How To Grow Vegetables In An Apartment

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Edible plants you can grow

  • Spaces
  • Light & Water
  • Which Plants to Grow
  • Rate of Production
  • Start Slow But Start Now

Our food supply is very vulnerable, and the recent pandemic has greatly exposed that.  With experts warning us that a 2nd wave of the coronavirus is right around the corner, learning how to raise your own food in an apartment will be an important skill.  When farmers found their distribution lines disrupted or couldn’t find the field workers they needed to harvest, when grocery stores had bare shelves, and with a reduction in imports, we can see that it only takes a little push to throw our normal food sources into a panic-driven shortage.  Our reliance on other people for producing and even cooking the food that we eat puts us at great risk of malnutrition, even starvation if a more severe disruption to the food supply happens. The problem for the city prepper is always a problem of space, but creative solutions and the right growing choices can make your apartment into a micro-farm that will allow you to greatly supplement your food supplies and provide you the vital nutrients you may need to survive an extended bug-in period.

In this blog, we will look at the vital elements of the apartment farm, the best plants, setups, and the essential nutrients you should focus on to survive.  Prepping is about self-reliance.  While an apartment or small suburban home doesn’t afford enough room for rows of corn, chickens, or even a garden that provides enough to give us independence from outside food sources, there is a way you can grow enough food to supplement your stored food and provide yourself with the vital nutrients you need to get you through a long bug-in period.  One of the ways that you can be more self-reliant is to use the space that you have and grow a percentage of your food. It’s always easier to ramp up an existing micro-garden then it is to start from scratch.  If nothing ever happens, you’ll lower your grocery bill and eat healthier, so it’s a win-win scenario.

Spaces

Space is the biggest challenge you face when you are looking to garden in an apartment. You don’t have the luxury of a front or backyard where you can grow your small garden.  A balcony, window sill, skylight, rooftop, grow tent, wall garden, or small hydroponic system are all considerations when considering where best to grow food.  Let’s quickly examine each.  The balcony is one of the easiest growing spaces, especially if it is elevated and somewhat protected from would-be thieves.  You can use a variety of pots, pails, hanging plants, or railing attachments to create a viable grow space.  Trellising even a small wall of your balcony can provide you a large harvest of vertical growing plants: legumes, some squash, and cucumbers are some examples.  Tomatoes can be grown very effectively as a hanging plant, and small tomato varieties like the pea-sized currant tomato look more decorative than your typical garden tomato.  The reason we recommend this is because of the nutrient profile of tomatoes which we will cover later.  If large pots or pails are an option, you can grow anything from sweet potatoes to artichokes to celery.  Later on, we will discuss the types of plants you should choose. 

Buckets are also a great option because they can be moved if conditions become too harsh or to find that sweet growing spot on your balcony.  A typical 5-gallon bucket with a few holes drilled in the bottom can produce a large yield.  Just one of these buckets filled with soil and one potato can provide you a harvest of several pounds on new potatoes.  Many will remember a recent Hollywood movie where an astronaut survived on Mars with only potatoes and some botany knowledge. 

Herbs are relatively easy to grow and provide a psychological boost through color and flavor if you are forced to bug-in for a long period of time.  Herbs tend to like full or partial sunlight (at least four hours), so consider positioning them on the sunniest part of your balcony or in window sills with direct sunlight.  When choosing herbs, be certain that parsley and chives are in your mix.  These two herbs are very nutrient dense .  You could keep herbs inside by a window and leave the balcony for the plants that require bigger pots and a little bit more space.  The window sill and even pots that attach to window frames are other viable grow spaces .  While the sun may be harsher in these locations, the plants can act as a natural shade for both comfort and privacy.  If allowed, an outside the window hang wall garden structure can provide you another set of options.  With permission, some very urban environments allow for rooftop gardens.  Indoors, small hydroponic setups have come down in price over the years, and simple grow tents or converted grow spaces in closets can be assembled for much cheaper than an out of the box setup, though that’s an option as well.  While a small hydroponic system won’t be enough to keep you alive, it can supplement your food stores.  Finally, a grow tent is an option for apartment dwellers with very little light available.  Unfortunately, a grow tent will not help in a grid-down situation as the fan and lighting system would not work.

Whatever spaces you decide upon, calculate up the estimated average amount of direct and indirect sunlight your area is receiving.  Supplementing light can be accomplished with a well-placed mirror or a plugin grow lightbulb.  Barring either of these options, choose plants that will thrive better in shade.  An opposite set of problems presents itself for the growing environment with too much direct sunlight.  This can result in dried up or cooked plants.  Clever shading and misting can help with this.  Finally, make sure growing spaces have air circulation.  This is even more critical for the indoor grower.  Absent a breeze, even a very small fan can provide your plants with enough air circulation to breathe.  Fans are absolutely vital to an indoor grow. A plant can quickly absorb all the CO2 around them, the fan helps keep the supply of CO2 constant. This improves photosynthesis, nutrient absorption, and general plant health. 

The biggest advantage to the indoor or balcony garden is fewer insects.  While they can still find their way to your balcony plants, the fact that they have to travel a greater distance from the ground across a non-green zone will naturally deter some insects.  Insects like to travel from plant to plant, not from the plant across parking lots and up three flights.  If you are on the third floor of your apartment complex, for instance, you don’t have to worry about slugs eating your lettuce.  Even grasshoppers aren’t likely to find your faraway location to be a sustainable place to stay.  While you may still experience Tomato Horn Worms on your plants, as this is the early stage of life for a type of moth, their numbers may be small enough to eradicate by hand or through the use of an organic solution like Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT).  This naturally occurring soil bacteria is harmless to humans but fatal to worms and caterpillars.  In our own garden, we wait until the worms have become too difficult to eradicate by hand, as BT also can harm the butterfly population.  Assess your entire living space and determine what areas can provide you with viable growing options.  Calculate up the amount of available light.  Consider things like air circulation and the frequency of watering.

Light, Air, and Water

Aside from space, your garden will also need sufficient light, water, and air circulation. We mentioned above about using grow lights to increase your light. This equipment may be necessary, especially if your apartment doesn’t have a good source of sunlight. It can provide the needed light for your plants, and even allow you to control how much light they can get and when they will get it.  Fortunately, the cost of grow lights has dropped from hundreds of dollars to under 20 dollars with the increased use of LEDs.  Grow lights not attached to a solar unit, of course, would not be reliable in a grid-down situation; however, supplementing natural light with LED grow lights and a small solar panel is an affordable possibility as LEDs consume lower amounts of energy.

If growing in windows, you should consider removing any barriers to light that you might have on your windows like sheer curtains. For security purposes, this might lead to the inside of your apartment being too exposed to the outside world. For this problem, you can use light-diffusing window films, which still allow light to pass through while blocking the view from the outside.  

When it comes to watering indoor plants, the general rule is that smaller plants usually require more frequent watering. Plants that get more sunlight also require more regular watering. The amount of water used is approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of the pot.  Collecting rainwater on a balcony can keep your plants with a supply of water and prevent you having to use precious drinking water.  Remember, plants can use water that is unfit for you to drink.

Larger plants require more ventilation than smaller plants.  If an open or cracked window isn’t a possibility, you may want to have a small fan you can periodically turn on to keep the airflow moving through your space.

Which Plants to Grow

The range of plants you can grow will amaze you.  For the purposes of prepping, however, you should be focusing on reusing what you have and on plants that provide nutrients that may be missing or in low quantity in your stored foods.  Nutrient density provides you the best results for your efforts.  Lettuce, though it may not seem like it, has a very high nutrient density score.  The nutrient density of a food is the ratio of beneficial ingredients to the food’s energy content for the amount that is commonly consumed. A high score is a tip-off that the food contains more beneficial nutrients compared to calories. A nutrient density score gives a snap comparison between nutrients you should eat more of (think: vitamins A, C, fiber, calcium, iron, etc.), and nutrients you should eat less of (think: saturated fat, added sugar, sodium, etc.).  I’ll put a link to a ranked list of nutrient-dense foods in the section below (https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0390.htm).

Prepper supplies typically focus on high caloric foods.  That is a major part of survival.  Vegetables, however, have fewer calories so the focus is more on vital nutrients.  What would be considered high-calorie vegetables: beans, yams, corn, potatoes, peas, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and carrots, still only have 53 and 298 calories per cup, with beans and yams skewing the scales.  Without beans and yams, the average of the other vegetables mentioned is between 53 and 160 calories.  With a minimum of 1,000 calories per day required to slow down the physiological effects of starvation, eating or even harvesting 19 cups of carrots per day isn’t likely in your micro-urban garden.  So, the plant choices should focus on nutritionally dense plants that provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals.

Kale or Collard Greens, which are packed with B, A, C, K, and critical trace minerals like potassium, calcium, and copper is a good choice for both pots and wall gardens.  These leafy vegetables are easily grown in a window sill in merely a cup of water.  They are both nutrient-rich and nutrient-dense.  The same is true with green onions.  That store-bought scallion or the center of your onion can easily be sprouted into a new plant in a cup of water on your windowsill. 

Since the focus is not on solely surviving on your micro-urban garden, plants that have proven medicinal properties are also a good choice.  This is where herbs are, again, a wise choice.  The American diet has moved away from eating dandelions, but the entire plant, root, flower, and leaf is edible.  It’s also used as a diuretic to help with many conditions like liver problems and high blood pressure.  Commonly considered a weed, it will grow easily in a balcony garden.  Chamomile, rosemary, peppermint, lemon balm, oregano, lavender, basil, Marigolds, Purple Coneflower, Holy Basil, all of these plants also have some medicinal properties to them.  They are also tremendously easy to grow.  Do some research and favor plants that provide some relief for any pre-existing conditions you may have.  Your reliance upon getting prescriptions filled may disappear in an extended crisis, so the right herbs may provide you some relief.

Sprouts and microgreens increase in nutrition as they grow.  The dry seeds can easily be stored in your supplies and eaten in its dry or soaked form.  From a survival standpoint, sprouts are your best option.  Sprouts have an average yield of 7 to 1, so a large mason jar of dry seeds in your supplies could yield you over 7 pounds of sprouts.  To put that into perspective, that’s about 112 of those 3-ounce alfalfa sprout containers in the store.  That’s also 950 grams fat, 3230 grams of protein, and the same amount of fiber.  As they only require water and a windowsill’s worth of light, and can easily be stored in dry seed form, sprouts can be an amazing survival food.  Sprouts and microgreen sprouting have become very popular, so there’s an abundance of products and writing on the subject.  The key with sprouts is that you can harvest nutrient-dense foods in around a week.

What you grow, again, depends on the space and light.  Obviously, you couldn’t grow watermelon or pumpkin because of the size and length of the plant.  Tomatoes, however, can be heavily pruned and grown either in a container or a hanging container.  Again, here, the nutritional profile is what is important.  Even if you don’t grow them, having them in dried form in your food stores will provide you with essential calcium, potassium, vitamin C, and almost 1,500 IUs of vitamin A.  They can easily be hydrated.

Your store-bought lettuce, onions, garlic, peppers can create low-yield harvests for you.  One pepper’s or tomato’s seeds can produce well over 100 plants, which is more than you could possibly maintain in an apartment.  Before you find yourself in a “need to” situation, I recommend trying to regrow your lettuce from the bottom two-inch base in a cup of water.  Sprout an onion from the inner core or garlic, so you can have the experience and know-how you might apply it in a situation where your survival may depend upon the knowledge.  A green onion only needs a few days to grow back to full length and you can regrow them 2-3 times in water.   You only need the bottom inch of a green onion to regrow it on a windowsill.

What you choose to grow is a factor of space, nutrient, and caloric density, and the amount of time you can dedicate to the process.  You should work towards always having a little something supplementing your store-bought food and sufficient supplies to be able to ramp up a larger operation to fill in the nutritional gaps of your supplies.  In a follow-up video to this one, I will cover City Preppings recommended 25 plants to grow in your apartment, so you can subscribe to this channel to receive an alert when that video comes out.

Rate of Production

Because space will be an issue in an apartment, don’t expect your vegetable garden to have a high yield. Your yield will likely be low, giving you only enough vegetables to consume for a few days or slowly over time, but that’s okay. The small vegetable garden in your apartment should not be your primary source of food. Its role is to supplement the food supplies that you already have. Herbs and vegetables can add flavor to your food and provide key nutrients.  Fresh vegetables, even in small amounts, can provide a needed psychological boost when you are tired of typical survival staples like beans, rice, jerky, pasta, and the like.  While it takes a few months for vitamin deficiencies to manifest in the form of scurvy or otherwise, even a few fresh vegetables can stave off greater health problems and boost your mental outlook.

You can increase your overall rate of production by knowing what you can eat.  Make sure that you make use of all the edible plants like carrot tops, broccoli stalks, kale stems, turnip greens, and more. These vegetable parts may seem like a waste, but they’re really a tremendous source of nutrients.  Carrot tops, the leaves of a pepper plant or celery stalk, even many types of flowers are edible.  Although you may be accustomed to seeing flowers only as decoration, you can add many of them to your diet for color, texture, and vital antioxidants.  Learn what parts and types of plants you can easily grow and can eat now before you find yourself in a situation where you have to learn by trial and error.

Harvest the seeds out of your plants, dry them on paper towels, and store them in labeled and dated ziplock bags in a mason jar.  If you have to bug-out to a safer environment, you can easily grab a future bounty of food in seed form.  By doing this, you are stretching the use of the plant.  A small ziplock bag of dried seeds could potentially yield you thousands of pounds of edible food.  Seed saving has a history dating back over 12,000 years, but our dependence on other people growing our food has largely eliminated the practice from American culture.

Low yield does not mean useless.  Survival is often a long process.  It often requires drawn-out patience and careful planning.  In this sense, a low but steady yield provides you with the most critical survival component-time.  Even a small, steady harvest from your apartment plants can supplement your supplies and provide you with vitamins, minerals, and the psychological boost you need to stay put when others are going stir crazy.

Start Slow But Start Now

You can’t expect to be a master gardener.  We’ve gardened for years, and we know people who are far better gardeners than we are.  But you do need to start now.  An apartment garden isn’t something you can start up after a crisis has befallen you.  You can’t read a book after a crisis then harvest the next day.  Start small, but start now.

Learn to garden your available space and to cook what you are able to produce.  Prepare your supplies with the potential to rapidly increase your garden operation in the event that your micro-garden suddenly needs to become a means of survival for you.  Skills like gardening and cooking always trump tools.  If you know how to do something it’s better than having a tool without the knowledge of how to wield it.

Start slow but start now so you know what combination of plants works best for you.  Your first harvest of strawberries might only yield you a handful, definitely not enough to survive on in any meaningful way; but your trellised peas or cucumbers might grow exceptionally well on that sunny wall of your balcony.  Though you might not be able to eat all of the cucumbers, it’s an excellent opportunity for you to learn a skill like pickling for food preservation.  The more skills you know, the more likely you will be to thrive and not just survive in a crisis situation.

Start slow, but do start now.

Conclusion

After all this information on spaces, light, air, plant types, nutrition density, harvest yields, and developing new skills, hopefully, you are convinced to start some type of food growing in your home or apartment.  While this blog has focused on the truly urban growing environment, the suburban gardener has vastly more options and choices and harvest yields by virtue of having more space.  Remember that herbs and vegetables are a critical source of vitamins and minerals, which is something that you will need plenty of during a disaster situation. Having a vegetable garden is important and ensures you will have access to these types of food during a collapse. We’ve discussed in this blog that it’s possible to start a small garden, even if you are living in an apartment. Though space may be an issue, there are ways to get around that. You can use space such as your windowsill, rooftop, hanging planters, or a patio for your garden. You can also use 5-gallon pails or buckets as pots for your plants, which can allow you to move your garden around when needed.

Many of the vegetables we buy in grocery stores can be easily grown in our own home. Vegetables like green onions, lettuce, beetroot green, and celery don’t even need soil to regrow. It is important to remember not to expect high yield from your vegetable garden. They will only act as a supplement to your food supply, providing additional flavor and nutritional value to the food you eat. It’s critical you start your vegetable garden now instead of waiting for a crisis to happen. If you don’t start early, you’ll have to wait 60-90 days before you can expect to have any harvest to use. That is also assuming you already know how to garden. You should also take into consideration that some rate of failure will happen, especially if you are still learning.

One final thought we did not address but probably should, the final aspect of micro-gardening.  Plants give us a psychological boost.  Sure, they produce oxygen and provide some physiological benefit to us, but the psychological benefit of being around growing things and the psychological benefit of caring for another living thing cannot be understated.  This can provide a small boost to you when you are bugging-in for an extended period of time.  This can make your time locked inside feel less like a prison sentence.  Having a positive mental attitude and an attitude of survival is one of the most critical aspects of determining whether a person really will survive or perish.  Plants can greatly contribute to our clarity and positivity.

If you found this blog informative and helpful, please feel free to like and share it with your friends, family, and community.

As always, please stay safe out there.

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