How do I grow food in my shady apartment?
July 2, 2009 8:03 AM   Subscribe

How do I grow food and be more sustainable in a shady city apartment?

So we live in a ground floor apartment in Marina Del Rey. We're near the water so the temperature is pretty stable.

We're ground floor, facing a courtyard. We have a sizeable outdoor area that backs up on a shared courtyard. Figure 15X10 worth of usable floor space.

We get VERY little sun. Like an hour or 2 max in summer. Due to sprinklers and the location, it's quite humid too.

I can't do much or any growing inside since we have voracious cats who will eat all they can get their paws on.

Outside we've got tomatoes growing, but they're not too happy. They're growing out into the courtyard to try to find sun.. Herbs sorta grow as well in containers.

So how do I successfully grow vegetables or other foods?

I'm thinking about getting some grow-lights to supplant the low sun content. Downside is that most grow-lights dont work outside, plus the energy consumption is batshit insane if it's not a cfl or led.

Is this a good idea? Should I keep the plants out on the patio and use a grow-light during the day to help? Move it inside when it's done?

Should I convert the outdoor closet into a mini grow-room where I can blast out the light as needed?

Do the energy costs with running grow-lights defeat the idea of sustainability?

I'm less concerned about the footprint, and more concerned about raw cost.. heh

Any pointers or ideas on how to turn this shady space into a food-generating or more self sufficient space?
posted by Lord_Pall to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Root veggies tend to do ok in low sun, they take longer to grow but I've had good luck growing carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, and radishes in shady corners of my yard. Potatoes are really satisfying to grow, but they're also really cheap to buy so I'm not sure you'd save yourself any money.
posted by foodgeek at 8:13 AM on July 2, 2009

Probably not the answer you're looking for, but have you considered joining a CSA?

Alternatively, could you use mirrors to direct the sun to your plants? I've seen people do this to direct more sun into their apartments, but have no idea if it is a workable solution for plant growing.

Cats can be blocked by caging your plants - chicken wire is a solution.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:20 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

With that little bit of sun, there is very little you will be able to grow successfully. It would take a boatload of artificial lights to grow most veggies; yes, this defeats the idea of sustainability. You should grow a few shade-tolerant things (some herbs, for example) and direct most of your resources elsewhere, like shopping at a farmers' market.
posted by jon1270 at 8:22 AM on July 2, 2009

Best answer: Root veggies tend to do ok in low sun
There are several DIY plans out there for potato towers, if you have the space for them. You build them up gradually, filling them with dirt and giving the plant more places to grow the tubers. At season's, end, you empty the dirt out and harvest lots and lots of spuds. The link mentions a sunny location, but it might be worth a shot anyway if you go the low-tech/low-cost route.

I did pretty well with pole beans in my last back yard - I had one good sunny patch in the middle of a wooded back yard and just planted them right there in the middle of it. I used 1x2 furring strips and twine to make a sort of structure for them to grow on and just let them go. Again, minimal investment in seeds and supplies, so you're not out too much if they don't take.

The gardenweb forums have some mixed reviews on shade veggie gardening, ranging from "you can't" to "this worked for me". One guy, probably being sarcastic, mentioned mushrooms, but that doesn't sound like a bad idea to me. If you have humidity and shade, you might try growing shiitakes from a kit. Just keep your neighbors away. :)
posted by jquinby at 8:31 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can you maximize sunlight using mirrors at all?

Otherwise, this is not a cost-effective scheme. Using electricity to grow plants will cost you money and create more CO2 than it will save were you to buy from a local farmers market.

In my experience almost all plants are sunlight-constrained. Even the "shade-loving" plants can handle full sunlight *if they have access to sufficient replenishment of the water that full sunlight would otherwise be evaporating from them.*
posted by jefficator at 8:32 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lettuce and greens are good low light choices, otherwise I'd go with some kind of reflector. Grow lights aren't really a sustainable solution.
posted by electroboy at 9:01 AM on July 2, 2009

You may be able to get a plot in a community garden; call City Hall or your elected official to ask. Lettuces might grow in shade, but they'd be leggy. Can you use your roof?
posted by theora55 at 9:14 AM on July 2, 2009

Best answer: seconding root vegetables and greens - we have a half-dozen rowboxes of lettuce & kale & collards & spinach on a side of the house that gets about the same amount of sun you're talking about - they're happy, green and bushy

you can make a collar out of a tin pie plate to help reflect sun - cut a line from one edge to the center & then cut a hole that allows for at least a 2inch margin around the stem of the plant

unless you have your own water wheel providing the energy, the grow lights will be in no way sustainable and will burn a hole right through your pocket
posted by jammy at 9:14 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could grow mushrooms (Google "mushrooms growing kits" for more options).
posted by clearlydemon at 9:30 AM on July 2, 2009

Well, you could definitely do sprouts - they're easy. Also, have you thought about growing mushrooms? Another option would be forcing greens from some's done w/ endive, but I imagine you could also get beet and maybe turnip greens this way.
posted by pilibeen at 9:32 AM on July 2, 2009

Response by poster: We already use a CSA, I was just looking for more..

Mushrooms are a good idea along with herbs..
posted by Lord_Pall at 9:47 AM on July 2, 2009

Root vegtables in a samll plot in subruban setting? Given the price of root veg, and the unknown quality of the soil you are growing in, you would be better shopping off at the grocery. If you can grow basil, chives, thyme, mint in pots etc, you can enjoy fresh herbs in a small space with low impact - they emit pleasant odors as well. Without sun, ain't much you can do, really.
posted by zaelic at 9:52 AM on July 2, 2009

Yeah, sprouts in jars.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:34 PM on July 2, 2009

Best answer: Grow lights outside are most definitely not sustainable. Sustainability is about balancing outputs and inputs; if you're putting a lot resources into something, it is not part of a sustainability cycle unless you get the approximately same amount of resources out (and I use resources in the broadest term possible). If you have to pay for coal-powered electricity to grow a tomato outside, something is not adding up.

Mushrooms are a good idea, you can compost the substrate. As zaelic points out, root vegetables in an urban setting can be problematic due to contamination. You can try building raised beds, but that's a lot of work for a venture that may have limited success. If you really want to grow vegetables that require sun, theora's suggestion to join a community garden is the way to go.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:16 PM on July 2, 2009

Best answer: Both potatoes and mint will do fine under those conditions and considering how easy they are it might be worth it for new potatoes. It might be a placebo like effect but I swear I can taste a difference in new potatoes that are consumed within hours of being dug rather than days later. Peas also taste better within hours of picking (but won't do well given your constraints).

Mint is so easy it's considered to be invasive, generally prefer moist shay spots while tolerating full sun and there are all sorts of fancy hybrids and heirloom varieties to choose from like orange, chocolate, banana and of course several varieties of spear and peppermint. As a bonus many of them are considered to be butterfly attractants. And you can mix and match without worrying about cross pollination because they propagate via runner not seed.
posted by Mitheral at 7:17 PM on July 2, 2009

Best answer: List of community gardens in Los Angeles.

Also, do you have access to the roof of your building? When I lived in an apartment (also in LA), I used to illegally sneak out and grow tomatoes in pots...
posted by Asparagirl at 8:41 AM on July 4, 2009

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