18 Best Plants You Can Grow In A Van (And How To Do It)

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To some, living in a van would be a nightmare – cramped spaces, no internet, and not enough basic comforts like a hot shower. To others, it’s the definition of freedom. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or someone who does vanlife full time, you may be wondering if you can grow plants in a van and which ones are the best to plant?

Growing plants in your van is a great way to have access to fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs. The best plants to grow in a van include herbs like basil, cilantro, parsley, and chives. Microgreens, lettuce, dwarf tomatoes, carrots, and radishes are also great choices for vanlife plants. 

Having a small garden in your van will come with its own challenges, but in the end, it will be worth it to reap the benefits and enjoy fresh veggies wherever you go! Keep reading to learn if you can grow vegetables in a van!

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Can You Grow Vegetables In A Van?

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Vanlife comes with many challenges. You have to figure out what kitchen setup you want, choose whether or not to invest in a hot water tank, and decide if you want a fixed bed or not.

Not to mention, the van you call your home is a moving vehicle. All your dishes, kitchen supplies, and other items must somehow be able to stay in place while in motion.

So, how in the world can you grow a garden in a moving vehicle? Is it even possible?

YES! You can absolutely grow vegetables and herbs inside your van. With a little care and creative innovation, you can have access to your own fresh favorites no matter where you are in the world.

That being said, you can’t just throw a tomato plant in a pot and expect it to grow if you set it near a window. To grow plants in a van, you have to get creative.

How To Grow Plants In A Van

In this article, we’ll mainly be talking about plants that provide fruits or herbs that you can use for eating. In a van, space is limited, so while house plants are nice to look at they don’t really do anything except provide aesthetic enrichment.

Many vegetable plants that you grow in an outdoor garden come in dwarf varieties. Dwarf plants are the same thing as fully-grown plants in terms of the fruits they bare, they’re just tiny. Perfect for vanlife.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the things you’ll need to grow plants in a van.

Pick The Right Pot For Your Vanlife Plants

Living in a moving vehicle means using anything breakable – dishes, pans, planters, etc. – can be a disaster. 

To grow plants in a van, you’ll want to use a pot that isn’t breakable and can mold to different spaces. You can use rigid plastic pots, but just be aware that these may only fit in certain places.

And one thing you don’t want to do is glue or nail the pot in a specific place so it doesn’t move. Remember, you’ll have to water your plants and the water will have to drain somewhere. Having a movable, flexible pot is the best option.

Consider using something like Gardzen’s 1 Gallon Grow Bags Fabric Pots. This is a flexible, non-woven fabric planter that can fit in a bunch of different locations depending on your setup.

These bags also come in a variety of sizes from 1 gallon up to 25 gallons, so you can choose the bag that’s right for your plant. Although, we don’t suggest planting anything in your van that requires more than 5 gallons of space.

A 1-gallon fabric bag will be approximately 6” H X 8” W, a 2-gallon bag 7” X 10”, and a 3-gallon bag 9” X 10”. 

Fabric pots are better than plastic & ceramic pots for vanlife for a few reasons:

  • Reusable: Eliminates clutter and garbage.
  • Uses less space: Can hang, mold to your cup holder, squish into the sink, and flatten down where needed.
  • No chance of breaking: Even plastic pots can crack and snap off if they fall. Fabric pots will not.

Choose The Right Location For Your Vanlife Plant

Vans make studio apartments look like enormous luxury homes. To put things in perspective, the average size of a studio apartment is around 500-600 square feet.

A van? You’re looking at about 60-70 square feet of space. Add in your bed, cabinets, and counter space, and you’re limited in where to put your plants. 

But that’s okay! Vanlife isn’t about spending the entire time inside your van. It’s all about exploring, right?

If you’re staying in one place for a few days, consider putting your plant outside during the day to let it get some sun, enjoy fresh air, and maybe even soak up a little rain.

But what about when you’re on the move? You definitely don’t want your plant flying around in the back of your van and spilling soil everywhere.

Here are a few clever places to put your plant when your home is in motion:

  • Passenger seat: If you’re rolling solo on your vanlife adventure, your passenger seat is a great place to put your little plant while you’re driving. You can even put the seat belt through the handle straps to keep it in place. This option is only good if you have one or two plants to look after.
  • Cup holder: Again, this option is only good for one or two plants. Using a fabric pot instead of a rigid plastic one will give you the option to squeeze your pot into the cup holder to keep your plant secure while driving.
  • Hanging: Most van setups will have some kind of upper cabinet storage space. If you drill a small hook beneath the cabinets and hang your pot, it will be able to sway with the movement of the vehicle without spilling.
  • Use magnets: Magnets are an amazing tool to use in a van. They can hold up your kitchen knives, utensils, van keys, and also your potted plants! Mikede’s 12 pack Neodymium Disc Countersunk Hole Magnets are perfect to keep your plants in place.

To use magnets, mount one onto a surface using screws for a more permanent fixture or strong sticky mounting tape for a less-permanent magnet. Then, affix the other magnet onto your fabric pot. Stick em’ together and your plant isn’t going anywhere, even while your van is in motion!

Give Your Vanlife Plants Enough Sun And Water

When your van is stationary, you can put your tiny garden anywhere. However, you’ll want to make sure it is getting enough sun and you are watering it properly. The amount of sun and the amount of water your plant needs will depend on the plant. More on that later!

In general, fruiting vegetables need at least six hours of direct sun per day, but they prefer up to 10 hours if they can get it. 

Getting sun through the window isn’t the same as getting it directly. According to The Complete Guide for Indoor Growers, light through a window is lower in intensity than direct light. It may also be the wrong kind of ambient light (wrong spectrum) for plants to properly bloom.

If you plan to hang out in one location for a few days and the temperature is decent, consider placing your plants on your roof or a table during the day and bringing them inside at night. 

If you plan to be in motion most of the day, placing your plant by a window might be the best option you have. If you’re concerned about your plants, you can invest in some fluorescent light fixtures to keep your plants happy.

GHodec Grow Light for Indoor Plants runs off a USB cord that has an input of 5 volts/2.4 amps. This is a typical phone charger cord, which is great for vanlife when you want to conserve your battery life as much as possible. 

This product comes with a convenient clamp that will keep the light in place even while you’re driving. It provides blue, red, and white light, which are the three most important wavelengths that a plant needs.

18 Best Plants To Grow In A Van

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Now, to the good part. Let’s talk about some of the best plants to grow in a van. As we mentioned before, the plants we’ll be talking about are useful plants that can be eaten or used as spices/garnishes on dishes.

As you can imagine, space inside your van will be limited. It’s a good idea to have a clear picture of what type of plants or herbs you want to grow. Do you use tomatoes all the time? Can you do without parsley, or is it a staple? 

Narrow down a list of two or three plants that you think will benefit you the most and stick with them. And remember, those choices aren’t permanent. If you find you don’t use cilantro as much as you thought, swap it out for something different!

Grow Herbs In Your Van

Herbs are a tasty addition to a variety of dishes from Italian pasta dishes to Indian-style curries. Herbs tend to be a bit expensive in grocery stores, so growing your own is sure to cut down on grocery bill costs.

Some of the more popular herbs include chives, parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme. You can plant your herbs from seed using standard potting soil.

Supplementing the potting soil with plant food will help provide your herbs with extra nutrients that they may be missing out on. Liquid Indoor Plant Food, Easy Peasy Plants House Plant 4-3-4 Plant Nutrients is a concentrate that mixes with water and is then applied to your plants.

Below, we’ve provided a table that lists the light and water requirements, as well as some tips on harvesting.

PlantLight RequirementWater RequirementHarvestingNotes
Chives6-8 hours of full sunWater when soil is dry to the touchHarvest leaves 1” above the soil after 12 weeksGarlic & Chinese chives use the same growing conditions
Parsley6-8  hours of full to partial sun Keep soil moistClip leaves at the base once the plant is 6” tallDo not harvest more than ⅓ of the plant
Cilantro6-8 hours of full sun Keep soil moistHarvest leafy stems at the base of the plantUse immediately – does not stay fresh for long. Needs afternoon shade if the sun is intense
Basil6-8 hours of full to partial sunKeep soil moistHarvest leaves once the plant is 6”-8” tallPick leaves regularly – will store well in the freezer
Oregano6-8 hours of full sunWater when soil is dry to the touchHarvest leaves when flower buds begin to formLeave will store well for later use
Sage6-8 hours of full sunWater frequently when the plant is starting out, then lessen as it growsSnip small sprigs and leaves from the plant. Do not over-harvestBest used fresh
Rosemary6-8 hours of direct sunlightWater when soil is dry to the touchCut stems in the morning for the best flavorBetter if allowed to dry before using
Thyme6 hours of sun – can tolerate indirect lightWater completely and allow the pot to dry before watering againCut stems once the plant is established with plenty of leavesBetter if allowed to dry before using

As you can tell, most herbs will require lots of direct sunlight. They will do best in a pot that has good drainage. Regular pruning of your herb plants like basil, will promote healthy growth and give you plenty of herbs to use in your favorite dishes.

While living in a van, using your precious water from your water tank can be enough to make you cringe. Consider collecting rainwater or gathering water from a stream or river to supply your plants!

Grow Vegetable Plants In Your Van

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Herbs are great and all, but you can’t really sustain yourself on parsley leaves alone. Vegetable plants like dwarf tomatoes, lettuce, and carrots grow well indoors and the smaller varieties won’t take up too much space.

Dwarf Tomatoes

Even the dwarf variety of tomato plants will grow to about 12 inches tall when fully mature, so make sure you’re ready for the height before you decide to plant!

Some of the most popular dwarf tomato varieties include Tiny Tim, Toy Boy, Small Fry, and Roma. You can purchase these dwarf varieties online such as Survival Garden Seed’s Tiny Tim Tomato Seed for Planting.

Plant the seeds one-quarter inch into some potting soil. To keep your tomato plant happy, follow the guidelines below:

  • Light: Tomatoes require more light than herbs, preferring 12 hours of light a day. This is when artificial lights come in handy.
  • Water: Water your tomato plant when the soil begins to dry. Make sure it is moist several inches into the soil.
  • Harvesting: Harvest your tomatoes when they are red and the size of a cherry. This typically takes anywhere from 40-60 days.

Carrots

Carrots are a great option to grow in the van because they actually do better growing in containers than they do in the garden.

The only issue with carrots is that they require containers that are a little deeper than normal. For smaller varieties, the pot needs to be around 8 inches deep to grow carrots.

You can buy carrot seeds online. To plant them, put some potting soil in your container, moisten the soil, and spread the seeds on top. Once they begin to grow you can eliminate the smaller plants and keep the sturdier ones.

Light: Give your carrots lots of time in the sun, at least six hours and up to 10. 

Water: Keep the soil moist down to 1 inch.

Harvesting: You can harvest smaller carrots after about 50 days, and mature carrots around 60-80 days.

Lettuce

Another easy pot-grown vegetable is lettuce. This is a great vegetable to grow in the van because it doesn’t take up very much space vertically speaking.

You can purchase your lettuce seeds online along with some potting soil. Lettuce isn’t too picky about the type of soil. Fill your fabric container with the soil and sprinkle the seeds on top. Cover them with a thin layer of soil – about one-eighth inch.

Light: Lettuce loves the sun. You can leave your lettuce outside or near a sunny window all day. They like their sunlight hours to remain in the double digits, at least 10 per day.

Water: Lettuce also loves water. Keep the soil moist at all times. You can use a spray bottle to mist the soil while you’re waiting for the seeds to sprout.

Harvesting: Lettuce is ready to be picked as soon as the leaves form, but it’s best to wait until they feel firm and flushed out for the best taste.

Grow Microgreens In Your Van

Possibly one of the best choices for growing plants in your van is microgreens. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of microgreens, it’s an old idea that hasn’t gained popularity until recently!

Microgreens are just the immature shoots of vegetable plants. Some of the most popular microgreens include new shoots from:

  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Mustard
  • Beets
  • Radish
  • Peas

Studies have shown that microgreens contain a ton of health benefits just like regular vegetables. In some cases, even more. They’re packed full of minerals, antioxidants, and bioactive compounds.

You can buy microgreen seeds online such as Natural Root’s Variety Pack Sprouting Seeds for Sprouts and Microgreens. This pack includes broccoli, alfalfa, radish, mung beans, and salad mix seeds.

Once you have your seeds, planting and caring for microgreens is pretty simple. Spread the seeds in your container over potting soil. Spread a thin layer of soil over the seeds and moisten the soil with a spray bottle.

Light: Microgreens need 6-8 hours of direct sun.

Water: Keep the soil moist by spraying daily

Harvesting: Once the shoots appear, your microgreens can be harvested. You can harvest them as needed or harvest the entire plant all at once. According to the University of Illinois, it takes around 10 weeks for microgreens to be ready for harvest from seed.

That’s A Wrap!

A female sitting in the van and admiring the sunset in the beach

As if vanlife wasn’t adventurous enough, now you know everything about growing and keeping a little garden inside your van to use with any meal.

There are three main types of edible plants you can grow in a van: herbs, vegetables, and microgreens. Each has its own unique characteristic to add to your favorite dishes.

Herbs are easy to care for and great for adding extra flavor to your meal. Vegetables take a little more care and need more room, but can provide a nutritious meal on their own.

Microgreens fall somewhere in the middle, providing both sustenance and adding flavor to prepared dishes, all while taking up minimal space.

Now, to recap.

Here are the 18 best plants to grow in a van:

  • Herbs:
    • Chives
    • Parsley
    • Cilantro
    • Basil
    • Oregano
    • Sage
    • Rosemary
    • Thyme
  • Vegetables
    • Dwarf tomatoes
    • Carrots
    • Lettuce
  • Microgreens
    • Kale
    • Cabbage
    • Lettuce
    • Mustard
    • Beets
    • Radish
    • Peas

Caring for plants in your van comes with its own challenges. You’ll have to water your plants outside if you don’t want to fill up your gray tank too quickly. You’ll also want to place them outside to get proper sunshine when your van is stationary.

But vanlife is all about the adventure, right? 

Despite the challenges, growing your own herbs, veggies, and microgreens can be fun and will save you money on your grocery bill.

References

Halleck, L. F. (2018). Gardening Under Lights: The Complete Guide for Indoor Growers. Timber Press.

Lin, K.-H., Huang, M.-Y., Huang, W.-D., Hsu, M.-H., Yang, Z.-W., & Yang, C.-M. (2013, February 04). The effects of red, blue, and white light-emitting diodes on the growth, development, and edible quality of hydroponically grown lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. var. capitata). Horticultural Science, 150, 86-91.

Rajan, P., Lada, R. R., & MacDonald, M. T. (2019, August 27). Advancement in Indoor Vertical Farming for Microgreen Production. American Journal of Plant Sciences, 10(8), 12.

Verlinden, S. (2019, November 15). Microgreens. Horticultural Reviews, 47.

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