3 Mistakes to Avoid When Growing an Indoor Garden

You don’t need a backyard to turn your black thumb green.
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You don’t need a backyard to turn your black thumb green.

Creating an indoor garden seems simple. Grab some Pinterest-worthy pots, throw in seedlings, find a spot on the windowsill, and water away.

Not so fast. I have killed plants of all shapes and sizes and developed a reputation in my inner circle for doing so. When I lived in Brooklyn, a friend and I received the same potted herbs from our community supported agriculture program. Hers grew into a veritable jungle in her living room. Two blocks away, mine withered before I could make a decent pesto.

The natural world, of which we can experience little in our day-to-day, has a lot to offer in the ways of beauty, wonder, and even physical sustenance. It’s no surprise that studies have shown spending time with nature can ground our thoughts and relieve stress—as long as the process of gardening doesn’t totally frustrate us.

I realize now that I wasn’t setting myself, or my garden, up for success. Here’s what I’ve learned in my various agricultural efforts in the years since. Avoid these rookie mistakes, and a leafy oasis can be a ripe possibility in your home.

01. Not Knowing What Kind of Light You Have

You can’t give what you don’t have, and that includes adequate sunlight. Monitor the space you have in mind every few hours for a day and see where it falls in the main categories of sun exposure: “full sun” means more than six hours of direct sunlight; “partial sun” or “partial shade” means three to six, with the emphasis on whichever is stated; and “shade” means less than three.

If you love the look of succulents but live in a dungeon, don't despair. It’s not impossible to grow succulents in low light, as long as you stick with ones like Haworthias and Gasteraloes. Inside, it’s easier to grow greener varieties than blue or purple. If you’re going for an artistic display, vary your selection by shape rather than color. Don’t fret about dead leaves on the bottom of your plant. Pull off those that come away easily, and nurture the rest.

If you get a lot of sun, flowers are another option in addition to succulents. Herbs generally do well in partial sun, but they can struggle when they get too cold, i.e. if you keep them too close to the window during the winter. Try to avoid buying herbs that lived outside, as they may not transition well indoors.

02. Not Choosing the Right Size Container

We’ve all seen a dress that looks super cute on the model, but in real life, is far too impractical for everyday wear. The same can be said for pots and gardening containers—the cute ideas may not be effective in real life.

With herbs, it’s better to start with plants than seeds because it can take a few years for the plants to grow large enough for a worthwhile harvest. I learned the hard way that herbs in particular need room to grow; herbs in small pots dry out too quickly. Choose a pot at least six inches in diameter for a small plant, and pot each herb separately for best growth. Ensure there is plenty of drainage—such as a hole at the bottom of the planter—through good soil, to avoid rotting the roots of your plant. Lastly, don’t be afraid to use what you’ve grown in meals or drink recipes. Trimming will encourage new growth. Herbs that go dormant in winter may want a fertilizer come spring.

Flowers like chrysanthemums and Gerbera daisies can purify your indoor air. Hardy and Gerbera daisies and floral mums come in nearly every color, so take your pick. Plant them in glazed pots with generous holes to ensure proper drainage. Choose a pot one size larger than the one it is currently growing and add at least 3 inches of fresh soil before repotting. Mist them with a spray bottle of water every 2-3 days. It may wilt slightly for 1-2 weeks after repotting, but will resume healthy growth with proper care.

03. Over- and Under-Watering

Everyone knows plants need water to grow. The question is, how much? Succulents, herbs, and flowers all thrive with different patterns of nourishment. Your plant has ways of telling you what it needs. Herbs, for example, are easily overwatered. If you see yellow leaves, you know you’ve gone too far.

Succulents like a lot of water at once, but never sprayed on with a bottle. They need time to totally dry out between waterings. While they're trendy, avoid glass containers which tend to hold in extra moisture—succulents and cacti can rot in a few weeks. Porous terra cotta and glazed ceramic pots are better choices. For DIY glass terrariums, choose tropical plants that need a healthy diet of light and moisture such as bromeliads, ferns, moss, and grass.

If the leaves turn yellow, transparent, and smushy, you know you’ve over-watered it. In general, leaves will get dry and pucker if the plant doesn’t have enough water. You can remedy over- and underwatering, but it may take a week or two for your plant to recover. Succulents and herbs often go dormant in the winter, so they’ll need less water during those months.

It’s taken me a couple of failed efforts to figure out what kinds of vegetation fit best into the various spaces I’ve lived and the changes in my lifestyle. Today I can proudly say I’ve kept an ivy plant alive and thriving in my window for the last six (wintry) months. If you have a black thumb, it doesn’t have to stay that way. As cool as rock gardens are, there’s something about the slow but steady process of nurturing a plant’s growth that I, for one, can relate to. 

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