Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

Gardening in indoor small spaces takes thought

September 4, 2009
Barbara J. Euser

Apartment gardening can be divided into indoors gardening, that is, inside the apartment, and outdoors gardening, outside on the balcony or in window boxes. Even if an apartment offers no possibility of gardening outdoors - no balcony and restrictions that do not allow window boxes - it is possible to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of cultivating plants.

In some ways, gardening indoors is easier than gardening outside: the temperature and other aspects of weather are controlled. Rain will not drench your plants, hail will not shred their leaves, wind will not tear off their branches. However, gardening indoors presents its own challenges.
Designing an apartment garden involves the same elements as designing any other garden. Consider the various sizes and shapes
of plants your apartment can accommodate: horizontal, vertical, flat against the wall, hanging in a round shape, filling a corner, as a centerpiece in a bay window. As a design choice, in an apartment it is often better to choose a few plants that will add real presence to the apartment, rather than a number of small pots that may make an apartment seem cluttered and smaller than it already is.
First, consider the microclimates in your apartment. Which direction do your windows face? If your apartment faces north, your windowsills may provide a prime locations for plants; however, if your windows face south, your windowsills may be too hot for plants to survive. Indirect light is sufficient, and may be preferable, for many plants. If your apartment has a dark space, choose a plant for that space that loves shade. However, all plants need light, so keep in mind that there are some locations that are too dark for any plant to survive.
Even the most shade-tolerant plants require several hours of indirect light every day. The microclimate in the bathroom is typically moist, whereas the shelf over the radiator will be very dry in winter when the heat is on. Once you have determined what the microclimates in your apartment are, you can choose plants that will thrive in those environments.
Second, consider what spaces you have in your apartment for plants. Shelves are ideal places for plants. In a living room I once had, there was a shelf that ran the width of the room, just below the open-beamed ceiling. I placed a row of pots of Swedish ivy on the shelf. They received only indirect light, but the room was bright. The ivy loved that location. In time, the ivy plants cascaded all the way to the floor across the entire wall. We were living in a garden room.
Tables, bookcases and other furniture are not ideal locations for plants, because no matter how carefully you water your plants, there is always the possibility that the saucer underneath the plant may crack or overflow, and water will damage your table or ruin your books. Instead, consider a corner space for a vertical plant that can sit on a platform on the floor. Ficus benjamina, corn plants and curly-leafed palms are good choices.
The bathroom, with its moist environment, is the perfect place to hang a basket with maidenhair or asparagus fern.
The kitchen windowsill, or a shelf over the counter, offers an opportunity to grow a selection of herbs that will add fresh flavor to any dish you put together. I have tried to grow several species of herbs in one pot - basil, oregano, thyme and tarragon - and I cannot recommend it. The plants competed against each other for space and water: basil, thyme and tarragon suffered, and eventually oregano won. It's better to grow only one species in each pot and give each plant an opportunity to thrive in its own individual space.
Flowering plants will add color to your apartment. A pedestal table, the type used to hold an asparagus fern in Victorian times, can also be used for a vining geranium that will create a column of red or pink or white blossoms. Orchids are some of the most beautiful flowering plants to grow in an apartment. With proper care, they may rebloom year after year.
In the fall, paper white narcissus and hyacinth bulbs can be placed in vases with stones to hold them in place and watered regularly until they bloom. I force paper whites in a tall, clear glass vase to provide support for their long stems.
Plants require light, water and carbon dioxide to grow. All of these are available indoors. However, they must be provided in appropriate amounts. The greatest hazard apartment plants face is overwatering. It is very important to provide adequate drainage for plants in pots. Many decorative pots are not suitable for planting because they have no drainage holes in the bottom. Water accumulates in the bottom of these pots and eventually the roots of plants planted in them rot and the plants die.
To keep soil from leaking out of the bottom of pots with drainage holes, place a layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot or a product such as a Pothole (a fabric disk filled with pellets) before adding potting soil.
Make sure the saucer under the pot is deep. When you water the plant, add water until water just begins to appear in the saucer, then stop. This means that you have added enough water to reach all of the plant's roots. If the saucer is not deep enough, the water that flows through the soil will overflow the saucer.
Do not water the plant again until the water has disappeared from the saucer and the top half-inch of soil in the pot is dry. Liquid fertilizer can be added to water when watering, or fertilizer sticks can be added to the soil.
Provide the basic necessities for your plants, place them in locations where they will thrive and enjoy the pleasures of gardening in your apartment.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.

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