12 month of gardening | Vanburen

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12 month of gardening | Vanburen

This time last year it hit 70 degrees and my conservatory was producing copious amounts of lettuce, onions, garlic, carrots, mangetout, kale, collards and Swiss chard. But not this year.

The minus temperatures have put an end to the garden for the time being. Luckily I got several containers of vegetables into the greenhouse before the arctic weather hit. This way I have fresh potted vegetables available at least until spring and various veggies I frozen, dried or canned earlier in the season.

Had I been better prepared I would have grown a variety of vegetables in the greenhouse. Several cold-weather crops are good candidates in unheated winter greenhouses, such as beets and other root crops, onions, garlic, radishes, peas, leeks, carrots, kale, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, to name a few.

I’ll do better next winter because I’m fully committed to winter gardening.

While I enjoy growing fresh organic produce with my own hands during the winter, I have discovered that winter gardeners are few and far between. So, most of this column will be about what fair-weather gardeners and non-gardeners alike can grow indoors that contribute to their health and well-being.

First, remember that plants add oxygen to the air and take out carbon dioxide. Some will scrub pollutants out of our indoor air. Therefore, we benefit from the presence of plants in our homes before eating them for their nutritional value.

Many of the psychological benefits of outdoor gardening carry over to growing indoors. Taking care of plants helps us connect with the natural world. It helps us develop a growth mentality that recognizes that learning can be constant. It helps us practice acceptance and removes us from perfectionism. All of this, in turn, helps reduce the level of stress in our lives that can contribute to disease.

There are four stages of indoor growing that will be easy for most, but let’s start with the most difficult full-size plants. Most years I have several tomato and pepper plants in my greenhouse. They don’t produce as much there as I would like, but as the weather warms up they will be productive earlier than others. You can do this with a relatively small greenhouse attached to your home or a planter. Other products can also be grown in these.

A more viable and inexpensive approach is the kitchen window sill made of herbs. Kits are available online for less than thirty dollars. Make sure you only get the herbs you will be using. To keep these plants from overwhelming their space, pick and use them regularly. Options that work well on windowsills include: mint, rosemary, basil, cilantro, oregano, chives, parsley, and thyme.

Lalla Ostergren, my friend, mentor, and fellow organic gardener friend, had extra-wide window sills installed on all of her south-facing windows because she grows more than herbs indoors, including baby greens.

Now that my outdoor lettuce is frozen, I’m going to start some lettuce seeds indoors on a windowsill. You can usually expect edible baby leaves in just two to three weeks. I’ll go a little longer with the salad as it’s primarily intended for sandwiches and wraps.

Because baby greens are more tender and automatically bite-sized, they go well in salads. As with mature plants, supplemental lighting in winter will maximize growth. Good choices include spinach, kale, arugula, romaine lettuce, garden cress, Swiss chard, endive, radicchio, and a whole host of oriental vegetables. Pick the lower leaves and let the growing top produce more. I pull carrots and Jerusalem artichokes from the garden, slice them thinly and add them to the salad for a delicious and nutritious.

Next on our list for the indoor garden are microgreens, which can be ready to eat in as little as seven to 10 days. Kits are available online for under twenty dollars, but they can cost a lot more depending on the seeds and equipment used. Common options include: amaranth, sunflower, wheatgrass, mustard, radish, basil, watercress, cilantro, beets, cabbage, mizuna, pac choi, and broccoli, to name a few.

I have always used potting soil as a growing medium but there are other options including hydroponics. I place about an inch of potting soil in containers, scatter 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 until soil appears dry until they sprout (3-8 days). At least four hours of sunlight is required. If they start looking pale and scrawny, they aren’t getting enough light. Artificial light can help.

Harvest after the first true leaves have formed. Most cut them off at the soil line, but Lalla will wash the soil off the roots and eat those too. Some seeds will grow back, like peas, if you cut past the “seed leaves” or cotyledons. Microgreens go well on sandwiches, in salads and stir-fries.

One 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 will not be ready to harvest at the same time, making it difficult. Now I plant one variety of seeds per grow container.

Last on the indoor gardening list are sprouts, which can be ready to eat in as little as two to four days. Lalla used glass mason jars with different lids for different sized seeds. Germination containers are also available for under fifteen dollars and up and come with instructions.

For the glass method, fill in enough cool water to cover the seeds, drain and repeat the process several times to rinse the seeds. Fill the jar halfway with cold water and let soak at room temperature in a dark place for 8 to 12 hours. Then drain the seeds and rinse thoroughly twice a day until they germinate. When the jar is about half full with germinated seeds, place them in a sunny window so they turn green. I use a salad spinner for my final rinse and then store it in the fridge. That makes 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 this reduces their nutritional value.

In addition to the seeds mentioned for microgreens, seeds that are popular for germinating include alfalfa, celery, chia, clover, fenugreek, red clover, mung beans, onions, squash, and sesame. The prices of different types of seeds can vary greatly.

A word of warning, the moist, warm conditions required to grow sprouts are ideal for rapid bacterial growth. Steaming or boiling until tender solves every possible problem.

So now we have a complete list of indoor gardening. Much of this is less labor intensive than an outdoor garden, giving you plenty of time to plan for spring. Get some graph paper and make a map of your yard. Draw in what you want and where. Don’t plan a garden you won’t have the time and energy for. Be realistic.

Next time we will look at factors that go into planning a new garden or improving an existing garden. Also, we’ll take a look at which seeds to start with and when, in anticipation of sowing in early spring. In the meantime, give some serious thought to the joys and benefits of gardening indoors.

Hope to see you in the garden next month.