Now that I have fully committed to winter gardening, I marvel that I did not start sooner. My friend and fellow organic gardener, Lalla Ostergren, use to say, “There is no month not good for gardening.”
I did not really believe her until I took over the care of her garden when she became infirm. Later, from her hospice bed at home, she would advise me on what and when to do this and that. She wanted to be sure I was taking care of “her” garden properly. Her enthusiasm persisted almost to her last day.
So when a recent colder than expected overnight killed my uncovered lettuce, I asked myself, “What would Lalla do now?”
The answer came quickly, plant more seed indoors. Which brings us to our focus in this month’s column.
In spite of the immense joy I get from raising fresh organic produce with my own hands in the winter, I have discovered winter gardeners are a hearty few. So most of this column will be devoted to what fair weather gardeners and nongardeners can grow indoors that will contribute to their health and well being.
First, remember plants add oxygen to the air and pull carbon dioxide out. Some will scrub pollutants from our indoor air. Thus we benefit from the presence of plants in our homes before we eat them for their nutritional value.
Many of the mental health benefits of outdoor gardening transfer to growing indoors. Being responsible for plants helps us connect to the nature world. It helps us develop a growth mindset that realizes learning can be constant. It helps us to practice acceptance and moves us away from perfectionism. This all in turn helps reduce the stress levels in our lives that can contribute to dis-ease.
There are four levels of growing indoors that are easy for most, but let’s start with the most difficult, full size plants. Presently, I have several tomato and pepper plants in my greenhouse. They do not produce as much there as I would like but when the weather warms they will be productive sooner than others. You can do this with a relatively small lean to greenhouse against your home, or a window box. Other produce can be grown in these also.
A more doable and less expensive approach is the kitchen windowsill of herbs. Kits are available online for less than thirty dollars. Make sure you only get the herbs you are going to use. To keep these plants from overwhelming their space, pick and use regularly. Choices that do well on windowsills include: mint, rosemary, basil, cilantro, oregano, chives, parsley and thyme. Lalla had extra wide window sills installed on all her south facing windows because she grew more than herbs indoors, including baby greens.
When my lettuce froze recently, I immediately started lettuce seed on a windowsill indoors. Typically you can expect eatable baby leaves in as little as two to three weeks. I will go a bit longer with the lettuce since it is primarily intended to go on sandwiches and in wraps.
Since baby greens are more tender and automatically bite-size, they go well in salads. As with full grown plants, supplemental lighting in the winter maximizes growth. Some good choices are spinach, kale, arugula, romaine, garden cress, Swiss chard, endive, radicchio, and a whole host of oriental greens. Pick the lower leaves and let the growing tip produce more. I dig carrots and Jerusalem artichokes from the garden, thin slice and add for a delicious and nutritious salad.
Next on our list for the indoor garden are microgreens, which can be ready to eat in as little as seven to ten days. Kits are available online for under twenty dollars, but depending on what seed is used and equipment, they can cost much more. Common choices include: amaranth, sunflower, wheatgrass, mustard, radish, basil, cress, cilantro, beet, cabbage, mizuna, pac choi and broccoli, to name a few.
I have always used potting soil as my growing medium, but other choices are available, including hydroponics. I place about an inch of potting soil in my containers, sprinkle the seeds and cover with a thin layer of more soil. Moisture and warmth are needed for the seeds to sprout. Check daily and mist if soil appears dry until they sprout(3-8 days). At least four hours of sunlight is needed. If they start to look pale and spindly, they are not getting enough light. Artificial light can help.
Harvest after the first true leaves form. Most snip them off at the soil line, but Lalla would wash the soil off the roots and eat those too. Some seeds will regrow, like peas, if you snip above the “seed leaves”, or cotyledons. Microgreens go well on sandwiches, in salads and stir fry.
A mistake I made early on was planting different seeds in the same grow tray. If one germinates in three days and the other in eight days, they won’t be ready to harvest at the same time, which makes it difficult. Now I plant one kind of seed per grow container.
The last item on the indoor garden list is sprouts, which can be ready to eat in as little as two to four days. Lalla used glass canning jars with different lids for different size seed. Sprouting containers are also available for under fifteen dollars and up, and include instructions.
With the jar method, fill with enough cool water to cover the seeds, drain and repeat several more times to rinse the seeds. Refill the jar halfway with cool water and let soak for eight to twelve hours at room temperature in a dark location. Then drain the seeds and rinse them thoroughly several times, twice a day, daily until sprouted. When the jar is about half full, put them in a sunny window to green up. I use a salad spinner for my final rinse and then store them in the refrigerator. This yields a lot of sprouts. Toss them into stews, soups or stir fries near the end of cooking. Some like them oven roasted until crisp and brown but I suspect that reduces their nutritional value.
Seeds popular for sprouting, in addition to those mentioned for microgreens, include alfalfa, celery, chia, clover, fenugreek, red clover, mung bean, onion, pumpkin and sesame. Prices on different kinds of seeds can vary greatly.
A word of warning, the moist, warm conditions required to grow sprouts are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria. Steaming or boiling until tender solves any potential problem.
So now we have a complete list of gardening indoors. Much of this is less labor intensive than an outdoor garden, so you will have plenty of time to plan for spring. Consider getting some graph paper and start a map of your garden. Draw in what you want to plant and where. Do some research on companion planting to find out which vegetables benefit and protect each other. Do not plan a garden you won’t have the time and energy for. Be realistic. Next time we will look at more factors that go into planning a new garden or improving an existing garden. Also we will take a look at what seeds should be started and when, in anticipation of planting out in early spring. In the meantime give serious consideration to the joys and benefits of gardening indoors.
We hope to see you in the garden next month.