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When the winter gets you down and you find yourself dreaming of fresh herbs and veggies from your summer garden, consider taking up indoor gardening! On top of providing you with lots of yummy things to eat, indoor plants cleanse your household air and improve it aesthetically by adding a pop of vibrant green to generic indoor spaces.
Indoor gardening is especially useful for city dwellers or those who lack a good outdoor gardening space. Plants don’t need to take up much space — a sunny windowsill, tabletop, or shelf is all it takes if that’s all you’ve got to work with. For those with an outdoor gardening space, indoor gardening can be a great way to get a head start on the growing season by starting seeds before it’s time to plant them outside in the spring.
Listed below are the six most important things to consider when getting started with indoor gardening:
1. Your Indoor Garden Space
An indoor garden can be as big or as little as you want, depending on the amount of space you have and/or are willing to give it.
If you plan on growing a lot, you may want to set up a table or a shelving unit with lights, specifically for getting your seeds started. Shelves are great for small spaces, as they provide lots of planting room while taking up mostly vertical space. A small shelf with grow lights can be set up out of the way in a corner of your apartment. Of course, if all you have is a windowsill, that can suffice as well.
Without adequate light, a plant will become ‘leggy’, growing tall and spindly and eventually toppling over. Leggy plants are weak because they are not receiving enough energy to grow properly, and will likely not be able to produce flowers and fruit (or in reduced yields if they do). Plants grown near a window will often not receive enough light during the winter months to thrive, as the sun is weaker and shows itself for fewer hours than in summer. As a result, you will probably need to supplement your plants with a grow light.
Here are a few important things to consider when choosing a grow light:
1. Plants absorb specific wavelengths of light from the sun, and you’ll need to provide them with light of a similar wavelength.
2. The light should be positioned as close to the plant as possible, without being so close as to burn the leaves. They should be positioned only a few inches above seedlings for best results. If you are using a shelving unit to grow your seedlings, you’ll need a light for each level you have plants growing.
3. Most plants (especially vegetables) do best with 14-16 hours of simulated light. You can set up your lighting system with a timer so you don’t need to keep track! If your plants aren’t getting enough light, you may observe some of the following symptoms: small leaves, tall and thin stems, and a lighter green colouring.
Selecting a Grow Light
There are a lot of different light bulbs out there, and it can be difficult to know which ones are good for growing plants and which ones are not.
Incandescent Bulbs – are inexpensive and can be found at your local hardware store. These work alright for most houseplants, but are not ideal for growing vegetables.
Fluorescent Bulbs – are relatively cheap and can be found at your local hardware store and even some nurseries. They’re great for starting seeds, growing herbs and other plants that don’t need lots of light to thrive. They are not good for plants that are budding or flowering because they don’t put off enough light for the plant to complete this process well. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are small and efficient, and can be used for all plants in the indoor garden. They’re great because they produce very little heat, and can therefore be placed very close to the plants without risk of causing heat damage. You can find a great inexpensive fluorescent 4-light panel here.
High Intensity Discharge Bulbs (HID) – can be expensive, but are very bright and very efficient. There are several types of HIDs, but the two that are appropriate for use as grow lights are the High Pressure Sodium (HPS) and Metal Halide (MH) bulbs. We recommend getting these as simple single light fixtures, or complete kits with everything you need.
LED – are expensive if you are buying good quality. However, LEDs are energy efficient, running on approximately 60% of the energy required by HID bulbs. They also run cool, so they can be positioned close to plants without causing any heat damage. We recommend these LED bulbs from TaoTronics.
What Size Light Do I Need?
Look at the wattage of your bulbs to determine the strength of light that will support your plants. It is recommended that you provide your plants 50 watts per square foot in the growing area. Bulbs should be positioned no more than a few inches above the plants (especially with seedlings), otherwise insufficient lighting may result in unhealthy leggy plants.
To make everything less complicated, I use this Sunblaster Grow Light Garden to start my seeds indoors in early spring. It’s nice and compact, and will provide full-spectrum light to your little seedlings so they grow up strong and healthy.
I also use it to grow lots of fresh herbs and greens indoors during the long winter months when it’s too cold to grow anything outside. It is definitely one of my favorite purchases!
If you have limited indoor space I recommend the Sunblaster Micro Grow Light Garden. It’s the small version of the one I use and linked to above and will do the job just as well.
3. Temperature + Humidity
Temperatures of 65-75°F (18-24°C) are ideal for most plants, and temperatures a little bit outside of this range won’t do any harm. Plants grown for too long in extreme temperatures, whether too hot or too cold, will eventually develop problems (such as stunted growth or yellowing leaves) and not produce to the best of their potential.
One of the biggest issues with growing indoors is the lack of humidity, especially in winter, which tends to be even drier than the other seasons. Growing problems caused by low humidity can present as:
- Brown leaf tips
- Dropping leaves
- Withered plants
To counteract some of these problems, you can increase humidity in your indoor growing environment in a number of ways.
- Mist plants daily with a spritzer
- Leave a tray of water near your indoor garden
- Cluster plants together to create a more humid microclimate
- Use a humidifier
We also have a friend that used to keep their plants in their bathroom window, where they would benefit from the humidity generated from the daily use of the shower.
4. Growing Medium
For indoor gardening you’ll want to look for a potting mix that is specifically made for indoor use. I personally use this Pro Mix Organic Seed Starter Mix when starting my seeds. It’s top quality stuff that the pros use, so you really can’t go wrong with it!
You want to avoid using regular garden soil when starting seeds because it contains all sorts of large matter, bacteria, and bugs which can hinder your new seedlings from sprouting or growing properly. A good seed starting mix has a fine texture and is sterile — a perfect combination for baby plants to thrive in.
A good indoor growing media should stay loose, light, and fluffy. It should contain enough organic matter to provide some nutrients and to hold moisture, but also drain well. Most bagged mixes are great, or you can mix your own as well. Check out our article on potting soil to find out how!
5. Choosing Your Plants
Almost anything can be grown indoors as long as you provide it with enough light and it doesn’t get too big for the space! However, here are some great choices for an indoor garden:
Vegetables – Chili peppers, salad greens, chard, cherry tomatoes (especially dwarf varieties), bush beans
Herbs – Basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, chives, oregano, lavender
Flowers – Many flowers do well indoors — just make sure you check the light requirements before you grow.
Fruit – Strawberries, citrus trees
However, don’t confine yourself to growing those listed above! As we said before, you can grow almost anything indoors, so if there’s something you’ve been dying to try we say ‘go for it’!
If you run out of space and you have an outdoor garden, most plants can be transplanted outdoors. Just remember to harden them off when putting them outside so they can acclimate to the harsher conditions. You can do this by leaving them outside in a sheltered place for a short period, then a little longer each day following. Increase the time each day for about 7 days, after which they can be safely left outdoors as long as there is no risk of frost.
6. Looking After Your Indoor Garden
Container grown plants dry out faster than those grown in the ground, and so require frequent watering. When the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch, water until the water runs out the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Remember to get rid of any excess water, as plants do not like sitting in it! Signs of water-related problems are as follows:
Over Watering – wilting, lower leaves dropping off, stunted growth, discoloration
Under Watering – wilting, dry crispy soil, brown leaf tips and/or edges, leaves or flowers dropping off
Plants grown in containers will need a boost of nutrients every so often as the plant uses up the nutrients in the soil or growing medium. Take your choice of inorganic or organic fertilizers, and follow the instructions on the package for how much to give, at what concentrations, and how often to fertilize.