How to Start a Garden Indoors
Starting and Indoor Garden
Whether it be that you suffer from a lack of sunlight or that winter has a firm lock on your outdoor beds, indoor gardening has you covered. With modern gardening technology, it's possible to achieve productive indoor gardens that offset food expenses and cost very little to maintain. Learning how to start a garden indoors is actually not as easy as you might think. Luckily, I've been gardening indoors for a few years and can guide you around the bumpy stages that beginners tend to get caught up with. I'll be explaining a few different key components to starting an indoor garden while simultaneously introducing my own garden as an example of what can be created!
Before you go out and buy your equipment, it's important to find a location in your home that is suitable for a garden. Here's a checklist you'll want to cover to ensure the best gardening conditions for you and your plants.
- Temperature: This is generally not an issue with most indoor gardens as the majority of people keep their homes warm. But just for safe keeping, you should find a place in your home that does not dip below 50F in the winter and doesn't rise above 90F in the summer. Avoid drafty windows and AC vents, as these can be too chilly for garden plants.
- Circulation: You'll want to make sure that you plant your garden in an area that has good air circulation. Not only will this constantly provide new CO2 for your plants, you'll also avoid any stuffy or humid conditions that can lead to mold growth.
- Ample Access: Throughout the gardening process, you'll need to water and check on your plants often. Make sure that you have enough room to work, otherwise gardening will just be a pain!
Indoor Garden Lighting -
As far as garden components are concerned I've chosen lighting to start off with, and for good reason! Not only is lighting generally your most expensive component, it also governs what you can/can't grow as well as the overall size of your garden. Indoor gardening to some is just a small herb garden, while others want a full blooming and fruitful garden filled with plants such as tomatoes. Although both constitute as indoor gardens, their lighting requirements will greatly differ. So you can gauge what type of garden you wish to achieve, I've gone into review of the most common grow lights on the market.
Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL)
High Output T5 Fluorescent
Metal Halide/High Pressure Sodium
10w - 200w
24w - 440w
50w - 1,000w
50w - 500w
Up to 15,000
2,000 - 40,000
4,000 - 150,000
N/A (See LED Below)
$10 - 120
$50 - 300+
$50 - 600+
$100 - $600+
Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) -
- Low wattage lighting that allows gardeners to add as many bulbs to reach their desired wattage.
- Low heat emissions allow gardeners the ability to place their plants close the bulbs without getting burned.
- CFLs are the cheapest option for grow lighting, offering gardeners the ability to setup a small 50w garden for less than $15.
- Although inexpensive, CFLs usually offer less quality light distribution and overall less usable light. CFL lighting can sustain the growth of large garden vegetables such as tomatoes, but because of their efficiency, aren't the best option for doing so.
- If you find yourself wanting to maintain a micro garden or a small herb garden, CFL lighting is the way to go. Typically, CFL lighting remains a great option if your garden is under 4 square feet in size.
What do I use?
My main set of indoor garden beds is powered by a HydroFarm Designer HO T5 light. It measures in at 4 feet long and contains four bulbs totaling 218watts and 20,000 lumens. It is slim in size and can be mounted on daisy chains for easy height adjustment as your plants grow larger. I'll admit that its size does limit me to smaller plants, but I can still grow a great variety. Here's a little more about what I've grown using this light.
- Garden Size: ~8sqft
- Currently Growing: Pinto Beans, Baby Romaine Lettuce, Green onions, Radishes, Swiss Chard, Basil and Mint.
- Successfully Grown: Cherry Tomatoes, Tobacco, Carrots, Radishes, Strawberries, Orange Bell Peppers, Leafy Greens, and Various Herbs.
Expenses of Running Grow Lights:
Here's a list of grow lights I've used and the electricity costs to run them:
- 70w High Pressure Sodium - $5 Per Month
- 120w CFL Lighting - $8 Per Month
- 218w T5 Fluorescent - $15 Per Month
- 400w High Pressure Sodium - $35 Per Month
High Output T5 Fluorescent Lighting -
- Although both T5s and CFLs are fluorescent lighting, the tubular bulb design of the T5 light makes it much more efficient compared to the spiral design of the CFL.
- The majority of HO T5 Grow lights are sold standard with a high efficiency light reflector. This greatly improves usable light by directing light onto your plants.
- Higher light efficiency allows for better full range growth. With T5 Fluorescent lighting, you'll be able to sustain larger vegetable crops through the vegetative and flowering stages.
- Great for the "medium-sized" indoor gardener. Due to the long rectangular shape, I wouldn't recommend that gardeners exceed a garden size of 15 square feet.
Metal Halide & High Pressure Sodium Lighting (MH & HPS) -
- Superior lighting for the "large-scale" indoor gardener. Metal halide provides high efficiency vegetative lighting and the High Pressure Sodium bulb will provide the right spectrum for huge blooms and fruit production.
- Offers more available light to garden plants to promote stronger growth. Metal halide and High Pressure Sodium systems will, in my opinion, always outproduce similar wattage T5 and CFL systems.
- Newer ballast technologies have made it easy to use both MH and HPS bulbs in the same unit. This eliminates the need for two ballasts, and greatly reduces cost to the gardener. For example, a 400watt MH/HPS system with reflector can be purchased for as low as $150!
- A 400watt MH/HPS lighting system can cover up to 30 square feet, while a 1,000watt system can cover as much as 81 square feet!
- Heat is the main issue with Metal Halide and High Pressure Sodium units. Because of their high light output and wattage, they tend to get hot and need to be spaced 1-2 feet away from your plants. It is also wise to have a cooling system in place, as they can really cause heat problems.
LED Lighting -
- An up and comer in the Grow Light industry. Simply put, LED lighting is not as popular as other options, but is stealing more of the spotlight now that the technologies are progressing.
- The light output of a LED system can't be fairly compared with that of say a High Pressure Sodium lamp because an LED system focuses more on usable light in the red/blue spectrum, rather than total light output.
- Since it is a newer technology, there are a lot of manufactures that are making cheap units that aren't worth much. It's not to say that there aren't good units, its just not as reliable of a market as other grow lights are.
- Virtually no heat from the bulbs allows you to hang only inches away from your garden plants.
- This is the only type of lights that I've yet to use. Their rather expensive pricing has kept me away so far. It could be a great option for the gardener who is willing to experiment a little!
Potting Soil and Containers -
Hopefully by now you have at least an idea about which lighting system is right for you. So lets move along to potting soil and containers. Equally important as lighting, potting soil affects the overall health of your plants, while containers will determine how large your plants can be.
Soil & Containers:
My garden soil is currently composed with a good base of previously used FoxFarm Ocean Forest Blend. I have since added homemade organic compost in great quantities to boost the amount of nutrients available. With 8.5 gallon containers, recycled from an old drawer unit, I have a total of 25.5 gallons of soil to work with in roughly a 4'x2' space!
Potting Soil - I highly recommend that you don't skimp out on your soil. After all, it will be home to your plants' root systems while they grow. For most garden plants, you're going to want to look for a premium organic soil that contains a good amount of composted material for nutrients mixed in with 10-25% perlite for water drainage. I have personally used both the FoxFarm Ocean Forest Blend and the Roots Organic 707 potting soils. Both are perfect for the indoor garden and can be readily purchased at hydroponic/gardening shops and online.
Containers - Generally speaking, the larger the container, the larger the plant that it is possible to grow. With that in mind, take a look around your house and see if you're able to use any old plastic containers that may be lying around. I was fortunate enough to be able to use the drawers from an old plastic shelf. For no money at all, I cut some holes in the bottom of the drawers for drainage and now have 8.5 gallon grow beds. If you don't have extra plastic containers to get creative with, flower pots can be purchased year round online or at most home improvement and hobby stores.
Creating a Seed Stock -
Pictured above is my current "seed bank". I've been collecting seeds here and there for around a year and a half now. I've managed to work up a good supply of local seeds as well as some organic seed packs. I store my seeds in a plastic container tucked away in my closet. Keeping your seeds in a cool dark place will help to keep them good for at least a year, if not much longer! Paper baggies or envelops cut in half are much better to store seeds in. Plastic doesn't breath. (I still have to move my squash seeds into paper bags)
Obtaining Seeds -
Once you've got your light, soil and containers, you're finally ready for the good stuff, seeds! Obtaining the proper seeds for your garden will ensure the highest seed germination. Here's a couple options you could take to obtain seeds for your garden:
- Local Produce: Farmer's Markets are great places to obtain seeds. The best thing that you can do is just talk with the people selling produce. Ask them about the variety and if it was grown organically. Most farmers/vendors will be glad to tell you about their produce. If the produce is healthy, most likely the seeds will be too. The great part is that you know that it's locally grown and acclimated to the climate you live in. Tomatoes, Eggplant, Peppers, Squash, Melons and Dry Beans are some examples of produce that can be harvested for garden seeds.
- eBay: If you're looking to get your hands on a specific variety or an exotic species, you're best bet is eBay. Most seller's on eBay are very upfront and reliable with their seeds. Even better is the pricing! I've purchased a variety of seeds from eBay and all of them have grown successfully.
And there you have it! With a light, soil, containers and seeds secured, you now be able to successfully start your indoor garden. In my future articles, I will be covering topics such as planting seeds and tips you can do for outstanding germination rates. I'll also be covering general maintenance, light schedules, watering and feeding your growing plants, so check back real soon! Good luck and keep growing.
Other Valued Resources -
Are LED Lights Best? - An in depth look into LED light systems
Grow Light Tips - Practices you should follow to ensure the best from your bulbs.
Make Your Own Potting Soil - If you want more than a commercial mix, you can make your own!
Saving Heirloom Seeds - Discusses in detail the benefits of seed saving.
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