How to start an indoor vegetable garden

Months of lockdown due to COVID-19 restrictions plus a long Quebec winter have cultivated my growing obsession with gardening and subsistence farming. I spent early winter on my couch watching countless YouTube videos, reading articles and joining Facebook gardening groups.

By mid-January, I was raring to garden NOW even though it was -15 C outside and I live in a small urban apartment. I started researching the most economical ways to grow indoors, with a goal of growing salads and herbs to eat this winter and starting seedlings to transplant outside in the spring.

After some intensive research, I went with this indoor gardening setup, which is simple, built to last, cheap and requires almost no skills to put together. My salads and herbs are looking great and my seedlings are all growing strong.

This is what I did:

I ordered these shelves from home depot

These shelves are large (4 feet wide x 6 feet high), inexpensive ($134 CAD) and have plenty of vertical real estate for plants. They are sturdy, easy to assemble, you can adjust the shelves to the desired height, and easily hang lights to the wire frame. Plus there is airflow, which is important to prevent mold, overheating and insects. You can also choose to omit some of the shelves if you want to use them for taller plants.

I was easily able to assemble and install the shelves in my spare bedroom.

Next: lights!

I got these LED shop lights from Amazon

To grow veggies indoors, you don’t need fancy expensive grow lights, but there are specs to keep in mind. You a need a light that has between 1600-3000 lumens and 4500-6000 kelvins. The wattage is less important. T5, T12 and T8 fluorescent or LED shop lights work well for growing plants indoors, especially with a setup using shelves.

Four-foot long shop lights were an elegant solution as they fit perfectly in the shelves, have integrated fixtures and are very light. I chose T5 LED lights from Amazon, because they are cheap ($70 CAD for a 6-pack), long-lasting, and I can change them easily if they burn out. LEDs also don’t give off much heat and use less energy than fluorescent lights. You can also easily daisy chain the lights together (these ones have 20-inch long connectors, which is perfect for shelves) and plug them all into one electrical socket.

I hung the lights up with wire and S-hooks from the dollar store and put my seedlings about 3-4 inches below them.

Recycled containers and sterilized soil

I originally planted most of my seedlings in toilet paper rolls and cardboard egg cartons with seed starting mix. They began getting too big, so I then transplanted the seedlings, with the toilet paper rolls/egg cartons and all, directly into the new pots with potting soil. This avoids disturbing the roots and shocking the plant while the cardboard decomposes naturally in the new pot. I used recycled food-grade containers for all the transplants.

I realize why using large seed starting trays from the get-go is a smart choice, because transplanting and managing all these different sized recycled containers can really be a time waster and super messy indoors. But you live, you learn.

IMPORTANT TIP: Always sterilize your soil when planting indoors to prevent insects from invading your plants. Use boiling water to wet the seed starting mix, let cool and plant seeds according to seed pack instructions. You can also microwave moistened potting soil to sterilize it, or even bake it in the oven on a cookie sheet. I also have seen many times online the recommendation to stay away from Miracle Grow and Jiffy brand soil because of bugs. Also stay away from dollar store potting soil – also bugs. If you get any insects, don’t panic, there are ways to manage and eradicate them, but it can be a lot of work.

I watered daily, keeping the soil moist but not damp (overwatering is a killer!) and provided about 16 hours of light per day.

Reflect the light but maintain airflow

The last thing I did was add some reflective Mylar sheets on the front and back of my shelves, leaving the sides free for air circulation. Option to add a fan on the side, but I haven’t found it necessary so far.

I bought a 4-foot x 10-foot long roll of mylar sheets from Amazon for $30 CAD. I had originally put just aluminum foil in the back but it was a bit too flimsy. I can reuse this sturdy mylar for years to come.

Fertilizing seedlings with kitchen scraps

I did not fertilize the seedlings until at least 2-3 sets of true leaves came in. It’s always better to under than over fertilize.

I’ve only used kitchen scraps from around the house to fertilize the plants so far:

  • Crushed eggshells mixed into the soil (for all transplanted seedlings)
  • Banana peels (dried in oven and ground up and mixed into the soil; for all transplanted seedlings)
  • Banana peels soaked in water (once every week or two)
  • Potato and carrot peels soaked in water (diluted for seedlings; no more than once every week or two)
  • Used tea leaves and coffee grounds (only occasionally for some plants that tolerate it well like tomatoes)
  • Epsom salt (1 teaspoon per gallon of water once every week or two)

The potting soil I used also comes with some fertilizer in it, which should help until they are transplanted outside with a nice layer of compost. Looking forward to that!

What’s next?

I’m starting to eat the herbs and salads now, and will get to transplanting the seedlings onto my balcony after the last frost. I’m also going to sow some beans, carrots and cucumber seeds directly outside in May.

I’ll be experimenting with making my own soil in totes on my balcony in the meantime.

Stay tuned for more gardening blogs!

1 Response

  1. Daddio

    Wow! I’m impressed! You’ve put a lot of thought and effort into this Annie.
    Now, with your cottage, let’s see what you can do outdoors this Summer!


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