Sustainable Seawolf: Starting an indoor garden

Gardening may seem like an out-of-touch activity to a lot of college students, especially in the middle of February in Anchorage. Everyone has seen those fancy grow lights that bigger operations use, the ones that look like UFO’s, but the idea of getting one of them and actually turning a seed into a plant seems overwhelming.

The truth is that you can set up an indoor garden in less than an hour and for less than $50. They can be set up in dorm rooms and closets, or even as a decorative piece on a desk. As long as plants are attended to properly, they can give fresh food year-round.

Spinach sprouts from Abby Slater’s container garden. Photo credit: Abby Slater

What you’ll need:


  • A light fixture
  • A light bulb
  • A plant container
  • Seed starter or potting soil
  • Seeds or a started plant
  • Water

You can also grab gardening gloves and pruning shears if you so choose, but they aren’t required for getting started.

What kind of light?

This is a question that paralyzes a lot of people. They worry so much about the light that they can hardly get themselves started. The good news is that the type of light is not too big of a deal, so long as the placement is right. Any fluorescent or LED bulb will do so long as it has a medium-high wattage and is placed about six inches from the plant. Turn the light on for the amount of sunlight that the plant requires and then simply turn it off when the time is up.

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With that being said, if you find a good deal on a red and blue spectrum grow light, buy it. It is the best option for healthy plants as it gives them the full spectrum of light that they would experience outdoors. The downside is that they’re more expensive. The upside; they don’t need to be within six inches and they can typically grow more plants at once.

When it comes to the light, you have to decide if you want a small desktop light with one plant and cheap (but effective) bulbs, or a full grow operation with several containers.

What kind of soil?

Another question that causes panic. Organic? Miracle-Gro? Generic brand? Luckily, I’ve tried all of them, and I can give an honest testimony: there is little difference in the end product based solely on the soil you buy. If you buy generic brand soil and give your plant the proper water and sunlight, it will grow faster and better than a plant with the best soil, but poor maintenance. The same goes for seed starter versus potting soil; maintenance matters.

However, if you do care about the quality of your soil, you can never go wrong with organic soil and seed starter.

What plants grow best?

The good part about growing indoors is that you open yourself up to possibilities. Tropical fruits and vegetables can be grown in an area of your house that remains relatively warm and draft-free; closets are great for this. It’s possible to tackle plants like watermelon and dwarf lemon trees in spite of the short outdoor Alaskan growing season.

The most important thing to do is research the plant that you’re attempting to grow. Every plant has varying levels of water needs, sunlight needs and transplant times. Google and greenhouse keepers are your best friend here; ask about requirements when purchasing seeds or previously germinated plants.

If you’re really wanting to play it safe, I always recommend starting with spinach plants. They’re hearty, grow quickly, and are fine with occasional temperature drops and drafts in the home. They’re a great plant for you to work with and gain confidence.

In the end, starting an indoor garden is simple and, depending on the plant, easy to maintain. Something to keep in mind is that plants are designed to grow outdoors, where conditions can be volatile and temperatures can spike randomly. If you find yourself getting worried about killing a plant or failing at gardening, just remember that if Mother Nature can do it, so can you.

If you do kill a plant, seeds are cheap. You can always try again.