A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Home gardening is enjoying a come-back during this time of shelter in place and disruptions of the food distribution supply lines. 

Consequently, there are more amateur gardeners who want to save money on their grocery bills and who are looking for easy gardening tips to grow fruits and vegetables at home. 

Maybe you don’t have a yard but still want more access to less expensive, healthy food. Luckily there are many ways to grow fruits and vegetables inside, even with limited space.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Small Space Gardening Tips for Growing Food

Pick a place 

You can set up almost anywhere in the house where you have space. The space needs to meet the following conditions:   

  • It is safe from animals or small children; a child or dog may be tempted by hot peppers. Some setups have sharp or small parts.
  • The temperature is stable; western facing windows may be cold in the morning and hot in the afternoon or evening.
  • It has easy access for planting and maintenance.
  • It has floors and surfaces that clean up easily.
  • It is a ventilated area that is not directly under a vent: forced air can cause swings in the temperature or dry out plants.

Quality plants 

Buying plants can be a big investment, and you want your plants to get off on the right foot. The following tips are things to look for when selecting plants. 

  • Starting with seed 
    • Check expiration dates
    • Check seeds for moisture or mold before using
  • Buying plants 
    • Look for healthy green leaves (unless leaves are supposed to be another color)
    • Avoid plants with spots, yellowing, or brown leaves
    • Check under leaves for pests (you’ll know them when you see them)
    • Look for healthy soil without mold 
    • Smell the soil — it should smell good, not rotten
    • White stringy fibers in soil are beneficial fungus so that’s a great sign to look for in healthy plants
    • Healthy roots should be white and fleshy or thin, white threads — brown or black roots, or roots that are dry and papery are dead or infected. 
A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Lighting

Most vegetables and fruits require around 8 hours of sunlight. Here are some tips on lighting.

  • Check the light you already have.
  • If you do have enough light in an area with only one window you may need to rotate your produce regularly. 
  • If you don’t have enough or are completely lacking in light there are many options available.
  • There are different types of lights that are available at local garden centers or online.
  • The University of Missouri has some great information on how to measure light and what types of lights are best for plants.

Soil and Media

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) soil is the unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. 

Naturally formed soil usually includes plant material at different stages of decomposition, sand, clay and silt, various other things like shells or pumice, depending on the location.  

Media (or growing medium) is a created material that takes the place of soil. Potting soil is a mix of soil and media. Potting mixes are completely soilless.

Some types of media that are used in soilless mixes or used alone are the following:

Each growing medium has its own chemical makeup and nutrient needs. For more information on what nutrients are best for different media check out this great nutrient feed chart calculator

This video shows you how to plant and grow a vegetable garden in a small space:

Fruit and Vegetable Garden Fertilizing Tips

Different nutrient mixes are needed depending on what plants are used, what media you choose, and the plants stage of development. 

Whatever you decide to plant, it’s important to have the right fertilizer. There are some factors to consider when deciding what nutrients to use.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Soil or growing medium

Nutrients have to be added to media (and soil mixes) because alone they lack all the food that occurs naturally in soil. 

The stage of the plant 

Seedlings, leafy plants, flowering plants, or plants with fruit ripening all need different types and amounts of nutrients. 

Plants need different levels of nutrients in different plant stages of growth, and if you’re not paying attention you could cause a nutrient imbalance.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

What to look for in nutrients

  • The macronutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are the main three elements plants cannot live without. This is the N-P-K seen on fertilizer packages. These three elements are needed in the right ratio for plant health.
  • The micronutrients calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), sulfur (S), and iron (FE), are a few of the micronutrients which fulfill many jobs like regulating enzymes that start and stop action such as flower growth. Micronutrients are measured in parts per million (ppm) and plants suffer and are unproductive without them.
  • Biostimulants like humic acid and seaweed extract increase plant nutrient uptake, increase root growth, and improve soil structure.
  • Microorganisms support nutrient availability by breaking down larger particles for plants and protecting plants from some pathogens. 

A note about hydroponic fertilizing:

Remember nutrients are important whether you are using a terrarium, container, or hydroponic setup. Nutrients are especially important when you are using hydroponics.

Hydroponic plants have no soil to get their usual food supply from. The word hydroponic means the water does the work. 

Some systems use a pump to water the plants; others depend on passive feeding. Using hydroponics takes a lot of the labor out of gardening, and it also fertilizes the plant when you add nutrients to water. 

Premixed nutrients are easier to use when you are starting out with your indoor garden. When you get more experience you can experiment with making your own nutrient mix.

This guy will show you how to fertilize your garden the correct way:

What can I grow in an Indoor Garden?

These are popular fruit and vegetable plants that can be grown indoors.

  • Beans — so many types
  • Green beans and snap peas (some are vines)
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet peppers and hot peppers
  • Cucumber (vines)
  • Squash (vines)
  • Eggplant
  • Lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Chard
  • Spinach
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Strawberries (vines)
  • Blueberries (pick dwarf varieties)
  • Cantaloupe 
  • Grapes (vines)
  • Cilantro
  • Parsley
  • Basil (All year!)

What you grow in your garden is personal. Picking out what plants you want is the fun part. 

Indoor Gardening Setup

Terrariums, containers, and hydroponics are ways plants are grown indoors. The plants need to be set up to grow in or on a structure. 

  • Terrariums hold in moisture and let light in. They can be great if you just want to grow a few herbs. Terrariums can be made of clear plastic baggies or cookie jars. 
    • The floor of the container has layers of gravel, moss, and growing medium.
    • Plants are planted in the layers that imitate nature. 
    • Plants actually breathe out water vapor that is called transpiration.
    • The container allows the water vapor to condense and drip back onto the bottom allowing the plants to get continually watered.
  • Containers
    • These can be cleaned out five gallon paint buckets or nice pottery
    • Make sure they have drainage and there is a water barrier under the pots
    • Consider drip irrigation to save time watering
    • The soil needs to be able to drain, so stones may need to be added to the bottom of containers
  • Hydroponics are a popular way to grow plants inside. Here are a few of the easier methods. 

Creating your own hydroponic system can be easy. Kids often make simple hydroponics in class to learn about plant biology.

Ironically, hydroponic gardens use far less water than if you were to grow them conventionally, so you don’t have to worry so much about watering. 

If you don’t want to build your own indoor system there are plenty of options online or at your local garden centers to purchase. 

Just choose a set-up — terrarium, container, or hydroponics — and a technique that looks doable that is in your budget. Homemade setups that you make from materials on-hand can cost less than fifty bucks. 

This is a great opportunity to up-cycle instead of throwing things away. Materials often used are storage containers, soda bottles, glass jars. Most containers of plastic and glass have the potential to make into mini gardens.

Retail plant growing systems can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on how extensive or complicated you want to get. There are a plethora of choices. Just read reviews before purchasing equipment.

A Guide to Indoor Growing for Beginners

Plant Care for Beginners

What kind of care and upkeep does all of this involve?

  • Pruning — Plants sometimes need to be pruned because they get lanky. You need to pinch herbs to prevent them from blooming.
  • Root pruning — Roots may need pruning when they get too long or take up too much room in containers.
  • Staking and support structures — Some plants get too tall to support themselves. Choosing smaller and bush varieties help to eliminate the need for staking.
  • Clean up — Watch for any pooled water or leaks. Clean up immediately.
  • pH — Regularly check the pH of the water when growing hydroponics. The wrong pH can block minerals from being absorbed by roots.

Indoor Garden Tips and Pest Management

Healthy plants are the first defense against problems.  Just as people get sick more when you are tired or stressed out so do plants.

Plants get stressed from the wrong amount of water or light, or when they lack important nutrients. These conditions lead to infection or infestation.

Here are some tips to keep your plants healthy.

  • Look at plants regularly. Check under leaves for insects like aphid or scale and watch for grubs or larvae in the soil.
  • Hang sticky cards (it’s like fly paper) to get a look at what or how many insects are flying around.
  • Identify pests so that measures can be taken to eliminate them.
  • Watch for spots, brown or yellowing leaves, or growths on leaves or stems.
  • Check flowers and fruit because flowers or fruit that drop off too early are a sign of various problems.

Luckily there are fewer pests or chances for disease inside a home. Staying ahead of the problem is easier than trying to remedy a problem once it is established.

If you are unsure of what to do many county extension services offer help with plant questions. They often encourage you to send them pictures, so they can diagnose problems and offer solutions. 

With a little care and prevention, you will have healthy, productive plants. 

Tips to Remember 

  • Start small. Too many budding gardeners are left with a ton of expensive equipment and a bunch of dead plants. 
  • Pick vegetables that you often eat or want to add to your cooking repertoire.
  • Think about foods that pair easily. Tomato and basil or peppers and cucumbers are a great place to start.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you get one plant, and you hate it you can always give it away or put it in the garbage.
  • Keep things in proportion by picking smaller plants. 
    • Choose beans and tomatoes that form bushes instead of vines.
    • Choose baby or dwarf varieties. They usually have the word baby or dwarf in their name. 
  • Do your research to prevent mishaps. Some plants may not be great to have around pets or small children or may need extra care.

In this video, we review the basics of indoor gardening:

Conclusion

Vegetable gardening at home can be clean, cheap and local. 

Many of us are looking for ways to save money. Some have lost their jobs; some live far from good produce; some are just worried about the future. Many people complain that they want to buy organic but can’t afford it. Growing your own food at home can make organic produce affordable.

Whether you decide to buy a prefabricated system or make it a complete DIY affair, enjoy the process. Have fun with it and enjoy your own personal slice of nature. If you haven’t grown your own food before, you are in for a treat. 

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