You don’t need a plot of land (or even a backyard) to grow your own dinner. If you have a windowsill you can grow your own salad; if you have a stoop you can grow grow fresh toppings for pizza; if you have a fire escape you can grow everything you need to make pickles.
But growing plants from seed produces so much more than vegetables. Not only do you gain a sense of accomplishment (“This salad came from my garden,” you get to say with pride), but you also begin to address issues related to the global food system, nutrition, and food waste.
It’s estimated that, on average, our meals travel 1500 miles to get to our plates, creating a massive carbon footprint; when you grow your own food, that footprint shrinks to the size of your gardening clogs. Salad greens have been found to dramatically lose their nutrients in the days after harvest; when you grow your own salad and eat it as soon as you’ve harvested, you get all the vitamins they have to offer. And Americans throw away about a pound of food per person each day, with the bulk of that waste coming from fruits and vegetables; when you grow your own vegetables, you harvest only what you need.
Cam MacKugler founded Seedsheet to help more people grow their own food. “My original goal for the Seedsheet was simple: To use technology to demystify agriculture and make growing good food ridiculously easy,” he says. Starting with high-quality, organic non-GMO seeds—“sourced from the High Mowing Organic Seed Company, which, like us, is based in wonderful Vermont”—he created a foolproof planting system that can help anyone—green thumbs or not—grow their own food. Seedsheets are disks of all-natural, dissolvable pods filled with seeds and contained in a weed-blocking fabric that you grow in a breathable fabric container (made of 100% recycled BPA-free plastic bottles) specifically designed to help plants flourish.
But Cam’s goals are much loftier than home gardening. “The fastest growing demographic of commercial farmers is millennials,” he says, “many of whom have minimal to no agricultural experience. We want to help the new generation of farmers become successful, lessen our reliance on environmentally exploitative industrial agricultural, and by empowering new farmers and home gardeners to grow successful and abundant harvests, we can help democratize food transparency.”
Whether you’re trying to create a better food system or add freshness to weeknight dinner, a container garden is a great place to start. To help your home garden thrive, we spoke with Cam MacKugler about his pro-tips and tricks for growing a successful container garden from seeds.
You can grow pretty much anything if you set your mind to it (local weather conditions permitting), but for novice gardeners, the idea of growing plants from seed can seem overwhelming—beginning with the question, “What should I plant?” Seedsheet answers that question simply: Grow food you want to eat.
All Seedsheets are built around a particular dish: There’s the Grow Your Own Pizza sheet (which grows Sungold tomatoes, purple and sweet basil, and scallions), the Grow Your Own Salad (which grows beet greens, spinach, pea shoots, kale, arugula, tatsoi, mustard greens, and French breakfast radishes), the Grow Your Own Pesto (with six kinds of basil), and more.
When growing plants from seed, it’s best to start them indoors before moving them outdoors. “This will keep your garden close to mind and help you remember to water it daily during the critical germination process,” says Cam. Keeping the soil moist after planting your seeds create an environment that will help your seeds sprout into plants. At this stage, your seeds need care, attention, and constant moisture, which is why it’s a good idea to check the soil every day to make sure it’s not drying out. Cam also points out another good reason to start your seeds inside: “Starting your garden indoors will also help prevent any pesky birds or squirrels from stealing your seeds!” Leave my seeds alone, squirrel!
Once you start to see little green shoots coming through the dirt, you’ll know that your seeds have germinated and it’s time to move the garden outside into direct sunlight—and you can use whatever outdoor space you have, from a porch or a stoop to a terrace, fire escape, or yard. If any area is south-facing, all the better, as southern sides of houses get the most hours of full sunlight during the day.
Even if you don’t have access to any outdoor space, you can still grow your own vegetables—provided you have enough sun. “We really only recommend keeping them indoors if you have a south-facing large window that's unobstructed and gets 10-plus hours of sunlight a day,” says Cam. “Or, you can use a grow light for year-round growing.”
Like every living thing, plants need to be fed if they’re going to flourish. That’s why Cam recommends fertilizing. “With most container gardens, plants will need to be fertilized because the amount of soil within the gardening container is usually pretty insignificant and doesn't contain an abundance of nutrients,” he says. An organic liquid fertilizer, like this one recommended by Cam, used once or twice a week will do the trick. Just mix the instructed amount into your watering can and your plants will be happy.
Proper harvesting is key to the continued growth of any plant; when done correctly, it can make plants healthier and more abundant. And every plant has its own way it likes to be trimmed. “Salad greens, for instance, tend to grow in clumps, where a main central stem develops and leaves continue to grow outward from that stem,” says Cam. “Instead of just giving your salad greens a buzz cut, you should cut or pinch off the outermost leaves from the stem, harvesting about 1/3 of the plant in a single harvest. That will not only help train the plant to put more effort into producing more leaves, but it will also remove the larger outer leaves which will enable more sunlight to penetrate into the smaller leaves to help them photosynthesize and grow quicker.”
But don’t try that technique on everything you’re growing. “With basil,” Cam explains, “you never just want to pick leaves off the plant, because that will result in awkwardly tall and spindly plants that inevitably tip over and die. The pro-tip with basil is that you actually want to use scissors to cut the main stem, directly above a node where two shoots are growing outwards from the stem.” It can seem like a lot to learn how to harvest each particular plant you’re growing, but don’t worry; technology to the rescue!
Cam recognizes that there’s a learning curve for many people who are trying to grow vegetables and herbs from seed, which is why he developed Garden Guru, a software that tracks the progress of your plants and offers tips on watering and fertilization, harvesting, thinning and trellising plants, and even recipes. “Our Garden Guru software will send text message notifications that tell you when you need to fertilize and how to properly apply the correct amount and tutorial videos for each plant type to help you harvest in a way that spurs more growth, so you can eat delicious food and grow bigger plants.”
What’s your #1 tip for keeping container gardens thriving? What are the most successful plants you’ve grown? Let us know in the comments!