For The Associated Press
NEW MARKET, Va. – Live in an apartment long enough and you’ll eventually embrace that old adage about there being no place too small to fit a garden.
Take windowsills: These narrow but generally sunlit spaces have been used as homes for plants ranging from African violets to dwarf evergreens and lemon trees.
“You only need about 2 square feet,” said Sarah Carter, curator of herbaceous plants and outdoor gardens with the New York Botanical Garden. “Look at light conditions, humidity and temperature and then choose plants that fit rather than trying to get something to evolve.”
Herbs are probably the most popular windowsill gardening option, Carter said. Few things are more convenient for gardeners-turned-cooks than aromatic herbs growing on a kitchen windowsill, within easy reach of stove or table.
“They do need a lot of light, so try using a south- or southeast-facing window,” she said. “Basil, parsley, rosemary and thyme are easy (to grow) and rewarding. You can start them from seeds in winter and have something green, fresh and usable when they’re only a couple of inches high.”
If you’re a serious salad eater, plant some baby lettuce, spinach or Asian greens to accompany the herbs. Many of these fast-growing vegetables will produce several batches of leaves so don’t toss them out after taking the first cutting.
Good drainage is crucial for whatever you decide to grow indoors, Carter said.
“Most houseplants are killed from over-watering. I use broken terra-cotta pots for my bottom layers as a drainer and then add the potting mix. Put plastic drip trays underneath to protect the windowsills.”
Beware drafts from unsealed windows, especially if re-blooming orchids. “They can’t stand drops in temperature,” Carter said.
Draft or no, windowsills are apt to be cold this time of year. Be careful about drawing your window shades too low – isolated between the shade and the window, plants might freeze or at least be damaged. Even touching a frosty pane for a few minutes can scar a leaf on some tender tropicals. Consider moving your favorite potted plants to a warm, out-of-the-way spot overnight, returning them to the window-side during the day for at least six hours of nourishing sunlight.
Cherry tomatoes, dwarf cabbage, beans, peas and peppers are attractive and don’t require much elbowroom. You can quadruple the size of your windowsill garden by adding a few hanging baskets or by building shelves.
Another easy way to expand is by placing a 6-foot wooden ladder on each side of the window to support a few boards or rectangular pieces of window glass. That makes a sturdy and attractive platform for a sizable collection of container-grown plants.
Greenhouse- or garden windows can be expensive but offer ready-made utility. The most basic of these bay window-like arrangements are vented and tinted to mimic conditions in miniature conservatories. They provide more sunlight and humidity for your plants than the plants would get if placed near the standard flat windows.
Another inside-space option is to set plants on tables or stands away from the windows but in places where they get a few hours of direct sun. Reflective materials such as aluminum foil can be arranged to help reflect the sun’s rays.
Sunlight can become too much of a good thing, however. West-facing windows often get deadly hot, searing the life from anything but the most drought-resistant plants. Add sheer curtains to soften some of that sun or choose greenery capable of surviving in desert-like conditions.
A common and opposite problem for many indoor gardeners, particularly in winter, is not having enough natural light where they need it. In that case, they should try growing Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema), philodendrons or “cast-iron plants” (Aspidistra), which are drought-tolerant and capable of handling temperatures cooling at night into the 50s.
Sometimes, especially if you have a limited amount of space, your best view of your garden is going to be when you look at your windows rather than through them.