How The Heck Do I Grow My Own Food… in a small space?

How The Heck Do I Grow My Own Food… in a small space?

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Home gardening is definitely having a moment right now. Kourtney explains how to jump in on the trend, even if you live in an apartment or don't have much cash to spend on supplies.

Austinites You Should Know

About the Author

Kourtney Elaine is a Visual Designer + Staff Writer with The Austin Common. She strives to foster empathy and connection through visual mediums and creative storytelling.

Picture this: You wake up in the morning and walk outside to your garden. The ground is soft and moist beneath your feet, and dew drops are still clinging to the deep green leaves of your beautiful, healthy plants. The sun is just coming up and your flowers are starting to stretch open to greet the day. You dig your fingers into the rich soil, breathing in the earthy aroma. Everything is vibrant and alive.


Sounds like a dream, huh?


Well, for some of us, it might just be a dream.


For some of us (i.e. yours truly), the reality looks a little more like this: You walk outside your rental house and look out over your yard full of patchy grass and dirt, persistent hackberry stumps, and random piles of concrete bricks. Feeling defeated, you turn to go inside and catch a glimpse of your long-dead mini Christmas tree, a slightly murderous-looking garden gnome, and a decorative flower pot with an old shoe in it, all standing proudly by your front door. Your thumbs aren’t green, but black.


We’ve all seen the articles lately about how people are using the current pandemic situation to finally start cultivating their own little food forests. Heck, we even published one just last week! You might want to jump on the green thumb train too, but worry that you don’t have what you need to start. Maybe you live in an apartment and don’t have space for a large raised bed. Or you lost your job and don’t have the money to buy all the necessary supplies. I totally get it, and that’s why I’m here to lay those worries to rest. Enter – hydroponics.


What is hydroponics?


Hydroponics is a way of growing plants without soil, instead growing plants in a water + nutrient solution. It has several benefits compared to traditional gardening in that it requires less resources (including space, soil, and water), produces higher yields, and allows plants to be grown year-round, indoors or outdoors. There are a few different types of systems you can build, depending on what type of plants you want to grow, how much space you have, and what materials you have on hand or want to purchase. Seeing as we’re in the middle of a pandemic, I wanted to build something easy, cheap, and without having to leave my house to go buy anything, so I opted for a very simplified wick hydroponic system.


What do I need?

  • Containers (two, interlocking- one sits inside another)

    • Plastic cups (laundry soap lids, take-out soup containers, plastic soda bottles)

    • Aluminum soda or soup cans

    • Glass jars

  • Water + Nutrients (in lieu of soil)

    • Water can be from the tap, just make sure to leave it in an open container overnight to allow chlorine to gas off before adding it to your system.

    • Nutrients can be store bought or homemade (either using compost tea or by mixing fertilizer with water)

    • Try: rockwool cubes, coconut coir, clay pebbles, small stones, pumice

  • Plants/seeds (duh)

  • Optional: bubbler + air stone (can be found in fish departments at pet stores)


Try sourcing materials from things you can find around the house, or ask friends and neighbors if they have something you need. If you still need to purchase something, support a local biz – The Natural Gardener, Barton Springs Nursery, and Tillery Street Plant Company are all open, and Central Texas Seed Savers is even offering grab bags of seeds!


How do I build a system?


Step 1: Gather your materials.

Gather Materials


Step 2: Assemble



Step 3: Name your plant and welcome him/her to the family!

George the Jalapeno


**If you’re starting seeds, this can also be done without soil (just replace with another growing medium- I used a coconut coir brick I had leftover from my compost worms)!

Starting Seeds



Which plants should I use?


Once you’ve decided what kind of system you want to have, you can determine which plants will grow best in that system. It all depends on a few different factors – how much water the plants will take up, how deep or shallow the roots are, and whether they will need extra support as they grow. Microgreens, leafy greens, and herbs do well in smaller systems; they grow fast and take up little space. The seeds I planted- cucumbers, strawberries, and tomatoes- will likely need to be transplanted into larger systems as they start to bear fruit.


How do I continue to take care of my plants?

  • Replenish water and nutrients in your system as needed. Some plants will require more water than others and you may find yourself replacing water daily as the plants get bigger. The type of nutrient you’re using will determine how much and how often to replenish. Personally, I use compost tea and replenish in a 1:20 ratio every time I change out the water.

  • Make sure your plants are getting sufficient sun, or place under artificial lights as necessary.

  • Put an opaque covering (try duct tape or a paper bag) around the water reservoir of your hydroponic system to prevent algae growth.

  • Keep seeds covered with a translucent cover (like clear plastic or saran wrap) to retain moisture. Remove when sprouts start peeking through.

  • Once seeds have sprouted into seedlings, they can be transplanted into a larger hydroponic system.


What if I still don’t think I can do all of this?

If you’re still intimidated at the thought of building your own, then just buy a ready-made system! You can find plenty of options on the internet at varying sizes and prices. Even better, support local Austin business Lettuce Grow– they sell super cool hydroponic systems that are even made from recycled plastic.


Just remember- gardening is supposed to be fun and therapeutic. If you think you don’t have exactly what you need to start a garden or build a hydroponic system, get creative! Make it an experiment! Plants aren’t too picky; give them water, sun and nutrients and they’ll do fine (this coming from someone who’s killed a cactus, so take my advice with a grain of salt). And be sure to follow us on Instagram @The_Austin_Common to see George the Jalapeno’s progress!


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