As cities get bigger, apartments get smaller. Even if you live in a small apartment in the middle of a concrete jungle, there’s no reason why you can’t get into apartment gardening and transform it into a 500 square foot actual jungle by creating a beautiful container garden. “Going green”, after all, isn’t just a phrase; sometimes it should be taken literally!
Growing an apartment garden is an excellent investment of time and money as it provides so many benefits. Plants make you happier and healthier! Gardening is a great way to not only spruce up your space, but improve the health of your apartment and help you to responsibly deal with you food scraps.
Think of this as a start-up guide to apartment gardening for beginners. Whether you’re looking to convert an inside or outside space, we’ll be covering but WHAT you can grow and some key tips for HOW to grow it! It’s not a comprehensive growing guide, but we hope this guide is enough to get you started to you can turn your passion for going green into a green thumb.
#1. Health benefits: All plants produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, but did you know that some plants are actually air purifiers? Plants like peace lilies and spider plants are low-maintenance houseplants that, according to NASA’s 1989 Clean Air Study, can remove all manner of toxins from the air, including ammonia (present in many household cleaners) and formaldehyde. We’ll get into more plants like this shortly.
Smog isn’t the only air quality concern in cities. Indoor air pollution is just as prevalent (if not more so!) and not only leads to “Sick Building Syndrome” (cold-like symptoms caused by dry, polluted indoor air), it increases risk of a wide range of health issues. Between just 3 and 6 plants can help, according the University of Technology Sydney.
#2. Urban Food Movement: Also known as the Urban Farming Movement, this movement encourages people to “grow your own”. By bringing gardening closer to urban centers, where most of the world’s food is shipped for consumption, we can reduce food production waste, shipping emissions, and greenhouse gases from industrial-scale inorganic farming.
Reduce the impact to food production by keeping food sources closer to home. And what’s closer to home than your actual home?!
#3. Reconnection with nature: Aside from the actual health benefits of plants, nature provides wonderful emotional and mental benefits as well. Plants bring the positive, calming effects of nature right to your home. In fact, a study by the University of Michigan showed them to increase productivity, creativity, cognitive performance, and memory retention (by up to 20%!).
#4. Grow useful things that will save you money in the long run. Aside from growing actual food like vegetables and herbs, you can grow all sorts of plants that can be utilized for their medicinal properties. For instance, grow Echinacea and chamomile to steep into immune supporting teas. Make peppermint and lavender into essential oils and use Aloe Vera for all sorts of DIY beauty recipes.
#5. Green spaces suck up carbon: Enhance the air quality for yourself and for the planet in general by increasing the number of plants in the world. Again as per the University of Technology Sydney, indoor plants alone reduce about 10% of carbon dioxide in the air. Grow extra CO2 consumptive plants like bamboo to offset even more carbon.
#6. Responsible waste disposal: Composting is an amazing way to deal with organic waste (like food scraps and paper products). And thanks to technology making it more accessible, you don’t need a big pile your backyard to do it. You can do right in the comfort of your own kitchen, and with your very own garden to accompany your compost bin, you’ll have your very own complete waste disposal system. No finding friends with gardens or taking your compost to a community garden; just use it yourself!
Vermicomposters (like this one and this one) especially work well in conjunction with an apartment garden. These wiggly wonders can consume some of your organic waste, but you can also brew their castings into worm tea and use it as a potent fertilizer in your own garden. We find our indoor plants just love worm tea!
#7. It’s easier than you think! Cue all those “black thumb” jokes! Lots of people fear not being able keep plants alive, but if you select the right plants for your space, apartment gardening is actually super easy and low hassle! Plus it’s one of the cheapest ways you can decorate your space and turn it into a Pinterest-worthy picture.
#8. Contribute to conserving biodiversity in your area: Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are in short supply the world over. Making space for them (through flowering plants and bee hotels) in your outdoor area will make you a citizen conservationist!
Space can be tight in a typical apartment, especially in metropolitan areas. It can be hard enough to find space for you and your belongings, let alone a garden! But with a little creativity, even the smallest of spaces have the potential to become a green haven.
Outdoor options may include a fire escape (though check with your building if this is allowed first!), balcony, window boxes, or if you’re especially lucky, a yard!
Aside from the actual space you have available, the biggest determinant in your garden placement will be sunlight. In gardening, there are four main classifications of sunlight:
- Full Sun: 6+ hours of direct sun or slightly less if it receives afternoon sun, which is more intense than morning sun (i.e. suitable for most flowering plants)
- Partial Sun: 4-5 hours of direct sun (i.e. suitable for most succulents)
- Partial Shade: 2-3 hours of direct sun; These types of plants generally need a well lit area like a windowsill but one that doesn’t receive much direct sunlight (i.e. spider plants and variegated leafy plants like ivy and vines)
- Shade: <1 hour of direct sun (i.e. Peace Lilies)
How do you determine which areas fall into which categories? Just observe! Pick a day where you plan to be home all day, and just observe your potential planting areas once an hour and take notes about whether it’s in sun or shade. At the end of the day, add up the number of hours that each area has received sunlight.
Don’t fall for the common myth that lack of sunlight means you can’t grow a successful garden. For each of the sunlight categories, there are many planting options!
Indoor Garden Plants Suitable for Apartment Gardening:
After you’ve determined your desired location and lighting, time to pick out suitable plants for your indoor jungle.
First and foremost, start with plants that are good for you (beyond the fact that ALL plants are good for you!). We’re talking air cleaning plants:
- Golden Pothos: Filters formaldehyde which can seep into the air from carpets, insulation, and furniture glues and finishes
- Spider Plants: Filters formaldehyde, benzene, and xylene as well as being powerful carbon monoxide consumers. Place these in the kitchen, especially if you have a gas burning stove, and near heating vents.
- Peace Lilies and Chrysanthemums: Filters Tetrachloroethylene (PCE or PERC) present in paints, glues, and water repellent finishes.
- Areca Palm: Increase humidity levels leading to respiratory benefits.
- General air purifying plants: succulents (like aloe vera), dracaena, English Ivy, rubber plant, ferns, bamboo, indoor palm trees or our personal favorite the snake plant (which is extremely easy to look after)
Next, add in some plants that have dual use benefits (herbal or medicinal), like herbs and Aloe Vera.
Finally, further beautify your space with some color popping aesthetic plants. If you have access to direct sunlight, plant some flowers and other adorable light-loving plants.
Things like succulents, cacti, and air plants are especially lovely (and far lower maintenance than many flowering plants!) if you’re looking for something larger, a ficus tree is a great indoor plant that can survive for ages and grow quite big! You can even decorate them in place of a holiday tree to save you holiday hassle!
Outdoor Garden Plants for a Balcony Garden:
A true outdoor garden is pretty much limitless in planting potential (depending on your climate zone, of course) but for the sake of this article, we’ll assume you’re working with limited outdoor space. That’s why we’re focusing on smaller plants that can be grown in containers as well as garden beds.
For fire escape or balcony gardens, plant vines and other climbers in pots at the base of the railing that the vines may creep up. Consider Virginia Creeper for shade and Clematis for sun
If you have a pretty sunny balcony, you can plant veggies! Tomatoes and lettuce, for instance, love sun and grow well in pots. You can even plant peas along the balcony lattice and let them crawl up.
If you only have window baskets or even just a windowsill, make the most of small space and by planting big pops of color. You can even maximize dead air space with hanging baskets filled with trailing flowers like verbena and petunias (a little more high maintenance because these will need to be deadheaded, the process of removing spent blooms so new ones can replace them).
For upright flowers, geraniums and heliotrope are lovely, wonderfully scented options. Please note that most flowers require full or nearly full sun but there are a handful of trailing shade lovers, such as fuchsia and begonia.
Plus, flowers are insect friendly and attract all manner of insects and hummingbirds to your outdoor space!
Indoor Apartment Garden Care:
The best decision you can make for you plants is to carefully select low maintenance ones from the start. The easier your plants are by nature to care for, the more successful your garden will be! We definitely understand the demands of a busy schedule; you certainly don’t want to spend all your down time tending to plants, as nice and therapeutic as it is.
What does low maintenance mean? Ideally, you’re looking for plants that don’t need full sun (which can be tricky to find indoors in a city), like it a bit drier, don’t require pruning or deadheading (though having a few of these plants here and there isn’t terribly time consuming), and are not particularly susceptible to pests.
If you start with low maintenance plants, just follow these five basic tips to help you grow a successful container garden inside.
- Water your plants once a week. Some plants require less than that (like cacti) but few require more than that. Overwatering can actually lead to moldy roots. An important note: If the soil is dry at the time of watering, do not just water until it starts to run from the bottom vents. Dry soil acts like a sieve, and if you stop here, your plants actually won’t be able to absorb any of the water; it’s all just running straight out. Continue to water until the soil is thoroughly wet (just poke your finger in to feel).
- Be attentive about lighting. We’ve already talked about this, but it’s important to make sure the ones that need sun get it, and vice versa. Light levels change with the seasons and you might need to adjust your plants accordingly. Watch your leaf color over time. Too much direct sun for shade loving plants will result in burnt leaves; too little sun for sun lovers results in pale green or yellow leaves (and lack of flowers in flowering plants).
- Change the pots and soil every once in a while. After a while, your soil will be become devoid of nutrients. You can help delay this by adding worm tea and compost to your soil and keeping it nutrient-rich. Still, your soil and even the pot itself can grow bacteria over time, and you can change the pot and thoroughly wash it to prevent this. Plus, most plants will simply outgrow their pots and you’ll want to give them a little more space to grow! Then just use the old smaller pots for new plants in the spirit of zero waste living.
- Prevent insects by keeping healthy, fertile soil. Sometimes insects happen. Indoor plants sometimes fall victim to aphids, spider mites, and other tricky to get rid of (but relatively easy to prevent) buggers. You don’t need chemicals to keep them at bay. Just keep your plants healthy. Insects more easily target weak plants. Adding worm tea to your plants not only makes them healthier, but it also acts as a natural insect repellant all by itself!
- Use pre-planting preparation to make your plants low maintenance later on. When designing your containers, put in a little more effort to save yourself lots of time later on by designing self-watering containers. These are also super helpful for you travelers out there who want to be able to safety leave your plants for extended periods of time. There are a few different kinds out there, all with a pretty simple process (see here and here for different DIY videos). If you don’t have time to make it yourself, there are lots of elegant, inexpensive options to buy on both Amazon and Etsy . We like some of these a lot:
Overall, get creative! There are so many unique DIY planter ideas out there and so many really adorable ones (like these terrarium planters!) available to tune your indoor apartment garden to your taste.
Outdoor Apartment Garden Care:
Outside gardening can be both easier and harder in different respects. On one hand, it’s easier for plants to get sunlight and in general, they just grow better outside in their natural habitat.
However, there are a lot more factors to control for: weather, climate, pests, soil type, young troublemakers with a knack for vandalism. Still, with proper setup, you can help control for these variables.
Here are the five things that make the most difference:
- Build a raised, self-watering “wicking beds”: If you have the space, these are the bigger brother to the self watering planters we mentioned above. Same concept, just on a bigger scale! These are excellent ways to keep your outdoor garden fed and happy when you aren’t around that much to do it yourself. While not all plants will benefit from constant moisture (just double check when choosing plants), fruits, vegetables, and most flowers are very thirsty plants! Build your own or buy one pre-made.
- Give your plants room to grow: Make sure you not only plant your outdoor plants in a pot large enough to accommodate their growing root system, but with enough space around them on all sides. Plants that get crushed together to pinned by a wall will start to grow in funny shapes.
- Nourish your plants often: The single best way to do this is by adding compost! Have we mentioned how much we love composting? It gets rid of your kitchen scraps and keeps your plants growing healthy. If you aren’t able to compost, you can still use many food scraps to feed your plants directly. Add nitrogen and potassium-rich coffee grounds and banana peels to directly to the soil, which are rich in nitrogen and potassium.
- Maintain proper light levels by monitoring sun exposure: Not only do you need to be careful of your window or balcony orientation with initial planting, monitor light levels throughout the season as they do change slightly! You may just need to shift your plants every once in a while.
- Keep pesky pests away from your plants: Most people fall back on chemicals to get rid of insects and pests, but that can just create many new problems. Instead, keep bugs off by using worm tea and just keeping your plants healthy. Keep other pests (like birds and rodents) away using simple, reusable nets (you can use old curtain netting, often available at thrift stores or if you absolutely have to, buy new)
Don’t let limited space put out your passion for planting. Regardless of where you live or how much gardening experience you have, apartment gardening is the perfect way to bring some much needed nature into your life.
It starts small, maybe a few pots on a windowsill, but before you know it, your apartment will blossom into a veritable vegetative wonderland.
Set the trend for greening up urban spaces. Green apartments lead to green cities and, hopefully, a greener planet.
If you have a green thumb or just a passion for plants, we would love to hear your advice and tips! We’re still learning ourselves, experimenting with our own apartment garden (indoor and on the balcony) with still so much to learn! Leave a comment or send us a note so we can take on and pass on the piece of advice!