The Apartment Garden: 10 Tips on How to Get Started + What to Plant

Ever wanted to grow your own veggies, but thought your space was too tiny? This pro is changing everything we think about gardening in an apartment – get her tips and get inspired!

This post is part of an ongoing collaboration with The Chalkboard Mag.

Don’t wait ’til you move into that sprawling country estate you’ve dreamed up on Pinterest – apartment gardening is a thing! We’re learning all about gardening in an apartment from Jill Volat, the inspiring founder of LA-based The Edible Apartment. This non-profit teaches folks across the urban landscape how to grow their own food in their apartment balconies, tiny yards and front stoops! It might seem impossible to grow your own garden greens with so little space, but we asked Jill to share a few of her secrets and some basic tips for those of us who are more likely to kill a small potted succulent than grow a thriving farm, and we were inspired by her response. Suspend all the black thumb self-doubt and give Jill’s ideas a chance. You could start gardening today and be harvesting your own veggies by the end of summer! 

When you affirm that you want to grow your own food – even if it’s ‘just’ a few potted herbs – you’re committing to slowing down and taking the time to nurture something and watch it grow. Gardening is such a lovely form of meditation and self-reflection. The great thing about starting a garden is that you are always able to modify things as you go. That’s the great part about growing food – it’s adaptable as long as you are!

There’s a solution to every garden challenge – even living in a small space like so many city dwellers do. The key to gardening in an apartment is to take things step by step, think creatively and ask questions. Be open to solutions you might not have originally considered. Remember to have fun, and be open to experimentation.

Follow your instincts and be realistic about what feels authentic for you and your home. Gardening is about pleasure, experimentation, authenticity and enjoyment. If you “mess up,” the worst thing that can happen is that you’ve killed a $3 plant, which is less that your morning coffee. Here are a few basics to get you started thinking about gardening in an apartment, or wherever else you might live…

Start with your location – Size Doesn’t Matter | Think quality, not quantity. The size of your garden is not something to worry about. I have been gardening since I was a small child, and have had success in every possible configuration. I’ve grown food in spaces as tiny as a small windowsill planter box while studying in Tuscany, and as massive as an acre of land while working on a residential farm in Malibu. What do these two seemingly opposing worlds have in common? It’s that growing food is about a philosophy and life perspective more than actual square footage. Your attitude should be that there’s always room for an edible garden! It doesn’t matter if you’re growing a thousand square feet of parsley, or just one pot of it – you are still nurturing life, and in turn, your own well being.

Consider the conditions – Work With What You’ve GotWhat you should pay attention to are the conditions of the site, and getting clear on how much time you can realistically devote to your new garden. In a way, I think it’s an advantage to ‘only’ have room for a small garden, because it means you can start out slow, and reap the harvest and the food with less commitment. This builds both confidence and enjoyment.

If you live in a big city and have concerns or doubts about soil quality, you should have the soil tested.There are kits you can buy at larger hardware stores or online. If the soil is not fit for directly planting, you can always place containers or build a wooden box (with a bottom so that the potting soil doesn’t touch the in-ground soil) to put directly on top of the area.

The dirt on dirt – Pick the Proper SoilSince you are growing food, you should absolutely choose organic soil. And I’d also recommend adding a little organic plant food (especially formulated for veggies) and some compost if you can swing it. It’s like cooking in the kitchen — the better the ingredients, the better the outcome. Healthier soil means healthier plants – they taste better, have more nutrition and are more likely to repel pests. Just like us, if we are healthy, we don’t get a ‘bug.’ The same for our photosynthesis friends – the healthier the plant, the less likely it is to attract bugs.

Keep things contained – Find the Best PlanterFor the new gardener, it can be overwhelming to decide where to begin and what kind of containers to choose. But remember, if something can contain soil and water, it can be used as a container. An old metal garbage can, coffee containers, an old sink can look playful, artistic and eclectic when done right. You just need to consider if the container is lined with anything toxic (like lead paint, for example. In that case – don’t use it!). Here are a few solid options:

Terracotta are clay pots made from that iconic “warm earth” colored material. They’re relatively inexpensive, but dry out quickly (because terracotta is a porous material) so they will need more water than the other two options here.

Glazed ceramic containers are sealed with glaze and come in in every color, shape and design imaginable. Modern, Traditional or Zen-styled, the container itself becomes a design element and reinforces your personal style. They also require less water then terracotta (because the glaze retains the moisture), but can be expensive, heavy when filled with soil.

Plastic is the frenemy of garden containers; they are a great way to get started gardening on a budget, but they are still…well…plastic. It’s lightweight (easier to move around), inexpensive and pretty indestructible. But looks less substantial than any other material.

Leave room for growth – Pot Size + DrainageOnce you’ve decided on your container material (as in terracotta, glazed ceramic or plastic), be sure to choose a size that is at least 3-4 times the volume of the veggie you’re transplanting. That will give you plant some room to grow into. This may mean spending a bit more on a bigger pot, but you’ll be glad you did because your plants will thrive.

Also consider drainage for whatever container you decide to use. The soil needs to dry out between waterings or else you can end up with yellow leaves, root rot or a dead plant from overwatering. If you have a nice tile patio, you may want to consider using a saucer or little footed ‘risers’ so that there’s not a puddle under you pot, which could stain your flooring. Just keep an eye on things and you’ll be fine.

Pick your plants – Get Growing | I have two completely opposing philosophies when it comes to selecting plants to grow, especially for newbies. On one hand, if you’ve never grown food, I would recommend crops that are hardier and easier to grow (I list those below). That said, ignorance is bliss – why not go for something more ‘challenging’ and just give it a try? As adults, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and we forget to just relax and have fun. When working with kids in the garden, I notice that they don’t worry so much about the outcome, they just go for the fun of the experience, regardless of if it ‘works out’ or not. Remember, it’s the journey not the destination! I once heard someone say that the best gardeners have killed the most plants. Strangely true!

Resilient + Hardy + Easy To Grow Plants:
Herbs – Parsley, Basil, Thyme, Oregano, Cilantro, Rosemary
Greens – Kale, Chard, Collard Greens, Arugula
Chilies – Jalapeno, Serrano, Anaheim
Edible Flowers – Marigolds, Nasturtiums, Pansies, Calendula

More Challenging Plants To Grow:
Bush or Vining crops – Tomatoes, Eggplant, Bell Peppers
Salad Mix – Mixed Baby Greens, Butter Lettuce, Romaine, Spinach (these require more attention and water, which is why they are in this category)
Root Veggies – Carrots, Radish, Daikon, Beets (these are not so difficult, but do require patience and a bit of trial and error)

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+ Are you growing a garden at home? Tell us how you got started, your favorite resources and what your tips would be for newbies!

Comments

  1. We just moved into a tiny apartment, unfortunately with no balcony, but I will still do as much as I can! The apartment gets lots of light at least, so potted plants should be fine. I have 2 potted fig trees that we moved from my old place and I have about 6 figs growing :) and I also think I will do some herbs!

  2. Fine Gardening Magazine’s Garden Photo of the Day is a must-see for me! The daily entries are warm, inviting, and garden inspirational. It makes me want to actually visit the gardens featured, or upgrade my own outdoor spaces.
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