Smarter Living: Yard & Garden

Kitchen herbs

photo: Maggi Patillo

Purchasing produce at the market can be irksome after months of fresh, homegrown summer delicacies. Fortunately you don’t have to battle the winter’s wind and frozen soil to keep the garden party going year round.

Sure, you may have to find a farmer’s market for a squash or a melon, but fragrant herbs, lettuces, beans, radishes, tomatoes and peppers can all be grown, harvested and enjoyed without ever leaving the house. Here's how:

Step 1: Find your growing space...a sunny window!

Most plants need between ten and twelve hours of direct light each day to grow, so the ideal indoor garden space is in the sunniest window in the home, even if it’s the bathroom. With enough light and warmth, cherry tomatoes will ripen up against the window and beans will grow alongside the glass.

When you stumble upon a sunny space, capitalize on it with shelves, tables, plant stands, and any other surface you can cram in, but don’t discount dimmer areas, which can be used to grow shade-lovers, like many lettuces and herbs. Natural lighting conditions can also be improved by adding fluorescent grow lights.

Step 2: Gather good containers.

Garden centers carry wide assortments of enticing plant containers, but so do garage sales, flea markets, recycle bins and most residential basements. Retired plastic containers of all shapes and sizes come in handy for growing things, as do old dresser drawers, baskets, and mixing bowls. Look for roomy containers to give plants plenty of root space, and avoid items that show cracking paint and varnish on the interior.

With any container you repurpose, poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage, and set the pots in trays to catch excess water. Fill the trays with stones to create humidity, which can be lacking in dry winter houses.

Step 3: Pack pots properly.

Potting soil recipes abound, but an easy and effective mixture calls for one part soil, one part compost, and one part vermiculite or perlite to promote aeration. Containers should be lightly packed, leaving one to two inches free at the top to catch water before it seeps into the soil. Line each container with a layer of rocks to promote drainage before filling with soil.

Step 4: Grow small plants.

A backyard garden is sprawling compared to the skinny windowsills of most indoor gardens, and the plants that do well indoors use space efficiently. Look for miniature and dwarf varieties of carrots, squash and cucumber, and keep small fruiting varieties like peppers and tomatoes in warm and bright conditions to help them set fruit.

With their low light requirements and capacity for large yields in small spaces, leafy greens, like lettuce, spinach and endive are ideal candidates for year-round indoor gardening. Most herbs, including basil, cilantro and parsley, also perform well in indoor climates. Meanwhile, the closer they are to the kitchen, the more often they’re pruned, promoting new growth.

Step 5: Water well and replenish the soil.

Climate and growing conditions inside the home are dramatically different than in the yard, in good ways and bad. Weeds are nearly nonexistent in the controlled quarters of the indoor container garden, and pests are rarely an issue. But without exposure to moisture in the atmosphere, indoor soil can dry out quickly—requiring more frequent watering, and consequently frequent fertilizing to replenish flushed nutrients.

Beware temperature spikes that come with cranked heaters in the winter. Yet another reason to lower the thermostat, indoor heating can dehydrate soil, leading to parched plants and extra watering. Water twice a day in warmer weather and when plants are young, always checking soil moisture levels before hand.

For vine and climbing plants, be sure to carefully arrange trellises, cages and other supports when plants are young. Staking overgrown plants can be twice as awkward in the living room as it is in the backyard garden.

last revised 5/4/2011

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