Whether it’s as a hobby while people are stuck at home or a way to get fresh produce without going to stores, vegetable and fruit gardening is having a bit of a renaissance right now.
But if you’ve been killing houseplants for years or aren’t sure where to start, it’s not all that complicated, says Stephen Ritz, New York City educator and founder of the Green Bronx Machine. He’s been growing food with kids in classrooms for years in the South Bronx, an area considered to be a food desert, where access to supermarkets — and fresh, healthy food — is limited.
Here are his tips for growing your own food:
First, there are a lot of plants that are easy for first-time growers. “I call them the unders and the overs,” explains Ritz. “There are some things that grow over the ground, like lettuces, spinach and scallions, and you can’t go wrong with them. And then there are things that grow under the ground, like radishes, carrots, green onions, that are real easy. Parsley, oregano, other herbs — these are more things you can’t go wrong with. Tomatoes are also really easy plants to grow.” (Editor’s note: If you are trying to grow any plants indoors, you must have a spot that gets a lot of direct sun — at least 4 – 6 hours a day for vegetables and 8 – 10 hours a day for fruit. )
Besides ease, it’s also good to choose plants you can continue to enjoy, instead of ones you just harvest once, says Ritz. “Things that you can clip and continually eat like collard greens and mustard greens. Mint is so cool to grow at home. I think the best mint to grow is chocolate mint, because the leaves are broad and really fragrant. But spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm are great, too — herbs like these have a smell good, look good and flower.”
You don’t need to buy fancy planters or special window boxes. There are probably dozens of things already in your home that your plants will live quite happily in, says Ritz. “Coffee cans, yogurt containers, you name it. Old fish tanks … anything ceramic. You can use virtually anything, and that’s the beauty of gardening. Some of my favorite containers to grow in are two-liter soda bottles. You cut them in half. With yogurt containers, you can hang them vertically on a terrace, fire escape or outdoor space with fishing line or good twine. Be creative, have fun, make it decorative.”
“A lot of things are fun to grow if you have enough space for their roots to spread,” he explains. “You can actually grow potatoes in a reusable IKEA bag or reusable grocery bag. If you cut a hole in it, then you can pull the potatoes right out of the bottom [when it’s time to harvest]. It’s really cool. Same thing with carrots and radishes.”
Make sure you give your plants the best start in life. If you’re beginning from seed, ample sun will influence how strong and healthy your plant will become, says Ritz. A south-facing exposure is usually the best spot. “When the seedlings get long and leggy, it’s because they’re chasing light. That’s not good.”
His other advice for indoor gardeners: “Avoid drafts and excessive heat. Don’t put them on the radiator; those plants will heat up and you’ll just disintegrate the seed. A windowsill is great. Lots of sun, warmth, little bit of moisture, and a covering [that lets light through], a lot of love, good conversation — you’re all good.”
Regrowing your leftover scraps — like celery, scallions, leeks and more — is another doable project, says Ritz. “It’s a great way to avoid food waste and continue to perpetuate the food cycle. Ultimately, things do need soil once the roots start coming off, because you don’t want to drown them. You could take the remains of a head of celery, stick it in a plate of water. Leave it for a week or two, you’ll have roots, and then plant it in soil.”
Your home is its own unique microclimate, so the best way to learn what grows well there is by trying it out yourself. “The most important thing to remember is there’s only one place that has the perfect plant: A picture. I’ve killed a lot more things than I’ve grown, but I only take pictures of the living ones,” laughs Ritz.
There are a few common pitfalls to steer clear of, according to Ritz. “Don’t overpack soil in your containers. People think they should jam it down, but basically you end up creating cement. Plants’ roots like to spread, so keep the soil loose. The biggest mistake, really, is overwatering plants. One of the easiest things you could do is put a little gravel or a little charcoal at the bottom [of the pot] or sometimes even a bottle cap, so there’s space for drainage. If you do overwater, the water will sit in the bottom.”
If you’re growing larger plants, pick varieties that won’t engulf your space. For example, you might think that cherry tomatoes will be a manageable size, but that’s actually not the case, says Ritz. “You want to grow San Marzano or Roma tomatoes, or dwarf tomatoes. If you’re limited in space, you definitely want to stay away from cherry tomatoes. You’ll get a huge crop, but manicuring those plants — it can be like a jungle. They can be six feet tall sometimes!”
“One plant that I recommend as a not-to-grow — but could be a wonderful thing to grow for beginners — is zucchini. The problem is they’re very invasive; they can take over the garden. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that you can’t go wrong; on the other hand, it’s a bit of a bully. But if you want success and you want to see something big, go with a zucchini.”
If you’re not sure whether anything can grow in your low-light apartment, try these robust plants. “Oregano and mint do really well in shady areas,” says Ritz. “Lettuces do well in normal house light. The better the light, the quicker you’ll grow. You can also get a cheap full-spectrum grow light for anywhere from $10 to $20, including the fixture.”
Grow what you know you like to eat. While it’s tempting to grow things that are easy, Ritz says, it’s important that your time, effort and energy go into creating food you like so it doesn’t contribute to food waste. If COVID-19 restrictions mean you can’t easily give away food or you’ve had a bumper crop, try preserving methods like canning, pickling or drying so you can consume them later.
Most of all — enjoy yourself! Ritz has seen urban farming change the lives of his students. There’s no reason you can’t experience that in your own home, no matter where you are. “What I really want people to do is have fun,” he says. “I think growing food is a whole new maker space. The food system and hacking growing should be fun. I still marvel that you take this little teeny tiny seed, and 60 days later, you can have a big bounty to eat.”
For people who are at home with their families now, growing can be a wonderful way to connect. Grow with your kids, or get your parents involved. Ritz says, “I believe food is the language through which society reveals itself, and how we grow it and share it is critical for this and future generations.”
Watch his TED Talk here: