The Dummies Guide to Starting an Indoor Fruit and Vegetable Garden

Vegetable crops taken from garden.

Even if you think you’ve hacked the grocery game with your shopping cart full of all-organic-all-the-time produce and a myriad of pesticide-nixing produce sprays and soaps, even the most conscious trip to your market’s fruit and veggie aisle can’t quite compare with growing your produce yourself. Of course, anybody who hasn’t dabbled in the art of green thumbery may find the thought of starting intimidating. And what’s even more intimidating is when a lack of open outdoor space leaves you needing to get your garden up and running indoors as opposed to outside. To get you started (i.e. give you a crash course in gardening indoors), we chatted with Dr. Clydette M. Alsup-Egbers, a plant science pro who works as an associate professor in Missouri State University’s agriculture department. She offers up some tips on how to make the most of your indoor fruit- and veggie-growing efforts, from start to finish.

Why is growing your own produce – as opposed to buying it – beneficial?

Growing your own produce as opposed to buying it is beneficial in many ways. First, you know the inputs that went into growing it, as in what kind of fertilizers or pesticides. The fruits and veggies often taste better than what one finds in a grocery store because they can stay on the plant until the optimum stage to harvest them. This overcomes produce potentially being shipped halfway across the country and stored in a warehouse before they end up on store shelves. If you grow your own, you can choose the variety (cultivar) of seeds or seedlings, and you can often choose from among many different kinds, rather than relying on the same few varieties found at the store. Growing fruits and veggies is also good exercise, plus it can help encourage children to better appreciate healthy food.

What materials do you need to get started?

You of course need the seeds or seedlings (both available at garden centers), soil (or potting mix if growing in containers), a trowel or shovel, a source of water, and probably fertilizer which is available in organic or non-organic forms. A very important but often overlooked item for beginner growers is a trusted book or website with information about how to grow various crops. Most – if not all – states have extension services with websites that provide helpful growing instructions, tips, times of the year to plant, approximately how many plants to grow per person in your household, and even recommended varieties and whether they are a slower- or faster-growing crop than others (early season, mid-season, late season). Many helpful books are also available and reasonably-priced. Access to this kind of information can easily make the difference between a great start at gardening vs. frustration that may make you give up on trying again the next year. Another option if your home doesn’t have locations with bright lighting is to purchase grow lights.

What are the best things to grow when you have limited space and will be growing indoors? Are there better options for beginners?

Lettuce is an easy veggie to grow. You can plant seeds of head or looseleaf lettuce which can tolerate lower light levels than many other veggies. You can usually cut the looseleaf lettuce (great for salads and there are some colorful blends available) and let it grow back to harvest again a couple of times.

Herbs are probably the easiest of any crops to grow. These include basil, parsley, dill and others. All happily grow in containers, and you can harvest and then let them grow again, over and over. You need decent light levels to grow these indoors, as well as most other fruits or veggies, so consider placing them in front of a bright window or using supplemental lights.

You also can’t really go wrong in growing onions and garlic. They need to be fertilized several times during their growing season to get the best yield, and will grow best in higher light levels. Onions are planted in the spring, while garlic is usually planted in the fall and would need to be subjected to cold temperatures for several months of the winter (you can put the container outdoors during this period as long as temperatures don’t dip too low; if they do, wrap some insulating material around the container). You can grow onions by seed but it’s convenient and quicker to buy plants at a garden center. Garlic is planted using cloves. Those are often available at garden centers, farmer’s markets or online. For any garlic aficionados out there, you haven’t tasted heaven until you’ve eaten homegrown garlic. It puts the store-bought stuff to shame.

As for fruits, strawberries are probably the easiest of fruits to grow but will need high light for good fruit production. It’s usually not practical to grow the fruit crops that are trees or shrubs indoors.

How much space should you have?

That depends on how much you want to grow. You can start with a few containers (the deeper the better so plant roots can grow, the better) and build from there. If space is limited, try growing vertically with some kind of trellis or other support in the containers, as well as selecting varieties of vegetables that have been bred to be smaller than their larger cousins. Garden center workers should be able to offer advice on which varieties to grow, and seed catalogs often have good information on these. Another technique that can be helpful is to harvest a plant or crop, add some fertilizer, and grow another plant or crop in that same space. We sometimes refer to this as succession planting. You can also grow fast crops, such as lettuce and radish near slower crops. The fast crops will be ready and out of the way to make more growing room for the slower crops.

It’s surprising sometimes to discover just how many vegetables you can grow in a small space, with a little planning. One piece of advice is to realistically decide how many plants you need at any given time. For instance, how many of us can use up a dozen heads of lettuce before they go bad?

Can pests become a problem when gardening indoors?

Pests are always a possibility when it comes to growing your own food but gardeners shouldn’t be intimidated by them. It’s just smart to watch over your plants regularly to try and get rid of the pests before they cause too much damage. One of the pests you may see indoors is an insect called an aphid. Aphids suck the juice out of plants, but are relatively easy to control with one or two sprays of an insecticide or even a solution of water and isopropyl alcohol.