Design by Room Outdoors

6 Experts Share Their Holy Grail Tools for City Gardening

Including a miracle pest-repelling oil.

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’Tis the season to show off your gardening skills—but for those of us who live in a city, that looks a little different. Instead of, sprawling backyard plots, we have window boxes. Mini herb pots on the windowsill are our equivalent to patio planters. When working within the constraints of an apartment, you have to take all sorts of considerations into account. So we tapped a few experts and asked them to share their firsthand experience. 

From the miniature item that keeps balcony sprouts regularly hydrated to the storage solution that helps a pro cram as many greens as possible into limited square footage, these are their holy grail tools. 

Phoebe Cheong 

woman holding a plant surrounded by other plants
Photography by Wini Lao

The tool: Plant Tarps

Why she swears by it: These are great when it comes to any plant project, from watering to repotting to soil mixing to even moss making—they keep the dirt and water in and prevent a mess (whether that’s on your coffee table or your fire escape). Plus they’re super-easy to clean and store.

Ben Alcaraz

man sitting in room surrounded by plants
Photography by Ben Alcaraz

The tool: Ladder Bookcase

Why he swears by it: A wood shelf allows you to add layers and depth to your plants in a tiny space by filling in the ledges with foliage to create a dynamic look. Place trailing plants in the top corners so you get the most out of them—let them drape over the side so they don’t hang over your other greens and make the setup look too clunky.

Brielle O’Neill

woman sitting in room with plants
Photography by Brielle O’Neill

The tool: Moisture Meter

Why she swears by it: It really helped me fine-tune my watering schedule! I found that the soil used for my indoor plants was not drying out as quickly as that of my outdoor plants—a lot of people overwater indoor greenery, and it’s the opposite for fire escape and balcony gardens. This tool eliminates the inaccuracies of eyeballing the soil.

Thomas Goyvaerts

man sitting in room surrounded by plants
Photography by Thomas Goyvaerts

The tool: Terracotta Pots

Why he swears by it: I’ve got quite a busy lifestyle, the downside of which is that when I get home at night, I still have to water more than 400 plants before I go to bed; often I’m very sleepy and end up overwatering them. With terracotta planters, this isn’t an issue! The clay material absorbs excess liquid and releases it by evaporation. These simple pots stand up to rain on balconies and prevent those plants from getting soggy, which greatly reduces the chance of rotting roots. They’re also strong enough to withstand freezing temperatures, as long as water can drain from them.

Sarai Reed

woman sitting in room with plants
Photography by Sarai Reed

The tool: Cold Pressed Neem Oil

Why she swears by it: Neem oil has dozens of botanical uses—I use it as an all-natural insecticide for fighting pests like spider mites. You can also dilute it and apply it to a microfiber cloth when cleaning your leaves. I like to use it twice a month this way; it’s great for helping your plants look shiny and pretty but also keeping them healthy.

Marion Botanical 

woman in room with plants
Photography by Marion Botanical

The Tool: Champi Oyas  

Why she swears by it: Oyas help avoid wasting water and make sure the soil stays moist without risking overwatering. These wonderful ceramic pieces have a reservoir to fill with water, and a porous tail to put into the soil that will gently release water over time as the dirt becomes dry. There are some companies that sell terracotta versions, which are perfect for balconies because they’re weatherproof; you just need to put them deeper into the soil and cover the top with straw in order to keep them away from the sun. My west-facing balcony is happy with them, especially when I leave for vacation.

Introducing Domino’s new podcast, Design Time, where we explore spaces with meaning. Each week, join editor-in-chief Jessica Romm Perez along with talented creatives and designers from our community to explore how to create a home that tells your story. Listen now and subscribe for new episodes every Thursday.

Elly Leavitt

Writer and Editor

Elly enjoys covering anything from travel to funky design (tubular furniture, anyone?) to the latest cultural trend. Her dream apartment would exist on the Upper West Side and include a plethora of mismatched antique chairs, ceramic vessels, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases—essential to her goal of becoming a poor man’s Nora Ephron. You can probably find her in line at Trader Joe’s. You will never find her at SoulCycle.