Amateur Gardening 101
January 3, 2015 7:32 AM   Subscribe

I want to grow vegetables and herbs on my apartment terrace. I am feeling overwhelmed, as I've never had a garden before. I need help!

We just moved into an apartment that has a large (by Brooklyn standards!) terrace. No soil, of course, so I assume we need raised beds. It gets a ton of sunlight. We also have enough room and sunlight indoors to keep some plants indoors while it's cold out, if that's even a thing one should do. Specifically I would like to grow tomatoes, sweet peppers, Thai basil and other herbs.

I started researching how to grow bell peppers and immediately felt intimidated by how little I know about gardening, as I'm a long-time city dweller who's never any outdoor space that got enough sun to grow a dandelion. Where do I start? Any books or blogs I should read?
posted by zoomorphic to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is like a one-stop shop for "apartment gardening 101" because -

1. They sell a bunch of books in the gift shop that are specifically ABOUT container gardening and gardening in small spaces and gardening in apartments;

2. You can get a lot of the seeds and plants and soil and such right there; and

3. They also have people you can turn to and ask questions if you're feeling especially confused.

A good 101 book, though, is the Moosewood Kitchen Garden, which has a lot of basic "how to start a garden" advice - everything from "what do I need to know about soil" to "how do I design a garden" to "what does this specific plant need in terms of sun/soil/etc." to "pest control", and of course finishing with "here's some recipes for all that stuff". They also have a section on which plants go especially well in container gardens, and a section on how to select the containers for your garden.

Having a lot of sun is going to help, but I'll warn you that in my own experience, basil was tricky. It liked things really damp, so if you tend to be a little forgetful about watering (like me), the basil would suffer. On the other hand, though, there are other herbs that not only can cope with less-frequent watering, it actually helps concentrate their flavor. I have three of them in a window box right now - rosemary, oregano, and sage - and they've been holding up really well (the rosemary is like eight years old, in fact, and is threatening to take over the box and I have to regularly cut it back). I have all three of them in the same container and water the whole thing with a half gallon pitcher about once a week, and it's fine.

I'd also try buying the actual already-sprouted plants, if you can, rather than trying to start everything from seeds. By the time the plant has been sprouted and has grown enough for it to be on sale, it's gotten pretty hardy; that way you also don't have to futz with starting the seedlings and then babying them and then thinning them and transplanting them into a container and fretting about whether you've spaced them out enough, you just have to pick up a couple of the plants and drop them in the container and you're done.

The exception is: get a pack of seeds for arugula or a mesculun salad green mix; those grow like crazy, and you can just plant a sprinkle right away right in the container and save the rest of the pack, let things grow, pick it, eat it, and add another sprinkle of seeds and start over. (They do tend to like moist soil, though, so you may have to stay on top of that. On the other hand, you could get lucky with an especially hardy batch of seeds - I gave my parents some arugula seeds a couple years ago for their own garden, and it went so crazy that it started spreading outside their garden plot and is now growing wild in part of their yard.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:53 AM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: maybe start with container gardening before going full out and buying/building raised beds. this guy Mike on that page has a bunch of youtube videos for how to make the containers out of cheap materials.

for starting indoors you should get some Jiffy peat pellet greenhouses. make sure to label which seeds you place in which pod so you don't lose track of what plant starts to grow where :)

a good seed company to check out is the Hudson Valley Seed Library. for example, here is a tomato variety that is happy being grown in containers.

lastly, here's a great factsheet from cornell about container gardening.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 7:54 AM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, yeah, seconding the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Those are all plants that work specifically in this specific climate, and they're available a lot of places (the Botanic Garden, for starters, but I've seen them in a lot of gift shops and the Brooklyn Flea and such). That's also where I got the arugula that is taking over my parents' lawn, so it's hardy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:57 AM on January 3, 2015

Grow Great Grub will be a good book to check out. Small space organic gardening and the author's from Toronto so sort of close to your zone.

I also like Bountiful Container. Lots of info about container gardening in general and specific info on many kinds of plants including vegetables and herbs.
posted by sevenless at 8:11 AM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with Empress that starting with plants that are already growing, rather than seeds, is much easier. If you are near the Saturday greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza, many of the vendors sell herbs and vegetable plants in the spring and early summer. Evolutionary Organics has many heirloom tomato and pepper plants, and there is also a vendor that specializes in herbs - they have them through the fall. I think the Brooklyn Botanical garden also has a spring plant sale but I don't know how many vegetables they sell.

Lettuce, mache and arugula can all be easily grown from seed in containers. They can also be harvested throughout the season by trimming them about 2" above the soil, and the plants will grow back again. (Look for seeds that say "cut and come again".)
posted by Lycaste at 9:38 AM on January 3, 2015

Easy to grow: Tomatoes. Plant marigolds around them as they keep away insects that eat tomatoes.
Basil. By the tomatoes. As much as you water the tomatoes will keep the basil happy.
Chives. Just let them take over their own little box (by little I mean a cubic foot or two) you can just keep cutting them and they go great in everything.
You can get wooden vegetable crates in chinatown for free (look on the curb at night) and line them with a heavy garbage bag. Fill with dirt and punch one hole into the plasic on each side, at the bottom with a screwdriver. You want the soil damp but if it's full of water the plant will drown.
Watering: if the plant turns yellow it's too much, brown around the edges, too little.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:33 AM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Google "square foot gardening" and look for one of the many books by the same name.
posted by Michele in California at 10:51 AM on January 3, 2015

Gardening successfully is really site-specific but it ain't rocket science. Put some dirt in some containers and some seeds in the dirt and some water on the seeds and see what happens. Things will go wrong. Learn from those things and change your setup and your procedures to fix them. Within three years you'll have a flourishing terrace garden and a "green thumb".

Folks who claim not to be able to grow plants have simply not spent enough time paying attention to the causes of their mistakes.

Starting clue: spent mushroom compost.
posted by flabdablet at 11:17 AM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two years ago I started a community garden plot for my first time, and like you I was a little overwhelmed by all the information out there. After spending a rather long time reading about what to plant when, what to plant next to what else, how much sunlight/water/gentle words of encouragement everything needs, ultimately I just sort of picked out some things (both seeds and young plants) I wanted to grow, followed the directions they came with, and saw what happened. Towards the middle of the summer I had a WHOLE LOT of delicious tomatoes and other produce, and one of my more experienced co-gardeners told me that my plot looked like it shouldn't work at all but that it was actually yielding more than hers (through dumb luck I had a wonderfully sunny spot, which I think helped more than anything). Last year I had a slightly less successful garden, but still had plenty of happy, healthy veggies. The occasional tip from a fellow gardener has been really helpful - I was overwatering the heck out of my poor tomatoes until someone told me that what I was taking for signs of dryness was really too much water - so do talk to other gardeners when you can, but in general just sort of weeding, watering, and harvesting when it seems right has worked well for me.

On preview, I see flabdablet is saying what I was going to suggest: "put some dirt in some containers ... and see what happens." Don't be afraid of making mistakes - odds are good that some of your plants will do wonderfully, some will do okay, and a few might just not thrive at all, but you'll learn through trying. Personally, getting out there and messing with my plants has been FAR more useful than any of the reading material I poured over - I'd suggest letting your experience be the driver, and refer to the literature on a supplementary basis. Good luck and have fun!
posted by DingoMutt at 11:30 AM on January 3, 2015

As a renter, I've had such good luck with these rolling reservoir planters (see also Lowe's, Amazon has original Earthbox brand except casters come separately?). They all come with instructions, but you fill them with potting or container soil (which is different from garden soil), fertilizer, and compost. You put water down the pipe until a little comes out the overflow hole, and you top it up regularly.

Do some reading about square-foot gardening, and then go buy some plants from your local garden store and stick them in the dirt.

Gardening is one of those ancient arts where books don't make any sense until you have some experience, so just go out there and fuck up and accidentally succeed for a while.

Certainly, if you have sun there most of the day, you will do fine with tomatoes and peppers and basil (tip: plant more than one basil plant, if you were hoping for pesto or similar) and most herbs.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:33 AM on January 3, 2015

I have a very small garden that is all concrete and is now a small flourishing garden. Note that the grass is not real and this is a photo taken in the early morning which is why it looks a bit dark - and it is summer here so it is all growing madly right now.

The yard here is only about six feet wide and you can see I have a mix of raised beds and pots, as well as a small vertical garden that isn't in this picture. When I started, it was just the concrete and the fake grass. My dad is a very keen gardener so I am fortunate to have my own personal advice line.

I did write a lot of detail about what I've learned, but the best way to learn is to have a go - just start with some decent potting mix and some seedlings and see how you go. In general, the garden places are selling seedlings that can be planted at that time, so between that and a planting calendar for your area which you'll find online (e.g. June - plant x), you will get some sense of what is possible at a given time. I take any written directions as suggestions only - on the label, I don't get enough sunshine for many things and I plant them closer together - and yet, often it still works out well. It might not be the optimum, but I am not a farmer! Some things don't work (I'm looking at you, Thai green eggplants from last summer that never fruited) and some do (I have a bell pepper plant in a pot that has lasted three years so far) and each year I adjust to what I've learned works for me and my garden.

I see Brooklyn Botanic Gardens runs some classes, which might be a good way to get some more info and meet other gardeners - passionate gardeners run across all demographics and love to talk about their garden. I like walking around my neighborhood to look at what other people are doing in their front yards and on the sidewalk.

I think Square Foot Gardening is a useful read to just get in the mindset that you don't have to plant everything miles apart and you can fit in a lot more than traditional gardening books/seed packets might suggest. But I don't make up the special soil mix and my beds don't divide exactly into neat square feet. I have also had a membership for an heirloom seed company who would send me a regular newsletter - I don't necessarily buy many seeds, but I find the information inspiring and helpful and even for non-members they offer lots of useful info online. The US equivalent is Seed Savers Exchange.
posted by AnnaRat at 2:15 PM on January 3, 2015

I think Square Foot Gardening is a useful read to just get in the mindset that you don't have to plant everything miles apart and you can fit in a lot more than traditional gardening books/seed packets might suggest.

Oh gosh, yes. When I advocated SFG I was only talking about placement. My eyes glaze over at the rest. Really, my takeaway is that in each of my planters I can put one "big" plant - tomato, pepper - but if I do two neither one of them thrives, or one of them dies and the winner does fine. I can cram a lot of little stuff around there, though, so I tend to do non-perennial herbs around my tomatoes and peppers so I can completely clear the bed and start from scratch each season. I do have one container for perpetual herbs, but I put the dill, basil, and cilantro with my tomatoes and peppers.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:24 PM on January 3, 2015

Starting clue: spent mushroom compost.

This reminds me: used coffee grounds make good mulch, especially in spring. Just dump them right on top of the soil. (But keep an eye out for pests, because I noticed an uptick in things flying around the plants when I did that.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:29 PM on January 3, 2015

used coffee grounds make good mulch

So do used tealeaves, even in teabags.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 AM on January 4, 2015

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