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Sydney’s cost of living is more expensive than for Paris and Singapore, says Dr Nicola Davies. Growing a small fruit, herb or vegetable garden can cut down food expenses tremendously.

Gardening typically needs natural, open spaces with plenty of sunlight, but that doesn’t mean an indoor garden can’t provide these. Indoor gardens not only provide a manageable means to grow your own food, but also make the home cleaner and prettier, says horticulturist, Andrea Durrheim. Durrheim shares these five simple tips on growing your own fresh produce in the kitchen:

1. Let there be light

… and air and space. Australia experiences varied types of climates, but this isn’t a problem for indoor gardens. Common problems that indoor gardens face are air circulation, sunlight, and space. “Air circulation is important for pest and disease control,” says Durrheim, “If windows can be open, at least during the day, this helps.” Some indoor gardening starter kits provide tools to help with air circulation; some commercial set-ups make use of fan systems.

Durrheim adds, “Sunlight is an important issue. For potted plants, place them near sunny and north-facing windowsills: about three hours of strong sunlight a day will be enough for most veggies and herbs.” She also suggests using grow-lights, which are electric and artificial lighting systems that stimulate plant growth. Some types are high-intensity discharge (HID) lights and high intensity fluorescent grow lights. Choosing grow-light types depends on the garden size and the plant’s light requirements.

Choosing the right location is critical not only for proper sunlight, but for keeping plants away from pets and children; it also determines the space available where plants can expand. “Think before you plant,” advises Durrheim. “Plants like squash and pumpkin take up too much space. Tomatoes are a better choice, although they would need some kind of trellising - a latticework where a plant can climb. It’s not impossible, but should be thought through.”

2. Think vertical

If space is a major limitation, growing vertical gardens is an option. Vertical gardens are plants that grow along the walls or are potted and hung from the ceiling. “Vertical walls definitely save a lot of space,” says Durrheim. “There are several commercial vertical gardening systems available, some of them very attractive and allowing for recirculation of water and a degree of automation.”

Vertical gardens not only give an insulating effect, but can also be more practical and cost-effective. They often run on a hydroponic system, where there is no potting soil; instead it uses gravel or clay pellets bathed in a special nutrient solution, or a semi-hydroponic system, which uses potting medium where recirculating nutrient solution runs through. This kind of garden allows the growth of climbing plants. For Durrheim, “Strawberries are a winner. You can get very pretty strawberry pots that allow you to plant at the top of the pot as well as the pockets on the sides. For those seeking a set-up that’s a bit more productive and technical, there are vertical hydroponic system towers.” Vertical gardens may also require grow-lights with a wider scope.

3. Feed your garden

“Nutrients will constantly leach out,” says Durrheim, “especially for plants that are not potted in traditional garden soil. Plants will need nutrient feeding. There are good organic liquid feeds and excellent, balanced hydroponic feeds. You would usually add some sort of nutrient mix in hydroponic systems. For potted plants and semi-hydroponic systems, liquid feeding should happen every week or two. Fertilisers are also a type of feed. There are some excellent polymer-coated fertilisers that last up to three months, which is long enough to get a crop out of most herbs and veggies. However, fertilisers that contain the basic nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK fertilisers) might also need trace elements, which are biochemical and dietary elements needed in very small quantities for proper growth and development of living things. A low-cost source for trace elements is wood ash, which also raises the pH level for very acidic soils, creating a favourable home for vegetables like broccoli and lettuce that thrive in neutral grounds. Hardwood ash also has higher nutrient and mineral content than softwood ash. If pesticides are needed to fight pests and diseases, I would advocate the use of organic and non-toxic recipes.”

4. A cautionary tale

Proper drainage and floor waterproofing are essential! Durrheim shares a story about an apartment dweller who reported water leaking from his ceiling: “Upon investigation, the building owners found that the man upstairs had simply spread growing medium directly on the floor to grow a veggie patch. This is definitely not the way to do it!” There are waterproofing patches that should line the floor first. It’s also good to use drip-trays and ceramic pot sleeves, which help with drainage. “Make sure you aren't getting water build-up, which could ‘drown’ the plants.”

5. Grow from left-overs

Instead of throwing them away, leftovers can be a good starting point for indoor gardens. You can grow plants from leftover scraps of potato, capsicum, chilli, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. “Herbs and dwarf vegetables are good possibilities,” says Durrheim. “This could include basil, oregano, thyme and sage. Vegetable-wise, butter lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, radishes and carrots are all good examples of foods that don't need particularly big containers.” Other plants that can be regrown from scraps are potato, lemongrass, capsicums, onion, garlic, tomato, and even pineapple tops. Growing your own food can bring in a lot of savings, and having no land to plant your own fruits and vegetables is no longer an excuse. With indoor gardening, you can make your home a greener place to live in while also controlling how your family’s food is grown and prepared.