With some research, patience, commitment, and luck, you could grow a garden you can be proud of, even if you live in a city apartment.

Gardening has been shown to have positive effects on mental and physical health. Regularly digging, planting, and weeding is a great form of low-impact exercise. It gets the heart muscles pumping and strengthens the heart, which reduces the risks of heart attacks and stroke. Studies show that the sights, smells and sounds of a garden also promote better relaxation, brain health and reduce stress.

Shah Rizal, 39, is an avid gardener who has been reaping more than just relaxation from gardening in his apartment.

“I grow a wide range of herbs and spices at home, such as pandan, curry leaf, basil, mint, kendondong, ginger, lime, lemon balm and birds’ eye chilli. On many occasions, I cook according to what I have harvested from my garden because fresh ingredients make for more flavourful dishes compared to those from the wet market or supermarket,” he says.

How to grow plants in a small space

Apartment living does not have to curb your passion or interest for gardening, attests Shah, who lives in a 721 square-foot space in the city.

“Herbs, houseplants and vegetables can still thrive in non-landed properties, as long as their specific needs are adequately met,” says Shah. He shares a few basic tips and tricks to get your indoor garden growing.

  1. Get the right amount of sunlight

Access to sunlight is one of the most important factors to consider when gardening indoors. “Before you buy any plant, think about where you want to place it at home. Most fruiting and flowering plants, such as tomatoes and roses for example, aren’t likely to survive in apartments because they need six to eight hours of direct sun daily, which can be hard to come by if you live between tall buildings that block sunlight for part of the day,” explains Shah.”

“Fortunately, most herbs and vegetables can flourish in apartments as they only require the morning sun; you simply have to place them along east-facing balconies or windows for their daily fix. Homes with little sunlight can be spruced up with plants that can survive in low-light conditions such as the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata), pothos, and philodendron.”

  1. Use the right potting soil

High-quality potting soil will help plants grow by providing the ideal balance of nutrition and drainage ability. Instead of buying generic potting soil from garden centres, Shah suggests choosing a potting mix specific to the needs of your plant.

“For example, orchids require fast-draining soil and charcoal, while succulents, which store water in their leaves, prefer porous, sandy soils. If you aim to grow herbs and vegetables at home, use a balanced soil mix, involving two parts soil, one part perlite and one part vermicompost, a vegetable or food waste compost which has been further broken down by various species of worms such as earthworms.”

  1. Water, repot and prune your plants regularly

Watering houseplants might sound simple enough, but it’s something many beginners struggle to do correctly. If you can’t tell when to hydrate your plants, stick your finger about an inch into the potting mix; if it feels dry, it’s time to bring out the watering can.

When repotting your plant, Shah advises considering the pot’s size and draining capability as bigger vessels allow plants to grow more, while water retention leads to root rot, which attracts pests.

“I usually plant seeds and saplings in small pots and repot them in containers that are at least twice as large when they stop growing or if their roots start growing out of the pots’ drainage holes. If you don’t want your plants or herbs to get any larger, you can choose not to repot them.”

He also recommends pruning herbs at least once a month, as this can encourage them to grow better, produce better yield, and develop better flavour. 

How to spot and care for unhealthy plants

Just like animals, plants show signs of distress when they don’t receive the care and nutrients they need. Plants that are thirsty, for example, may have droopy leaves, while yellow or pale leaves indicate insufficient sunlight. If the leaves are brown, it could mean they may have been burnt from too much sun exposure or have root rot, which is a condition caused by soil which retains too much water over a period of time, causing the roots to decay and eventually killing the plant. A plant that attracts pests is usually an indication that the plant is not healthy.

He explains, “New plants from the nursery often take time to acclimatise to its new surroundings, which can attract pests. I usually quarantine my new plants for a week or two in a room or space away from the other plants. This way if they have bugs on them, they don’t spread to the other plants. I then repot them or use neem oil, alcohol, or sulphur soap to get rid of any bugs, if any.”

“I would advise refraining from placing the new plant with your other plants for another three weeks just in case the pests if any, have laid eggs, which may not be visible to the naked eye. Place it in its intended spot when it does not show any sign of decline, and you’re 100 percent certain it’s pest-free.”

Start slow and easy

All this information may seem rather intimidating or overwhelming for a first-time gardener, particularly if you’ve had plants die on you after spending time and effort tending to them. So if you’re new, start with low-maintenance plants that require minimal sunlight, watering, and maintenance, such as the ZZ plant, then work your way up from there!