How to grow a quarantine garden when you’re tight on space

If you've got a window sill, you can start a garden.

VEX Collective via Getty Images

Throughout both World Wars, the US government encouraged its citizens to “sow the seeds of victory” and plant War Gardens to assist in the fighting effort. Everyday folks were expected to convert every idle plot of land they could muster -- from back yards to school yards -- into gardens; planting, fertilizing, harvesting and storing their crops in order to free up more resources to send to troops overseas.

Today, we face another grave threat. As of this article’s writing 42,012 Americans have died from COVID-19, more than the total number lost in the Vietnam War. Agricultural and grocery workers are now standing on the front lines and if they fall to the coronavirus, so too will our food supplies. That’s why it’s a good time to create your own Victory Garden to help support the fight against the coronavirus -- as well as establish a fun and relaxing hobby that you can continue to pursue even after the quarantine has lifted.

Unfortunately due to social distancing requirements, large communal gardens are not a viable option right now. What’s more, many urban residents aren’t afforded much greenspace. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pack micro-farms onto our window sills, porches, balconies and fire escapes with the help of some modern gardening gadgets.

cultivation of red small Tomatoes in the pots of an urban garden on the terrace of an apartment
ChiccoDodiFC via Getty Images

First thing you’ll want to do is figure out where, exactly, you want to set up your garden as that will dictate what, when, and how much you’ll be able to grow. A sunny window sill, for example, doesn’t offer much real estate which is going to limit your yield but is also far easier to maintain than a larger, outdoor setup or a more complex indoor hydroponics garden. The space should also be secure because, as I once painfully learned, jerks will straight up steal a pot of carrot and radish sprouts from your stoop if given half a chance.

You’ll also want to take the amount of available light into account. An outdoor garden with partial to full sunlight will allow you to grow a far wider variety of plants than a South-facing window sill. If you’re not sure if the location receives enough light for your gardening needs, pick up a basic light meter like the Hydrofarm LG17000. It operates the same way as a photography light meter would, but at a fraction of the latter’s price. For outdoor gardens, the $18 SunCalc 1875 by Luster Leaf measures the PAR light levels (that’s the 400-700nm band of visible light that drives photosynthesis) in your yard.

If your home doesn’t receive sufficient sunlight, you may consider investing in an indoor hydroponics setup. It doesn’t need to be an enormous industrial operation, you’re not trying to move weight here. Both Aerogarden and Click and Grow offer simple-to-use countertop hydroponic systems that operate using pre-packed pods of seeds -- they’re essentially the Keurigs of indoor gardening. Unfortunately, there’s been a spike in demand for these devices since the quarantine was initiated so you may be in for a wait if you try to order one now.

Next comes the fun part: deciding what to grow. If your lighting is limited or you’re just getting into the gardening game, I’d recommend starting with something easy like herbs or leafy greens. They’re hardy, don’t require full sunlight, and will often grow seemingly just to spite you. For those of you with access to more sun, the options are practically limitless. Carrots, garlic, tomatoes, onions, chilies, peppers, snow peas, and radishes all work as potted plants, as are strawberries and blueberries. Blueberries are actually perfectly suited for pots as they require a more acidic soil (4.5 - 5.5 pH) than most other plants, which generally prefer a neutral soil (6.5 - 7 pH). Basically as long as it doesn’t come off a tree, it should be suitable for growing in confined spaces.

That doesn’t mean you should roll through the gardening center’s aisles, picking plants at random. At least, not when you have apps that can do it for you. Gardenate ($1 - iOS, Android) for example, is loaded with information on more than 100 common vegetable varieties, allowing you to plan and schedule your planting month by month. Normally the planting schedule for your geographic region will be printed on the seed packet itself but you can also find schedules online if you want to plan ahead for next season. If you’re looking for a more social experience when devising your growing schedule, the GardenTags (free - iOS, Android) can connect you to a huge community of avid gardeners. Keep a photographic record of your own grow while following the exploits of other gardeners in your area. There’s even a plant identification tool -- just snap a picture of the flower in question.

Next up, you’ll need to collect your seeds, soil, fertilizer, pots and tools. There’s no better place for doing that than your local garden supply company. Due to the quarantine, many have instituted online ordering with curbside pickup or delivery. Plus, they’re likely hurting for business so show some support. If the stores in your town aren’t offering remote options, Home Depot and Lowes both offer home delivery options.

As for tools, do not mistake yourself for the head groundskeeper at a Victorian era English Lord’s summer manor. Put. The. Hedge. Clippers. Down. You can get away with a trowel or transplanter, a pair of pruning shears and a watering can to start.

While you can just pop your seeds into a bucket of soil and hope for the best, you might consider using a seed starter tray to get them going. These can be as simple as a tray of peat pellets sheltered under a transparent plastic dome. You can easily and inexpensively make your own using anything from egg shells to the cartons they come in, from paper towel tubes to rolled-up newspapers.

Once you’ve gotten your greens sprouted and growing strong, you’ll want to transplant them to their primary pot, but before you actually do so, it’s a good idea to make sure that the soil conditions are correct. To do that, you’ll need an environmental sensor, such as the Sonkir 3-in-1 or the Atree 3-in-1 Soil pH meter. They’ll both run you around $15.

Now, if you’ve never actually transplanted a seedling before, don’t stress. It’s a delicate but straightforward process and there are hundreds of video walkthroughs detailing the process on YouTube, like this one from Garden Up.

Of course, your pots don’t actually have to be pots. Take the classic fire escape garden, for example. In many municipalities, blocking an exterior fire escape isn’t just illegal, it can be deadly; tripping up and slowing down people attempting to get out of the burning building. So, if you’re planning on using your apartment’s fire escape for plant production, check with your local fire or police department first. There’s also the issue of weight. Soil is heavy and if you try to pack too many pots on the escape, they could potentially damage it.

Instead, you might try using soft sack pots (why oh why didn’t we call them “to-grow bags”) which are made of cloth or recycled plastic. They’re much lighter than conventional fired-clay pots and offer increased soil aeration, which helps plants grow stronger root systems. You could also install a wall garden, which is exactly what it sounds like: a vertical garden that mounts to a wall or attaches to the fire escape’s railing. The WonderWall, for example, uses a series of lightweight interlocking, self-watering planters that mount onto any vertical interior or exterior surface.

There are plenty of prefab wall garden models available online or, if you’re up for a DIY project, you can pick up a length of aluminum rain gutter from your local home improvement center. Cap off both ends, drill drainage holes at regular intervals along its base and strap that bad boy to the fire escape’s railing with sturdy wire or zip ties. Then you just fill it with soil and get to planting. This works especially well for vegetables like radishes and other shallow-rooted row vegetables but not so much with, say, carrots.

The drawback of a gutter garden is that when you water it, the runoff is going to fall onto either the apartment below you or onto the sidewalk. Nobody wants to be doused with dirt water, so make sure the coast is clear before soaking your plants. For the rest of your more mobile pots on your fire escape, I strongly recommend watering them in the sink or bathtub, even if you have to drag them over there on a wheeled cart.

Once you’ve got the necessary supplies, tools and plants to start your garden, it’d be a shame to waste that investment by not properly caring for your plants. Luckily, gardening is not rocket science and if a bunch of stone axe-wielding proto-farmers in 12,000BC were able to grow crops, so can you. As I mentioned before, YouTube offers an enormous selection of instructional gardening videos on virtually every aspect of the practice. Want to know how to grow microgreens or ginger in a container? How about how to make a potato bucket or a hinged hoop house? Don’t worry, there’s a channel for that. I’m personally a fan of Garden Up, Epic Gardening, Gardener Scott and The Gardening Channel with James Prigioni.

Finally, poke around Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites to find local gardening clubs you can join. You may not be able to “hoe down” in close physical proximity with the other members during the quarantine but they’re sure to have plenty of tips and advice to share as you develop your green thumb.