Teach Me To Grow Things!
October 13, 2009 9:33 PM   Subscribe

I want to grow some plants indoors. I don't know anything about gardening. Could any of you green thumbs out there give me a working knowledge of terminology and the basics to success?

I have some south-facing window ledge space that gets lots of light. I think it would be perfect for growing plants. My knowledge of plants is just about as close to nothing as it could possibly be.

What are the basics of gardening: What pots should I use? What plants? What soil? How much attention and care does each type of plant need? Where do I buy seeds? If someone could point me to some good resources, I'd be very grateful (the "beginner's" stuff I've googled seems either too advanced or more instructional than informative).

Or if some plant-knowledged mefites could even just throw out some bits of plant knowledge, that would be great too. I'd love to know the why behind gardening, more than the "here's what to do..."

If it matters: I'm thinking that growing herbs or hot peppers or something would be a good use of this space.
posted by battlebison to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on your location. Go to your local nursery and get expert advice from them. It's in their best interest to help you become a proficient gardener (indoors or otherwise). Good luck!
posted by torquemaniac at 10:30 PM on October 13, 2009

Agreeing with torquemaniac. This is one of the areas in which the internet is no substitute for real life locals with experience. Also, people who work in nurseries love to be asked their opinions about what plants belong where and how to raise them.
posted by hermitosis at 10:36 PM on October 13, 2009

Best answer: I'm of the opinion that, starting out, you don't need to worry about doing everything perfectly. It will work well enough, and you can learn and improve and perfect as you go. That's one way to start, anyway, so here are some real basics that aren't aiming for perfection.

Buy a bag of something that calls itself "potting soil" from your local hardware or other mega-whatever store. Spending a bit more for something with time-release fertilizer in it is fine. I have some oregano growing right now in a mix of orchid potting mix (large chunks of rock and wood) and sphagnum peat moss (supposed to be a potting soil additive) that is just wrong but it seems to work well enough. Plants can be very forgiving (if you don't require perfection).

Buy pots that looks like they won't tip over when the plants you're growing reach the full size you expect them to reach. You can always repot if you start too small. Plastic, clay, ... not terribly important. Buy some that look good to you, if that matters. Make sure they have holes in the bottom to drain and a saucer to catch excess water. Roots hate sitting in water; they'll rot. Don't make them rot.

Buy seeds from your hardware/home store or a nursery. If your space has full sunlight, don't get anything that says (on the seed packet) that it wants shade. Pick some varieties that sound good to you. Herbs and peppers are a great idea, because they tend to do well in pots. Potatoes, corn, apple trees, or anything else that you can't imagine small won't work as well if at all.

Buy a seed-starting kit (I like the kind that are a black plastic tray with a clear plastic lid and small cylindrical peat pellets that expand when wet). Follow the instructions that come with the kit to start the seeds. Soon, you will have little seedlings, ready to be potted.

Once the seedlings are in their pots with their potting soil, rules number 1, 2, and 12 are: Do not overwater. Let the soil dry out before watering again. Test it with your finger, and if it feels moist, hold off on watering. You'll eventually get a feel for how long to go between watering so you can set a schedule.

When you do water, though, do so until some water comes out of the drainage holes at the bottom of each pot to make sure all the roots get some water. If there is a lot of water sitting in the saucer, drain the saucer and put in a bit less next time.

Learn to recognize the symptoms of basic, common plant distress:
- Overwatering (limp, shriveled leaves and damp soil - the roots are dying and not able to deliver water)
- Underwatering (limp, shriveled leaves and bone-dry soil - the roots are fine, but there's no water to deliver)
- Too much light (scorched, yellowed leaves, especially those facing the sun)
- Not enough light ("leggy" growth, with lots of stalk and not much leaf growth)

You may need to turn your plants regularly, because they will grow towards the light, and eventually fall over, if you don't rotate them and promote even growth in all directions (thus primarily upwards).

You'll pick up tips about specific plants over time. Things like: Don't let basil bloom - pinch off the buds before it can bloom to keep the leaves from growing bitter. Some plants (many peppers) need to be pollinated by hand if indoors - a small paintbrush works fine - pretend you're an insect futzing around in each flower - it will work.
posted by whatnotever at 11:24 PM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: What pots should I use?

Use the biggest pots you can fit in the space you have. Cramped roots make for unhealthy plants. Self-watering pots are good, and if you're religious about only putting water in the little reservoir holes and not dumping it on the top of the soil, will keep your soil nicely moist without making it soggy. Putting a little vegetable oil in the reservoir to form a skin over the water will smother mosquito larvae.

What plants?

That's entirely up to you. Herbs are usually fairly hardy, and they make your house smell nice and improve your cookery. Rosemary in particular is a perennial and very very hard to kill. Parsley is useful, and if you harvest it right (always take the whole outermost branch off right at the main stem, as if you were trimming a miniature palm tree) will oversupply a typical home kitchen from four or five plants.

The very first Google hit for grow chili indoors is full of good advice about the basics.

Grow a variety of things and see what thrives easily for you. Grow the same thing in a variety of soil mixes and see what works best. Pay attention to what works, and your thumbs will green up before you know it.

What soil?

Depends on the plant. Some plants like acid soils, some don't. You won't usually go too far wrong with a mixture of white sand for bulk, non-clumping clay cat litter for water retention, commercial potting mix for organics content, a tablespoon of ground dolomite per pot for acidity regulation, a small handful of slow-release fertilizer beads per pot, and a few drops of concentrated fish emulsion per litre of water. Ask your local nursery what they recommend for the plants you want to grow.

How much attention and care does each type of plant need?

If you get the soil mix right, and use self-watering pots, and there's enough light and you've got good air movement around the plants: mostly not much. But once you start growing things, I think you'll find yourself spending a fair bit of time just looking at them, and when you do, you will want to give them what they seem to need.

Where do I buy seeds?

For an inexperienced gardener, your local nursery is absolutely the best place to start.
posted by flabdablet at 11:30 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Square pots will obviously fill space more efficiently. So there's that.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:50 AM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: You have a south facing window, which is PERFECT for herbs, so you're ahead of the game.

After that -- the best thing you could do for both the herbs -- and yourself -- is to concentrate on easy-care ones. I used to try growing basil and mint, which both like a LOT of watering, but I didn't do too well because sometimes I get forgetful....however, then I switched to herbs like rosemary, oregano, and sage. Those herbs are more used to drier conditions, so they are more forgiving if you don't water them quite as much. I've had a lot more success.

Rather than picking them up as seeds, try picking them up as seedLINGS. You can get tiny versions of most herb plants at a lot of garden stores, or even at farmers' markets -- they usually come in 4-inch pots. One 4-inch seedling can be repotted into a 6-inch pot as their first home.

For those particular herbs which like drier conditions, I also learned that they like a little bit of clean sand mixed into the potting soil. When I was at the garden store, I just picked up a big bag of regular potting soil, and then a small bag of "cactus sand" (I think that's what it's called -- it's clean sand packaged specifically for if you're growing cacti as houseplants). Then I just mixed it together really good in a bucket when I got home and used that for my herb plants.

After I repotted them (am assuming you know how to do that, but memail me if you want specific tips), then it was just a matter of watering everyone once a week. The herbs I mentioned also don't need to be fertilized a whole hell of a lot -- I've usually done so only once a year, right in early spring when they're starting to put out new growth. Also, at the beginning of spring, I give everything a lookover, and if there's some branches that look like they're getting old and tough and woody, and all the leaves are starting to drop off those branches, I just cut them off -- that way the plant doesn' t have to keep supporting those old tired branches and can put that new energy towards, "Yay, I can start making new baby branches!" Usually there are some leaves towards the top ends of the old branches, and since I'm growing herbs, I just use them in cooking.

After a couple years of doing this, my rosemary and sage are enormous, and my oregano was hardy enough that it came back after I actually forgot to water it for a solid month. So I'd definitely say those work well. If you need any other specific advice, memail me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

This video from a TED talk last February might give you some inspiration and help you narrow down your choices.

In this talk, Kamal Meattle, discusses how to grow and arrange three different types of indoor plants to give you "all the fresh air you need".

The three plants are:
  • Areca Palm
  • Mother-in-Law's Tongue
  • Money Plant
Pretty cool.
posted by jeremias at 7:22 AM on October 14, 2009

Nthing the advice about seedlings as opposed to seeds. The first things I grew indoors and babied lavishly died from damp off. There's a solution you can get where they sell potting soil if you choose seeds. And nthing the advice about starting with hard to kill plants. The library usually has a ton of books on how to grow indoor plants. And, btw, discard anything that comes with mealy bugs as they're almost impossible to get rid of and will infect all your other plants.
posted by x46 at 8:32 AM on October 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks all so much for your help. If anyone is interested in what worked and what didn't, just send me a message and I'll let you know how things go.
posted by battlebison at 8:59 AM on October 14, 2009

I would also suggest starting with pre-potted plants. One of my favorite things is watching the Jade plant my grandmother gave me grow. They are virtually impossible to kill and only need some sun and to be watered every couple weeks. It's hard to grow things from seeds, I've found, but seems almost as satisfying just taking care of the plants I have.
posted by a.steele at 11:21 AM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: For those particular herbs which like drier conditions, I also learned that they like a little bit of clean sand mixed into the potting soil.

That's because what's generally sold in bags as potting soil (they call it "potting mix" in Australia, and I'm assuming it's the same thing) is basically just straight organic matter - usually ground pinebark in various states of decomposition, with a bit of compost mixed in if you're lucky. And while organic matter is a vital component of good topsoil, it's not even close to complete. If you think of topsoil as cake, then potting mix is eggs and sugar - you need to add flour in some form or all you end up with is a gooey (if delicious) mess that isn't good for you.

Good topsoil contains enough sand to make it drain well, so that watering it will pull air into the soil as the water leaves; enough silt and clay to make it retain water even when it's dry enough to be nicely aerated; enough calcium and magnesium to offset the acid that plant roots exude into the soil as they mine it for nutrients; enough organic detritus and microbial life to make its nutrient content available to plant roots; and a crumb structure, full of various sized little chinks and crannies for roots to grow into.

You can build a pretty good indoor approximation to good topsoil if you start with half a pot of white sand, quarter of a pot of non-clumping (kaolin) cat litter, quarter of a pot of a respectable commercial potting mix (go for one that smells like good topsoil), a tablespoon of ground dolomite and a tablespoon of slow release fertiliser pellets. Mix thoroughly and let the mixture stand for a week or so (to allow the microbial community to populate the mineral surfaces) before you plant anything in it. Good home-made compost works better than commercial potting mix, but that's another story for another time. Putting three or four earthworms in each pot won't hurt either.

If you're growing things that prefer a more alkaline soil, increase the proportion of dolomite and substitute shell grit for some of the sand.

If you have access to small children who use disposable nappies to deal with overnight wees (as opposed to poos; handling other people's shit is further than you should probably go as a newbie gardener), the absorbent stuff inside a used one is a very useful adjunct to topsoil. It's a mixture of a water-retaining polymer gel (the very same stuff that nurseries will sell you as "water crystals") and paper pulp, and it comes pre-loaded with a high-nitrogen fertilizer! Add about one part in ten to my suggested recipe above if you're growing leafy things like basil.

The most common newbie gardener error is over-watering. This causes under-aeration, which makes the soil more habitable to moulds and mildews than the healthy community of aerobic bacteria and fungi you want in there to look after your plant roots. Overwatering is often exacerbated by using soil mixes that don't have enough sand and therefore don't drain well. If you're over-watering, little plants will die from "damping-off" - they'll look fine one day, then the next day they'll be all limp and falling down, and then they'll die. It's quite sad to watch.

Using self-watering pots, which have a reservoir in the bottom and rely on capillary action to get water through the soil, will help you not to make that error. But do float a little vegetable oil on the water, lest your indoors become mosquito breeding heaven.

Ideally, topsoil will contain about as much water as a well-squeezed damp kitchen sponge. Soggy is bad; occasionally soggy is acceptable provided your mix has enough sand in it. Somewhat dry is acceptable but will slow down growth. Arid to cracking point is no good.

If you're not using the self-watering pots, do put some kind of dish underneath to catch your drainage water, and water carefully. Don't soak them. A four litre pot needs only about a cup (a quarter litre) of water at most; if you put that much in and more than a tiny weep comes out the drain holes, then the soil was either too wet to start with and didn't need watering - wait longer next time - or it was so dry that it's become water-repellent, and the water is just running straight past it. If you've let a pot go that far, the quickest way to rehabilitate it is to add a little commercial soil-wetting agent (essentially a plant-friendly detergent) to your water, and give the pot a tablespoon or so of water every five minutes until the soil is nicely damp again.

The next most common error is over-fertilization - if a little fertilizer is good, then more must be better, right? Wrong. Excess fertilizer burns plants. If their little leaves start to shrivel and curl under at the edges, that's probably what's going wrong (this is more obvious with bigger leaves like basil and tomatoes than small ones like rosemary). You're unlikely to see over-fertilization with the slow-release granules, but may well do if you go in too hard with otherwise wonderful liquid ones like fish emulsion. The pre-fertilized water crystals from nappy innards are somewhere in between; if you can, keep them in the bottom half of the pot so that tender new roots don't encounter them until they've had a chance to age a bit.

Herbs are best harvested in different ways depending on their growth pattern. For things like basil that grow a long soft main stem with leaves coming off in pairs, the best way is to take off the end of the stem with nail scissors, about half way between the last pair of decent-sized leaves and the bunch of new stuff growing at the end. Do this once the stem has three or four pairs of leaves coming off the side as well as the bunch of stuff growing at the tip. After three or four days, you will see whole new stems starting to sprout from right near the leaf junctions. You end up with a compact, bushy, productive plant that keeps on offering you new leaves for your pasta sauce instead of a long single stemmed thing that throws out a dozen big leaves and then bolts to seed.

For things like parsley and coriander and silver beet that keep pushing new branches out of the centre of a very slow-growing main stem, the best way is to take off the whole outermost leaf (or whole branch, for parsley and coriander) right where it emerges from the main stem.

And please assume that we're all interested in how you get on. AskMe threads stay open for a very long time, and anybody who has contributed here will see any updates you add without having to go look for them.
posted by flabdablet at 1:35 AM on October 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

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