Enlighten me in the ways of apartment flora
September 25, 2011 5:41 AM   Subscribe

It's spring in Sydney, and I would like to grow plants in my apartment, but I am brown-fingered, and haven't the faintest clue how to start getting them greener. Hope me!

For example, I only found out that potting mix is a thing the other day. I even bought a little bag of it, and it is now sitting hopefully in the sunroom waiting for me to do something with it. I don't have any other tools or pots, or plants or other things that I don't even know exist yet, because I don't know what to get or how to find out what to get, except by asking the hivemind.

I offer the following details, in the hope they may be pertinent:

* 2nd-floor apartment, somewhat overlooked by neighbouring buildings. I have a sunroom that faces north-ish, and an open-top balcony that faces south-ish. The sunroom has shutters, and I can adjust the shutter angles, and open one of the shutter panels if necessary.

* I love cooking, and would mostly love to grow my own herbs.

My experience with plants is 1) buy plant from shop, 2) follow instructions until 3) plant is dead. I am not sure what to do with plants when they look like they are ailing (water more? water less?), and how long they should take to perk up, etc. Historically there has been no hope for a plant that shows any signs of stress in my care.

So I'm looking to be pointed in a rough direction and given a gentle push to take my first steps in growing and maintaining plants like I know what I'm doing. Some guiding questions:

* What should be on my shopping list for my first ever trip to a garden centre?

* What herbs could I attempt? How many leaves can I take without killing the plant?

* Any other good-natured houseplants that I should check out that are awesome/educational/enlightening?

* Is it easier/more fun to grow from seeds or to buy an existing plant?

* Any other theoretical underpinnings to offer? Book recommendations, or online resources or courses?

* Local tips for Sydney? Good places to get pots/plants/advice?

Thank you all!
posted by cogat to Home & Garden (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Buy a Yates Garden Guide. Follow it religiously.

Don't buy plants from Woolworths/Coles/Big W/other-chain-store-du-jour. They're destined to fail because the dramatic change in climate/sunlight will kill them (and they are usually rootbound, in my my experience).

That's all I can come up with at 1.07am. I'll pop back in tomorrow to add more that I think of, while I should be sleeping.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 8:11 AM on September 25, 2011

Growing herbs from seeds is a little more tricky, so a beginner would probably be better off buying plants. Go to a reputable nursery (ie not a grocery or hardware store), and pick out healthy looking, but not overgrown plants. Overgrown on top means they're most likely overgrown underground as well, so unless you want to transplant up, you're going to lose them soon.
Water sparingly. Herbs tend to be very hearty, so depending on the size of your plant, every other day should be just fine. You're far more likely to overwater than underwater, so be mindful of that.
You'll want a spot that gets about 6 hours of full sun. Herbs love lots of sun.
For starters, get yourself some thyme, some basil, some sage, and possibly some mint. Parsley, cilantro and chervil are all winter herbs, so you'll have to wait that out.
Warnings: mint will get crazy out of control if you get it in the ground. It should most likely be kept to a container. Also, resist the temptation to get rosemary. A full-grown rosemary plant is literally a hedge.
posted by Gilbert at 10:07 AM on September 25, 2011

Best answer: You've got some potting mix. You want some pots, some saucers to put the pots on (that's not the word, but it's way past my bedtime), some chunks of rock/roof-tile/gravel/etc to put in the bottom of the pots to help the soil drain. A general purpose liquid fertiliser generally won't hurt either.

If you're sun room is not too hot, and gets direct sunlight, then most summer herbs should survive in it. They need sunlight, but a lot of things can get knocked around a bit by the heat of an Australian summer.

Plants for the sun room:
-A chilli plant should do well, but ask at the garden centre for a variety that matches the temperature and number of hours of light of your room. Buy one that isn't already in fruit.
-Flat leaf (Italian) parsley is amazingly hardy and should also do well. Water often but don't let the soil get sodden.
-If you've got room for a big pot, lemongrass should do well, but it can take a while to establish, and it's main growth is in spring and early summer, so harvesting at other times of year can whittle it back to a level where it struggles a bit (though it's hard to kill).
-Thyme - often likes a little bit of shade, but can do well in full sun if it gets a lot of water. Again, varieties differ, so talk it through with the garden centre.
-Rosemary is hardy as all hell. Biggish pot again.
-Basil for summer. Get it into the pots now. As much sun as possible and water a lot. Apart from sweet basil, have a look at Asian Basil. It's slower growing, but hardier, and lasts longer at the end of the season. Same goes for perennial basil - it that's kept warm in winter, it can last for years (but it tastes very different).
-Mint needs a lot of water to survive summer heat here, but if it gets it, it goes nuts. Spearmint or Asian mint is especially good for Australian summer conditions.

Is the south facing balcony mostly shaded? If so:
-Try the thyme there too.
-Sage often likes a semi shaded location. Though it can do well in full sun if it's not too hot.
-Marjoram is the same. Likes a bit of shade. Mine always gets massacred by summer heat here in Perth, but as long as it continues to be watered, it comes back the following year.

It's after 1.00 for me too.. but what else..

If you're growing from seed, you'll need seed trays and special lighter potting mix for them to germinate in. Warm and wet gets them out of the ground. Transfer once they're going strong but before they get root bound.

That said, I'd suggest going for seedlings to start with. As malibustacey said, get them from a reputable garden centre and their more likely to survive. Avoid anything that looks too tall and fragile - it's already had too long in the seed pot.

With respect to how many leaves you can take, if a herb is actively growing, you can cut it back to a few leaf nodes above tough, established or woody stem. If it isn't actively growing (winter, autumn) you need to be much more judicious, and take a much smaller proportion.

I wouldn't try coriander at this time of year. It's a winter crop in Australia.

Other plants. If all else fails - try cacti and succulents. Minimal water, don't mind poor soil, broad range of warmth and light requirements. Hard to kill.

Good luck.
posted by Ahab at 10:18 AM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have given up on growing stuff at our place, because we just don't have the sunlight. i can give you a recommendation though for a gardening center! Check out Newtown Garden Center. We've been there a couple times and the staff have been really helpful and friendly. They have a Facebook page where they regularly answer gardening questions for people.
posted by web-goddess at 7:18 PM on September 25, 2011

Seconding everything Ahab said, plus: don't be afraid of killing a few plants as you get the hang of it. The best way to learn what works for your space is by trial and error. Get advice from the garden centre, but don't stress about it too much.
posted by harriet vane at 4:17 AM on September 26, 2011

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