Local garden center offers tips for growing plants, herbs in apartments and small spaces

‘Grow lights are a scam. All you have to do is match the color temperature,’ expert says.

Credit: Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

Imagine a single-bedroom apartment on the second floor. There are three windows to let sunlight in, two of which are part of a sliding glass door that opens to a small, westward balcony with a wasp problem.

Currently, two potted plants appear to be hanging on for dear life. One is a basil plant and the other a spider plant — the latter, upon further research, is best known for its role indoors, away from direct sunlight.

Now, this writer doesn’t want to give the impression that he had anything to do with the potting of those plants, though the apartment in question is his apartment. (It’s easier to believe the basil just as well appeared than to analyze the various steps it took to get there.)

But it did get him (me) thinking: what would it take to garden indoors? More specifically, how would one garden indoors without windows or a porch?

This mission to grow a simple herb beside my bookshelf takes me to Siebenthaler’s Garden Center in Centerville, where I’m subsequently schooled on dirt, sun and water.

I roam among the dense greenery and terra cotta in a state of aimlessness until I gravitate to an employee who is both willing to talk and isn’t watering plants: Julie, Siebenthaler’s purported herb expert.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Informed of my goal, Siebenthaler offers simple tips for starting the process.

The first step, naturally, is to purchase a seed or a plant. At this point in the year, as we edge on summer, Julie recommends buying a starter — one already in bloom — instead of seeds, especially if attempting this feat indoors. But this tip may apply specifically to those of us with a noticeable lack of green thumbs. I’m directed to the rosemary starter shrubs.

Siebenthaler tells me that rosemary “is hearty, useful, and, honestly, really difficult to kill.” In other words, the herb in my hand will pull through if I forget to water it, which is all I need to hear to pay the $6.99.

“It’s the easiest approach,” Siebenthaler says, admitting that she usually goes the starter route herself, though she has grown basil, lemon balm and camomille from seeds before. Looking for pre-grown, healthy green leaves with a little bushiness seems to be the key to planting success.

According to Siebenthaler, herbs need “as much sunlight as you can get them and plenty of water,” which seems like common sense, but is likely the culprit of otherwise healthy plants’ demises.

Furthermore, if growing indoors, windows or balconies are the best sources of sunlight. But if experimenting in hypotheticals that pretend apartments don’t have windows or balconies, LED grow lights — which simulate the UV rays of the sun — are also an option. (More on those later.)

As for water, Siebenthaler uses the tap for her plants, and she’s an expert. Rainwater — “nature’s tap water,” as she says — is also beneficial, but not necessary.

The amount of sun and water a plant requires depends on the type of plant in question; some need constant exposure to the elements, while others can survive on a shelf above a toilet without much thought. There are too many plants to list, let alone go into detail about, but a visit to your local gardening store will get you the information necessary to keep your plants alive.

Siebenthaler recommends avoiding indoor gardening obstacles like heating vents; she’s single-handedly killed eight basil plants this way. The heat dehydrates the leaves, even if they’re drinking on the regular.

Lastly, transferring a starter into another pot — or forever home — is ideal, as plants only live a few weeks in plastic containers.

“If you find a cute pot,” Siebenthaler says, “stick that herb right into it.”

Before I head inside to do just that, I briefly talk with a couple of flower experts, Jane and Diana, about the resilience of houseplants like Christmas cacti, begonias, African violets, orchids and other annuals and perennials.

They also share that south-facing windows get the most sun during the day, which means my west-facing window gets more afternoon sun than morning.

Despite their knowledgeable tips on the subject, they say there’s a houseplant guru inside working the register. I head out of the greenhouse’s thick air to find this guru and to take Siebenthaler’s advice on finding a cute pot to stick my new herb friend into.

A mustard-colored upcycled container catches my eye but a part of me knows I just want it because of the color. I walk around to feel out the situation and I’m approached by another employee — who wishes to remain anonymous — and I ask about what I assume to be the next step in my indoor gardening adventure: grow lights.

“Dirty gardening secret,” the source says, “grow lights are a scam. All you have to do is match the color temperature.”

He hands over a waterlogged pamphlet that lays out the purpose of each LED color temperature: blue for health and seeding; red for vegetative development; red and blue (purple) for high-yield production that can increase fruiting up to 20%; and daylight white to capture the general growing power of the sun.

The initial thought: those white lightbulbs are in every room of my apartment.

The professed grow lights, for sale online or at any hardware or gardening store, are merely regular LEDs with differing color temperatures. Depending on the needs of your plants, this source says to swap the bulbs.

“The biggest thing with herbs,” he says, pointing at my decorative mustard pot, “is having proper drainage. Having something like this,” referring to what resembles a thick plastic takeout container with vents, “is going to allow a lot of oxygen into the root system.”

And with that, my cute pot is reshelved. Maybe he’s the guru I heard so much about.

He informs me about biodegradable grow bags — which have unmatched aeration and can be planted straight into the ground — though they just got in a shipment and aren’t priced out yet.

But after all of the information I was given over the hour, looking down at my rosemary plant and ventilated takeout container, I can’t help but wonder: is any of this practical?

“You’re thinking about it wrong,” the source says. “You’re spending time and energy and probably $6.99 on that herb and $3.99 on that pot for effectively $0.80 worth of rosemary. It’s obviously more cost-effective to get dry herbs at the grocery store. But you don’t get the meditative qualities, the success that you get to feel when you pull it off.”

I suppose that’s the point of all this: To taste and smell the herbs — or flowers or plants — you nurtured, granted they got enough water, sunlight and attention to grow.

He leaves me with a final word: “It’s very fulfilling to take care of something and bring a little bit of nature inside.”

As I walk out of Siebenthaler’s into the spring sun with $11.80 worth of a rosemary starter kit for my apartment — albeit one with windows and a balcony — I could not agree more.

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