A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Do you dream of a garden but don’t have a yard? Or are you impatiently waiting for the end of winter so you can get growing again?

That was me, at least until I discovered indoor gardening.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

What is an indoor garden?

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

An indoor garden is a garden that’s indoors. It can be as small as a few plants or as large as a whole room or apartment. The garden could be indoors during the winter and moved onto a patio or balcony in the summer, exist all year round, or exist only in the winter. You can grow your own food or create a jungle with tropical houseplants.

Indoor gardening is the perfect garden practice for people without an outdoor garden, whether they live in a small studio apartment in the middle of an urban centre or in a rented house.

Benefits include:

  • Growing your own food all year round
  • Connecting with nature
  • Improving indoor air quality
  • Relaxation and stress-release
  • Gardening without weeds
  • Learning to care for plants

Types of indoor gardens

This guide is primarily about soil-based gardening in containers. But you could also grow using hydroponics instead.

Hydroponics has many advantages, like that a hydroponics system can be lighter than soil, more cost-effective, and cleaner indoors. For more on hydroponics, check out our ultimate guide here.

Other types of gardens include:

What can I grow in an indoor garden?

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

You can grow almost everything indoors that you can outdoors, depending on the amount of room and the amount of time that it takes for a vegetable to grow. For those reasons, squash, zucchini, and potatoes are not a good fit.

Here are a few suggestions of plants best suited to an indoor garden:

Lettuce

Do you dream of freshly harvested salads throughout the year?

Head lettuce is best grown with hydroponics. Baby lettuces are best for container gardening, as you can sow lettuce closely together and harvest frequently as cut-and-come-again.

Seed companies even have container gardening pellets, which contain a mix of lettuces suited for container gardening and handle spacing for you. (Lettuce seeds are tiny.)

Herbs

Have fresh herbs on hand whenever you need them for cooking. Herbs are really easy to grow and many of them are perennial. You can also easily obtain live basil plants from grocery stores.

Herbs include:

  • Basil
  • Lovage
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Lemongrass
  • Lemon Balm
  • Chives
  • Oregano
  • Sage

Most common culinary herbs are from the Mediterrarean, so they like to dry out in between waterings.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Kale

Like you can grow lettuce, you can also grow your own kale plants, although unless you give them a 5-gallon container, they won’t grow as large.

The Dwarf Curled Kale is suitable for container gardening, being more compact but just as prolific as other varieties.

Sprouts

Sprouts are my favourite easy and quick-growing green that will save you a ton of money at the grocery store. You need very little to grow sprouts: seeds appropriate for sprouting, a mason jar, and a filter or strainer.

  1. Put a tablespoon of seeds in the mason jar and cover the seeds with water.
  2. Leave overnight (or around 8 – 10 hours), then drain.
  3. Resoak the seeds every day, making sure to drain all the excess water.
  4. In five to fourteen days (depending on the variety), your sprouts will be ready to eat.

The main challenge of sprouts is mould contamination. You need to make sure you drain all the water back out after watering, or mould will take advantage of the damp conditions and soggy seeds.

Some roots will grow what looks like white fuzzy mould but is actually just part of the root system. This should go away by the time they’re ready to eat.

Microgreens

Growing microgreens is like growing sprouts, but you grow them in a growing medium. Microgreens have a soft texture whereas sprouts are crunchy. You only eat the leaves and not the roots, as you do with sprouts. They also take longer than sprouts to grow.

But like sprouts, they’re vulnerable to fungus and mould, so keep your growing area ventilated with a fan or in a place with low humidity.

Peppers

Small peppers like Anaheim chile and jalapenos make more excellent container plants, although you’ll need to pot them up in larger pots.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Strawberries

Strawberries make an excellent addition to your garden in hanging baskets. Some types of strawberries are ever-bearing, so you can keep extending their season by continually harvesting the strawberries (I know, such a burden!). They’re also tastier than the industrially farmed store-bought varieties transported from California.

Houseplants, Succulents & Flowers

You could also create your own indoor jungle of tropical houseplants, grow a desert garden of succulents, or add living flowers to brighten up your home. Or you can mix and match, growing some edible plants and growing some ornamental.

Houseplants have different requirements than growing edible plants. While edible plants generally need a lot of direct sunlight, a lot of tropical houseplants originate from the lower levels of rainforest and so thrive in indirect light.

Succulents need really well-draining soil and infrequent waterings (and even less so when they’re out of direct sunlight).

As for flowers, look for varieties from seed companies that are container-friendly.

To get started, buy adult plants from a garden centre or a plant shop. Start with smaller plants (which are generally cheaper than the big hanging basket ones) and grow them into those giant showstoppers. You’ll learn how to take care of them (less stressful than almost killing a $50 plant) and you can propagate them for more plants.

Common houseplants include Boston ferns, prayer-plants, Christmas cactus, pilea, peperomia, and spider plants.

If you have pets, make sure that you check that they’re cat or dog-safe!

Want to grow vegetables and herbs from your kitchen? Let’s take a look at these suggestions:

What do I need to start an indoor garden?

What you do depends on your location, your budget, and your tastes, but whatever you dream up, you’ll need these standard items.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Pots/Containers

Pots and growing containers come in very different sizes (from seedling pots to 25 gallons or even more) and different materials (plastic, cloth, terracotta, ceramics).

The right container needs to have 2 things:

1) Containers need to have drainage holes!

Water sitting in the roots will hurt the health of your plants and even expert growers have trouble watering exactly right. If you’ve fallen in love with a container that doesn’t have drainage holes, then you can either drill them in yourself or use another plain container to hold the plant that nestles inside the decorative one.

2) Containers need to be big enough for the plant you intend to grow.

While you can start them off in smaller pots, if they don’t have enough space to grow, they just won’t. Their roots will grow in circles, becoming root bound, and there won’t be enough potting mix between all the soil to retain moisture very long.

Tomatoes and peppers will need at least 5-gallon pots. Lettuces can get away with more shallow containers.

Containers don’t have to be expensive. You can find them for cheap at thrift stores, ask around for people throwing out old but serviceable pots, or reuse containers for milk, yogurt or spinach greens. (This is how I’ve essentially saved hundreds of dollars on my pots.)

Potting Mix

One of the most common questions with container gardening is: can I just use dirt I dug up outside?

No, you can’t just use garden soil or topsoil, as it’ll be too heavy and dense for plants growing in a container.

Potting Mix is specially formulated for growing healthy plants in containers. You can either buy it in bags from garden centres or mix it yourself (if you need a lot of potting mix, this will save you money).

It’s generally made up of peat moss, perlite, bark, sphagnum, coconut coir and/or compost. The components are selected to increase moisture retention (as containers can quickly dry out) while keeping the mix aerated (allowing roots to grow easily and breathe).

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Seeds, Seedlings, and/or Plants

I like growing from seed, and it’s definitely the easiest on your wallet. Instead of paying $3 for a seedling, you get the ability to grow tens or even hundreds of your own seedlings.

Some herbs, though, are challenging to grow from seed. Buying rosemary, thyme, and lavender seedlings will ultimately save you a lot of stress.

Buying potted basil from the grocery store can also save you money, as each pot generally has more than one plant (and even up to twenty), which you can then separate into their own pots and grow individually.

When buying seeds, look for varieties that work well in containers. Seed companies will generally have a little container icon on listings or the ability to filter products. While you can certainly grow other varieties, these varieties will be more compact but still productive.

Light

Plants need light to live and grow, although how much light they need depends on the plant. Microgreens can get away with very little light (like the light coming through an east or west-facing window), while peppers and strawberries need a lot of direct sunlight.

For vegetables and sun-loving plants, a south-facing window that gets a lot of direct light is the best place to start your garden.

For indirect light plants, an east, west, or north-facing window, or a place just outside of the reach of direct sunlight, is best.

If your plants can’t get enough light as is, then you’ll need to add grow lights. The better the grow light, the faster your vegetables will grow, but the more money you’ll need to spend. For the most part, it’s not worth investing a lot of money. For lettuces, herbs, and greens, all you need is a few inexpensive strip LED lights or MiracleGrow bulbs.

Watering Can & Misters

Plants also need water to live and grow, and it’s handy to have a mister for keeping seeds and seedlings moist and a watering can for adult plants. The size of your watering can depend on how large your garden is and how much weight you can lift. Most watering cans meant for indoor plants are small.

If you have a larger garden with a lot of water to do, you may want to invest in a tank sprayer. Fill up the tank with up to a gallon of water, pump the handle a few times, and then spray plants with water.

I like this idea as instead of having to hold up a large watering can, or filling up water multiple-times, you can leave the tank on the ground, which may be easier for you if you have difficulty lifting heavy things.

You could also forgo a watering can in the meantime, and just use what’s on hand. I use a gravy bowl and a teacup.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Shelf-Space

You need someplace for the containers to go, and this is where you can get pretty creative. I just use a 5’-tall untreated pine utility shelves placed by a window.

You could also:

  • Use stainless steel or wood utility shelves
  • Hang baskets from hooks in the ceiling
  • Buy ladder shelves
  • Build a container/shelf system with gutters
  • Upcycle pallets into containers/shelves
  • Hang a vertical wall hanging planter
  • Buy a shelf-system that includes grow lights

You can get as creative as you want, find a solution that fits your decor, and either buy or DIY your favourite idea.

Plant Markers

It is so easy to forget what you sowed where until they grow up into adult plants! Especially if you’re not familiar with plants. Adding plant markers will save you a lot of frustration!

I like to use pine markers and an eco-friendly weather-proof marker (this is important, as other markers will run off or blur if they get wet). You can then just toss them in the compost when you’re done. You could also get plastic markers or decorative markers.

You could also write on the container, but that makes it harder (or messier) to use it with a new plant if you pot up or grow something different next year. Chalk labels can help, but they can get smudged.

How to set up an indoor garden

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners
  1. Select the space in your home where your garden will grow, ideally near natural light and where pets can’t get at it.
  2. Design your garden, deciding whether you’ll DIY or buy what you need and how you want it to look.
  3. Set up the shelves or space where your garden will go.
  4. Wash containers with soap and rinse thoroughly, especially if reusing containers. Drill or add drainage holes to containers that need them.
  5. SEEDS: Whether you decide to sow directly into the final container or to use seedling trays, you’ll want to:
  6. Fill the containers with potting mix.
    • Add water either through misting or small waterings until the potting mix is moist like a sponge (not too dry, but also not muddy).
    • Sow seeds at the depth that the seed package tells you. (Container plants can be sowed closer together than what’s indicated on the seed pack, which only covers how to grow using mechanized equipment.)
    • Keep moist until they germinate (the stem pokes out of the potting mix). If you can, cover or put them inside a plastic container, checking on them every day and removing them to their proper place when they germinate. The container or covering will help keep the soil from drying out. If you leave the seedlings in there too long, though, they’ll grow weakly.
  7. SEEDLINGS/TRANSPLANTS
    • Fill the container half-way with potting mix, or until the seedling can sit on the potting mix and the start of the stem is just below the edge of the container.
    • Moisten the potting mix in the bottom of the container.
    • Gently remove the seedling from the container and place it where you want it to go.
    • Fill in the area around the seedling with more potting mix until it’s level. Gently pat the soil so that there’s no large pockets of air but is still a bit light.
    • Moisten the remaining potting mix. You can even gently water until a little water comes out the bottom of the container.
    • If you’re planting in a large container, you may want to fill it up (in layers, moisening each layer) to two or three inches below the container edge, then dig holes to plant the seedlings in. Fill the hole in with the excavated potting soil and gently pat it until it’s almost firm.
  8. Place the plants in their proper places.
  9. Check on your vegetable garden every day, touching the soil to see if it’s dry. Water when needed.
  10. Once a week, check your plants for problems like yellow leaves or pests. The sooner you catch issues, the easier they are to solve!
  11. When the plants have grown to maturity, harvest. This will depend on the plant, and many can be grown as cut-and-come-again, where you harvest just a portion and allow the plant to grow back.

This video is what you’re looking for:

Possible problems for indoor plants

Over and underwatering

Overwatering is the number one challenge of new indoor gardeners! For most plants, dig your finger under the soil an inch to see if it’s dry before watering. Some plants (like Mediterranean herbs) prefer the soil drying out more in between waterings. Succulents prefer very little watering.

Underwatering is the opposite problem, where you forget to water for weeks on end. If the soil has become so dry that it comes away from the container, then it’s in desperate need of watering.

Not enough light

If plants don’t get enough light, they’ll grow stretched. They may lose their colour, becoming pale.

If your plants get plenty of light but are stretching toward the light source, keep rotating your plants for even growth.

Otherwise, move your plants to a better location or add grow lights.

Pests like aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs.

The good news about pests is that unlike diseases and nutritional deficiencies, pests are really easy to identify! And once you’ve had a pest once, you’ll never forget the signs.

While there’s a lot of different pests, 3 of the most common are:

  • Aphids will show up with see-through dots on your plants where they’ve eaten the leaves. Mix soap and water and spray the leaves daily for two weeks.
  • Spider mites have tiny webs. Prune leaves with webbing attached to them and order predatory mites that will eat them.
  • Mealybugs look like white fuzz. Wash the leaves and container thoroughly, quarantine it away from other plants, and treat mealybugs with rubbing alcohol (dead mealybugs turn brown).

Tips to get started with indoor gardening

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners
  • Start small and build your way up, especially if you’ve never gardened before. I know, it’s so tempting to design a huge garden set up with fifty different plants, but you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache and dying plants if you start with a few plants to build your gardening skills up before expanding.
  • Gardening is a learned skill, not an innate one. There’s no such thing as a black thumb or a green thumb. It’s only people who have learned to care for them, versus people who don’t know enough. Even if you’ve killed every plant you’ve encountered before now, you can learn to garden.
  • Give your plants a thorough checkup once a week. Do they need to be potted up? Are there signs of pest damage? Are the leaves the right colour? Catching problems early makes them easier to fix.

Conclusion

What will you grow in your indoor garden? Let us know your plans in the comments below!

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Jill Sandy

Jill Sandy

Jill is a sustainable focus gardener. She loves decorating her home backyard with beautiful landscape design and creative garden care techniques she develops herself. You can reach her at [email protected]

Chanh Ho (MD, MPH)

Chanh Ho (MD, MPH)

Chanh is our Head of Medical Review. He is a research physician at Oxford University Clinical Research Unit. After accomplishing the program of level 1 sub-specialty in Pediatrics, he was awarded the Chevening Scholarship for his Master’s degree of Public Health in the University of Edinburgh in 2019

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