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Urban Dweller in an Apartment?

Yes, even you can grow your own food
Oregon’s Constant Gardener offers lights for shady spaces. Photo by Trask Bedortha
Oregon’s Constant Gardener offers lights for shady spaces. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

Anyone can grow fresh food year-round, even apartment dwellers. It just takes a bit of know-how and planning. Amy Doherty, a master gardener and graduate of the UO Landscape Architecture program, specializes in adaptive urban gardens. “There’s a lot you can do with container gardening on a sunny balcony or in a window,” Doherty says. “The only limit is how much space you have and how much light you can get.”

First, evaluate the light that you have. North-facing windows don’t receive much light, southern windows tend to be sunny for much of the day and eastern and western windows are sunny for part of the day.

Doherty uses her balcony to grow three “salad bowls” of lettuce mixes. “I trim off of them and refill them as needed,” she says. “Lettuce is a cool season crop and doesn’t need a great deal of light, so that’s doable for almost anyone.”

Indoor tomatoes are another story. “Anything that grows fruit like tomatoes or berries is going to have to flower, and they’re going to require at least six hours of sunlight a day,” Doherty says.

Even a small grow light can make a world of difference. Ryan Brey, manager of Oregon’s Constant Gardener in Springfield, says culinary herbs require nothing more than a fluorescent T5 fixture, which runs about $80 for a 2-foot lamp.

“For the more passionate indoor gardener who wants to go full-bore and do sun-loving cucumbers and peppers, that’s going to require more light intensity,” Brey explains. “A metal halide high pressure sodium system runs $300 up to $450.”

At that point, the complete environment becomes a factor. For instance, putting a 1,000-watt light into a cold garage won’t work well. “Then you have to create a more full environment with a ventilation fan and fresh air exchange,” Brey says. 

Then you have to think about pollination. Some plants are self-pollinating, but many fruiting plants need some sort of help if they are not outside.

For the committed apartment gardener, Brey sells small indoor greenhouses that encase an area with blackout fabric. “They self-enclose an environment so you can place them in a corner of your room with 400-watt light and produce vegetables year-round,” Brey says.

If lights and fans are too complicated but you’re still hankering to do your own harvesting, consider the sprout. “I’ve done a bunch of sprouts and it’s so easy,” says Jivan Valpey, who also grows Meyer lemons in pots, which are moved indoors for the winter.

“If you have room for trays, get yourself some potting soil and harvest microgreens,” Valpey says, “which sell for about $8 a pound. If you were diligent you could have lettuce every day.”

Another easy plant to grow in a shallow tray is radishes. “Radishes grow so fast,” Valpey says. “And the sprouts are so delicious and refreshing and crunchy. When you grow a sprout it’s the most vital that vegetable is ever going to be. It’s always fresh, it’s still alive, it’s still vibrant. It’s as fresh as it will ever get.”

Sprouting is also about as easy as growing will ever get, and requires little more than a jar and a handful of whatever seeds or beans you choose: sunflower, broccoli, alfalfa, mung bean, clover, wheatgrass and all kinds of grains are fair game.

Haunt some garden supply stores and check out the different kits available for indoor gardening. YouTube is a great source for many DIY window-gardening projects, such as a system of 2-liter plastic soda bottles strung together and hanging in a window in the manner of a curtain.

The Lane County Extension office in Eugene doesn’t have a lot of resources specifically devoted to indoor gardening, but it does offer a class on container gardening suitable for patios. The great thing is plants want to grow, so there’s a good chance that no matter how little sunlight or space you have, there’s a plant out there that’s right for you.