I live in a dorm room that I call a studio apartment because I’m 25. It’s easier than getting an apartment and then furnishing that apartment with all the furniture I don’t yet have while finishing graduate school, but it also requires a lot of creativity to maintain the lifestyle habits I’ve developed over the past few years, including my love of plants. There are limits to what you can grow indoors, especially with less than ideal light and space, but being able to grow your own food, even if it’s a few herbs, is a wonderful feeling and the most sustainable option out there.
1. Use food scraps to start new plants
Save your seeds and scraps and start them in small pots. To do this, you need to understand how each vegetable or fruit reproduces. Do they bud like succulents, growing roots from leaves or sections of vegetable or do they grow from seeds alone? Can they grow from stem sections; planted in the soil, under it, or just laid on top? For plants that grow from scraps, I’d recommend saving a part of what you don’t eat, for example the bottom part of a cabbage or celery, and suspend it in water until roots begin to sprout, then transplanting to soil. This doesn’t hold for every plant. Potatoes, for example, grow from the eyes of their skin which can be put directly into slightly damp soil. For seeds, here’s a good resource from the University of Minnesota, which goes into why some plants won’t work well to regrow inside because they rely on cross pollination and insects to reproduce. This is an incomplete list, but here are the veggies that seem most conducive to growing inside:
- Seed plants – tomatoes (I’d recommend planting slices with the seeds), hot and mild peppers, and fruit trees
- Scrap plants – cabbage, Bok Choy, celery, leeks, spring onions
2. Herbs are an investment
Herbs are generally unfussy plants that can be easily contained in small pots, or grown together in a small herb garden. I’ve always found with my herbs, like the basil I’m training to be bushier, that I need to prune more than I’d typically use in one dish, which leads to some creativity and experimentation in my dishes. I’m no cook (really, couscous and raw veggies with some sauce is a staple of my diet) but having an abundance of fresh herbs adds depth to my otherwise passable meals. My boyfriend, who does cook, appreciates the extra fresh herbs. Having freshly grown herbs and vegetables are a great way to bring people together to cook and eat as a community.
I found a gorgeous hand drawn diagram for three different herb gardens from a witchy shop near my hometown that I’ve kept with me for years, and they recommend starting with chives, parsley, thyme, sage, basil, and mint. This covers most of the basics you’ll use in the kitchen with any regularity. They’re working from the assumption that you have land, but they could work just as well in large multi-chamber pots or trough planters because none of these plants have deep roots. Be careful with plants in a single planter, though. Some herbs like mint and basil are bullies and will crowd out the others, when given the same amount of light. I knew someone whose mint grew out of his planter, under his pond, and up the other side. It’s fierce.
3. Let there be Lamps
I’m consistently frustrated by living in old, dark buildings where my plants thirst for light. I’ve gone to plant shows and fallen in love with striking greenery, only to realize that they would slowly starve in my care. However, just as a tanning bed can give you cancer (seriously, please wear sunscreen), the light from bulbs can feed a plant. You can buy a very Instagramable set up like the Ambienta from Sage Green Life or the Kekkila Green Light which are both attractive plant lights that would look great on a work desk, or you could just buy an adjustable reading lamp to point at your container garden.
If your plants aren’t by a window at all, you’ll need two bulbs to represent the full spectrum of light to keep your plants healthy. One bulb for cool light, the other warm. Make sure you don’t leave them on, both to conserve electricity, which is made almost exclusively by burning coal in the U.S., and to give your plants a chance to rest. Yes, plants need sleep. You can also augment natural window light with a lamp if you see your plants stretching towards the sun or looking spindly.
4. Healthy soil can be free
Composting is great, if you can do it. Because I don’t have my own kitchen, I refrain, but the difference between store bought soil and homemade soil from food waste is very clear. If you’re living in a small apartment, you probably don’t have much room or a yard, so start small. A good compost bin won’t smell, leak, or hatch bad bugs (a caveat: worms are beneficial to compost, but I’m not sure you’ll want them inside your small apartment), but make sure to keep an eye on it so you’re not stuck with a bin of rot that you can’t get rid of easily. The trick is about ratios – for each part of food, or “green material,” you put into it, you should include about 10x that amount of paper, or “brown material.” A healthy compost can have anywhere between a 2:1 and 30:1 ratio of paper to food, but I recommend a higher brown material content to soak up water and lessen bad smells, especially when kept indoors. You can use any paper good except glossy paper, which is usually plasticized, or color ink, which contains heavy metals. Between your compost bin and saving scraps to make baby plants, you should be able to reduce your waste significantly.
5. Have fun and don’t give up
A few months ago, I took a trip and my Kokedama ball (a Japanese form of topiary that includes a plant suspended in a ball of moss and dirt) shriveled up and lost almost all its leaves; just a few sad green scraps remained, desperately trying to absorb enough sunlight to keep it alive. I was almost sure it was dead, but I kept watering it. After months, another sprout popped up, and now it’s back to full health with even more leaves than it had before. As dorky as it sounds, bringing this plant back from the dead is one of my proudest achievements. A lot of people treat plants like disposable decorations, but they’re amazingly resilient and can withstand a lot of abuse as you learn how best to take care of them.
One of the biggest obstacles I’ve found when gardening or tending to my houseplants is the anxiety of wanting to do it perfectly. Between experts, blogs, and plant shop clerks, I’ve been told a million different ways to care for my dozen or so plants. It’s exhausting when all I want is for everyone to live long healthy lives. Unfortunately, if you wait to start until you have all the knowledge you’ll need, you never will. So, start now. Begin with forgiving species like basil or celery and work your way up, but the best way to learn is from experience and engaging with your new plant children.
Do you also live in a very tiny space? Let me know in the comments how you use green practices with limited resources!
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