The Essential Tools for a Thriving Indoor Garden

March 16, 2016

So you want to start a garden—a windowsill garden! You've started to think about what you're going to plant (herbs galore!), and located the sunniest windowsill at your disposal. But you're going to need a little more than a sunny windowsill: Luckily, the good folks over at The Sill, an N.Y.C.-based company specializing in indoor plant care, are here to share what they consider the essential tools for gardening indoors. Here's what you'll need to get your windowsill garden off the ground, so to speak, from The Sill's Plant Specialist, Christopher Satch:

Photo by Mark Weinberg

You really don't need that much. But you will need...

Plant containers

The kind of container—draining or non-draining—you use depends on what you'll plant in it. Plants that need dry roots (like most herbs) should have a self-draining container with holes in the base and a dish underneath to catch any excess water; plants that prefer wet roots (like ferns) will be happy in non-draining containers. Just remove the plant from the plastic pot it came in before setting it up in the container!


"General potting soil or potting mix is perfect" for any houseplants or herbs, says Christopher. You can often find organic versions, too.


Organic or otherwise, a little fertilizer can help give indoor gardens a boost. The Sill uses a gentle organic fertilizer called FoxFarm, but any all-purpose general fertilizer in a diluted strength will be just fine. (The fertilizer's packaging will instruct you how to dilute it and how much and how often to use.)

A watering can

Look for one with a spout that has a shower head-type attachment. This is very important for delicate plants like herbs! A direct spout—one strong, single stream—could do more harm than good, whereas a spout that diverts the water is more gentle, and keeps the water from flooding some parts of the bed and missing other parts completely.


A pair of sharp scissors will help you trim the plant of any droopy sprigs (or sprigs you want to cook with).


"Herbs really need a lot of light—or a supplemental light," says Christopher. Make sure you have a windowsill that receives direct light for at least 8 hours of the day; if you don't, think about setting up a lamp to help the little plants get the light they need.

You can use a grow light from the hardware or gardening store, but any lamp is fine as long as they have a good lightbulb in them—"good" meaning good for the plant, meaning as many lumens (that's the total quantity of visible light emitted) as possible. Most compact fluorescent bulbs and warm-hued LED bulbs work well, says Christopher; those are what he uses on his own plants. But different plants respond to different bulbs, so you may need to experiment to find what works best for your garden.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

The most important "tools" are the plants themselves.

That is, if you're going to invest in one part of your garden, it should be your plants.

You should think of it the same way you'd think of buying any other important wear-or-use-it-every-day item, like a pair of shoes or a mattress, Christopher explains: If you buy an inexpensive plant, there's a good chance it won't last too long. Be willing to spend a little more on something that looks really good and strong and healthy, and buy from a place that really seems to know what they're doing and is investing all their resources in the plants—that is, a specialty plant or garden store (not a home improvement or grocery store).

More tips for choosing and buying plants:

"You should have a sense of what the plant should look like," says Christopher—Google pictures of it! Know which plants are a little yellowish by nature—or super green, or a little blue. "Dill, for example, should be sort of blue when it's really healthy, but gets greener when it's not doing so well." Knowing what the plant looks like when it's healthy will help you pick a happy plant.

Check to make sure the roots aren't coming out of the bottom of the container, which indicates that the plant is overgrown and has been in its container too long. It should also have a strong, well-developed stalk or stem, and shouldn't be flopping over from its own weight.

One of your most valuable "tools" is other gardeners.

"Gardeners are some of the friendliest people I've ever met," Christopher says. Find other gardeners and ask them questions! If you're not sure where to start looking, head to a local garden center, or seek out a master gardener (every state has one!). They're knowledgable about everything from houseplants and herbs to larger outdoor plants.

Or seek out specialty associations. There's one for almost anything you can think of—orchids, succulents, herbs, you name it.

You can also tweet questions right to The Sill! Pretty cool, no?

What tools have been most helpful in your indoor garden? Tell us about it—and share any tips for beginners—in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Manoj Maity
    Manoj Maity
  • Smaug
  • Caroline Lange
    Caroline Lange
  • 702551
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Manoj M. August 26, 2017
Hello, after you bought a home spending a lots of money, you still require some small fixes and repairs such as small electrical works, fencing or garage works. You require good quality of power tools. Read this article to know more about these construction tools.

Manoj M. August 26, 2017
Hello, after you bought a home spending a lots of money, you still require some small fixes and repairs such as small electrical works, fencing or garage works. You require good quality of power tools. Read this article to know more about these construction tools.

Smaug March 16, 2016
One of the great things about gardening (much like cooking, actually) is that it seldom really requires buying stuff- but in this case, buy a book. All herbs are not equal or anything like it, but the majority of them fall into either the perennial shrub class or the annual/biennial class. They need much different treatment. Herbs are among the least delicate plants, which is why a project such as this has any chance at all- sprinkler type cans are usually preferred, but aren't that appropriate or helpful with window sill gardens- just be a little careful when you water. Light will be your main problem-direct light behind a window can be VERY hot, particularly in the afternoon. Not only do most plants shut down at temperatures in the low to mid 90's, such temperatures can heat the roots dangerously in potted plants, dry them out too fast, and tend to promote pests such as spider mites and root mealies. Light (plants respond mostly to red and blue) is a significant factor; as a vague generality, blue tends more to promote vegetative growth while red tends to emphasize flowering. The annuals and biennials (parsley, cilantro, basil etc.) undergo major changes in their chemistry when they flower, which usually spoils the flavor as well as approaching the end of their life cycle. Very few plants appreciate pots without drainage- do not under any circumstances use them for ferns. Even swamp plants, such as most carnivores, are best grown in pots with drainage holes placed in saucers of water. Roots need air, chemicals from fertilizer and processed water build up, various pathogens thrive- soggy plants will also attract gnats. You can probably get away with most general fertilizers on most herbs, but avoid those specified for acid loving plants. Fertilizers will have a 3 number designation on them (something like 10-15-10, a good ratio for perennial herbs). With the annuals and biennials, it's best to use a fertilizer emphasizing the first number, nitrogen, as it will tend to promote vegetative growth, helping to delay the flowering cycle. Good plants can often be gotten at home centers, grocery stores, pharmacies etc.; a lot of it's a matter of who's on their staff and how fast they turn them over. As well as avoiding plants with a lot of roots growing out the bottom, those that seem large for their pots should be avoided, as well as any that look unhealthy- yellowish, losing leaves, wilting etc.
Caroline L. March 16, 2016
thanks for these tips, smaug! is there a book you would recommend?
Smaug March 16, 2016
I'm afraid that it's many years since I looked into beginning horticulture books, but the Sunset books are generally reliable, and a lot of people depend on Ortho books. I'm sure there are some fine books on the subject outside of these series, but my own collection stops at about Gerard's Herbal (which at the time was spelled "Herball" ). He doesn't cover windowsill growing; windows weren't that common at the time.
702551 March 16, 2016
As a California native, I'm very enthusiastic about the Sunset books given the company's history, but A.) they focus on regions west of the Rockies, and B.) they concentrate on outdoor gardening.

There are likely other gardening books that are regionally focused: what someone on the East Coast or Midwest needs to deal with is certainly not what someone in California or Hawaii will deal with. A clear example here is the wintertime "Saturday Farmers Market Inspirations" posts. The legitimate photos are almost all from California.

That said, indoor herb gardening is its own little niche and there is probably some book specifically about this topic.

Christopher's advice about finding other gardeners should have been the first tip, not the last. My town's library has a free Master Gardener presentation at least once a month. The people that work at the local nurseries are great and most of the folks who have plots at the nearby community garden are very willing to chat and share tips.