How I Built a Vegetable Garden in My One-Bedroom Apartment

And am now in the company of 25,000 baby bok choi seeds.

May 19, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

After seeing what magic could sprout from sticking scallions in a cup of water (hint: more scallions), I caught the growing bug. Hard.

This is not particularly new—I do have upwards of 20 houseplants and even had a brief stint as an exotic plant caretaker where I sung tended to boutique succulents all day. It’s just that, well, I’ve never birthed a plant from seed before.

But, my partner Trevor and I also live in a garden apartment in Brooklyn—as in, I have a view of a garden, but not access to it. My bedroom is the one room with ample sunlight (and so is already crowded with plants), while the rest of the apartment stays pretty dim throughout the day. Indoor herbs and vegetables need wholly different things than a spider, pothos, snake, and monstera (way more light and subterranean space, to start). Both things my apartment don’t have much of—or so I thought.

To maximize our growing space (and daylight), we enlisted the aid of three things: Mel Bartholomew’s square-foot-growing method, a tiered wire shelf, and LED grow lights. Bartholomew’s clever method allows us to grow anywhere from two to 16 vegetable plants per square foot (check out this handy chart). The shelf has afforded us more vertical growing space, and the lights stay bright, consistently so, for—get this!—15 hours a day.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Other than mentioning that you keep seedlings moist but not wet, there is no other mention of the soil in the container. Is that it? Put soil mixture in the tub and good to go? Thanks!”
— Janice C.

Here’s my current setup, though if all you can handle—resources and bandwidth-wise—right now is one container or a happy family of small pots, you can still, without a doubt, follow this guide.

Seedlings on the top (shiso, gai lan, baby bok choi, and bel fiore radicchio) and middle (Alpine strawberries) shelf; garden bins and grow lights on the bottom.

How to Start an Indoor Garden

Set up the setup


Identify where in your house/apartment you’ll be doing this. (Un)lucky for us, we’ve had this awkward-shaped alcove in the living room that we didn’t know how to use—until now. Goodbye contrived bar-cart area; goodbye claustrophobic office desk setup. The alcove is 48 inches wide, 18 inches deep, and 76 inches high; this shelf fit the bill cave perfectly.

Look at that growing real estate! Photo by Amazon

Before you put on the podcast and start assembling the shelf, however, take a second to map out just what you need from your shelf setup. We knew we wanted two to three distinct regions: a shelf for seedlings—under which the grow lights would be affixed—and a shelf (or two) for the garden-bed bins. So, we mounted the top shelf much shorter than the lower two.


While you could certainly go for something more ahem visually pleasing, we went with Brute 14-gallon bins. These would provide the depth needed for happy (but still, relatively compact) roots, while not leaking all over our (rented) floor. The three bins were, unfortunately, just a little too wide at the lip, so Trevor cut some divots to make them fit better:

Great for holding old photos, sporty things, and soil. Photo by Amazon

While most indoor gardeners recommend a 1:1:1 ratio of potting soil, coconut coir, and compost, our compost...never arrived (wherever you are, out there in the world, we hope you’re making some other radishes happy), and so we settled with a (12-cu) bag of organic potting soil (Happy Frog for happy plants!), and a 1.4 pound block of coconut coir per bin (that’s three bags of soil and three blocks of coir in all).

Initially seen as a byproduct, coconut coir—shredded coconut husks—is now used by soil enthusiasts to manage moisture in soil. It comes in a pressed block; after soaking in water until wet and mushy, the coir became magically fluffy and relatively dry. I then combined it with the potting soil in the bins.

Coir! Photo by Amazon

I know I just wrote a how-to on downsizing, and so, in a slightly healthier way of itching that retail-therapy scratch, I now turn to seed catalogs late at night. I greatly miss my macho Norwich Meadows buds who’d squeal at baby turnips or purple-ribbed, frilly leaves with me, but until we are reunited, I have 25,000 baby bok choi seeds to keep me company.

Using Mel Bartholomew’s square-foot-gardening method, I divided the three bins into two square-foot zones each (for a total of six). In one, I have kale, radishes, and baby lettuces growing; in the remaining two, I’ve mapped out zones for baby bok choi and gai lan, bel fiore radicchio and shiso.

Kale on the left; mixed salad greens on the right.
Grow Lights

We have two strips of four-foot LED grow lights flush with the underside of the second shelf. Trevor, my partner and I, started this project for very different reasons—I, to touch soil, he, to program things. He’s set them up on an automatic timer for 15 hours a day (told you—they need a lot of sun.)

Start Your Engines, erm, Seeds

I started the radish and lettuce seeds in egg cartons (fill each well with about a tablespoon of soil, drop two to three seeds into each cup, and very lightly cover with more soil; keep moist—not overly wet!—until the seeds germinate, about a week) about six weeks ago. Not all will survive—not even close. You are, ultimately, only after one successfully sprouted seed per well (if two or even all three sprout, congratulations! But, don’t get too attached, we’ll cut those down later).

Just last week, they finally showed signs of “true leaves”—basically the baby form of the full, mature leaf—and so I transplanted them to the bins.

A few days before transplanting them, however, I noticed some stray radishes already aggressively growing in my prepared bin of soil—from stray seeds that must have got knocked right into the soil. So, lesson learned: It’s not totally important to start seedlings in egg cartons, especially if their final destination is indoor, a few inches away. Starting in egg cartons is advised if you plan to move these plants outdoors; it allows seedlings to grow big and strong without the threat of cold or a sudden gust.

Be very gentle when moving seedlings to the bins, and make sure they’re well anchored, tucked in by the soil. Keep them moist (but not too wet, as you don’t want root rot), and thin the seedlings to one per well when the strongest of the three shows a second set of true leaves and is at least three to four inches high.

Watch them sprout!

And, well, that’s kind of it. Watch them grow! It makes you think twice about snacking on a handful of radishes, let alone one. I’m certainly more grateful. I’m eager to hear about your indoor gardens—the seeds you’re choosing, DIY setups you’re considering, all of it! Tell me about it in the comments, won’t you?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Desirée Kirby
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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.


Desirée K. May 25, 2020
Thank you for such great information! I am container gardening outside now but this gives me ideas for winter! Can you talk about the watering setup? I saw hoses and a water pump but would Iove more details.
Janice C. May 24, 2020
I'm used to the idea of poking holes in containers so excess water drips out or placing gravel or something bumpy in the bottom of the container to catch excess water. Other than mentioning that you keep seedlings moist but not wet, there is no other mention of the soil in the container. Is that it? Put soil mixture in the tub and good to go? Thanks!
Rebecca H. May 24, 2020
Earthbox makes a system that works. They are pricier than a plain bin, but I've been using mine outdoors for close to 20 years now. I'm thinking I might bring them in and try indoor gardening this winter, thanks to this article!
Smaug June 11, 2020
Soil really needs to drain; this sort of setup is quite chancy for a variety of reasons, as are egg cartons for starting seeds (easy enough to poke a drainage hole in an egg carton, though). If you're starting lettuce and radishes they really should all sprout in a few days (radishes, along with arugula, are probably the easiest plants to grow from seed that you'll find, and lettuce is not far behind). When growing under lights, the inverse square law needs to be taken into account; the intensity of the light will decrease by the square of the distance, so if it's 3 times as far away, light intensity will be one ninth. In this type of setup, there will be some reflection and some light wandering in from other sources, so it will be a bit better than that, but it becomes a major factor with plants more than a couple of inches high.