Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I saw my dad as an avid gardener; our 2nd story apartment balcony was filled to the brim with his passion projects—lemon, soursop, all kinds of beans, okra, greens like spinach and kale, and tons of other plants all served as that balcony’s main decoration— overshadowing our rabbit Mateo-Paulo’s (may he rest in peace) yellow cage. When my parents bought their first house just outside of the city in Trujillo Alto, a humble 3-bedroom which happened to have a huge yard, that perspective I had of him only further solidified itself as fact. Over the almost 8 years I lived there, my dad filled that yard with all sorts of flora: pumpkins, turmeric, tomatoes, tons of pepper varieties, eggplants, garlic, onions, cherimoya, radishes, and so much more – even a palm tree and a mangrove grown from a branch sourced from Manglillo Beach in Guánica! He even had a dedicated space where he made his own worm and coffee compost mix, which he then sold at a farmers’ market before Hurricane María razed his garden. Not to be stopped, he has since rebuilt it effectively from scratch.
There’s a political element to my dad’s gardening too, one of self-sustainability and of shifting away from the state and the systems in place for our needs. It brings to mind Lenin’s conception of a strategy known as dual power, where in part, the people work to create spaces that provide for us; in an island-colony scattered with food deserts that imports more than 80 percent of the food we consume, the need for strategies like these couldn’t be more urgent or apparent. When my dad sold his compost mix at that farmers’ market he would often barter his product with other gardeners for seeds and plants. My dad’s own philosophy has its roots in the many ways gardening has been used as a tool of political resistance; take, for example, “guerrilla gardening” as a long-standing form of direct action against gentrification and food insecurity, or the simple act of countless resistance groups throughout time growing their own food to feed their revolutions.
All this instilled in me an ever-present and actively political interest in agriculture, but when I moved to New York City for college and moved into my apartment-style suite at Third North I assumed that wouldn’t be a possibility in this new, concrete-clad environment. The most I did was buy a few plants –a ponytail palm, a tiger aloe, a chili pepper plant, and some succulents in cute pots. Over the course of my first year at NYU, I started to take interest in the field of food studies, and issues of food justice and food insecurity. Because of that, I went on to register for a class that seemed relevant to these nascent interests of mine: Introduction to Urban Agriculture, with Melissa Metrick. I started to realize that maybe starting a little gardening project in this hyper-urban environment wasn’t so impossible after all, and that realization quickly proved to be right. Thanks to what I’ve learned so far in Professor Metrick’s class, and the advice my dad gives me when I excitedly call him 3 times a day to ask him what I should plant and what kind of soil and pots I need and how much sunlight my plants need, I’ve started my own little garden in my Lower East Side apartment. So far, my tomato, spinach, and lettuce plants have all sprouted and are thriving as little buds, and most recently I planted passion fruit with seeds from Puerto Rico, cat grass to gift to my friend’s cat, Panini, jalapeños, and basil (I would’ve added viola flowers to this list, but the pot they were in tragically fell and spilled its contents after I planted them).
If you’re interested in starting your own shoebox apartment garden, know that it’s more than possible and not nearly as difficult or expensive as you might think. Start off by researching what kinds of plants can do well indoors; think mint, basil, spinach, and rosemary, for example. Do note that, if you’re leaning towards eating the fruit of your labor, your best bet might actually be the vegetable of your labor; vegetables are generally ready to harvest sooner than fruits, many of which take years to reach maturity, something that isn’t very compatible with those year-long leases and study abroad plans. Herbs are also an amazing and quick-growing choice, especially for cooking—imagine you’re making a dish that calls for some rosemary, and you’re able to just take a few steps to your rosemary plant with a scissor and snip some fresh herbs for that meal.
Also consider the environment around you. See what parts of your apartment get the most light, and place plants around your home taking into account how much sunlight they need. Take note of the fact that, now that winter is nearing, you’ll probably have your radiator on quite a bit, while at the same time, less sunlight will be beaming through your windows. Likewise, once it starts to get hotter, you’re probably sure to have the A/C blasting constantly and sunlight will be much more abundant. This might be a tiny bit more challenging than if you were planting outside during the colder or hotter parts of the year when you’d just be able to plant summer or winter plants respective to whatever season it is, but it’s most definitely not a major hurdle that can’t be overcome with a little bit of research.
Think about what you want to do with your plants: do you just want to decorate your apartment? Make it smell nice? Bring some more oxygen in? Or maybe you want to take a step towards self-sustainability, following in the footsteps of Thoreau, and be able to grow your own food! Think about all you want to do and research the plants you’d need to grow accordingly. Of course, remember that patience is a must during all of this, and it should be a given that your seeds are not going to grow into a full-sized plant overnight. Many plants will sprout quickly, and tons of others should be ready to harvest relatively soon (like microgreens and sprouts), but for the most part, you’ll need patience and care.
Finally, one important step that you might not see on any website you get when you google “how to start a garden indoors:” get involved with community gardens and community organizations that work against food insecurity, donate if you’re able to, and read up on the history and present state of gardening and agriculture. See who’s out there doing this work too, and learn from them. I suggest looking into community fridges near you and reaching out to see how you can help out—often, these fridges are also projects maintained by larger organizations which you can also get involved with, such as the Loisaida Fridge by Tompkins and Trinity's Services And Food for the Homeless. In and around NYU, there’s East Village Mutual Aid, the NYU FREEdge, and LES Food Not Bombs and, of course, many others. There are radical and political elements to this work that I highly, highly suggest you learn about! Kant (might have) said that “practice without theory is blind [and] theory without practice is empty,” and as imperfect of a proposition that may be in many cases, I do think it has its place here.