Living in an apartment or small space can discourage you from growing your own food. We all know that plants do exceptionally well when planted in open soil, where they can get fresh air and ample sunlight.
But if you want to supplement your diet with backyard produce and don’t have a lot of garden space (or any!) to work with, you can still grow food.
You can grow food without a traditional garden by using pots and containers to create a garden space outdoors or growing food crops suitable for indoor growing using grow lights. Choose crops that are well suited to either scenario, and you’ll harvest food crops even without an outdoor garden space.
Each method has its own set of instructions, so be sure to do your research before starting. For example, growing microgreens doesn’t require any land at all – just a shallow tray or container filled with soil.
Find which method will work best for your unique situation and try it out. Even though you may not have traditional gardening space, you can still enjoy the satisfaction of growing your own food.
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1. Grow food in containers
Pots and containers are probably the most obvious solution and the most effective. You can grow all sorts of vegetables, herbs, and even fruit in containers.
You’re not restricted to using pots, either. You can get creative with five-gallon buckets, wine barrels, or even old plastic totes. If you’re short on space, you can grow food vertically on trellises on top of each other or hang pots.
Be sure to use a high-quality potting mix and provide adequate drainage for your plants. Containers need to be watered more frequently than plants in the ground, so keep an eye on them and don’t let the soil dry out.
Angela from Growing in the Garden has a fantastic tutorial with ten steps to get you started with growing food in containers:
Light and Temperature Requirements
Before putting your containers or pots on your balcony, deck or patio, check which spot receives the most sunlight and place your vegetables accordingly. Try observing the space for a day or two to see when the morning and afternoon sun shines the brightest in that area.
Most vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight a day to grow properly. If you are growing leafy greens, they can get by with a little less light.
Water For Your Container Garden
Vegetable crops require regular water for optimal growth. Since the plant roots only have access to what you provide them, set up a regular watering routine, especially during the hot summer months.
However, with a container garden, you can mistakenly drown your plants. When the soil is soaking wet, you risk rotting the plant roots, so aim to keep it evenly moist.
Before watering your potted plants, check the soil moisture level. You can do this by sticking your finger one inch into the soil. If the soil is dry, water your plants, and if it’s moist, wait to add more water.
For more on watering, use this article to walk you through the garden: Watering Your Home Garden Through The Season: A Complete Guide.
Use Quality Potting Soil
Proper drainage is crucial for container gardening, so look for potting soil that contains perlite, which helps aerate the soil and allows for drainage. Most standard potting mixes should include this, so it won’t be hard to find.
Regular garden soil will compact in the container affecting the drainage, which will harm your plant roots. A high-quality potting mix also discourages weeds and other soil-borne diseases.
Don’t Forget to Feed the Plants!
Fertilizer is food for the plants, and they will need it throughout their growing season. We advise mixing fertilizer with the potting soil before planting and adding as you go. A balanced fertilizer specific for vegetable crops will provide the nutrients to support both green foliage and vegetable production.
Choose the Right Container
Bigger is better for container gardening because large containers are easy to maintain and provide your plants with more room for their roots. A big container can hold more soil and retain more moisture, making it easier to avoid swings from dry to wet soil.
Containers and pots come in many designs, such as wooden containers, self-watering containers, and ceramic containers. You can also DIY a container garden using plastic buckets and containers.
Which Plants Should You Grow in Containers?
Plants that do well in containers include:
- Sugar snap peas
- Carrots (make sure your pot is deep enough for the variety you choose)
- Leafy greens like spinach and kale
2. In a Window Box
When you see window boxes, you probably think of flowers, but you can use them for a lot more than that. Greens like chard and arugula can do well on your windowsill, so make use of the space and grow some food.
Choosing a window box
Window boxes come in different designs and materials, such as plastic and wood. I would recommend wood to help maintain moderate soil temperatures during the day’s heat.
Make sure it’s at least six inches deep, so the roots have room to grow. A deeper windowbox will allow a wider range of vegetables, such as root crops that need space to grow down. The wider the window box, the more plants you can fit.
Window boxes are designed to fit on almost all windowsills, but make sure they’re appropriately attached to hold the weight of the soil and plants without the risk of falling.
If you’re attaching it to a brick wall, use special masonry screws. If your window is made of wood or another material, use appropriate screws or brackets for that material.
Unlike pots and containers, you cannot move window boxes, so choose the right spot from the beginning, so your plants don’t get fried by too much sun or fail to thrive from too little.
Choose plants suitable for a window box
Plants that grow large and tall are not ideal for a window box garden because they might need more soil for their roots, and they’ll block your window.
Go for plants that stay small or naturally have compact growing habits. You can grow just about any small vegetable or herb if your window gets full sun, whereas a partially shady window should focus on greens and herbs.
Here are a few ideas of food plants suited for a window box:
- Lettuce and salad greens
- Compact cherry tomatoes like Tom Thumb
- A variety of herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, chives, and cilantro
- Edible flowers like nasturtiums and calendulas
Lining and drainage
Like container gardening, all your window boxes should have enough drainage holes to avoid waterlogging.
If your window box is made of wood, you can line it to increase the longevity of your window box. Linings are made from plastic or coconut fiber and prevent your window box from cracking, discoloring, or rotting.
Window box soil
As you already know, container-grown plants do well in light and well-draining soil, so a basic potting mix will do the trick for your window boxes.
Mix in a granulated fertilizer at planting time, and periodically supplement with a liquid fertilizer through the season to keep your plants healthy and productive.
3. Indoors with grow lights
As more apartment dwellers and urbanites are looking to grow their food, companies have started building indoor growing stations. These stations can range in size from a small planter to a tiered shelf unit, but regardless of their size, they all have an area to plant crops with a light above them to provide artificial sunlight.
Brands such as Aerogarden and Click and Grow at two popular companies helping people without access to land still be able to grow some of their food indoors at home.
You can also build your own growing station, which is usually a cheaper and more customizable option. You’ll need a few supplies to get going, all of which can be found online or at your local hardware store.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A grow light such as a fluorescent or LED lamp. I recommend using an LED light because it is more energy-efficient.
- A timer will help you control the amount of light your plants get.
- A plant stand or shelves holds up the grow light and gives you a place to put your plants.
- Pots or containers for your plants can be made out of anything from recycled plastic bottles to Mason jars.
- Potting soil. You’ll need a high-quality potting mix that drains well.
Although this might sound like too big of a production to make it worth it, it’s worth trying out if you want to grow your own food.
MI Gardener on YouTube has a great video about growing greens under lights in an affordable way, which might be the inspiration you need to get started with indoor growing.
4. Microgreens indoors
Microgreens are the first tender shoots of vegetable plants typically harvested 7-14 days after germination. These delicate little greens pack a powerful punch for flavor and nutrition, and they’re incredibly easy to grow indoors.
You don’t need a lot of space or fancy equipment to get started with microgreens—a sunny windowsill planter will do just fine. You need a shallow tray or container, some potting mix, and your favorite microgreen seeds.
Some of the most popular types of seeds to grow for microgreens include:
- Mung beans
- Sunflower seeds
- Greens mix
- Pea seeds
- Broccoli seeds
One of my favorite farmers to follow on YouTube, Josh Sattin, has a quick video that will walk you through how easy it is to grow microgreens at home, adding one more crop to your homegrown arsenal.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Soak your preferred seeds for at least six hours and up to overnight.
- Fill a shallow container like a seed tray or deli container with a soilless seed-starting mix. If the container doesn’t have drainage holes, add some first.
- Moisten the soil, so it’s damp to the touch.
- Drain off the seeds and spread them over the soil surface.
- Cover the tray with another tray or something firm like a plate to weigh the seeds down.
- Keep the seeds moist, and within several days you’ll see the seeds germinating.
Once you get them started, your microgreens will be ready for harvest within one or two weeks.
You can pull them out or cut them with kitchen scissors. You will need to start the process again from sowing after harvesting microgreens because they don’t grow back.
To have a steady supply of microgreens, you need to plant multiple trays so that when you harvest one tray, you have another on the way.
Choose your method and get growing
With a bit of ingenuity, you can grow a lot of your own food even if you don’t have a garden. Using one (or more) of these techniques, you can enjoy fresh, homegrown produce all year long—no green thumb required!
Do you have any tips for growing food without a garden? Please share them in the comments below!