Indoor vegetable gardening is easier than you think. The process can be customized for any space, budget, or culinary preference. You can dedicate a room to food production, or simply place a few small planters in a windowsill to grow accenting herbs. In this guide, we will cover all of the important aspects of growing food indoors and will discuss which are the best vegetables to grow in pots and containers.
Planning Your Garden
Planning an indoor garden involves more than logistics. Your plan also needs to include questions that help you assess how growing vegetables can improve the quality of your life. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you get started:
- How many plants do I want?
- Which plants do I want?
- How ambitious do I want to be?
- How much money do I have to invest in this?
- What’s my availability? Will I be home to consistently water these plants?
- Will my plants be exclusively indoors, or will I bring them outside, weather permitting?
Then, ask yourself what benefits you would like to receive from your indoor garden:
- Improved air quality
- Home decor
- Connectedness to nature
- Education and self-improvement
- Better mental health
- Better physical health
- Fresh homegrown food
- Gourmet ingredients
- Financial Savings
Finding Space In Your Home
Light: Placing your herbs in a bright window or small patio, preferably facing south or west, is ideal. This will provide your herbs with about 6 hours of daily natural light. You can supplement the light requirements of your plants with an artificial light as well. We will go into more detail about light options later on.
Temperature: Many plants do well between the range of 65 F. (18 C.) to 75 F (24 C.). However, you will want to look up the needs of your specific crops to find the ideal temperature. You may want to move your plants to different areas in your home depending on the season, to maximize sun and heat.
Airflow: It’s important that your plants have consistent airflow and circulation in their room. This helps to produce hearty strong plants, and also helps to circulate CO2 to them. Place your plants in a naturally breezy place, or set up a fan directed towards your vegetables. One tabletop fan is enough circulation for up to 5 plants.
Accessibility: Make sure to place your plants in an area that will be easy for you to access as well as clean up. You may want to place them higher or in a certain room where pets are not allowed. Additionally, make sure to research which plants may be toxic to pets and children.
Creativity: Getting creative with your space can really help you discover unusual but extremely effective options. For example, basements, sheds, corners of rooms, and even cabinets can be utilized for growing. You may also consider vertical or hanging gardens as a way to save space.
When choosing containers for your indoor vegetables, options are as broad as your imagination. You could use old buckets, purses, storage boxes, shoes, repurposed furniture, baskets, tea pots, jars, cans, plastic bottles, just about anything you can think of! Understanding the basics of container gardening will give you the flexibility to adjust any type of container to your crop.
Root Depth: Every vegetable has a certain amount of space it needs for its roots to comfortably grow and spread. Most vegetables will need about 6 inches of space for their roots to move into. This includes most varieties of leafy greens, peppers, and dwarf forms of carrots, radishes, and beets. Even though you want enough room for the plant, you also don’t want a container that is too deep. This could waste soil, and make it hard for the plant to dry out, leading to over-watering or mold issues.
Drainage: Having holes in your container that allow water to run out of the vessel is very important for preventing overwatering or the soaking of roots. These containers have either several small slits or a single hole, and often come with a tray that catches the excess water beneath. You can also “bottom water” plants with drainage holes by placing the container in a sink filled with a few inches of water. This will allow the soil and roots to pull the moisture upwards and take just as much as they need.
- Plastic containers are a good choice if you’re looking for planters that are affordable, lightweight, stackable, and easily modified. As a petroleum-based product, they’re not the most environmentally friendly option. However, with BPA-free materials, they will be safe for growing food in.
- Polystyrene containers are also lightweight cheap food-grade containers for growing vegetables in. Since these containers are difficult to reuse, it is likely that you can collect several of them for free to give them a second life as planters. Their stark white styrofoam appearance is less than stylish, so many gardeners paint them to add a bit of personality and warmth.
- Stone containers are usually found outside because of their weight and durability. For smaller plants, they can provide durability and retain heat in the indoor garden. They are also quite stylish and create a timeless garden look.
- Terra Cotta is a fairly delicate material that can expand and contract, leading to cracking. This isn’t usually an issue when growing indoors, but be careful if you store them in a garage or storage area with fluctuating temperatures. These containers hold heat and moisture very well, so stick to using them with plants that prefer these conditions.
- Wood is a beautiful and natural looking material that can really help make an indoor garden look warm and inviting. However, since you will be using the container for edible plants, you will want to make sure the containers weren’t treated with harsh chemicals meant to prevent the wood from molding or rotting. You can seal a wooden container with a food-grade product such as SoySeal or SoyGuard.
Indoor vegetables need loose soil that promotes water drainage and retention. Perlite or vermiculite can help increase drainage and can be added to your soil at a ratio of 1 part perlite to 25 parts soil.
If you purchase an indoor potting mix (not a potting soil) it will come with perlite, or something similar, mixed in. This is an ideal foundation for your plants.
Some potting mixes are completely soil free and do a great job of producing healthy thriving plants. They are called planting mediums, or media. Here are some of the most popular alternatives to soil:
Coir: This organic material is made out of coconut shell husks and fibers. This material holds water and oxygen well, is organic, and is a renewable material, making it environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, it does not have great drainage, so is often best mixed with another media.
Burlap: is the most affordable choice when it comes to a medium. However, it is one of the trickiest materials to work with and may not produce ideal yields as a result of it’s difficulty.
Rockwool: Rockwool is a sterile and porous non-degradable material that is made out of limestone and granite. It holds water very well, has great oxygen retention, and comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. Like any material, it has drawbacks as well. It is not pH neutral, creates dust particles, and can be nearly impossible to dispose of in an environmentally friendly way.
Vermiculate: This substance has great moisture and nutrient retention capacity. However, it is possible that it may hold too much water, and is an expensive choice.
Don’t use outdoor soil mixes or dirt from the ground in your indoor herb garden. They will be too dense which will hinder drainage. They also may contain or attract unwanted pests and microbes into your garden.
Shelves are a foundational part of your indoor garden setup. For those who are indoor apartment gardening, shelves may be an essential solution, providing vertical space and minimizing floor or table space from being taken up.
Shelves can be repurposed from several different materials, or specific high end constructions. You can consider making shelves out of planks of wood, cinder blocks, old doors, bookshelves, and much more.
When purchasing new shelves for your plants, consider metal, industrial-style shelving. They are sturdy, easy to put together, and open on the back and sides. Coated wire shelving is a good inexpensive and durable option.
Adjustable shelves are great for when your plants mature and require more height. You will also want to think about what kind of lighting you will use when purchasing a shelf, to make sure the sizes are compatible.
Do my plants need a grow light?
Your vegetables may need a grow light if they are living indoors. Oftentimes, a standard lamp has an insufficient amount of brightness and the incorrect wavelengths for your plant to reach the full spectrum of light.
If you live in a home that does not have south or west-facing windows where your plants can be placed, your plants will have an even harder time getting the light they need.
Even those who get great indoor sunlight may want to consider getting a grow light for their succulents in wintertime when sunlight is limited.
There are two tell-tale signs of a succulent needing more light. Firstly, it’s colors will pale and
There are two types of lights that are best for indoor vegetable gardening: light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and fluorescent grow lights. Let’s look into the details of both options:
Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
There are many benefits to using an LED grow light for succulents. Succulent plants respond very well to the blue and red dominant light, providing them with a proper spectrum of light for their health.
LEDs are low-intensity lights and are therefore more energy-efficient and less hot. This may be ideal if you are in a small space and need to have your lights very close to your plants. A cooler light, like an LED, will minimize the issue of “cooking” the plant by keeping it too close to hot lights.
These lights have been a popular choice for plant growers for several decades. Traditionally fluorescent lights come in a long tube shape that maximizes light on a large surface area.
For smaller homes, you can get a CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulb. In this bulb, the light tubes are spiraled into a shape that is similar to a traditional bulb. This is ideal for those with a small number of plants, or for someone trying to provide light to vegetables that live on a desk, bookshelf, or anywhere else where it may be hard to set up large lights. They also give off a white light, which may be less off-putting than LEDs with colored lights.
These lights are full-spectrum, meaning that they will provide your plant with light ranging from red to ultraviolet frequencies. Because of the high output of these lights, they can get quite hot, and will need to be distanced from your plants further than a normal fluorescent tube.
The first thing to consider when setting up and using your grow light is where you’ll put it. Look for a place where there is a little more space than you think you’ll need, and where no one can easily disturb it.
Distance between your plants and your light is the next consideration. You want to make sure your light isn’t too close to your plants or it may overheat and burn them. As a general rule of thumb, make sure to space your lights at least 6” from your vegetables, and do not place your lights further than 30”. Of course, the distance of your lights will affect the coverage over the total area. Lights set further away will provide a larger volume of light for your plants, making this a good option for those with many plants.
For Fluorescent bulbs and tube lights place them 6”-12” away from your succulents.
For LED light place them 18” – 24” away from your succulents.
Seed packets contain a wealth of knowledge and can help familiarize you with the requirements and characteristics of the plants in your garden. Ordering and reading through seed catalogs is a good exercise that can give you a good contextual understanding of what is good and not so good for growing indoors. Here are some important considerations to look out for on the package when purchasing seeds:
Light Requirements: This factor will help you decide where to put your plants and whether or not you will need artificial lights. Some vegetables, such as beets, prefer full sun every day. Chard can thrive with several shady days. Make sure to learn the specific needs of your plant.
Seeding Depth: This will tell you how deeply you need to plant your seeds in their containers so that they can optimally germinate.
Plant Spacing: If you’re planting several vegetables in a single container, make sure to pay attention to how much space their leaves and root system will need to thrive.
Days to Maturity: It’s important to know when your plants will reach maturity so you can gauge their process and determine whether or not they need additional support.
Soil and Fertilization: This information will tell you which soil works best for your plant. Loose and well-drained soils are usually recommended for container gardening. Each plant will have a specific nutrient requirement, so make sure to study this information in order to pick out the correct fertilizer.
Plant Management: In this section, the manufacturer will let you know about the pests that are attracted to the plant, how to best harvest it, and even tips for storage.
Container Gardening Suitable: With the rising popularity of indoor apartment gardening, many manufacturers have curated a collection of the best seeds for containers. This information can often be found on the seed manufacturer’s website.
Seed Storage: Using a small plastic file box is a great way to keep your seeds cool, dry, and out of direct sunlight. You should also write the purchase date on each seed packet, and any other specific notes you have about the plant. This way you don’t have to worry about keeping track of a notebook.
If you’ve had difficulty starting plants from seed or would like the gardening process to go a bit faster, you may consider purchasing transplants for your garden. Some plants are very easy to transfer from outside. For example, you can take a cutting from a rosemary plant and place it directly into an indoor pot, bypassing the need to even plant a root system.
If you are transplanting an entire plant from outside to inside, make sure to remove as much of the soil as possible. This will help prevent the spread of pests or diseases in your home. Outdoor soil does not drain well, so you should try to avoid getting any into your container.
When transplanting a vegetable from a nursery, you can simply place the entire root system and soil (or medium) clump into your indoor pot.
Transferring a plant can traumatize it. It’s important to be mindful of not shocking the plant with new conditions. Make sure you gradually transition the plant to get it to the temperature of your home. Placing the plant in a garage with open windows is a good step between bringing your transplant home and planting it inside.
Here are a couple of items you may want to grab for your indoor gardening journey:
Automatic light timers are helpful if you’re away from home often or have an unpredictable schedule.There are many options available and they’re often fairly inexpensive. Many lights and light kits also come with built in timers.
Heat mats are also called germination mats and can help roots stay warmer in cold seasons or chillier rooms such as basements, garages, or other uninsulated rooms. They are also commonly used for sprouting seeds. The temperature is low enough that the mat won’t burn your plants.
Spray bottles are useful for various growing-related tasks. You can use them to apply a fertilizer, spray soapy water on your plants to prevent mold and pests, moisten germinating seeds, and much more.
Preventing Plant Diseases
Now that you’ve learned some of the fundamental parts of indoor vegetable gardening, here are some preventative tips for keeping your plants healthy, strong, and disease-free.
- Don’t overwater your plants to avoid mold issues.
- Increase your air circulation by putting a fan in or near an open window to create strong cross breezes.
- Move your houseplants away from your herbs to avoid contamination.
- Gently brush rubbing alcohol onto the plant’s leaves to stop a mild insect infection
- Create a mixture of liquid soap (such as Dove of Dr. Bronner’s) with water and spray it onto the plants to treat pest and mold issues.
Unlike sprouts, which are grown in water and require thorough rising to avoid bacterial growth, shoots are grown in soil. They are very flexible in terms of time, space, and resource usage. Shoots are a cross between sprouts and microgreens. You let them grow approximately to the size of sprouts.
Harvesting these plants at such a young age provides a large amount of vitamins and flavor in your yields. You can also plant these seed very closely together since you won’t be growing them into maturity.
Pea shoots, sunflower shoots, popcorn shoots, and even nasturtium flower shoots are all great options to try at home.
Microgreens are the seedlings of herbs, greens, or other vegetables. They are not a specific breed of plants, but rather a plant that has been grown over a short period of time and has passed the “sprouting” phase. Microgreens are packed full of healthy nutrients and enzymes since the plants are in a period of young rapid growth.
What Materials Do I Need?
- A shallow tray is a perfect base for your setup. You can use a plastic or non-plastic tray. You can buy it or use a recycled container you have around the home.
- Soil or growing medium is needed for providing stability and nutrients to your plants. You can use a soil mix for most plants, and there are also grow mats and starter mediums available for smaller seeds.
- A sunny spot or a grow light is important to provide the full spectrum of nutrients to your plants. For maximum growth, they’ll need about 4-6 hours of daily light. Since the seeds will grow quickly, you don’t need to worry too much about the tray taking up windowsill space or driving up your electricity bill, as would be a concern for plants growing to maturity.
- Microgreen seeds are the same as regular seeds. However, you may want to buy organic seeds, since the small plants will be very concentrated with whatever treatments (such as pesticides) are on the plants. Some companies offer microgreen seed mixes which is a perfect way to try a variety of flavors.
Broadly speaking, your microgreens will take about 1 to 4 weeks to reach a desirable size (2 to 3 inches tall). You can either clip your greens with a pair of scissors or remove the plant and root completely. Many like to remove the entire plant because it frees up space for the roots of the other plants in the tray.
You’ll only have one yield from each tray of microgreens that you grow since you’re removing and eating a majority of the plant when you harvest it. You can make the most out of this amount by only harvesting when you are cooking, allowing the other plants to stay fresh and keep growing.
Go ahead and use your senses to decide when the plants are ready to be harvested. Look for the brightest healthiest greens, and find the ones that have created their first set of leaves. Be sure to taste-test them as well. The benefit of growing your own produce is that you can harvest it at the perfect point for your needs.
Wheatgrass is a simple and space-efficient addition to an indoor garden. You can grow wheatgrass in a 10 x 10 inch tray and put it in the corner of your room with a grow light. Another option is to purchase a long tray that can fit in a windowsill.
Herbs are a great choice for indoor gardening since you can grow a variety in a windowsill affordably and easily. For those wanting larger yields or to experiment with more challenging herbs, a grow light can help expand your options.
Easy Herbs to Grow:
- Vietnamese coriander
Intermediate Herbs to Grow
Advanced Herbs to Grow:
Growing mushrooms indoors is a perfect compromise between store-bought and fresh-foraged options. When growing from home, you can choose from more varieties than available at the market and enjoy them as fresh as possible when you’re producing these delicious fungi at home.
There are several ways to grow mushrooms at home. You could do one of many DIY approaches, or you can purchase a mushroom grow kit. Mushroom kits can simplify the growing process significantly. With a kit, there is no need to buy spore needles, substrates, growing mediums, or a container for growth. Each kit will be designed for the specific needs of the type of mushroom you are trying to cultivate, which can be helpful and educational for a beginner.
Lettuce is a relatively low-maintenance plant that is ideal for a beginner indoor garden. Loose leaf varieties grow best in indoor gardens, and do well in colder temperatures. You will need to grow your lettuce in a room that gets a lot of light, or to use artificial lights.
A seed-starting mix is a great choice for lettuce. It is lightweight and nutrient rich. You also don’t need to use deep planters since the root system for lettuce is fairly shallow. Seeds should be planted at least an inch apart, and you can plant up to four seeds in a single pot if you’re using a larger circular container.
You can expect lettuce to grow about 4 inches tall within 20-30 days. Harvest the larger outer leaves to propagate more growth.
If you’d like a continuous harvest all year, you can sow seeds every two weeks.
Beets love cool weather and lots of sunshine, so you’ll want to make sure they are getting lots of light (6 to 8 hours) or that you purchase artificial lights. The most important consideration with beets is the depth of your container. Make sure to choose a pot that is at least 10 inches deep.
Each beet should be planted approximately 3 inches apart in order to have enough room to fully mature. Using a soft-sided pot is a great idea for growing beets or any other root vegetables in containers. They may be hard to move around the home or porch but they will have plenty of growing space at a good price.
Kale, Chard, and Spinach
Growing leafy greens is an easy and affordable option for an indoor garden. They can take about 55 to 65 days to grow to full maturity. However, you can prune it early as baby kale (young kale) or even kale microgreens or shoots.
The process of growing pepper indoors is relatively similar to outdoor planting. They will need a good amount of space in their container for their roots to grow, lots of sunlight, a south or west facing window, or an artificial light.
The best peppers to grow indoors are smaller varieties such as thai peppers, habaneros, chiltepins, and pequins.
Peppers do best in a temperature of about 80 F. during the day and 70 F. at night. This may be hard to achieve, but try to stay within 20 degrees of this. You can use a light or heat map to increase the temperature.
To grow potatoes indoors, you will need a container that can hold at least 2.5 gallons. This container can be a plastic bucket, a gardening pot, or even a bag. Potatoes don’t do well in wet environments so you will want to make sure to get a container with excellent drainage.
Potatoes won’t need that much watering, but the soil should always be kept slightly moist. Check the soil every two to three days to stay consistent with it’s needs.
As your potatoes mature, you will need to hill them. Hilling is the process of creating a mound of soil around the stalk of the potato plant. This helps deep the potatoes deep under the soil, safe, and free from exposure to light.
Harvest your potatoes when the greens turn yellow or die off, which indicates that the tubers are ready.
Tomatoes need 8 hours of sunlight and temperatures of at least 65F to produce fruit. A well-heated and artificially lit grow area is a great location for these plants. You can even consider bringing your plants indoors and outdoors as light and temperature conditions change through the season.
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It’s quite empowering to learn how to bring farming and gardening into your home. Even those with limited space who are looking for innovate indoor apartment gardening, there are plenty of vegetable options to work with.
Start with simple smaller crops such as shoots, microgreens, herbs, and lettuces. These will get you familiar with the foundations of growing food and will provide you with a great foundation of knowledge.
As your indoor farming journey grows, you’ll see that the joy is as much in the process as it is in the product. When your plants mature and you’re able to add fresh, local, and healthy ingredients to your dishes, you’ll rest assured that this is the best culinary experience at one of the most affordable costs.
What are your favorite vegetables to grow inside? Let me know in the comments below!