Do the thoughts of a home winter without tasting or eating fresh produce from the garden have you feeling blue? Or don’t have outdoor space to grow even the smallest garden? As we slip out of summer and fall into autumn, there are some things you can do to to keep the growing going year round.
Leafy Greens and Herbs are some of the easiest plants you can grow indoors during the winter. Usually the limiting factor for success is light. You can grow spinach, lettuce, and arugula indoors with as little as four hours of bright, indirect light. If you don’t have a sunny enough window, supplemental light can be used. These plants can be grown in shallow pots or trays a few inches deep pretty easily.
If you have bright windows (or lights) with at least 6 hours of good, bright light you can expand your indoor farm. Here you can add a few of the more robust leafy greens like kale or bok choi and herbs. While they won’t be as healthy and vigorous as if they were growing outdoors in the summer, you can often harvest enough for at least a boost of fresh flavor or garnish for your dishes.
Several herbs can be grown from seed for indoor winter growth, including basil, oregano and parsley. These relatively easy-to-start herbs are fairly simple to grow in containers. You may also have success starting cutting of plants like rosemary, sage or thyme to bring inside for the winter.
Many gardeners choose to grow these herbs in containers outside through the summer and bring them indoors for the winter. That can be a simple way to ensure you have some fresh herbs for the winter month. So plan ahead next year to make it easier.
Microgreens can be an even simpler way of growing edibles indoors through winter, with or without supplemental light. Since most crops are only grown to a few inches high then sheared from the roots, a crop can be grown in as little as a week or two. The easiest way to produce microgreens at home is to thickly broadcast seeds in a common black seedling tray filled with potting or seed starting mix and grow them in a bright window or under lights.
This process is also considered safer than producing sprouts, which can result in food borne illnesses such as E. coli and Salmonella if done incorrectly. Just about any of the leafy greens will work as microgreens, as will many herbs. Good choices include amaranth, basil, beets, broccoli, cabbage, celery, chard, chervil, coriander/cilantro, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, parsley, peas, radish, arugula, spinach, and sorrel.
Tropical edibles as houseplants are also a great option if you want variety (and sometimes a challenge). Catalogs, garden centers, and even grocery store floral departments sell potted houseplant versions of plants such as citrus trees (lemon, lime, tangerine being the most common), banana plants, bay trees, ginger, and turmeric. These make wonderful houseplants that can live outside during the summer.
I’m happy to report that the lime tree I bought at a local grocery store back in January to decorate my new office is getting ready to ripen it’s first lime (and a second one is on its way)! A few years ago I planted a ginger rhizome from the grocery produce section as a houseplant with much success…both ginger and turmeric are tall orchid plants. While conditions may not be favorable for flowering…they can definitely produce more rhizomes for use in your favorite curry.
What about those fancy indoor hydroponic systems? You can find several different models of small hydroponic/aquaponic growing systems for your kitchen/home. While I feel most of these work pretty well, the question I always ask is about the value. Many of these systems can cause $100 or more and may only produce a handful of plants. I urge you to consider your own budget and whether or not you are looking to grow as a means of producing economical food…or if economics don’t play a part in your decision (for some people they don’t). If you think using one of these systems is going to save you grocery money or feed the whole family, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.
John Porter is the Urban Ag Program Coordinator for Nebraska Extension and Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, serving both as an extension educator and professor of urban agriculture. He specializes in urban agriculture and horticulture, especially in the areas of vegetable and fruit production for home gardens and urban farms and edible landscaping.