Recently, I’ve written a few articles on gardening and the frugal value it provides, particularly this one on how how to start a garden without a backyard. While this advice works well for many situations, it doesn’t address small living quarters. What do you do if you don’t have any balcony space, or you live in a very tiny apartment and don’t have room for much?
I hunted through some of my gardening books and my own many years of gardening experience (starting with helping my father grow seedlings and raise vegetables as a very young boy) and tried to come up with the simplest garden I could think of, and I think this is about as simple as I can get.
What do you need for this simplest garden?
If you have a windowsill that gets consistent sunlight, that’s great! That’s probably the most important thing you need. It doesn’t have to be a big windowsill, just big enough to sit a few cups on there.
If you have a windowsill but it doesn’t get consistent sunlight, you’ll need a very small grow light. Small simple grow lights are pretty inexpensive. I recommend this one for someone trying to put together this simple garden.
If you don’t have a windowsill at all, you’ll need the grow light and some spot in your home or apartment that’s maybe 4 to 6 inches wide and maybe two feet long. A side table is perfect for this, or maybe a shelf somewhere.
You’ll need a few plastic cups. A Solo-type plastic cup is perfect for this. You’ll want a small handful of them. You’ll also want something that can poke tiny holes in the bottom of the cup, like a small knife or a nail.
You’ll need some aluminum foil. The aluminum foil will form a shallow bowl under the plants that will catch any extra water that might seep out. You can also use saucers if you want.
You’ll need some seeds. I’ll get back to the specifics of this in a minute, but you can get the seeds you need at any garden store or order them online from wonderful places like Seed Savers.
You’ll need some dirt. Any dirt you can find outside will work, but it might be low quality dirt, which means your plants may not thrive in it at first. You may want to buy a tiny bag of potting soil if you want great results immediately. You can order this online, too – this is really good stuff. However, if you have access to soil somewhere outside, just fill up a bowl or other large container with it and you’re good to go.
A little bit of gravel or a few packing peanuts are also good to have, though not essential. These merely help with drainage of your soil, ensuring that your plants don’t flood with water.
A bit of newspaper is nice but optional. It’ll make things a little less messy.
What can you grow in this tiny garden?
Given the size and depth of soil you can fit in a Solo cup, you’re going to be looking at smaller things. Herbs work great, as do small root vegetables (like small carrots or turnips, understanding that you’ll get results that are “baby carrot” sized). You could also grow a very small quantity of lettuce per cup.
For this setup, I would strongly focus on herbs. You can grow all kinds of fresh herbs from this type of garden, cutting them and using them as needed, and they’ll grow successfully for a long time.
So, start by asking yourself what kinds of herbs you like in your food. Basil? Oregano? Cilantro? Dill? Chives? What flavors do you really enjoy? You should start with herbs that you actually like in your food and would be excited to cook with.
For example, if you flip for things like mashed potatoes with sour cream and chives, grow chives. If you love making pasta with tomato and basil, grow basil. If you like salmon with dill sauce, grow dill. Focus on the flavors that appeal to you.
Once you’ve decided what to grow, you’ll want to gather the supplies together from the checklist above. This likely means ordering seeds online or buying them at a local store, possibly getting a tiny grow light and finding some soil. If you don’t have any packing peanuts (you only need a few), get some gravel from a gravel road or a parking lot — you won’t need a ton. You probably have the other items around your house like aluminum foil and Solo cups.
Here’s how to start your simple garden
- You’ll want some space to work in a spot that might get a little dirt on it.
- In each cup, poke a few tiny holes in the bottom of that cup. You don’t want big ones, just enough for water to flow out.
- Put a small amount of gravel or a couple of styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of the cup. If you’re using peanuts, break them in half. You want maybe a half-inch of depth to the gravel or peanuts — just in the ballpark, don’t worry about being exact.
- If you have some newspaper, cut out a circle a bit wider than the top of the cup and put it in there on top of the styrofoam and gravel. You’ll have to stuff it in there.
- Fill up the cup with your soil, up to about half an inch below the top of the cup. You don’t want to fill it to the top. (A teaspoon or tablespoon is perfect for this task.)
- In that cup, plant your seeds according to the directions on the packet. For many herbs, this likely means putting several in the soil perhaps half an inch to an inch deep. This will mostly just involve putting some seeds on the surface, poking them into the soil a bit, and covering them up.
- Once you’ve prepared all of your cups, take a double layer sheet of aluminum foil and make a small “bowl” out of them, long and wide enough to hold all the cups. The best way to do this is to put the aluminum foil on the spot where you intend to keep the cups, put the cups on top of the foil, and then fold up the foil. You’ll want to fold the edges of the foil up around the cups, covering much of their outside. This will create a “bowl” around the bottom of the cups. The purpose of this “bowl” is to temporarily catch any excess water from when you water your plants, which you’ll need to do occasionally.
- If you need a grow light, set that up now, with the light shining down on the plants. You’ll want to have this on roughly 12 hours a day. Turn it on early in the day and turn it off in the evening.
How do I maintain it?
You’ll need to water the plants occasionally — aim for every few days to start with, or follow the directions on the seed packet or from online research about the specific herb you’re growing. If the top of the soil feels dry, just put a little bit of water in there. Try to avoid overwatering — if you see water sitting on the surface or building up in the aluminum foil “bowl,” that’s too much. If there’s a lot of water in the foil, you may want to get the extra out of there.
If you gathered soil from outside, you may have a few weeds — usually just grass. Pull out anything that isn’t the herbs that you want to grow.
In a week or two, you should see tiny plants emerging from most of the seeds you planted. Follow the guidance on the back of the seed packet for how to thin that specific herb. You don’t want to add too much.
Your plants will need some food, too. You can actually make a really cheap fertilizer by saving a few vegetable scraps, blending them with water until it’s basically vegetable broth, and using that for watering your plants. You can supplement that by saving eggshells, cleaning them thoroughly and letting them dry. Then put those shells in a freezer Ziploc bag and smash those shells into oblivion so that they become a powder. Put a tiny amount of that powder in each cup — maybe 1/8 of a teaspoon, spread around. You don’t need to do this very often, maybe once every few months.
If it looks like your plants aren’t growing well, they may need some actual fertilizer beyond the suggestions above. If they look withered or pale, buy a small container of garden fertilizer at the store or order it online (here’s a bag of 50 herb fertilizer spikes that will do the trick for less than $5).
When they appear to be growing well, do some research into the type of herbs you have and determine when it is time to harvest that kind of herb and how to do so. Many herbs can be partially harvested and will continue to grow and produce more for quite a long time, as long as you keep watering and fertilizing.
This is an easy and foolproof method to dip your toes into gardening, no matter where you live.
It requires very little in terms of supplies and time — the initial part is the only time-intensive part. Once your herbs are going, they just require a bit of occasional water and maybe a bit of occasional food and weeding. In your apartment or house, they should be pest free and disease-free.
As they grow, you’ll find yourself with a steady supply of amazingly flavorful fresh herbs which you can use in all kinds of dishes. Tossing a bit of fresh basil with tomatoes and pasta is amazing!