Plants in Small Spaces

Posted on in On Our Radar by Tafline Laylin

Low Maintenance, Indoor Edibles


With reports of dubious pesticides infiltrating our food system, many people turn to gardening to know precisely where their food comes from and how it is grown. While sprawling outdoor gardens may be the envy of urban dwellers lucky to even have a balcony, anyone with a window or two can produce his or her own food indoors. The trick is to know what makes plants tick. Once you understand the conditions each plant requires and choose the appropriate pots, you will be well on your way to producing an indoor garden that churns out delicious and nutritious food nearly year-round.

What do plants need? Each is different, and there are plenty of guides to get you started. For the most part, plants require space to allow their roots and leaves to grow, light for photosynthesis (although some plants like leafy greens prefer a bit of shade, whereas plants that produce fruit from a flower require a lot of sun), nutrients, and water. Plants thrive in different temperatures and have specific harvesting periods. Like other species, the gestational period of a plant varies: some reach maturity in a couple of months, whereas others (such as sprouts) can be harvested within a matter of days.

Before you get growing, consider your home’s specific conditions, including temperature, light, and space. Then choose edibles that are most likely to succeed in your particular environment. We’ve selected a few of the most common varieties that even an amateur gardener can grow, along with indoor growing systems to make your life easier.

Common Indoor Plant Varieties

While dozens of herbs, fruits, and vegetables can grow indoors—particularly if you get creative with heirloom seeds—here are some of the easiest ones to start:

Carrots Rich in vitamin A, biotin, vitamin K, and a host of other nutrients, carrots are simple, but they do require a great deal of light and a decent amount of space. Plant the seeds one inch apart in fertile soil containing plenty of nitrogen-rich humus. Use a deep container (up to two feet). You can mix composted food scraps into organic soil to create a nitrogen-rich blend. If you plant several rows of carrots, be careful not to crowd the roots, which are quite fragile. Ensure the soil stays moist, but not drenched, and watch the seeds germinate within a couple of weeks. Radishes, another root vegetable, are also a good fit for indoor gardens.

Herbs Most herbs grow well indoors and are great to have on hand in your kitchen for cooking. Now it’s easier than ever to get your organic herb garden going because many retailers sell basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, sage, and other herb starters in small plastic pots. You can also start from seeds in a shallow container placed on your windowsill. Water well, but don’t overdo it, and make sure there’s plenty of natural air circulating so the plants can breathe. Some herbs, such as rosemary, prefer cooler conditions; just do a little research beforehand to optimize success.

Leafy Greens Packed with all kinds of beneficial nutrients, including vitamins A, C and K, and sometimes calcium, leafy greens should be a staple in any home, especially because they are so easy to grow. Rape and mustard greens grow easily and can even grow without soil. Organic Consumers Association recommends scattering seedlings in plastic berry containers lined with several layers of moist paper towels and then placing them in a brown paper bag in a dark area of the home. Spray with water occasionally to maintain a moist environment. When the seedlings reach about one inch in height, remove them from the bag, and relocate to a lighter area, but not in direct sunlight. Harvest the greens when they reach two to three inches.

Potatoes It may surprise you, but potatoes flourish indoors. These tubers require a deep container. Alternatively, you can purchase special grow bags that promote circulation around the roots and allow excess water to drain. Place sprouted potatoes into your container (root side down) and leave plenty of room on top of the bag for additional soil and compost as the potatoes grow. When the potatoes are ready—roughly 10 weeks—remove or simply dump out the contents.

Sprouts Sprouting is en vogue, and why not? All kinds of seeds, grains, and legumes produce delicious shoots that are great for juicing and salads. But before you grow your own at home, know this: the same conditions that help sprouts grow so quickly—warmth and humidity—also serve as ideal environments for certain bacteria such as Listeria and E. coli. So long as you keep the proper conditions in mind, sunflower seeds, peas, lentils, and chickpeas are great sprouts to grow indoors. Plant in jam jars capped with a muslin lid or in sprouting bags.

Traditional Indoor Plant Containers

Some gardeners take a traditional approach to containers, whereas others prefer to reuse existing materials with the added benefit of saving money and natural resources. Here are several options for indoor plant containers:

Free-Standing Pot
Made out of wood, plastic, or terracotta, pots of varying sizes do not require any support and can be used to grow potatoes, strawberries, small bulbs, or herbs.

Window Box
This may be the most familiar type of indoor container and can be made of a variety of materials. You can save space and take advantage of the sunniest parts of your home by attaching one above or below a windowsill.

Growing Bag
I mentioned earlier that growing bags are great for potatoes and sprouts. You can grow other plants in the bags, too, but they aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as most other containers are. You can purchase growing bags or make your own.

Converted Container
A converted container was designed for another purpose but is used to grow plants. With today’s DIY and sustainable movements alive and well, this is a popular choice for creative gardeners. Plant in salvaged materials such as jars, buckets, mailboxes, antique bakeware, and rain boots.

Indoor Growing Systems

For people who don’t have the time or a green thumb to tend even a low-fuss garden indoors, there are great foolproof systems for growing food. From simple indoor hydroponics and vertical growing systems that maximize space, to high-tech systems inspired by NASA, a number of new products afford busy urbanites an opportunity to enjoy fresh food grown at home without having to do any of the work.

Phytopod Hydro
Imagine being able to grow 36 heads of lettuce right in your kitchen. It sounds impossible, but the Phytopod Hydro line of vertical gardening systems can make this a reality. The simple modular device is composed of a bucket, cylindrical wire mesh, and a growing medium that facilitates high-yield hydroponics (which means growing in nutrient-rich water rather than soil) for the home, office, school, or any other indoor space. A vertical system with a tiny footprint that delivers nutrients directly to the root system, the Phytopod comes in an array of styles and sizes.

Replacing potting soil with NASA-tested technology might not be to everyone’s taste, but the AeroGarden bears an impressive amount of produce five times faster than traditional planting does. The system has a control panel with an LCD display that provides users with step-by-step instructions from seed to harvest. AeroGarden delivers the right amount of nutrients and light at the right time to optimize growth. Using zero soil, this is the ultimate solution for busy people with a decent budget.

Back to the Roots Water Garden
This isn’t necessarily the most efficient product for serious fresh food lovers, but it’s a fun, creative take on indoor gardening. The Back to the Roots Water Garden is an aquaponic system that draws necessary nutrients to grow plants straight from a small fish tank. The beneficial bacteria in the tank convert ammonia into nitrates, which help plants thrive. Then, as the plants utilize the nitrates, they clean the water for your fish. This system even uses 90% less water than traditional farming. You can grow six different kinds of fresh organic produce.

Click and Grow Smart Herb Garden Starter Kit
The Click and Grow Smart Herb Garden Starter Kit allows you to grow herbs and spices quickly, providing you with a continually rotating system of fresh greens in your kitchen. A water tank holding up to a month’s supply of water, smart soil containing the perfect level of nutrients, and LED grow lights that know when to turn on and off take all the guesswork out of gardening. And the best part? This system only uses up to three dollars of electricity in a year.

Whether you grow your indoor plants in tubs, bowls, baskets, troughs, jars, vases, or more advanced growing systems, the only limitation is your imagination.

Tafline Laylin is a freelance editor, photographer, and writer who specializes in environmental issues. Tafline’s work has appeared in numerous publications across the globe, including the Ecologist, The Majalla, Green Prophet, and Dwell magazine. This article has been adapted with permission from

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