Garden DIY: Growing Food in the Great Indoors

Herbs on window By Alusha / Adobe Stock

Welcome to Garden DIY! We're excited to share tips and projects to help you get the most out of home gardening all year long. With a focus on sustainable practices, this series offers ideas for people with a wide range of time, space and resources. We'll help you get your garden up and running, preserve your harvest and extend the season!

 

PSA for those living in cold and/or urban areas: You do not need outdoor space to garden!

If you have a window sill, counter top or even just a coffee table corner, you have a garden site. In fact, growing food indoors greatly reduces the threat of common plant perils (pests, disease, effects of extreme weather). Depending on project scale, the startup costs of indoor gardening can be minimal and are more than worth the experience of harvesting fresh produce from inside your own home. Before you get started, you'll need to make sure that your living space provides the necessary conditions for plant growth. If it's your first time growing food inside, I also recommend focusing on easy-to-grow plant varieties. Read on to learn about the basics of successful indoor gardening!

(And stay tuned for my upcoming post on Urban Gardening, where I'll discuss ways to save space and stay safe with materials!)

 

Conditions to Consider

Light

A large window that gets six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day will make a sufficient light source for most edible plants. Light is the number one factor of plant growth so if you're at all unsure about your sun situation, I highly recommend investing in a grow-light system. Before making a purchase, explore your options. If you're feeling extra crafty, you can cut down on cost by building your own lighting setup.

Humidity

During the winter, many of us heat our homes with forced-air heating systems. These can have an incredibly drying effect on plants. Signs include wilting and brown leaf edges. Attempting to compensate with extra watering can cause root rot, so it's best to intervene before dryness becomes a problem. Some simple strategies to maximize moisture include misting your plants with a spray bottle or placing a humidifier nearby. On the other hand, too much humidity can foster mold or fungus growth. Keeping a fan on a low setting near your plants is an easy and effective way to combat high humidity by increasing air circulation.

Temperature

Most plants will do just fine at room temperature. If you're utilizing a chilly part of your home such as the basement or garage, you might need to consider getting a space heater. If you're going the window-route, one thing to watch out for is winter drafts. Installing heat-shrink plastic covering on your window is a great insulation method that doesn't impede sunlight.

Growing Medium

My recommendation is to go with a soilless mix. City dwellers need to be very cautious about using outdoor soil due to potential contamination by led and other toxic materials. Even if you've done extensive testing to ensure your soil is safe, garden soil often becomes highly compacted when moved into containers, which decreases aeration and inhibits nutrient exchange. That said, gardeners with safe, nutritious soil might want to incorporate some into an otherwise soilless mix. If you do choose to use soil from outside, make sure to sterilize it so that you don't unwittingly bring weed seeds or pathogens along for the ride. There are many great organic seeding and potting mixes on the market. You can also experiment with recipes to develop your own signature blends.

Amendments are key in terms of keeping your growing medium nutritious. Liquid-soluble fertilizers are much more effective for gardening in tight spaces as they eliminate the need to incorporate amendments by hand. I've had great luck with fish and seaweed solutions. If you happen to be in possession of high quality compost, making compost tea is also a great option.

Containers

The most important aspects of your gardening containers are drainage and depth. Plants are only as successful as their roots, which require proper aeration and room to grow. Before you get too attached to any containers you plan to repurpose, make sure of the following: 1 ) They're both wide and deep enough for the specific plant varieties you plan to grow, and 2 ) They either have holes already or can have holes drilled into them.

 

Plant Recommendations

Here are some great plant options for minimizing maintenance while maximizing rewards:

 

Beans and Peas

Beans and peas do exceptionally well in containers and are great space savers. Both plants come in bush or climbing varieties. The latter type requires a trellis which is a great use of vertical space. With these plants, you'll want to harvest every few weeks in order to keep them productive.

Herbs

There's nothing like pick-as-you cook seasoning options. Annual varieties like basil, dill, parsley, and chives are easy to grow from seed. Perennials like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano and marjoram require a little extra effort when starting out but can stay productive for years. While seeding your own plants is cheap and fun, don't hesitate to go out and buy seedlings! You can find great options online, at garden centers and farmers markets.

Leafy Greens

Leafy greens including lettuce, arugula, spinach, chard and kale are fast growing crops that can provide multiple harvests for fresh salads and stir fries.

Sprouts

From seed to snack in about a week, sprouts are the grow-your-own answer to instant gratification. You don't even need soil! Sprout People provides a wealth of information for happy sprouting.

Carrots and Radishes

Compared with other root vegetables, carrots, beets and radishes require considerably less room to grow. (You'll still need at least 8-12 inches of vertical growing medium). Since harvesting occurs in one fell swoop, I recommend growing a few small pots at a time, with seedings spaced out about three weeks. And whatever you do, don't toss the greens! The leafy portions of these vegetables are valuable ingredients in themselves.

Mushrooms

Fungi thrive in moist and dark places, so mushroom cultivation opens up a wealth of opportunity for indoor food production. Common culinary mushrooms that are easy to grow include oyster, portobello, white button and shiitaki. For as little as $20-$30, you can purchase a quality mushroom kit that includes all of the materials and instructions you need to get going. Check out this video on starting mushroom kits to learn more. An added bonus, you'll get your first harvest in about four to six weeks!