We asked some of our favorite gardening bloggers to weigh-in on how to get a great yield of food from a limited indoor growing space. Here are three great tips they gave us, plus highlights of our interview with Gardening Know How’s Heather Rhoades.
If you’re growing your own food in a modest-sized indoor greenhouse or grow tent, you have the advantage of controlling the growing cycle, including lighting, water, temperature and humidity. The big challenge is using your limited space wisely!
We checked with a few experts from our list of top blogs to follow for indoor greenhouse growing, who gave us some great tips for getting the most out of your growing area:
1. Grow What You Like (Urban Organic Gardener)
“It’s simple: The first thing we think about is choosing varieties carefully and thoughtfully. When most people set out on their gardening adventure their eyes get wide, and sometimes they take on the daunting task of growing every variety available instead of just focusing on the varieties that are most important to them.
“Our number one suggestion for new gardeners is to grow what you eat. Sure, it can be tempting to grow varieties based on how they look. But to get a good yield out of a crop – especially a valuable yield to the gardener – you must grow varieties that are of value to you and varieties you’ll be able to eat and enjoy.
“Growing ornamentals is fun, but we believe the enjoyment that comes with being able to grow, harvest and then eat your crop is of far greater value.”
2. Space Smartly (Rodale’s Organic Life)
The folks from Rodale’s Organic Life directed us to some advice that can be adapted for plant beds in your indoor garden. Here’s an excerpt from their post, “7 Secrets to a High-Yield Vegetable Garden:”
“To get the maximum yields from each bed, pay attention to how you arrange your plants. Avoid planting in square patterns or rows. Instead, stagger the plants by planting in triangles. By doing so, you can fit 10 to 14 percent more plants in each bed.
“Just be careful not to space your plants too tightly. Some plants won’t reach their full size—or yield—when crowded.
“For instance, when one researcher increased the spacing between romaine lettuces from 8 to 10 inches, the harvest weight per plant doubled. (Remember that weight yield per square foot is more important than the number of plants per square foot.)
“Overly tight spacing can also stress plants, making them more susceptible to diseases and insect attack.”
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Trellises (Heather Rhoades of Gardening Know How)
“Whenever I hear ‘small space,’ I think of vertical gardening, which is something a lot of gardeners are not aware of. If you use plants that can grow up a trellis, you maximize the space you have. Try tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, even melons.
“People are always concerned about the heavy fruit falling off — a lot of times we’re told that pumpkins and squash need eight feet of ground to grow properly. But actually, the plant will adapt. Evolution has designed these vines to grow up trees, not outward on the ground.
“If a plant grows up a trellis, it puts together a structure within itself to support the weight of the fruit. If they grow on the ground, the plant doesn’t want to put that much effort into developing those structures.”
Extended Interview: Heather Rhoades
Heather Rhoades told us she started the website in 2006, answering gardening questions as a “small hobby.”
Heather’s small hobby has become her full-time work, and she’s built a strong network of gardening experts who help answer questions. She said they’ve answered over 45,000 gardening questions so far, and the site averages 60 million visits per year.
Why did you start Gardening Know How?
Some friends and I had experiences online where people weren’t really friendly in giving advice, and I know that gardening can be very intimidating for new gardeners.
That didn’t seem fair. So I wanted to create a place where anybody could find any kind of information and ask any question and not feel like somebody was going to judge them.
It’s amazing to me how big it’s gotten. And as we kept getting bigger, we kept bringing people in. It’s our policy that everyone who works for Gardening Know How has to be a gardener. Even our [web] developer is a gardener.
If you have a limited growing space, such as an indoor greenhouse or grow tent, what’s the best way to get a significant amount of food from that space?
Whenever I hear ‘small space,’ I think of vertical gardening, which is something a lot of gardeners are not aware of.
A lot of times we’re told that pumpkins and squash need eight feet of ground to grow properly. But actually, the plant will adapt. Evolution has designed these vines to grow up trees, not outward on the ground.
So when you have a very small amount of space, if you use plants that can grow up a trellis, you maximize the space you have.
Even tomatoes. We tend to grow them in cages, maybe three or four feet tall. But tomatoes will keep growing upwards until they fall over. So if you continue to provide them with support, they will continue to grow upward.
I’ve grown tomatoes that have reached seven or eight feet tall, because I would string them up rather than stake them up.
If you’re low on space, you can prune them, but you don’t have to prune them to make them climb higher. The plant just keeps getting bigger and bigger and taller and taller.
Other than tomatoes, which other food plants are good to trellis?
Try cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, even melons. People are always concerned about the fruit falling off. But if a plant grows up a trellis, it puts together a structure within itself to support the weight of the fruit.
If they grow on the ground, the plant doesn’t want to put that much effort into developing those structures within itself. So you can’t just pick up a vine [off the ground] and expect the fruit to hang on – the structure just hasn’t developed to support that weight.
Tomatoes are a perfect example. The best way to grow tomatoes is to put a fan on your seedlings, or “pet” your seedlings. When you do that, it releases a hormone that causes the plant to think, ‘Hey, I’m in a pretty severe environment — I need to grow a stronger stem to grow stronger in order to survive.’
The same sort of thing happens with plants grown vertically. If they grow on the ground, they’re like, ‘I don’t need to put that effort into growing strong structures,’ whereas if the plants are growing upwards, those hormones get released and they will develop structures within the stems to be able to support the fruit.
If you’re still nervous about it, there’s all sorts of cute hammocks you can create out of panty hose or some kind of netting. You can go online and see pictures from people who planted things vertically, and there are EXTREMELY large fruit, hanging successfully from these vines.
What’s the best growing medium to use indoors in containers?
You want it to be soilless, which a lot of people think is counter-intuitive. But when you’re growing in a container indoors, true soil — which has minerals and rock particles in it — will compact and make it very difficult for roots to grow.
What the plants need is a growing medium that’s loose and soft and won’t compact. Peat, vermiculite, compost, all of those things are ideal for indoor growing. Don’t ever bring garden soil into your indoor growing apparatus.
What do you recommend for feeding the plants, especially for indoor trellised fruit and vegetables?
You have to make a personal choice. There are organic solutions out there. But if you find that organic solutions, like composting, manure tea, things like that, is too much for indoor gardening, I can understand. Compost and manure can get a little stinky.
If those are too difficult for indoor apparatus, then you should be open to using some chemical fertilizers.
Personally, when I’m growing plants indoors, like houseplants or herbs in the winter, I like a slow-release fertilizer. That can work very well. Just put a little bit on every three months or so, and it slowly releases the fertilizer into the soil.
But again, it’s a personal choice. I’d just rather see people garden than not. If chemicals are how you do that, then that’s okay. Especially in an indoor space, a lot of the organic stuff can get a little tricky.
What’s a common mistake people make when they’re growing food indoors?
Just make sure you water. I don’t think people sometimes realize how much water plants need – it catches people off guard, especially when plants get larger, you can be watering at least once a day, depending on how much growing medium you’ve given them and how large the plant is.
The happier the plant is, the more it’s going to produce, and watering tends to be the one area that people tend to get a little miserly about.
Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?