How to Start a Garden Without a Backyard


One great frugal project for people who are stuck at home during this period is to start a garden. If you have a patch of land in your backyard, a few tools and some seeds, the spring provides a great situation for you to start a garden, as much of the “grunt work” needed for outdoor gardening is done in the spring. You can have a wonderful vegetable garden in the ground before stay-at-home orders wrap up.

What if you don’t have a backyard? What are your options when it comes to gardening? Here’s the truth: as long as you have a balcony or a window that receives a lot of sunlight, you can actually grow vegetables almost anywhere. You just need a few extra tools and supplies.

In fact, in my first apartment, I actually grew quite a few vegetables on our balcony. We had fresh tomatoes, fresh peppers, and fresh cucumbers for several years without any sort of yard space. You can do this, and it’s really not too hard.

Let’s get started.

(Note that this will likely require either a trip to a local gardening supply store or a nursery. If you’re lucky, you may have such a store in your area that can deliver the things you need. If not, use your own judgment as to whether it’s worth going out for this.)

First, find a place to grow some plants.

Successfully growing vegetables at home relies on making sure that each of a plant’s basic needs are met, and that starts with sunshine. That means you either need to have a balcony or patio with lots of sunshine or else a window or two in your home that gets lots of sunshine throughout a good portion of the day (and this will probably require supplemental light). The more sunshine, the better.

If you absolutely don’t have a spot like this, you can grow plants with the aid of a grow light. For example, while I was growing up, my father used to have several grow lights in our basement under which he would get vegetables started as early as February so that they were mostly grown by the time they were put in the ground in April, so I know from personal experience grow lights can work. However, they can be expensive at startup and will take up some significant space to boot. Here’s a good starter grow light that will work for a few plants and takes up minimal space; with this, you can grow several plants in a spare bedroom with minimal light if you want.

If you are growing indoors, even with a window nearby, you will likely need a light like this to provide supplemental light. Unless you have some sort of glass dome in your home that provides light throughout the day, your vegetables will need more light than they can get through your window.

If you’re growing by a window, you’ll probably need an extra table. We use ordinary wooden tray tables for this purpose; in fact, we have several plants growing right now in the sunniest windowed area of our home, and all of them are set on those tables. Here are some very sturdy small foldable tables that can set up easily when you want them, are strong enough to hold a lot of plants and lights, can fold up and take up minimal space in a closet when you’re finished with them.

You’ll also need rich soil and containers.

A good container for indoor or patio/balcony gardening is one that is deep enough for the plants you want to grow and has some drainage at the bottom so that excess water doesn’t just sit in the bottom of the pot, which can cause all kinds of problems because plants really don’t like just sitting in stagnant water. (This is why you’ll see many pots that sit on top of a smaller container or saucer, so the bottom container can collect excess water.)

Your local gardening store will have an infinite variety of containers that fit your needs, from very basic inexpensive plastic containers to beautiful ceramic pots. The size you need heavily depends on what kinds of plants you want to grow (this determines the depth) and how many plants you want to grow (this determines the width and length and the number of containers). Many of them come with separate bottoms to collect the water drainage; if yours doesn’t, you’ll want to set that pot on an extra plate or saucer. We’ll talk about various vegetables you can grow below; use those guides to determine what kind of containers you should get.

You’re also going to need soil to fill these containers, along with material to prevent soil from starting to come out of the holes in the bottom. For the holes, I usually put a few coffee filters over the holes in the bottom of planters, which seems to do a perfect job as it allows water to flow through them but keeps the soil from doing so.

Finally, you’re going to need some soil. Good potting soil will last for years, but the nutritional quality of the soil will degrade over time. After the first growing cycle, you’ll need to supplement it with a bit of fertilizer, but there are other things you can do to help as well (I’ll talk about those later).

If you’re simply getting a big bag of potting soil from a local gardening store, you’re good to go for the first growing season; if you’re getting soil from a hole or some other source, you may want to add fertilizer to it before trying to grow anything. You’ll want a small container or bag of vegetable garden fertilizer, which contains more potassium than other nutrients. These are usually marked with the numbers 10-20-10 or 12-24-12, which is shorthand for their nutritional qualities. Do not use lawn fertilizer on vegetables in a container as you’ll overload them with nitrogen. Here’s a good organic fertilizer option in a small container that will last for years; just follow the directions on the back (and remember you won’t need this for a while if you’re starting with potting soil you bought from a gardening or hardware store).

How much soil should you get? It depends entirely on how much and what you’re intending to grow, and that will determine the containers you buy, and you’ll want adequate soil to fill those containers. If you’re ordering from a gardening store, ask the person for enough soil to fill the containers you’re purchasing; after that first round, you’ll have a good sense of what soil you’ll need going forward.

What kind of tools are needed?

For small container gardens, all you will need is a large spoon. Seriously. No other tools are really needed. You’ll probably make a bit of a mess, particularly during your first planting, but it’s just a bit of soil that will easily be vacuumed up.

You may need a trowel (a small handheld shovel) if you have a lot of large containers, as that will be more efficient than a big spoon, but if you’re just starting and have only a few containers, the largest spoon in your kitchen will work perfectly well. No need to buy anything else!

What kinds of vegetables can I grow?

You have a lot of options in terms of what to grow in these kinds of container gardens. Here are some of the easiest to grow options.

Lettuce and other salad greens grow easily from seeds and can be grown in very shallow containers, as they only need a soil depth of three inches or so (so you’ll want a pot 3 or 4 inches deep. These grow with very little effort and if you harvest it carefully and occasionally supplement with some more fertilizer, they can keep growing basically indefinitely (just cut the lettuce well above the crown). Here’s a great video that shows you how to cut lettuce for perpetual growth. This is a great option if you love to eat really fresh salads. Here’s a guide for growing lettuce and salad greens in containers.

Peas and cucumbers both grow well in pots that are about 12 inches deep; however, in both cases, you’ll want to get some stakes or small metal fence for the vines to grow on or else they’ll grow off the edges of the pot and go all over the place. You just stick some stakes or a small lattice fence in the soil right after they emerge from the soil and the vines will climb whatever you give them, helping to keep them contained (It’ll still look bushy when harvest time comes around, but that can look kind of cool, too.) Here’s a guide for growing peas in a container garden and a guide for growing cucumbers in a container.

Peppers of all kinds, from small ornamental peppers to large bell pepper plants, grow really well in containers. For small pepper plants, you can grow them in a pot with 4 to 6 inches of depth; for large peppers (like bell peppers), you’ll want a container twelve inches deep. You can generally grow two or three pepper plants in the same container without any problem. Here’s a guide for growing bell peppers in a container.

Radishes are small spicy root vegetables that grow quickly, taking about a month from seed. You’ll want a container that’s four inches deep or so, and one that’s 24 inches in diameter can grow between 15 and 20 radishes at a time. If you like radishes, you can just plant them, wait a month, harvest, plant again, and so on, and have perpetual radishes from a single container as long as you have seeds. Here’s some advice for growing radishes in a container.

Carrots follow almost exactly the same advice as radishes, except you’ll want a deeper container (12 inches) and a longer growing period. Here’s advice on how to grow carrots in containers.

Potatoes are very easy to grow root vegetables that require a container depth of around 18 inches and take about 80 days to grow. Rather than seeds, potatoes should be started from seed potatoes, which your gardening store should have. After the first batch, you can turn a few of your harvested potatoes into seed potatoes for the next batch, like this.

Tomatoes require a container depth of about 24 inches — a really big pot and a lot of soil — but they’re really easy to grow and will produce a lot of tomatoes per plant. If you love sliced tomatoes on sandwiches, making salsa, etc., then a big container with a tomato plant will end up being a lot value for you. Here’s a guide for growing tomatoes in a container.

You can grow many vegetables in containers, but these will all grow quite easily. Other options may require more attention and work for various reasons.

How do I get seeds?

Your local gardening store should have the seeds you need. If you prefer, you can order seeds online from a variety of sources; however, you may find that some seed sources are overloaded with orders in the mid to late spring.

My preferred online seed source is Seed Savers; they’re relatively local and offer non-hybridized seeds (meaning you can harvest seeds from a plant and use those seeds for your next planting) and a lot of interesting varieties. Friends and family swear by Burpee and Johnny’s Selected Seeds and they certainly have beautiful gardens as well. I have no hesitation in recommending all three of these sources; compare what they have on offer and order what sounds great to you.

Having said that, if your local gardening store offers seeds and you’re just getting things set up for the first time, stick with their offerings.

How often do I water the plants? What other care is needed?

This depends heavily on the type of plant you’re growing. Some plants like moist soil, while others prefer more dry soil. Your seed packet will usually give you guidance as to how often to water the plants.

If you don’t have that information on your seed packet, check Youtube for tips on how to grow that particular type of plant in a container garden.

In general, you want to water plants until the soil on top feels very damp and is just shy of having water sitting on top of the soil (if you have just a little, it’s fine). Basically, you want to add enough water such that the soil is holding as much water as it can hold without excess.

For most plants, you just need to make sure that they have sunshine (which you’re handling either through positioning and/or through grow lights), water, nutritious soil (which you’re handling with using fresh potting soil or supplementing your soil with fertilizer) and little competition. If your pot has any weeds in there that are competing with your plants, just pluck those weeds out by the roots and discard them.

For me, I find it useful to mark on my calendar when I should water any indoor plants, so I don’t forget. Just plan out your watering schedule on your calendar and note what plants should be watered each day.

Here’s my favorite little trick for watering vegetables.

If you want to give your plants a little nutrition boost when you’re watering them, just borrow a little trick from composting. This isn’t full composting, but it is a way to get a little bit of extra nutrients to your plants at minimal cost.

Just find a big jar, like a giant pickle jar or something, and fill it about half full with water. Whenever you have vegetable scraps or other plant scraps (like coffee grounds), toss them in that water. Whenever you need to water your vegetables, use that “scrap water” to water the vegetables (put a cloth or coffee filter with a rubber band around the top and pour carefully into your watering can or other container you use for watering to filter out the scraps) and then add some fresh water back to the scrap container. Whenever you don’t like the smell of the scraps, just dump them and start over. That “scrap water” will have a lot of extra nutrition for the plants; while it won’t replace fertilization, it will definitely help your plants thrive.

This is basically the idea behind composting, except that you’re not allowing the vegetable scraps to turn into full compost, which takes quite a bit longer and can be quite a bit smellier. This process will smell a little, so if it bothers you in any way, just use the water for a last feeding and dump the rest; there’s no cost to it, so it’s not a loss.

Starting another cycle is pretty easy, too.

As I noted earlier, planting vegetables in containers is mostly just expensive during startup. To plant another cycle, you just need some fertilizer and perhaps some more seeds, though you may have plenty of leftovers from previous cycles. Every several cycles, you may want a bit more soil, but a small bag will do. Remember, if the containers are indoor, you can do this year-round.

You’ll also start observing what works well in your particular situation in terms of lighting, watering, and so on. Every situation is a little different depending on temperature, humidity and countless other factors.

For example, if you get into a cycle of growing a bush tomato plant in a container, they’ll grow for about 60 days, produce for 10-20 days, and then die, and then you just grow another tomato plant in the same pot after fertilizing the soil a bit, so you have another plant growing every three to four months. You might switch a large container like that to something else like potatoes, then switch it back to tomatoes, again fertilizing along the way.

The key is choosing vegetables you like.

If you’re growing things that you can’t wait to eat, this entire process will seem a lot easier. If you love potatoes, grow potatoes. If you love carrots, grow carrots. If you love leafy salad greens, grow leafy salad greens. If you love pickles, grow cucumbers.

Lean into one to three types of vegetables you like, especially at first, and grow some at home. Get into a habit of watering them and keep an eye on them and you’ll find that it’s pretty easy to have a bumper crop of vegetables on a regular basis.

Good luck!



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