Sunday, February 2, 2014

Indoor gardening -- Is it feasible for the average home owner?

What do urban farmers do in the winter, when they can't get their hands on decent tasting tomatoes and herbs? When their green thumbs long for gardens during long, cold, snowy winters? When they get tired of paying a fortune for fresh organic produce that doesn't taste any better than the rest of the produce in the store? This urban farmer brings the garden indoors.

Last year's seedlings
For years I've successfully started my outdoor garden from seeds germinated indoors, weeks ahead of time. A couple of years ago I bought this amazing LED grow light that made my seedlings flourish like never before. The first winter I bought it I tried growing a number of veggies and herbs, not intending to keep them very long. I was just curious how they'd do.
Indoor garden
But a few weeks under the light gave me fully edible chard, collards, parsley, basil and other herbs. The tomato plants had a  little tomatoes on them and the green beans had miniature beans growing. I was impressed!

This fall I decided it would be a fun experiment to try to make it through the entire winter growing tomatoes and herbs indoors. I wish I'd started earlier, like maybe in September. But I didn't get things planted until after Thanksgiving. I started with the typical little plastic seed packs and seed starter mix. One each of three different  types of tomatoes: Costoluto Genovese, Brandywine and Roma. Some basil, dill, parsley, oregano and sage. Rosemary from the store. I also started some white sage, which I never had luck germinating previously.

White Sage & Dill
Once the seeds sprouted, I moved them to the window in the guest bedroom. It's south-facing so it gets a lot of our hot Colorado winter sun. It's also the warmest and most temperature place in the house. I hung the grow light over the plants using a light stand with a boom arm. The light was just under 12" from the plants. I plugged the light into a timer-- one less thing to think about.

Within about 3 weeks the plants were outgrowing that space. I moved the guest room furniture to a different room to make more space. I bought this great stainless rack at target and placed it front of the window. Since the shelves are very adjustable, I gave the now overgrown tomatoes a shelf to themselves, with a short shelf above them for the herbs. The grow light sits on yet another shelf above that. I position the herbs in a way that the tomatoes below them can still get light from the LED and everyone is happy.

Lemon tree
In the beginning I was only running the grow light from 4 pm (sunset) until 10 pm.  But the plants weren't looking as healthy as they should. They weren't the deep green I wanted and some were getting a little spindly.  A happy plant will look strong and stocky. So I increased grow light time until midnight. That, plus the slightly longer daylight since we're past the solstice has made a big improvement. I added a cool temp humidifier, although I'm not sure I need it. On sunny days I swear it gets close to 90 in there! I found a variegated lemon tree at the grocery store and that's now producing new leaves. Let's see if I can keep it alive.

Basil!
I've been using the herbs for cooking almost every day. The basil especially impresses me since I think of them needing a lot of light in the garden, but they look perfectly normal indoors.
Babies!
The tomatoes have little fruits on them and I'm curious if they'll get large enough to ripen. And how long might that take? If they're still around in late May, I will most likely introduce them to the outdoors. I'm also curious if they will taste better than store-bought tomatoes. If they don't, I'll ditch my goal of growing tomatoes indoors in the winter and just stick to herbs. After all, why buy those teeny $4.00 packets of herb snippets in the grocery store when it's so easy to grow my own for the cost of one seed?

If the tomatoes are a success, I'll keep better records next year on plant dates, grow time and even photograph them weekly to have a clearer idea of how they're doing.

It's now early February.  I'll update this post at some point to let you know how things are getting along. Wish me luck!

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