5 Steps to Mini Garden Success (Even If You're Not Great at Growing Things)

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.

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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.

choosing your 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.”





Another Delicious Recipe for All Your Herbs

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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • Susan Mercurio
    Susan Mercurio


Smaug June 12, 2018
First principle of gardening- it's not about buying stuff )I know that's un-American, but true). Some of this stuff may be helpful in easing first steps for novice gardeners (with money to burn), but you ultimately need to learn to do it for yourself. It's really much more satisfying anyway- we seem to be losing sight of the fact that a garden is an activity, not a possession. On a couple of specific points; seeds of common food plants are mostly very easy to germinate as long as they're reasonably fresh; most people will find it much easier to start their seeds than to adapt them to life in the real world. Most of the woody herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage etc.) are better grown from cuttings than seeds- seedlings will vary quite a bit as far as flavor). Southern exposures can be very tricky for container plants; unless you live in a dependably cool area, it can get blazing hot, particularly if you have heat reflecting from a wall or pavement. Not only will this cause problems with keeping the plants watered; most plants will shut down at high temperatures (low 90's for most sun loving vegetables) and simply not grow. High heat, particularly in combination with water stressed plants, can lead to explosive growth in pest populations, with spider mites leading the way, and once they get ahead of you they'll be the very devil to get rid of. If you have good, direct morning sun that will be a far better alternative in most cases. In a well designed home, the eaves should keep direct sun off of your windows in the summer, except in early morning and late afternoon. If you have ten hours of direct sun through a south facing window, you have my sympathy. The price of containers and soil can not be ignored- most of these plants will need a lot of room to thrive- tomatoes really need at least 15 gal. pots (which aren't really 15 gallons, but are pretty big)- and if you just go down to the nursery and buy them, this gets expensive fast. Breeders have come up with a lot of "patio tomatoes" (and are working on other veg) that take up less room, but the quality of the fruit is so far pretty disappointing. While it can be satisfying to pluck some herbs or salad greens from a window sill garden, do not count on high yields or great quality.
Susan M. June 28, 2018
I had a wonderful south-facing window in Minnesota which got 10+ hours of sunlight every day (good for me as I have Major Depression and need the sun) and I grew a huge pot of rosemary and another of aloe on the wide windowsills which luckily came with the windows. I put them outside in front of the windows in the summer. I also grew lemon verbena (it gets YUUUGE) and avocados in large pots outside and put them on the floor in the living room back from the windows but still in the sun for the winter.
Everything throve!
Smaug July 25, 2018
Goes to show the problem with trying to write on gardening on a national scale- the low sun angles in Minnesota are far out of my experience, and will obviously change things considerably. Lemon verbena, by the way, is, in warmer areas, a large shrub to small tree-not your typical herb plant. Though rosemary can easily grow to 6' high and as much across.
Susan M. July 25, 2018
It gets pretty hot & sunny, even in Minnesota, in the summer. As I said, I put the plants outside in the summer, but what about I really liked about the windows was the light I got in the winter. I could have started seeds in those windows, except that my cats liked to hang out on the windowsills themselves in the winter.
Thanks for assuring me that verbena gets that big. I let it grow just to see what would happen, but - wow! The building manager complained about it the following year, but by then I had learned to keep it in check.