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Growing tomatoes is easy, but urban gardening in a city apartment with a window sill garden? Now that’s a challenge. I did it and so can you in a few simple steps as this post will take you from the first little seedling to eating your own tomatoes. If you are already pretty good at gardening, or even if you are a beginner and have never grown anything more than your own hair, you can do it just like the picture below in 1, 2, 3.
Recently I have been spending a lot of time in the city. Usually I am in the family country home which has nutrient-rich soil for growth. The yields we produce using box garden beds and greenhouse growers are enough to add some fresh products to our lunches and dinners. This is an ideal setup for a lot of people seeking an off-the-grid lifestyle or who want to grow their own foods. But when it comes to living in urban townhouses and city apartments there is no greenhouse projects or veggie patch yards. It is four walls and if you’re lucky, two windows.
For my urban apartment, this is all I have: four walls and two big windows. And as a garden enthusiast, I have to add some plants to keep me sane. I tested growing a few different window sill plants indoors to see what I could get. The best performers were by far the cherry tomatoes. Others that grew well were the sunflowers, snow peas, pak soy (Chinese cabbage) and the herbs parsley, thyme and mint.
How can you get an urban garden (or as I prefer to call a ‘window sill garden’)? It’s free and easy to do, so why not. In this example have chosen to use cherry tomatoes as they were my most abundant food provider and easiest plant to grow in such a short time. I have separated the three steps into the planting, the watering and the fun.
You can choose to buy seeds, or you can make them yourself. We all use so many tomatoes in our cooking and I am sure you are about to have one at least once this week. So when you are preparing them for your dinner, harvest a few seeds for your soon-to-be raging tomato tree.
You can get tomato seeds in 10 steps:
Slice the tomato in half from one side to the other.
Make another tomato slice where the seeds are
Scrape the seeds out with a knife into a jar
Cover the jar with plastic cling wrap and poke some holes in the top
Leave it to sit for five days in a warm place
There will be mold on it, remove it with a spoon after the five days
Gently pour some water into the jar and then pour it off again, you will notice the tomato pulp will wash away with the water and leave the seeds behind
Place the seeds on a coffee filter paper or sponge and let them sit and dry
You should be able to then pick the seeds off or scrape them off
You now have a packet of tomato seeds.
Remember how I said growing tomatoes in a normal garden was easy? That’s what we have to remember when we’re trying to garden indoors. Essentially, we want to recreate that same environment.
The first part of that is sunlight. A lot of plants don’t fare so well in apartments because they don’t get enough sunlight. Plants are their happiest when they get a good exposure of sunlight. What’s a good exposure? Your best conditions are about 12-14 hours of sunlight, so the window sill is the best spot for these little guys to thrive.
For the start, the key to planting anything indoors is to start very small. For the tomatoes I was lucky enough to pick up the seeds with a cardboard cup at my store around the corner. Cardboard or hard paper products are your best friend when it comes to planting as they can be later placed in a pot with surrounding dirt and the cardboard will break down in due time allowing the roots to expand.
Some things you could use around the house as pots as a temporary home while your little seedlings sprout are toilet paper roll holders or egg cartons. I have used egg cartons before when greenhouse growing, and then have cut them up and stuck them straight into a pot with soil when the little green sprouts shoot through the soil.
When you’re starting out, you really don’t need much soil at all. It is just enough to create a small bed for the seed to sprout at about two inches deep and a single thin layer of dirt over the top of the seed to hold the water and give it an enclosed environment. Using a spray bottle on mist mode with this size project is the best way to start as it stops you from overwatering the seedling.
After about a week or two you should have a small green stalk coming out of the ground. When it is at about an inch of height you should pop that cardboard holder into a proper pot. I have a few different sizes for the pots, depending on what size the plant is. My first pot is about the size of a soup bowl and then once I have a bit of height on my tomato vine I replace the pot for a larger one. Eventually you will need quite a large pot as cherry toamtoes have a massive root system that can expand over quite some space. To be safe, I would stick with something that gives at least 10cm on either side of the initial sprout and at least 20cm deep.
Think about the sizing when you are doing it. But make sure that you start very small to encourage the seed to grow.
When the plants do get a little bit larger, you will find you might have to straighten them up otherwise they develop a slight slouch in their stems. This is especially prominent with tomatoes as they are naturally a vine so tend to grow better when they are supported and attached to things. For all of my plants, I used a rubber coated bending garden wire. It supported them quite well during their younger weeks. The sunflower’s stem became strong enough to support itself so I did not have to use it with that plant. The tomatoes needed a bit more than just wire after they grew into a larger bush-type vine. To remedy this I used some twine string and tied it to the tops of the heavy vines and fastened it to the top of the window sill. I allowed an extra 2 – 3 feet of space to let the rest of the tomato vine climb up the string.
Water is the number one killer for indoor plants. It can cause a heap of problems from rotting in the bottom of a pot, drowning, or even the little guys dying of thirst. The first thing to remember is that because the plants are in pots, they won’t have access to naturally moist dirt so they need constant watering. Again, you control the conditions of what they should be in and because we are growing our plants in a sealed pot, you want to keep them moist but avoid overwatering them.
For these plants, I used a mist spray and kept the top of the dirt and the fresh seedling moist with the spray. Once the plant was bigger I sprayed the leaves and the base of the plant regularly. Tomato vines get quite thirsty when you are growing them so there is a fine balance to watering them. You will obviously have to increase the watering as they grow bigger though. At the start I would only squirt them lightly, however when they got larger I gave them a pour of water around the base.
One problem that I faced in my urban gardening challenge was the ‘babysitting’ of my plants. Because of the nature of indoor plants and because tomatoes especially are thirsty things, I was worried about losing them due to lack of water. I could have asked a friend to come over and water them but no-one was available.
To address this problem, I managed to research a few ways which were useful in the window sill urban gardening experience. The first was, for me, the most effective. As a wine drinker, I would fill up a wine bottle and quickly plant it in the pot (pictured below). Because the water slowly released throughout the entire pot this was a quick and easy-to-do method just before running out the door. At one point, when I had come back after four days, the bottle was still half full, so it goes to show that this doesn’t all leak out in the first hour, but instead acts as a slow feed into the ground.
Instead of using wine bottles, for the smaller and less thirsty plants like the sunflower and the snow peas I used beer bottles with water. They also had the same slow drip effect. To help with this lasting longer for more adventurous holidays, I eventually came across a Plant Nanny bottle stake which attaches to the end of the wine bottle and slows the dripping even more. These can make a wine bottle of water last up to two weeks, so it’s a good investment if you are going away for longer than three or four days. After writing about my wine bottle feeds on social media I was also recommended to try the Miracle-Gro water crystals. These are actually really good as they stop overwatering as well as under watering.
Another method of watering, and a bit more technical, is the wicking system of watering plants. Essentially the plants and the soil use any type of fabric or material to draw the water in from a nearby water container as if it were like a straw. This set up takes a little bit more time but it does work. To make sure it worked I drew a line on the inside of my container and measured how much it drew in over time, it was much less than the bottles but it still worked.
For the material, I found the best was a thin strip of a cotton rag (old tshirt) that I had twisted. I presoaked the whole towel to start with and placed one end in the water and split the other end into three seperate strands with the ends being pushed into the soil near the roots of the plants with wire (pictured below).
What do you mean the fun? “My plants are covered in flies”, “My plants are looking dead”, “My plant isn’t even growing”. These are all things I say, or I have heard others say about urban gardening and this is why it is fun. It’s a challenge to find out cures, solutions and fixes to these problems and with trial and error, you will most likely find what works for your environment.
I was lucky with this environment as it was in a sunny time of year when there was more heat and light. In winter there will be less sunlight. In that time I am going to look at urban gardening with sunlight and artificial light.
What else is the fun part? Actually eating the tomatoes of course. I will say that even though I said at the start that the tomatoes were the easiest to grow, the parsley, thyme, and mint that I grew in a separate tray did much better and we were able to use them in a lot of the dinners we made.
While my level of gardening isn’t so much that I am completely self-sufficient, it is a nice feeling to be able to grow your own food. But unlike the country environment where I am able to produce far bigger yields than a small batch of tomatoes and snow peas, I appreciated the challenges that came with growing a garden in the window of my apartment and will be trying again soon with different plants. If you wanted to know what happened to the plants since their experiment, they have been relocated with me back into the country garden where they can expand.
If you liked this article, perhaps give your own window sill garden a go and take a photo of your growths and share it with me here at The Prepping Guide or send it in as your own urban gardening window sill success. Best of luck and have some good times in the garden.