usually do the trick. "It doesn’t have to be a special planter. You can use a cereal bowl or ceramic bowl," Burke says. "Foil trays are a good place to start, but once you get used to it you can move onto ceramic bowls."
But for gardeners hoping to have a sustainable indoor garden, buy pots with drain holes, Pennington warns. "Drainage is key," she says. "It’s very difficult to monitor water on pots that don’t drain."
Those with a bit more room should try to buy bigger pots, especially if utilizing outdoor balconies. Not only will heavier pots combat wind, but they’ll let plants grow bigger and better. "The bigger you let the pot be, the more prolific your garden will be," Pennington says. "Those cute little pots are worthless, they really are. If you wanted to really grow food and really produce something, go big."
Don’t Forget to Water
Check on your plants every day to make sure they’re not running dry. Burke waters his plants once a day with 2 to 4 tablespoons of water, but sustainable gardens are a bit more subjective. "You need to make sure you’re watering and just so they’re lightly moist, consistently," Pennington says. "It depends on how porous your pot is and how much sun [it's] getting."
And while both gardeners do use a little compost or fertilizer to prod along their plants, novice planters really just have to worry about water and light. "At the end of the day, plants are predispositioned to survive," Pennington says. "Plants will do anything to survive to make it through, to put up a flower, to make a seed. So really it’s not complicated at all."
Click through our slideshow to check out some innovative garden starter kits that might just inspire you to start your own indoor garden.