Nothing tastes better than fresh – and besides delicious meals, growing your own food helps you reduce your environmental impact

Today more people tend plants than ever before, with 77 percent of Americans reporting they are gardening, according to the 2018 National Gardening Association survey. Many of these new gardeners are millennials, often reacting to the vast amount of time they are indoors. On average, Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Growing plants provides a chance to connect with nature, reduce waste, and care for the Earth.

“Gardening in an apartment can be a bit of a challenge, but if you start small and choose the right plants you’ll have a green thumb in no time,” says Margaret Williamson, owner of Leaf + Petal, a floral studio based in New Orleans.

Follow these gardening tips to set up a year-round garden in a little space.

Pick Out a Location

When searching for the right place, look at the amount of light the greenery will receive.

“Choose a spot with as much sun exposure as possible,” Williamson says.

You might find sunny spots on a windowsill, balcony, rooftop, or fire escape. Many plants need six to eight hours of light a day to grow.

If you are often in the kitchen, window boxes next to the sink might be a good fit. Seeing the small garden frequently can serve as a reminder to water the plants, and the artificial light of the kitchen will give them a boost.

For tiny spaces, vertical garden planters can be attached to a wall. An elevated table planter or hanging baskets on a balcony will free up the floor for other uses.

If you want to keep your plants in a spot that doesn’t receive direct sunlight, a grow light can help give them the shine they need. Many grow light options are available for less than $30.

Know What Grows Best

If you haven’t gardened before, you might opt for a couple of trial plants in pots. Plants that tend to grow well in pots include:

  • Herbs: basil, chives, coriander, mint, parsley and oregano
  • Fruits: strawberries, raspberries, and citrus trees
  • Vegetables: tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, beans, salad greens and cucumbers

“You can grow a mixture of plants in one container,” says Pol Bishop, a gardening and landscaping expert at Fantastic Gardeners. “Just make sure there is enough space for all of them.”

Use the Right Potting Soil

When picking out seeds or starter plants, look for a tag with information regarding what type of soil to use.

“Many plants prefer a more acidic to neutral soil with a pH up to 7.0,” Williamson says.

If you’re not sure what kind of dirt to get, ask at the nursery or garden section.

“Enrich the soil with organic components such as compost,” Bishop says.

If you want to use scraps of food, add an at-home compost bin to your kitchen. Create the compost with orange peels, apple cores, and other leftover food. You can also put worms in with the soil to provide air and a healthy growing environment.

If you don’t add your own compost, look for a fertilizer to use.

“All plants require nutrient rich soil,” Williamson says.

For plants in pots, there is also a risk of using too much fertilizer, as the soil is contained in a small area. To avoid over-fertilizing, mix up fertilizer to be about one-quarter of the strength of a regular fertilizer. Then add the diluted mixture to the plants.

Follow a Watering Schedule

“Most people overwater their plants,” Bishop says. To keep your plants properly hydrated, look for instructions with the plant or seed. If the care card doesn’t list how much water to give, look up what the particular fruit tree or vegetable needs.

“Every plant is different and has its own watering preferences,” Bishop says.

In general terms, plants need more water during hot and sunny weather, but less in colder weather. Check the moisture of the soil regularly to see if it aligns with what the plant needs.

“Make sure your planters and pots have good drainage,” Bishop says.

When watering, use water that is at room temperature. If you have a hard time remembering to water the plants, look for a self-watering container or set reminders on your phone.

Be Aware of Pets and Plants

If your dog or cat seems obsessed with the new garden, it’s normal.

“Generally pets are attracted to plants due to a combination of curiosity and some plants smelling and tasting good,” says Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinarian health expert.

This attraction can lead to unwanted consequences, as many plants are toxic to animals. If you’re unsure of what will be safe for your pet, look at the list of poisonous plants from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. You can also put plants out of reach, or create a barrier so your dog can’t reach them.

When using fertilizer, look for products that are labeled “pet safe.”

Add Some Decoration

An urban garden presents the opportunity to get creative in a small outdoor space. A wheelbarrow could be used on a balcony to create a garden theme. When planting, first make sure the wheelbarrow has holes in the bottom for proper drainage. Then choose a spot, and fill the wheelbarrow with several inches of soil. Add seeds or small plants to complete the arrangement.

In addition to edible plants, a variety of flowering plants and other vegetation can do well in a tiny apartment. Evaluate the  condition of your home to find vegetation that fits:

  • Areas with low light: peace lilies, fittonias, ivy, weeping figs, and money plants.
  • Areas exposed to full sun: cacti, succulents, and tropical flowers
  • Humid areas: ferns, begonias and dracaena

Match the Types of Plants With Your Lifestyle

“Some plants are high maintenance, some are low maintenance,” Williamson says.

If you travel frequently, you might opt for succulents, which require little water and can last for stretches without watering.

“If you’ve never cared for plants before, you can’t go wrong with snake plants, jade plants, aloe vera, cast iron plants and ZZ plants,” says Tiernach McDermott, a horticultural expert for Candide. “They’re all virtually indestructible and can survive weeks of abuse or neglect.”

You may be dreaming of a thriving balcony garden, but when starting out, take a slow and steady approach.

“Jumping into any new hobby can be overwhelming, so start with one plant and see how it feels,” Williamson says. “If you like it a few months later, get another and build from there.”

Be Prepared for Some Fine Tuning

During certain times of the year, your balcony might get extra wind, which can hurt plants. Move the pots to a sheltered area or create a layer of protection with a wooden windscreen or wattle.

“Some plants need a period of latency every year before flowering,” Bishop says. Toward the end of autumn, decrease the frequency of watering and fertilizing. As the days lengthen, increase the watering and fertilizing schedule.
Rachel Hartman