Growing My Own Food...In My Apartment


I'm planning out a garden for this spring. I don't have any access to a yard to plant my garden in, but I have a balcony on my apartment that gets plenty of sun.

This is my first adventure in gardening, assuming you don’t count my stealing radishes from my grandmother’s garden as a child. Not only have I been reading up on container gardening, but on gardening in general. I’m also trying to be as frugal about the process as possible — repurposing containers and the like. I’ll be updating regularly as my garden progresses.

The Plan

I’m starting small, because I’m not quite confidant of how all this will work out. I want to grow three types of herbs — parsley, rosemary and oregano — and tomatoes. That doesn’t sound as adventurous as the folks who manage to grow apple trees on their balconies, but these four items do make a regular appearance on my table. I’m confidant in my choices, and from my reading, they should all be able to grow in my climate (Maryland).

I still need to acquire my containers, but I’ll have them, for my herbs at least, within three weeks — the length of time it will take me to go through 3 half-gallons of milk. I got the idea off of our very own Wise Bread forums. Lucille described her approach for starting plants in the Frugal Gardening Tips thread:

I used half gallon clear plastic milk bottles as mini greenhouses for starting plants last year. These are the totally clear PET plastic. I cut them in half horizontally and cut notches into the top portion so I could push it down inside the bottom part. Drilled holes in the bottom of each bottle for drainage. I put dirt mix in the bottom then seeded & watered. I put the top back on along with the cap. I put all of these on one of those heavy duty metal wire shelving units that we put in front of our downstairs patio window.

As the seeds started to sprout and grow we gradually loosened and then removed the bottle caps and later the top half of the bottle. This worked great as little greenhouses. I then used some of the same bottles with just the bottom inch cut off as covers for the seedlings when I put them out. This gave the greenhouse treatment and some shelter to the plants in the early spring when it isn't very warm out yet. We got things going much earlier this way.

Lucille’s solution answered one of my biggest concerns — protecting seedlings from my cats until they’re big enough to take the cats’ curiosity. As the herbs grow, I may need to find other containers to transfer them to — but I’ve got some time to look for options. I know for sure that I’ll need a larger container for my soon-to-be tomatoes, and I’m on the lookout for a container that I can adapt to my purpose.

The only part of my container garden scheme that has me a bit worried is the germination process. It doesn’t seem particularly hard, but with the tomatoes, at least, a lot of my friends with greener thumbs have recommended that I consider buying seedlings from a local nursery.

Feel free to comment with advice. I know there are some important holes in my gardening knowledge.


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Myscha Theriault's picture

I've been looking forward to this one. I've always cheated and gotten a rosemary plant to start with, although they've always grown like gangbusters and release such a yummy scent when you rub the leaves.

Oregano - I only tried it once and it worked great until some animal dug it up.

Parsely - I think you'll be pleased. It keeps coming back cut after cut and fills in like gangbusters.

Tomatoes - lots of people have luck here. I haven't been one of them so far, but I look forward to your success stories.

Congratulations on getting started.

Guest's picture

I planted tomatoes, basil and peppers for germination, the basil and tomatoes came up fine (but I havent tried transplanting them yet). The peppers took a lot longer, but have started to sprout.

I chose to sprout because its too early for seedlings. I also bought a specific type of tomato plant that I dont think I can find locally (a Tumbling Tom to be grown in a hanging basket), so i'll have to sprout that one myself.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I LOVE having that stuff fresh. It's so yummy and aromatic.

Guest's picture

I have cats - so i use fish tanks with the seedlings, undergrow lights. the cats can get in and the plants get big enough to transplant.

Guest's picture

AFAIC, tomatoes are the easiest things in the world to grow from seed--especially if you have good seed. They like to have it about 70 degrees to germinate, so even if you eventually plant to put them out on a windowsill, a slightly warmer spot is good while they are germinating (which should take about 7 days). The top of the fridge is a good spot. The extra warmth will speed up germination on everything you mention, but the herbs will be much slower to germinate, so be patient.

When your seedlings are little babies, light is the thing they need most desperately. So, as you're thinking about containers, think small for now, so you can crowd your whole collection under a small fluorescent light.

Guest's picture

There is a site called that has many state-specific gardening tips, including what varieties of tomatoes people in that area have had success with. It has a container gardening section also. It has been very helpful to me.

Guest's picture

Something I've had luck with- but I've never grown tomatoes so you might want to search around for it- is soaking seeds in weak tea overnight and then germinating the seeds in damp paper towels (or coffee filters, or newspaper might work as well). The tea softens the seed's outer coating so it's easier for the root to poke out (it worked REALLY well for sunflower seeds). If you put seeds on a damp surface and keep it moist (like in a plastic baggie or container) for a few days the little roots will pop out and you can plant just the seeds that sprout.

Guest's picture

Check with your local Extension Service(under your state university) for varieties specific to your area, also for container gardening. Also the library for books on container gardening.

Here in our 55+ community we can only grow in containers - having always been an avid gardener, we grow in pots, Earth Boxes, lidless or cracked totes. We grow tomatoes, peppers, swiss chard, romaine, sugar snap peas, pole beans, basil, oregano, green onions, parsley, basil, sage, lemon balm. Indoors I sprout thru-out the year. Try to have a pot or two of a bee/butterfly attracting plant so it will help with pollination.

For weight purposes you might want to consider a soil-less mix. Wet soil is extremely heavy.

Johnny's Select Seeds, Nichols Garden have sections on seeds for container growing. Also, Le Jardin du Gourmet has tiny packets of seeds, perfect for trying a bunch of stuff inexpensively.


Guest's picture

i wish i can grow my own too in our tiny house.

Guest's picture

Great Idea!!! I also will add, when you are planting the seedlings in the plastic trays. I recommend at night (at the least) or during the day before it germinates (gets leaves) putting the trays above the refridgerator. Above the fridge is a lot warmer area to help the seeds grow faster. If you want have one tray out on your porch from a seed and one tray from the top of the fridge. The fridge one will have about 1 to 2 days head start in germination time.

My parents grow a hobbie garden (1+ acrea a year) and they have plenty of other tidbits besides that one picked up over the years.

Guest's picture

Hi there! I found you through the Vegetarian Carnival. Lots of luck with your apartment gardening - you can do a lot with a relatively small space. I've found the book Bountiful Container by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey to be incredibly helpful with some great ideas.

Happy growing,

Guest's picture

Hi there... I started in a small way too... just a couple of pots on my patio (we only have a tiny courtyard garden) ... things went well for a year or two... but it is never enough... this Friday I pick up the key to me new allotment

Hopefully this will satisfy for a few years, but I'm sure in the end we'll have to move and get some more land!

good luck with it all - my biggest success last couple of years was a chilli plant - they freeze well and we are still using them now, hopefully we'll eat the old before the new ones arrive! tomatoes and peppers grew well too - as long as they have plenty of sun and water they seem to thrive... my biggest downfall the first year was forgetting water them - shameful!

Guest's picture

I read (or heard) that when you buy seedlings, it is actually better to by smaller plants that have yet to start sprouting. Apparently, the transplantation process can be shocking for more advanced plants. Considering that you often pay more for the more advanced seedlings, you can save yourself time & money buying a smaller seedling, that will grow as fast or faster than the more advanced one...hope that makes sense.

Last summer (before I heard this) I bought a pepper plant that was already sprouting and all I got was the one pepper that had already started to appear...

Guest's picture

I wonder if anyone has a make-it-yourself solution for those "topsy turvy" tomato tubes that you hang from your balcony. I want to try growing my tomato plants that way this year, but they sell for $10 each.
I'm not sure, exactly, how they work so I don't know what material might work to replicate the container and hanger.

Guest's picture

If you visit Toronto you can't help but notice the rapid increase in high-rise buildings for business and residential. Just about everyone in these buildings is dependent on the commercial food system to supply most if not all of their food. The workers in office towers have little time to think about growing their own food. The employed, semi-employed and unemployed (non-waged) who live in high-rises haven't been encouraged to grow their own food. Unless they pick-up the idea of growing their own vegetables from friends and neighbours they are unlikely to be aware of this opportunity.
Recently, there have been pronouncements that more and more college and university students are relying on foodbanks for their basic food needs. I think there is an opportunity here for schools, colleges and universities to show some leadership by providing facilities and programs that show and provide opportunities for people in need to learn and share ideas about growing their own food in urban areas and particularly in high-rise buildings. It's about time!. It's not that complicated and new technologies can make it even easier to do this kind of essential gardening.

Guest's picture

Feel free to contact me regarding led grow lighting. If your growing, you should be "green" and growing with leds is safe and extremely efficient!!
Look at our site and contact me for discounts!!
Thanks everyone and happy growing!!

Guest's picture
jim Hicks Guest

i grow my vegetables in 3 gallon containers.I went to my local garden center and they gave me 32-3 gallon used plastic containers for free. I have them on my back deck on two 4' x 4' table that I built , I grow 8 diffrent kinds of vegges , four of each kind, i never have to buy any more vegetables again.this is a big saving for me about $720.00 a year. I am a Vegans, with the exception of 1 ounce of cedar cheese a day for protein.

Guest's picture

I have tried growing tomatoes in a container and my first attempt the plant bloomed but no fruit. The second year I was told that tomatoes need calcium so I saved my egg shells, ground them up and then added them to the soil. The next year I got two small tomatoes. What are you using for your plants calcium needs, and how are indoor plants pollinated? I don't even have a balcony so my plants aren't exposed to the outside at all.
Using grow lights helps them get the right sun, but I worry that they won't be pollinated.

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