How To Grow A Vegetable Garden In A College Dorm Room (4 Easy Plants To Try)


If you are a college student tired of paying high prices for fresh produce (if it is available at all!), then you should start a vegetable garden in your dorm room.  You don’t need to have lots of dirt to mess up your room, either – in some cases, you can grow vegetables without any soil at all!

Some easy plants to grow in a college dorm room include microgreens, lettuce, tomatoes, and basil. Microgreens provide lots of options for growing delicious and nutritious sprouts in a small space. Lettuce doesn’t get too tall, and there are miniature tomato varieties that will stay compact. Basil and other herbs can grow without taking up too much room.

Of course, if you have enough space, you can branch off into other edible plants and increase the size of your dorm room garden.

In this article, we’ll start off by looking at some small plants that are easy to grow in a college dorm room. We’ll also give some tips on how to provide proper care for your plants.

Let’s get started.

Plants You Can Grow In A College Dorm Room

Some of the most basic plants you can grow in a college dorm room garden are:

  • microgreens
  • lettuce
  • tomatoes
  • basil

You can often find miniature varieties of these plants to grow, or at least ones that don’t take up much space.

tomato seedling
There are compact tomato varieties that would be perfect for growing in a college dorm room.

Always check with your RA (resident assistant) before planting a vegetable garden, to avoid trouble later!

Growing Microgreens In A College Dorm Room

Microgreens are simply the seedlings of plants that are harvested before they grow to maturity.  Microgreens are packed with vitamins and minerals, and they also have a range of interesting flavors that you can enjoy.

microgreens
Microgreens are packed with nutrients, can grow from many different seeds, and are ready to harvest within a few weeks!

You can eat both the leaves and stems of microgreens by adding them to salads or stir-fries. You can also just munch on them as a snack.  The best part is that you can eat them raw, without cooking them at all!

You can grow as many microgreens as your space allows. A long, flat, shallow container will allow you to harvest lots of microgreens every week or two.

If you keep two or more separate containers, you can plant one tray and harvest from the other to keep a steady supply of microgreens. A seed tray without cells is probably your best bet for growing microgreens.

aluminum trays
An aluminum catering tray would work well as a seed tray for growing plants in a college dorm room.

You get some ideas for what to use as seed trays in my article here.

You may want to buy seeds in bulk for repeated plantings or to share with friends and classmates. Buying seeds in bulk is cheaper than buying them in small packets, so you can also save a few dollars this way.

Some common seeds that you can grow into microgreens include:

  • Beets – these microgreens are said to taste like a mix between beets and spinach.
  • Broccoli – broccoli microgreens have a somewhat spicy or bitter flavor.
  • Lettuce – the flavor of lettuce microgreens can range from mild to spicy, depending on the variety of seed that you plant.
  • Peas – these microgreens tend to grow back after cutting, meaning that you can get a 2nd crop without the effort of planting seeds again.
  • Sunflower seeds – the flavor of sunflower microgreens is somewhat nutty, resembling sunflower seeds themselves. 
sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds can take 10 to 14 days to sprout, but will produce delicious microgreens.

The following table summarizes the time it takes for these seeds to germinate (the time from planting to sprouting):

Seed
Type
Days To
Sprout
Beets5-8
Broccoli10-14
Lettuce7-10
Peas7-14
Sunflower10-14
This table summarizes the
time to sprout for
various microgreen seeds.

Remember that you will need to allow a few days for seedlings to continue to grow after they emerge from the soil. You could harvest microgreens as soon as 10 days or as long as 20 days after planting.

To grow microgreens successfully, you start off with a container (a long, rectangular one is best) and fill it with a growing medium (such as potting soil). You can also use grow bags as containers for your plants – for more information, check out my article on using grow bags indoors.

From there, you will need a good source of light (such as a south-facing window or grow light) and enough water to keep the seedlings growing.  You should not need to fertilize, since the seeds and the potting mix should provide enough nutrition for the seedlings to reach harvesting size (generally 1 to 3 inches tall).

For more information, check out this article on growing microgreens from the Penn State University Extension.

Growing Lettuce In A College Dorm Room

Lettuce grows quickly, and is great for salads or to wrap up meats or stir-fries if you want to avoid bread.  There are many smaller varieties that will grow well in a small container.

lettuce
You can grow small heads of lettuce in your dorm room in 1 to 2 months!

Here are a couple of miniature lettuce varieties you can grow in your dorm room:

  • Breen Lettuce – this is a miniature romaine type lettuce that produces small heads with bronze-red leaves. This variety matures in 45 days, giving you lettuce in 6 or 7 weeks after planting. For more information, check out Breen organic lettuce from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
  • Little Gem Lettuce – this is a miniature green Romaine lettuce that produces tender leaves.  The heads are about 4 inches across.  At 30 to 50 days to maturity, you can have heads of lettuce a month or two after planting!  These seeds germinate in 7 to 10 days.  For more information, check out Little Gem Lettuce on the Urban Farmer Seeds website.
  • Newham Lettuce – this is a little gem type lettuce that produces compact heads that are shaped like vases. This variety matures in 52 days, giving you fresh lettuce for salads in under 8 weeks. For more information, check out Newham Lettuce from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
  • Tom Thumb Butterhead Lettuce – this is a Bibb type lettuce that produces small, compact heads that are about the size of a tennis ball.  One head will make salad for two people!  This variety matures in 50 to 70 days, so if you have 7 to 10 small pots (sow a seed every 7 to 10 days), you will soon have a head of lettuce for salad every week!  These seeds germinate in 7 to 10 days.  For more information, check out Tom Thumb Butterhead Lettuce on the Urban Farmer Seeds website.

Instead of growing each plant separately in its own pot, you can choose to grow several plants together in one long container.  Just be sure to give them enough space to avoid competition!

The problem of competition can be minimized if you stagger the planting of seeds so that they are not all reaching maturity at the same time.  This also ensures that you will always have some lettuce maturing, which gives you a steady supply of produce without getting too much at once.

Of course, if you grow too much lettuce, you can always share some of your fresh produce with friends, roommates, or a study group!

Lettuce does best in full sun, but it can tolerate some shade.  Your best bet is to place a container on a window sill or on some type of stand so that it receives enough light.

Lettuce also needs plenty of water.  While it is possible to over water lettuce, it is easy to avoid this problem.

Simply feel the soil to a depth of a few inches with your fingers.  If it feels dry, go ahead and water your plants.

clay pots
You can give each lettuce plant its own pot to avoid competition between plants.

Don’t simply water them on a set schedule without checking for soil moisture.  Many beginner gardeners “kill their plants with kindness” by watering too often, which can lead to root rot.

Most potting soil mixes (available at garden centers or online) will contain enough nutrition to get your plants going.  Once the soil starts to get depleted after growing for a while, you might need to add some fertilizer.

Look for a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer, preferably in liquid form so that you can mix it with water and feed your plants at the same time you water them.  If you don’t know what those numbers mean, check out my article on NPK ratios.

Lettuce can tolerate cold, so it should do just fine if you leave it near an open window on a cool night.

To get started with lettuce, check out my article on lettuce seed germination and how to speed it up.

Growing Tomatoes In A College Dorm Room

Some tomato varieties mature very quickly, and they can produce lots of little tomatoes on a compact plant.  Cherry or grape tomatoes are your best bet, since it is difficult to grow larger “beefsteak” tomatoes in the limited space you have in a dorm room.

cherry tomatoes
You can grow cherry tomatoes on small, compact plants in your dorm room in about 2 months.

Here are some smaller tomato varieties you can grow in your dorm room:

  • Andrina Tomato – this micro dwarf tomato variety works well in college dorm rooms, since it only grows 8 to 10 inches tall at maturity. However, don’t let the small size fool you – it can still produce a good crop of small tomatoes. The fruit matures 75 days after transplant, so it takes about 11 weeks to get ripe fruit. For more information, check out the Andrina Tomato on Renaissance Seeds.
  • Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Tomato – this compact tomato variety is perfect for balconies or window sills in dorm rooms.  The fruits are small (0.75 to 1 ounce) and grow in clusters like grapes.  The fruit matures in 48 days, so you can have tomatoes 7 weeks after transplanting!  The plant is a compact determinate, only growing 10 inches tall and 8 inches wide.  For more information, check out the Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Tomato on the Bonnie Plants website.
  • Tiny Tim Cherry Tomato – this tiny tomato variety is also great for the limited space in dorm rooms.  The fruits are small (1 inch in diameter), but you will get plenty of them from a single plant!  The plants are determinate, only growing to a height of 8 to 16 inches and a width of 6.5 inches.  The fruit matures in 60 days, meaning that you can have tomatoes about 9 weeks after transplanting.  For more information, check out the Tiny Tim Cherry Tomato on the West Coast Seeds website.
  • Vilma Tomato – this dwarf tomato variety fits into small spaces, since the plant only grows to 8 inches tall. The nickel-sized fruit is deep-red when mature, and they grow in clusters of about 6. The fruit matures 65 days after transplant, giving you ripe fruit in about 9 weeks. For more information, check out the Vilma Tomato on Renaissance Seeds.

Note that it takes longer to grow tomatoes from seed than from transplants. If you grow from seed, it will take several extra weeks for the plants to grow to maturity and produce ripe fruit.

Tomato plants will need larger pots than lettuce, since the plants are larger. In addition, the weight of the fruit could cause smaller pots to tip over.

If you are worried about this, you can put some stones on top of the soil in the pot to provide extra weight and prevent tipping.

Determinate tomato plants produce fruit once and then die off.  To make sure you have fruit at different times of the year, stagger the planting of tomato seeds once every few weeks.

Tomato plants need full sun, meaning at least 8 hours of direct sunlight per day.  This means that you must place them near a window where they will receive plenty of light (a south facing window is best.)

The frequency of watering will depend on weather conditions, but the same advice applies for tomatoes as for lettuce.  The best way is to feel the soil with your fingers and water when it is dry.

Potting mix should provide a good growing medium for tomato plants.  Combined with 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer mixed into water, your tomato plants should thrive and produce plenty of fruit for you.

Tomato plants don’t like cold, so avoid leaving them near an open window on a cold night.

frosted leaf
Tomato plants are not frost hardy, so don’t leave them in the cold!

To get started with tomatoes, check out my article on tomato seed germination and how to speed it up.

Growing Basil In A College Dorm Room

Basil leaves can be picked at any point during the growing season.  You can use them fresh or cooked – just be sure to leave some on the plant so that it can continue to grow!

basil in pot
You can grow basil and pick off leaves for cooking throughout the life cycle of the plant.

Here are some basil varieties you can grow in your dorm room:

  • Cinnamon Basil – this variety is smaller than sweet basil, with a darker color and a spicy cinnamon flavor.  This plant will grow 18 to 30 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide.  For more information, check out Cinnamon Basil on the Bonnie Plants website.
  • Greek Dwarf Basil – this tiny basil variety has a flavor that is a mix of spicy and anise. The plant only grows 6 to 10 inches tall at maturity. For more information, check out Greek Dwarf Basil from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
  • Thai Basil – this variety has a stronger flavor than sweet basil, with a hint of licorice.  The leaves are also smaller than those of sweet basil, and they have purple stems, giving them a nice decorative appearance in dishes.  This plant will grow 1 to 2 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide.  For more information, check out Thai Basil on the Bonnie Plants website.
  • Windowbox Mini Basil – this small basil variety has a rich aroma and is perfect for growing in a window box if you have one. The plants only reach a height of 8 to 10 inches. For more information, check out Windowbox Mini Basil from Renee’s Garden.

You can grow basil in a small container, since there is no fruit to weigh it down or cause it to tip over.  Basil plants require full sun, so put them near a window and keep the shades open!

Keep the soil moist, but don’t over water or you can drown your plants.  The best way to tell, as with all plants, is to feel the soil to see how dry it feels at a depth of a few inches.

If you leave basil near an open window, watch out for cold at night! You can learn about the lowest temperature basil can tolerate in my article here.

You can learn more about growing basil from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

A Word About Hydroponics

If you want to grow plants without the mess of soil, you can try a small hydroponics setup.

However, keep in mind that instead of dealing with soil, you will need to deal with water and maintaining the proper pH and nutrient levels in the hydroponic solution. However, no system is perfect, so pick your work!

hydroponics
A hydroponics setup involves growing plants without soil. Lettuce and herbs are good candidates for this method.

You will also need to find a suitable growing medium for your plants.

For more information, check out this article on hydroponics from the University of Massachusetts Extension.

Conclusion

Now you have a good idea on how to get started with a vegetable garden in your college dorm room.  To make the most of your limited space, choose miniature varieties of plants that are at most 1 to 2 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide.

If you do well with these plants, you can try your hand at others, and perhaps teach some of your friends or classmates how to grow their own dorm room vegetable garden.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone else who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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