Yes, You Can Grow Food and Flowers in Your Apartment

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Growing fresh vegetables and colorful flowers is on the rise as interest in gardening flourishes across the country. And thanks to containers, everyone can join the fun. You can grow in containers almost anywhere. Whole gardens can be created on rooftops, in alleyways, on decks and patios, or on windowsills using containers.

With little or no access to land, it is possible to grow a selection of favorite vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Some gardeners even grow trees and shrubs successfully in pots. But you don’t have to nurture a forest on your balcony to be a gardener. You can grow a few containers of edibles and flowers indoors or outside that will delight and feed you and your family. Here’s how.

Balcony or Deck Gardens

If you don’t have land, the most obvious place to garden is on your deck or balcony, and most of these structures can accommodate a few plant-filled pots and containers. If you’re considering large pots or thinking to fill the space, consult your building supervisor about the weight load on your balcony. Also, consider drainage. Your downstairs neighbors (or your deck flooring) may not appreciate dripping water.

You can reduce weight and water issues by selecting lightweight, self-watering plastic pots and filling them with potting soil. For large pots, fill the bottom third of the container with empty plastic soda or water bottles before adding potting soil. This will save on the amount of potting soil you need and the planted container will be lighter. Self-watering containers generally have a reservoir in the pot or saucer. They reduce the frequency of watering and prevent excess water from draining onto the floor.

Next, determine your location’s sun and wind exposure. A windy, south-facing balcony or deck can lead to container-grown plants that dry out fast and even blow over. For these conditions select plants that thrive in full sun all day long or erect shade structures to offer some protection. Sun- and heat-loving plants that do well in containers include portulaca, cucumbers, tomatoes, and salvia. An east- or west-facing balcony or deck offers enough sun to grow many plants, along with some shade so they don’t get toasted. If you have a north-facing location, select plants carefully — fewer plants grow well in shade than sun. Some good choices are arugula, begonias, impatiens, and loose-leaf lettuce.

Hanging and Trellis Gardens

Another way to maximize space is to grow plants in window boxes or hanging pots. This type of container gardening is a great way to grow small or cascading plants such as thyme, oregano, petunias, bacopa, alyssum, and even dwarf tomatoes. Place window boxes and hanging pots where they are easy to water; these containers tend to dry out fast because they hold less soil to support plant growth.

Try growing vertically. Add a trellis to your container and you can grow pole beans, morning glories, hyacinth beans, peas, cardinal climber, and many other climbing plants. Train the plants up the trellis and they will fill much of the otherwise wasted vertical space on your balcony or deck and add a lovely accent to your surroundings.

In-Ground Gardens

If you live in a ground-floor apartment, you may be able to plant in the earth. These apartments often include a small "yard" just beyond the patio. Perennial flowers, trees, and shrubs are more likely to grow well in the ground than in containers, or you can grow a few annual flowers and vegetables. Check with your building supervisor before digging up the soil, though, and be sure you select the right-sized plant for the location, since many apartments only offer a few square feet. Before planting check the fertility of the soil. Either amend the existing soil with compost or build a small raised bed and fill it with bought topsoil and compost. Get creative. Make use of nearby objects like fences or shrubs: grow climbers on the fence and use shrubs or small trees to shade sun-sensitive flowers.

Indoor Gardens

No outdoor space for gardening? Don’t fret. You can still enjoy fresh vegetables and colorful flowers indoors. All you need is enough light and a little space. Vegetable yields will be lower and flower blossoms less numerous and robust than if you grew the plants outdoors, but with proper equipment and plant selection you can grow and enjoy flowers and edibles inside.

Although many plant needs are the same indoors or outside, indoor gardening requires a few added considerations, especially if you’re growing vegetables.

Light. A south-facing window in summer provides the most light for your plants, but it can really heat up. Grow fruiting crops and heat lovers such as dwarf tomatoes, beans, basil, and peppers in these windows. They’ll need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun to thrive. During the cooler, shadier spring and fall months or in east- or west-facing windows, try growing leafy greens and root crops such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, chives, parsley, thyme, short carrots, and radishes. These crops do well with only 3 to 4 hours of direct sun a day. In winter, or if your windows don’t provide enough natural light, use supplemental grow lights to provide the light duration and intensity needed.

Pollination. Fruiting crops such as tomatoes and peppers require help with pollination. Simply brush your hand over the plants every morning to force the pollen to fertilize the flowers. Some people also direct a small fan on the plants to assist with pollination.

Flowers are more forgiving than vegetables. Compact plants such as ageratum, torenia, and begonia take up less space and thrive better than sprawling ones. These compact plants grow well in full- and part-sun indoor locations. In winter or in apartments with less light, consider plants with colorful leaves such as perilla, coleus, and angel wing begonia. These plants will grow even better under grow lights.

Whatever indoor plants you choose to nurture, attend to these basics: water carefully, fertilize appropriately, and check regularly for pests. For more information on container gardening, visit NGA’s Web site.

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