How to Garden on a Boat

What I’ve learned

Barbara Smyers

I provision for our life at sea and am used to stocking La Vie Dansante with enough frozen and non-perishable food for months, but I love, love, love fresh produce in our diets! The trouble is, growing a garden underway presents a whole new set of challenges to any gardener, regardless of how green the thumb. 

Herbs at the transom

Growing herbs and produce to supplement our provisions as we travel to distant islands and remote locations (that often don’t even have a grocery store) has been a real blessing for TD and me.  I’ve had pretty good success with mint, parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano, rosemary, green onions, arugula (my favorite), salad greens, cherry tomatoes and even romaine.

Salad-ready sweeties!

Here’s what I’ve learned along the way and how you can successfully grow your own garden of fresh herbs and tomatoes.

Problems and Solutions

1. Fungus and Mold

Because of the high levels of humidity living aboard, the first problem I encountered was fungus.  Mostly below the leaves, on the stems near the soil.  It looked like white fuzz forming on the stems and soil. GROSS! 

Arugula and salad greens, some of my favorites, were the most susceptible to this type of fungus so I was motivated to get rid of it. Still, it took me a couple of rounds of lost veggies to understand that too much moisture was the culprit.  I keep my planters at our transom, so they get light and a lot of air circulation, but the problem is even the breeze is humid.

Self-watering planter by Bloem

I’ve found that bringing these plants inside after the sun sets gets them out of the humidity just enough to make a difference. 

Also, allowing the soil to get dry before watering helps. In fact, watering from the bottom of the planter is best with this type of planter.

Another smart way to prevent fungus is to use a good soil.  Miracle-Gro Garden Soil for Vegetables and Herbs is a good since it has moisture control to help prevent over or under watering and has the added bonus of being enriched with plant food.

And if you do see a fungus creeping its way on to your plants, it may not be too late. An anti-fungal spray with Chlorothalonil, like this one, can help control fungus and mold.

2. Aphids & White Flies

I LOVE cilantro, but I almost gave up growing it because of Aphids.  These tiny, disgusting little bugs seem to propagate from out of nowhere and since lady bugs aren’t marine insects, I can’t rely on their help.

Spraying with Neem oil has made all the difference. 

I always keep my Neem Oil handy

First off, if you get aphids, don’t believe anything you read online about getting rid of them once they appear.  It’s easier to start over, being sure to treat your new crop with a Neem oil spray 2 – 3 times a week, religiously.

Neem oil is a non-toxic, plant-based formula so it is safe to use on plants you plan to eat.  You can purchase a pre-mixed Neem oil spray like this one.

Or you can make your own spray (more cost effective) by mixing 1 teaspoon of concentrated Neem oil and ½ teaspoon of dish soap in one quart of water.  Be sure to shake your sprayer well to emulsify the oil and spray liberally over the entire plant.  Cold-pressed organic Neem oil is the best.

3. Soil Can Make a Mess on a Boat

We love good winds for sailing, but my husband isn’t a fan of the soil from the potted plants deck blowing around.  So while we are underway, the planters either go inside the cabin or under the cockpit table outside – well out of both wind and waves.

4. Limited space

Hydroponic Gardening – no soil required!  Growing tomatoes out of nothing but water enriched with plant food is just awesome.  Besides the minimal space needed, the benefits include faster plant growth, less water required than in traditional gardening, and no soil blowing around the deck! (you’re welcome, TD).

My AeroGarden is one of my favorite ‘must-have’ items onboard.  This system is perfect for those without a green thumb as it controls the aeration of the water, the amount of light (leds) and even reminds you to add water and plant food when needed.  Completely fool-proof!

While you can grow many things in a hydroponic garden, cherry tomatoes are what’s growing in mine right now.  My tomato plants produce 20-40 tomatoes a week and are perfect for our salads.

My Aerogarden at work!

The only problem I’ve had with my AeroGarden is the light.  It’s bright, and it’s on for 15-16 hours.  You can adjust the time it comes on but there isn’t a time where the light wasn’t bothersome so we relocated it to one of the staterooms below.

Despite the hours of light this generates, its energy consumption doesn’t add a significant load to our boat’s battery bank – an important consideration for any piece of equipment that makes its way aboard!

Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t get knocked off the shelf I have it on while underway.  We’ve been in some pretty heavy seas where anything not secured would go airborne and it hasn’t so much as splashed out any water, much less overturned. 

I love this thing so much, I’d buy another one if it was in our budget!

Tasty herbs in the making

I’ve even placed small pots with seeds next to my AeroGarden for the light to help them sprout faster.  Arugula will sprout within two days by doing this.

All in all, growing herbs and gardening on a boat can be challenging but harvesting what you’ve grown outweighs those challenges.  For me, the ability to add flavor to our meals with fresh herbs, and having home grown salads in the middle of the ocean is both exciting and rewarding.

What are your own best lessons learned about afloat gardening? Or, if you’re just getting started, maybe you have questions that need an answer. I know I didn’t cover everything in this post, so please use the comments section below to keep the dialogue going!


For more great ideas and resources to help make your life at sea safe, comfortable and fun, visit our page Great Boat Stuff.

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