You don’t need a very big yard to start gardening. In fact, you don’t need ANY yard to begin growing your own food from home. When I moved to my new home in Tokyo about a year ago, I knew that I wanted to try growing my own fruits and vegetables, but I wasn’t sure how successful I’d be with a small balcony and patio.

Despite being a complete beginner and just following my intuition, I managed to have some pretty successful yields. I was able to grow strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplants, spinach, potatoes, and more all on my first try! Just look at some of the results:

Peppers, spinach, and tomatoes I grew in Tokyo!
Peppers, spinach, and tomatoes I grew in Tokyo!

It took quite a bit of time (and money) investment, but it was so satisfying to look out the window and see my garden flourish and grow bit by bit each day. Sure I could have bought all of these from the supermarket with a lot less effort if I wanted to, but it was so rewarding being able to prepare meals with the fruits and vegetables I grew and picked on my own.

Obviously, one year of gardening does not make me an expert. I still very much consider myself a beginner. I have, however, learned quite a bit over my year of mishaps and would like to share that information with other people living in Tokyo, Japan or other cities around the world.

With a little bit of sunshine and space you can start your own garden and I’m going to try my best to share how!

Information You’ll Need Before Starting Your Garden

Various pots we tried while getting started.

First and foremost, you just need some clear space (big or small). It doesn’t matter if it’s a balcony, patio, or even rooftop. Take a good look at the space you want to start your garden in and jot down the measurements. You’ll need to know how big it is to determine what size pots will work the best.

  • How much ground space do you have?
  • How thick are the rails on your balcony?
  • How much space is usually left under your laundry if you hang it outside?
  • Can you hang additional poles on your laundry rack?

Next, you’ll want to take note of how water will drain from the space.

  • Where is the drain located?
  • How quickly does it drain?
  • Is it clogged?
  • Can soil drain through it without causing any issues for you or your neighbor?

Lastly, you’ll need to get a good idea of how much sunlight the space typically gets.

  • Does it get direct or indirect sunlight?
  • How many hours of sunlight does it usually get in a day?
  • Is there anything you can move to increase the sunlight exposure?
  • Is the sunlight exposure better in some spots than others?

Now that you have a good idea of what your gardening space is like, let’s take a look at some of the supplies you’ll need to start planting!

Wild strawberries can be grown in small pots!

Supplies You’ll Need to Get Started

It doesn’t take a lot of supplies or materials to start gardening, but spending a little bit more in the beginning can save you some headache and help you have a great start. At the very least all you’ll need is a container, some soil, and water. However, there are many options out there, and some may help you be more successful with your space than others.

Gardening Pots and Containers

I recommend buying a few large pots or containers to start out your DIY garden. You could begin with small ones, but you’ll have to transplant everything within a couple weeks time. You also run the risk of them drying out too quickly, getting knocked over easily, or the plants running out of space.

Growing eggplants and spinach together in the same pot.

I made the mistake of planting my cherry tomatoes in some medium size pots, because I didn’t know how tall they would get. Tomatoes require some kind of vertical support to keep from falling over, but my pots were a bit shallow and couldn’t always keep the poles upright. Eventually my tomatoes ended up dying during the rainy season, because the pots weren’t high enough to allow the water to drain from them quickly.

This year I’m going with all large pots that have legs with a few centimeters of space underneath to allow water to flow underneath to the drain quickly. The ones that worked the best for me are these Iris Ohyama Air Planters:

Large plastic pots for growing vegetables
Large pots for vegetables that grow above the soil.

These containers are 41 x 73 x 26 cm in size. They hold about 40 liters of soil and have a really nice system for allowing air into the container. I got mine from my local Keio D2 store, but you can also order the Iris Ohyama Air Planters online through Amazon.

Last year I also purchased some large felt pots. These are more environmentally friendly, because they biodegrade much more quickly than plastic. I recommend large deep pots such as these for vegetables that grow under the soil such as potatoes, carrots, and daikon radishes. The only thing you’ll want to beware of is how soggy they can become during the rainy season if they’re left sitting directly on the ground.

Felt pots are great for vegetables that grow under the soil such as potatoes.

If you decide to go for felt pots, you’ll definitely need something to raise them up with so that water can still drain from them quickly or else your vegetables may end up rotting.

Hanging pots for vertical gardening are an excellent option if you want to grow plants along your balcony wall without giving up ground space. You can hang regular pots from hooks on your laundry poles, or pocket planters such as these felt ones on Amazon:

Pocket planters for vertical gardening.
Pocket planters are good for vertical gardening if you don’t have much space.

Soil and Fertilizer

Soil is probably your most important investment when starting your garden. Good quality soil will help your fruits and vegetables thrive and really increase your yields. I didn’t know what to look for when I went shopping at my local garden center, so when I got to the soil section I just picked out some bags that had pictures of fruits and vegetables on them.

I did warn you that I’m also a beginner!

In Japan, the soil you’ll want for vegetables is called 腐葉土 (fuyoudo) and it usually already comes with fertilizer. You’ll need a couple bags to fill one of the large containers like I have. Many of the local gardening shops will deliver them to your home for you for a small fee, or will even let you borrow one of their trucks for an hour to take them home yourself if you have a driver’s license. That’s what my husband usually does.

These are rocks you can put under the soil to help with drainage.

At some point you will need additional fertilizer as the amount in the soil decreases. There are so many different kinds available, because different vegetables have different needs. In general though, plant fertilizer is called 肥料 (hiryou) or 堆肥 (taihi).

Some plant food we got for our vegetables.

I’ll go more in depth about soil and fertilizer in a future post since those topics are a bit more advance.

Eventually you might want to add some gardening gloves to your arsenal of supplies, but they aren’t absolutely necessary to get started. They’re just nice to have to keep your hands and nails clean, but a bit of scrubbing with some soap will accomplish that as well.

Watering Canisters and Hoses

Your vegetable garden is going to need water and lots of it—especially during the dry months of the summer. You could keep a small garden watered with just a cup, but that’ll require numerous trips between your kitchen sink and balcony. That’ll get cumbersome very quickly!

A decent size watering can will help you get the job done!
A decent size watering can will help you get the job done!

Most apartments and homes in cities like Tokyo don’t have outside spigots that you could connect a water hose to. We were VERY fortunate to discover that ours was one of the rare ones that did. We didn’t learn about it until halfway through the summer when I went snooping around the yard and saw one tucked away in the corner.

Before that we tried hooking a water hose to our bathroom faucet and looped it through our small shower window. It was very impractical turning the hose on from the bathroom and running outside frantically to avoid wasting too much water on the ground. Then we had to run back inside quickly to turn it off once we were finished.

Although we have our water hose hooked up outside, we still also like to use our watering canister. It’s gentler on the plants and wastes a lot less. One big watering can should be enough for most small balcony and patio gardens.

In Japan water cans are called じょうろ (jyouro) and water hoses are called 水まき用ホース (mizumakiyou housu).

Some Seeds and Seedlings

Now we get to the fun part! It’s time to buy some seeds or seedlings for your garden. Which one you decide to start with is up to you, but I went mostly with seedlings my first try just so I could see some progress right away. I also started kind of late in the season to plant my own seeds, so there was a chance they wouldn’t have taken off as well if I had started from scratch.

Seeds in Japan are called 種 (tane). The back of the seed packets will tell you the best months to plant them depending on the climate you’re in. Just keep in mind that 月上 (joujun) is the beginning of the month, 月中 (chuujun) is the middle of the month, and 月下 (gejjun) is the end of the month, but the kanji are abbreviated to save space. They’ll also tell you how deep the soil should be, and how much space you’ll need between each seed. Here is an example:

Now You’re Ready to Start Your Garden

Now that you have a basic idea of what you’ll need for your garden, all that’s left is to actually start! Spring is the best season to begin growing your own fruits and vegetables, but don’t feel demotivated to start if you read this post later on in the year. There’s always something you can grow regardless of what month it is, so I’ll put together a planting calendar in another post.

This is your year to get your hands dirty and add some fresh greens to your life! Happy planting!

READ: A Guide to Apartments in Japan for Foreigners