One of the best things about Portland is the food, but it’s also one of the most expensive. Growing fruits and vegetables in your apartment or dorm is a great way to cut costs and eat healthier without paying grocery store or farmers’ market prices.
The first step is figuring out what you want to grow. Oregon’s climate and lack of sunlight exclude a lot of plants from being successful, and the confines of an apartment prevent others, but there’s a wide range of plants you can grow as easily (or almost as easily) in an apartment as you can in a garden. You’re in luck, too, because now is the right time to be planting a lot of vegetables.
Herbs are probably the best place to start. They’re generally easy to maintain and harvest—a lot of them don’t require direct sunlight—and the easy access to fresh herbs will step up your cooking game.
Two of the easiest and tastiest are mint and rosemary. They only need a few hours of indirect sunlight, and all you need is a pot, a windowsill and potting soil. It’s important to keep them watered regularly.
Your soil should consistently be slightly moist to the touch. Maintaining a consistent humidity is also important; mist the plant between watering and maintain a temperature of 55–60 degrees at night and 65–70 degrees during the day. Make sure to rotate the plant every few days to keep the leaves a consistent size; the plant will try to grow toward the sun, and no one likes lopsided mint. Rosemary requires similar care, but it’s a little more finicky. Keep the soil moist, but be careful because it’s easy to over-water.
Growing leafy greens indoors is possible, too. Lettuce and spinach are the obvious picks, but you can even score some extra Portland points and bragging rights by growing your own GMO-free, organic kale. If you’re going with the leafy green route, you’re in luck because the Pacific Northwest has the perfect climate for leafy greens.
Growing lettuce has the added addition of reducing a lot of waste because you probably have to get rid of a lot of plastic containers if you buy salad from the grocery store. It’s easier to grow baby lettuce or spinach than fully mature plants, and that also means you get to eat sooner and harvest more often.
Drainage is really important with lettuce because it’s susceptible to over-watering. Make quarter-inch dents in the soil and leave at least an inch of room for each plant to spread. Since not every seed will germinate, be sure to put a few seeds in each indentation. Cover your indentations, water the seeds and store them somewhere warmer (75–80 degrees). Keep them moist and warm.
When you see them germinate, let them grow about two inches and then pinch off any excess stalks. Water them once or twice per week and mist them as needed. You should be able to harvest baby lettuce leaves after about a month.
A spray bottle is your best friend in keeping your plants moist without flooding them. Storage and location are important. Make sure all your plants get at least six hours of daylight per day. If you have a balcony or a wide windowsill, you’re golden. If you don’t have a window that gets lots of light, you can invest in a fluorescent tube lamp for a similar effect.
Keep your plants where clumsy house guests or curious cats can’t ruin them or leave dirt strewn all over your floor (I learned this the hard way).
The hardest part is keeping a routine; in Portland, getting sunlight is the other hardest part. Set yourself a reminder to water them if you need to.
Some other easy options are green onions, chives or garlic, where you can simply transplant the chives or the garlic head into the soil. The biggest key to apartment gardening is persistence and doing your research. It’s easy to make lots of stupid mistakes and kill your plants, but it’s also really easy to replant and start over again.
Follow the instructions on the seed packet, ask Google when you have a problem, and plant enough that you can afford to make mistakes.