Annual Manual 2018: Small Spaces, Big Eats 

Growing food in an urban apartment is easier than you think

NEON's cafe space is so full of plants that it would make anyone itch to test their green thumb.

Lex Nelson

NEON's cafe space is so full of plants that it would make anyone itch to test their green thumb.

Lindsay Schramm could—and often does—spend her whole day talking about vegetables. As a co-owner of North End Organic Nursery in Garden City, it's part of her job. More than that, Schramm feels that if everyone grew edible plants at home, people might be a bit healthier, a bit richer and a whole lot happier. At first blush, it may seem impractical for people confined to apartments or townhouses in urban centers like Boise to grow their own dinners, but Schramm said there are ways to make it work, even in tiny spaces.

"I actually really love small-space growing because I find that you can actually do more than you would imagine, or even more than you would typically allow yourself to do in-ground, [when] you are confined to containers," Schramm said, sipping a coffee in the NEON cafe, a space so filled with potted plants—sitting on tables, stacked on racks and dangling from the ceiling—that it would give anyone the indoor growing bug.

click to enlarge Though a grow light can't replace natural light hour-to-hour, it's helpful in a pinch. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Though a grow light can't replace natural light hour-to-hour, it's helpful in a pinch.

Thanks to a booming locavore movement, motivation among apartment-dwellers to grow food themselves is higher than ever. Business Insider reported last year that the local food industry jumped from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014, and was predicted to soar to $20 billion in 2019. To join this growing movement, here are some of Schramm's tips for cultivating the smallest of gardens:

The Gateway Plant
People who are hesitant to garden indoors for fear of losing their investment in seeds should start small, Schramm said, with microgreens or sprouts. She listed their "super-fast turnaround," high retail cost and cheap seed price as perks. Plus, they're practically impossible to screw up.

"Get like a 10-by-20 [-inch] tray with a dome and a light—we have these little SunBlaster kits that people like to get for these—and a little bag of soil. You spread it out, spread the seeds, [and] you literally water it like a Chia Pet, it's just that basic," Schramm said. "And then they grow up, you cut them, you sprinkle them on your salad and you have increased the nutrient value of that meal astronomically."

Light it Up
It may not come as a surprise that, as Schramm put it, "the biggest issue when it comes to container growing indoors is light."

Folks with sunny balconies already have an advantage over the average apartment owner in terms of urban gardening. Plants with fruiting bodies like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and melons require strong daily doses of sunlight (Good Housekeeping recommends 8 hours for cherry tomatoes, for example), so they should thrive in containers or raised beds on the patio. If there isn't space for a large planter, NEON offers flexible planters made from recycled water bottles, which can be draped over balcony railings and have pockets perfect for filling with dirt and seedlings.

Even without a balcony, Schramm said aspiring green thumbs can still grow rooting plants like turnips and carrots, or leafy plants like lettuces, herbs and microgreens, near a sunny window, perfect to cut from for cooking. If the natural light falls short of the required four to six hours, an LED grow light can provide some extra oomph.

click to enlarge NEON sells rain planter bags made from recycled water bottles in a variety of colors and sizes. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • NEON sells rain planter bags made from recycled water bottles in a variety of colors and sizes.

Feed Me, Seymour
Not all fertilizers are created equal. While watering potted plants will wash out nutrients no matter what, Schramm said organic fertilizers will stick around longer in containers because they're "naturally slow-release." And the ratios of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium, the hyphenated numbers found in that order on the front of fertilizer bags—matter too.

"Nitrogen is for green, phosphorous is for roots, fruits, flowers and sweetness, potassium is kind of the health regulator for the plant. So making sure that you don't over-nitrogen a plant that you're trying to get fruit out of is really important," Schramm said, adding that it's key to choose a fertilizer based on the characteristics you'd like to enhance in your plants.

She recommends giving plants "a microdose" of fertilizer every day by mixing it with the water they will already be getting.

click to enlarge JASON JACOBSEN
  • Jason Jacobsen

Grow-Your-Own Happiness
Not only does growing food at home support a local food system, studies have shown it can be good for your health—and not just because of the oxygen boost plants provide. In 2015, British newspaper The Telegraph reported on a study that found 88 percent of people feel gardening improves their sense of well-being. Schramm counts herself among them.

"For me, to have the ability to be in my indoor space and have that green, living thing, I feel like that just balances us out as humans, that we're not designed to be living in just pure concrete jungles," she said. "And then growing something where you're getting high nutritional food in return? That's fantastic."

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