How to Build an Indoor Garden In 6 Broad Steps

A beautiful picture of the indoor garden
The part of the Tub Garden that is actually over the bathtub..

A Real Garden, With Dirt, But Indoors.

Unlike many indoor gardens which are grown hydroponically, I set out to build an old-fashioned, indoor, soil garden. I wanted to get my hands dirty, and do the kind of gardening that I knew and loved. I just wanted to do it inside, where I could keep the frost out. We live at high altitude (about 8000 feet, in the shadow of a mountain) and our outside gardening seasoning never seems to be longer than a disappointing month and a half. So, I took matters into my own hands and carved out a garden where the temperature is always perfect and the sun always shines. Except the one or two days a year, maybe, when the power goes out.

Since 2016, we’ve grown everything in here from asters to zinnia, eggplants to zucchini. Some plants do really well in the artificial environment. Like cinnamon basil, and tomatoes. But others do not. We are always trialing and testing new varieties of vegetables and flowers to see what thrives. We’ve met with a lot of challenges along the way. Like how do you get tomatoes and eggplants to fruit, when there are no bees to pollinate the flowers? Or, why won’t onions bulb when the day-length is constant, forever? The Tub Garden has evolved constantly through the years as we’ve learned to improve our methods, but we’ve also made some disastrous mistakes along the way.

Typical vegetable harvest, grown in an indoor garden
Some of the vegetables we grow in our indoor garden.

So we thought it would be helpful to share some of our hard earned “wisdom”. Here you’ll find a very basic introduction to our Tub Garden, and how to build an indoor garden of your own, in 6 broad steps.

Follow along to see how we transformed this room from a pretty boring floor-level bathroom…into the vegetable producing plot that sits on top of a jetted tub, that we now lovingly call our Tub Garden.

Step #1. Pick out a place to build your indoor garden.

This may seem obvious, but you are going to have to choose a place to plant your garden. You won’t be worried about sun exposure, or shady spots, like when planning a typical garden. Instead you’ll need to think about access to water, electricity, and whether your floors can handle a little spillage. Which, unfortunately, is inevitable.

Carve out a space for your garden. If you have access to water, electricity, and easy-to-clean floors…you’ve struck gold!

A bathroom is an ideal choice for a garden, because you have access to water and electricity. The shower and tub drains help prevent the possibility of flooding or damage to carpeted floors, for example. Plus the tile floors naturally found in a bathroom allow for easy clean up. But a basement or an attic can work just as well with a little creative planning.

The first thing we did when we started to build our indoor garden four long years ago, was to cover up the tub with a nice thick sheet of cheap plywood. This created an even workspace to cram in as many plants as possible, plus room to actually tend to them.

We added three 1” holes and covered them with bathroom sink strainer screens when we re-did the garden. This way, any water that overflows or spills has a place to drain, but dirt won’t go through to the tub below. We did a deep clean in here after about three years of gardening without these strainers, and there was remarkably little dirt in the tub. It only took about an hour to clean. But I still prefer that less (or no) dirt gets down to the actual tub.

A view of the tub garden inside vegetable garden that we built on top of a bathtub
Black Krim Tomatoes growing in the indoor garden.

Try to make sure you can garden at a comfortable height.

The tub is at a great height for gardening without killing your back. And the little step stool allows me to sit while I tend to the plants in the very back. These are things to think about while designing your space. If you can’t reach your plants, you can’t take care of them properly, and then you can’t pick their flowers and fruits.

Step #2. Create as much reflective surface as you can stand.

Mylar is a great option, traditional to “grow rooms”...

It’s hard to see in these pictures, but at the top of the “shower” area, we have 2 mil horticultural mylar coating on the walls. It is wonderfully reflective and makes the most of the light you provide. It also screams “grow room”, so I’ve only used it minimally. When you decide to build your own indoor garden, think about what things are important to you. For me, I wanted the room to feel like a “real” room, not just a plant factory.

But I prefer matte white paint, which is also very reflective.

Initially, the whole bathroom was covered in mylar because I thought indoor gardens had to have that. But after more research, and experience, I re-discovered that white paint is wonderfully reflective as well. In fact, a lot of professional grow rooms use white matte plastic walls, or white flat painted walls. This allows light to reflect back to their plants without creating harmful hot spots as mylar can do. And personally, I find it makes for a much more pleasant, less industrial, environment to work in. Plus it’s easier to clean. The paint I used on the walls and the bottom plank is Rust-Oleum’s Chalked paint in Linen White. It is highly recommended for its reflective properties.

When we started, we only grew flowers for the first few years. You can see this image is from before the plywood was painted white and the drains were installed. It was a bit of a hot mess back then but we were learning new techniques in leaps and bounds. Painting that plywood white actually increased our light reflectivity by quite a bit.

The original flower garden, with pipes and cords and ropes everywhere.

Step #3. Provide light.

Believe it or not, plain old LED shop lights have worked just fine for us.

People always ask me, “How do you figure out all those halogen light systems?” But honestly, I just skipped them completely. There is a lot of literature out there on the “right” types of lights to use for an indoor garden. But after exhaustive research, we ended up just going with basic white LED shop lights instead. And they have worked out just fine. I started with just a few, but kept adding them every time they went on sale at hardware stores nearby.

I knew I wanted the lights to be on pulleys so I could move them up and out of the way for easier gardening, and also to be able to move them up as plants inevitably got taller. The key here was to get as many lights as we could afford, and then to get as many as possible to move on as few pulley systems as possible. The fewer groupings of lights, the easier it is to get them up and out of the way.

Read more about it…and don’t overload your circuit!

If you’d like to read more about lighting an indoor garden, check out our page dedicated to lighting. There, we review how to put lights up on a simple pulley system, how many lights you’ll need for your space, how to make sure you won’t overload your circuit, and what light types work best. It’s not hard at all, so don’t let this step intimidate you.

Step #4. Figure out how you are going to provide water.

If you’re going to build an indoor garden, you definitely need to think about water. The easier you make it to water your garden, the more chance you will succeed. We took two crucial steps to make watering our indoor garden more user friendly.

Self watering bins help immensely...

We made every planter in the Tub Garden into a self-watering bin. The self watering bins are highly effective at retaining water, allowing us to water less frequently. This step enables you to go out of town for a few days without needing to worry about your plants dying. The self-watering bins also take a lot of the guess work out of watering since they allow the plants to draw up the water they need, when they need it. They truly are a game changer, especially in the dry, indoor air. Click here for a complete, step-by-step guide to making your own self watering planters, DIY.

And if you’re getting really serious, maybe even consider an irrigation system!

A simple hose attached to a sink can get the job done very well. I feel like there is no better way to water my plants than to look and them, and water each one based on how much water I think it needs. But I work long, unpredictable hours and I can’t always get in to check on the garden.

So, we actually added an indoor-grade irrigation system. And it is the coolest. Initially, we pulled water off of the toilet (the clean side), and hooked it up to a basic, outdoor micro-drip irrigation system. Later, when we redid the whole Tub Garden room, we re-routed the water with indoor grade plumbing from underneath the bathroom sink. If you’d like to read more about how to set up an irrigation system, pulled off of indoor plumbing, click here. This step is a little intimidating, but it is also totally optional. With this step, you can go out of town for a week, or two, without worrying about your plant friends all being dead when you get back.

Step # 5. Create a Seedling Station.

Start all of your plants from seed, to keep out bugs and disease.

This step is a very important one, not to be overlooked. It is crucial to start every plant in your indoor garden from seed. This prevents the introduction of disease and bugs that may be hidden on a live plant, whether from outside or from a garden store. Once a pest infestation takes hold indoors, there are no natural predators to keep them in check. So, the best thing you can do, to save yourself time and heartache, is to start all of your plants from seed. And then, no matter how tempting, never bring any “outside” plants in to your garden. Ever.

I had to learn this the hard way. Several times. Before it really sunk in.

Find a warm cozy spot…or make one!

So, of course, a seedling station located right in your garden makes a lot of sense. We tucked ours into a little spot underneath the potting bench. It is the one spot where we splurged for a fancy, professional, grow light. Warming mats and a watering can complete the seedling station. If you’d like to read more about starting seeds indoors, in a way that doesn’t make a mess, check out our page called Starting Seeds Indoors.

Step #6. Finishing Details.

Add all the little details to make it a pleasant, comfortable space…(A rug really ties the room together. )

Finally, we added all the little things that make a space pleasant. We installed fans for ventilation. Next, we put in a a radio, a chalkboard for notes, and a thermometer that checks the humidity as well. We moved in the tools and seeds, and added a dish-rack for easy cleanup. And, of course, no room is complete without a rug and a painting!!

After all, this is a place where I want my friends and family to feel at home, encouraged to garden a bit, or even to pluck a late-night snack.

So that’s it!

This was a very basic introduction into how we built the Tub Garden that produces all the vegetables that make the yummy foods we’ve been cooking up on this blog. If you need more information to build your own indoor garden, you can find a lot more detail on our pages devoted to water, light, electricity, and soil.

Our Tub Garden has become an unexpected paradise in our house. It’s a relaxing place to spend some time. And it’s the most locally-sourced food you can get. From your own Tub, straight to your own Table. I mean, you don’t even have to go outside!

If you like what you see here at Tub to Table, share us on Facebook or leave a comment below! We’d love to hear what others are growing in completely indoor environments like this. We’re happy to give advice, but we’d always love to get some as well!

A still life of vegetables gathered from the garden including tomatoes, beets and parsnips.
A typical harvest from our little garden under lights.

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