Indoor Gardening for Beginners: An Ultimate Guide

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Indoor Gardening for Beginners: An Ultimate Guide

Start Your Garden Indoors for a Longer Growing Season

You are about to start a new adventure: gardening. Maybe you are motivated by needing to stay home or you want to increase the amount of organic produce you consume without doubling your food budget. You might have memories of a home garden from your childhood. Perhaps your neighbor’s garden is motivating you with its lush bounty. Whatever the motivation, you are about to embark on what could be a lifelong activity that will benefit you in so many ways. Even if you live in an apartment, you can still enjoy indoor gardening and grow herbs and vegetables with some planning and a minimum of indoor gardening supplies.

hand with seeds on indoor gardening graphichand with seeds on indoor gardening graphic

Choose a Location

The first thing to consider is where you will locate your garden. You may have some large windows or a patio door that is in full sun for a large part of the day. Maybe you only have a small windowsill or even no spot that is sunny. You can still have a garden by using artificial lights. Grow lights allow you to grow plants even in a windowless hallway or laundry room. You may also need heat if you don’t have the warmth of the sun. Some seeds and plants require warm temperatures to germinate and grow. This can be provided with the use of heat mats that are placed under the pots to provide bottom heat for those plants that need it. There are plants you can grow that do well in the cooler soil temperatures and even lower amounts of light. Lettuce, arugula and kale are good choices. Try to avoid areas that have temperature fluctuations. If your plants are near a heat register, they will be hit with very warm air and then cool substantially. The same is true with a window during winter, especially if you live in a Northern state. It can become very warm when the sun is shining, but then cool off considerably when the night comes. The windows allow cool drafts to reach the plants. You may have to move plants away from the window or cover the window at night.

Another consideration is the size of the mature plant. While the seedlings don’t take much space, a full-grown pepper plant is large and requires an equally large pot to grow in. So, when choosing your location, think about the size at harvest and how many mature plants will fit in the allotted space.

Finally, is your indoor garden going to remain indoors? Many gardeners start their plants indoors and then move them outside when the weather is warm enough. Even if you are an apartment dweller, you may intend to move your plants to a patio or balcony to grow to maturity. Either is fine, but it does influence what you can grow and the amount of space required.

Take Advantage of Seed Starting Kits

A great way to start your plants is with a seed starter kit. These kits include the planting flats for planting your seeds and some include the lights. There are also kits that have the heat mat if needed. Adding a seed starting kit to all your garden supplies will greatly simplify starting your garden and help to ensure your success. Check out our post on how to start seeds indoors for more seed starting information.

Try Hydroponics

There is a lot of research being done on growing food hydroponically on the commercial level. Hydroponic growing is done with no soil and the plants are grown in a solution of water that has been amended with all the nutrients that the plant would usually obtain from the soil. This type of growing is available for the home gardener, although it is usually more expensive than the traditional methods. It also requires a bit more knowledge of the nutrients plants need at different stages of growth and how to provide them.

Decide What You Want to Grow

Of course, your first consideration when growing indoors will be the growing conditions you can provide. You won’t be able to grow things like tomatoes and peppers if you have very limited light. But don’t be afraid to try. You very likely will have some challenges and you may even kill a few plants. But you will learn what will grow in your situation and have a better indoor garden next year. That is the beauty and joy of gardening. There are always new things to try and you always have a second chance.

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If you want to grow a tomato or other larger plant, look for one that is referred to as a “patio” variety or “miniature.” These are plants that are bred to remain smaller, but still provide good size fruit. They also will do well in a container where its roots are confined.

There are some plants that will require more involvement from the gardener. Some plants are self-pollinating, while others rely on the insects like bees or the wind to pollinate them. Since there are no bees indoors, you as the gardener will have to step in. It is not difficult to do, but does require some time. Pollination can be accomplished with the use of an artist’s paintbrush. Simply brush the flowers to move the pollen from the male part of the flower to the female structure. Move from flower to flower to assure a good amount of fruit.

Try Growing Edible Food

The easiest food to grow and the quickest to provide edible food is sprouts. These are high nutrition microgreens that will be ready to harvest in about 10 days. Plant your sprouts in succession so that you always have a supply ready to harvest.

The next choice is lettuce and spinach–and even kale. Salad greens do well even in the lower light conditions indoors and are relatively easy to grow. There is a wide variety of lettuces to choose from. Loose leaf lettuce can range in color from deep ruby red to lime green and the leaf shape can vary from an oak leaf shape to round to highly jagged shapes. Your salads have never had so much visual appeal and the flavor of fresh salad greens can’t be beat.

Another good choice if light is limited is the root crops. Plants like radishes, beets and carrots all will do well with a little less light. You will have to consider the size of your growing space and make sure the pot is deep enough to allow the plant to develop underground.

If your heart is set on tomatoes and peppers, go for it. The two main concerns indoors are light and warmth. They need both to produce a crop. Provide grow lights if you don’t have enough sun exposure in your home and keep the plants warm with bottom heat when the plants are small and a portable heater as they become larger. Also, look for plants that are made for container growing.

Plants like pumpkins, squash and watermelon may not be a good choice for indoor growing. Besides the size, these are vining plants that will take up all your space very quickly. However, you can grow cucumbers indoors in a pot with a trellis. Look for a patio variety cucumber. A pole bean grows into a lengthy vine not easy to accommodate indoors; however, bush beans can grow in a pot.

Onions, chives and even garlic can be grown in containers also. Just sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil and cover with a light layer of potting soil. Before too long, you will see the green sprouts popping through. They can be cut and used as greens or wait for the bulbs to form and grow. Harvesting the greens will give the remaining onions room to develop. Chives are just cut off at ground level with kitchen shears. Use the chives in your cooking and the plant will send up fresh growth where you cut.

Other herbs seeds that grow well indoors are basil, mint, parsley, sage and thyme. These all grow easily in a pot and are common choices for a windowsill garden. Other herbs may be too large or require more care to grow indoors. Think about what you use for cooking and let that help you decide which herbs to grow.

Think Before Purchasing Seeds

When you purchase seeds, make sure to check the package. It should have the date of the current season. This is fresh seed with the highest germination rate. Seeds from last year can be used if they were stored properly in a cool, dark place. However, the germination rate will decrease the longer the seed is held. Also, some plant seeds do not store well at all, while seeds from another plant can store very well into the next year. It isn’t worth the risk. Start with the best seeds you can to get your plants off to a great start.

Other information on the package includes how many seeds are in the package, how to plant the seeds, how long it should take for the seeds to germinate and how long until you will be able to harvest. The package will also tell you how large this plant will be at maturity, which is important for the indoor gardener.

For the best selection, shop from an online seed and plant company. There are many advantages. There is a much greater variety of each plant. All the information that is on the package, and quite a bit more, is available online, giving you the opportunity to make the best selection for you and your growing conditions. Also, you will have the ability to grow with organic seeds. Another benefit is the availability of heirloom seed varieties of vegetables which may not be available at the big box store.

Choose the Right Soil

Use fresh potting mix. You may be tempted to just fill your pots with a shovelful of dirt from the backyard or even to use the dirt from a houseplant that didn’t survive. Don’t compromise on the soil. Potting mix has a mixture of ingredients that keep the soil loose for good root growth and to allow oxygen to reach the plant. It also contains materials that will absorb water and keep your plants from drying out. Many also contain fertilizer to get your hungry seedlings off to a great start. The contents of the mixture should be on the bag and it should also tell you when to start fertilizing your plants. Remember that if you want to grow organically to select a potting mix that is certified organic.

If you have purchased a grow kit, it comes with the seed starting mixture, usually in the form of pellets that you add water to or a pre-formed cell to plant into. These are designed with the best medium to start seeds in. They are relatively small and are made to last a relatively short time in the life of your plant. As the plant grows, you will simply plant the entire cell into a larger pot filled with potting soil. The roots will grow right through the sides and bottom of the cell and continue growing along with the plant.

Pick the Right Pots and Containers

Any pot or container will work, but there are advantages of some pots and trays over others. Plastic pots are generally less expensive and they hold in moisture so your plants are less likely to dry out. If you are growing large plants, whether houseplants or vegetables, you will need a larger pot. A tomato plant will need a one- to two-gallon pot. Also, if you intend to grow root crops, make sure the pot has enough depth. Your pots should have drainage holes in the bottom so excess water can drain out. More indoor plants die from overwatering than underwatering. Place your plants on a tray covered with decorative stones or use a saucer and pot combination.  If you are more likely to forget to water, you may want to consider purchasing the type of pot that has a built-in water reservoir that allows the plant soil to absorb water when it needs it.

Understand the Relationship Between Water and Fertilizer

When you first plant your seeds, it is important to keep the growing medium moist until the seeds germinate. If you have purchased a grow kit, it will have a cover to keep the moisture in the container. If you are using your own container, place it in a plastic bag to maintain the moisture level and prevent the soil from drying out. As soon as you see the seeds are germinating, remove the cover. Gradually reduce the watering as the plant grows and allow the surface to dry out between watering. As your plant grows, use a moisture meter to help determine when your plant needs water. Insert the meter about two inches into the soil. You can also do this with your finger. If the soil is moist, there is no need to water.  If the soil is dry at two inches, it is time to water.

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If your potting mix included fertilizer, follow the instructions on adding fertilizer to your pots. If it did not include fertilizer, you will have to add it. Purchase a good balanced fertilizer and use as directed. Liquid fertilizer is easy to mix and it is easy to see that all the soil is fertilized. Another option is a slow-release fertilizer. These are applied less often and are effective for an extended period. Read the instructions on the package for the frequency of application. Start conservatively. Most fertilizers are recommending an amount for maximum growth possible. This might not be what you want in an indoor container garden. Start with a half dose and see how your plants react. If your plants are thriving and make modest growth, continue with that amount of fertilizer. If your plants have a sudden growth spurt and look stressed, cut back on the fertilizer.

Remember to enjoy your new garden adventure and don’t let a few failures stop you. Try different plants or a different location or different care. Over time, you will discover what will work in your indoor garden.