Last month I focused on discussing my continuous harvest on my gardening blog. Growing fruits and vegetables indoors is an ideal way to stretch your food dollar. It is a very frugal activity that the whole family can enjoy while saving money. Let's put it in perspective. A head of leaf lettuce costs somewhere between 80¢ and $1.50 during the winter months. A packet of leaf lettuce seeds costs about $1 but that packet of seeds will give a much greater yield than one head of leaf lettuce. Fresh herbs in the produce section cost about $2 and you use them up but a potted herb costs mere pennies if you start from seed or the same $2 if you start from clippings in the produce section or buy an established potted herb. Now, the beauty with herbs is they are cut and come again edible plants that adapt rather nicely to growing indoors. Two more examples are potatoes and tomatoes. If you grow tomatoes outdoors, take a few clippings then root in water and plant in pots indoors for fresh tomatoes. You won't get a huge bumper crop but those tomatoes taste so much nicer than those available in the grocery stores during the winter months. Everyone has had a sprouted potato that has gone soft. Cut the potato into quarters with an eye (sprout) in each piece. Fill 4 - 5 gal pails with soil then plant a potato quarter in each. You will be rewarded with 4 pails of new potatoes, about 10 or so per pail, just perfect for a free side from something you were going to toss anyway. Ok, now you have an idea on what a continuous harvest is (growing a year round indoor garden), here are a few tips setting up growing space.
- what to grow - In general most herbs, smaller fruiting tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, radishes, leaf lettuce, mesclun mix, mustard, cucumbers, bush beans, some varieties of pole beans, sweet peas, zucchini, sweet peppers, spinach and some varieties of strawberries can be grown indoors. Hot peppers and most melons don't grow indoors well. Indoor space is too limited to grow most berries or other fruits, or corn but as you can see, there is a fair amount of produce that can be grown indoors year round.
- plastic trays - Water from over flowing potted plants can damage furniture and floors. I bought a few plastic kitty litter trays from the dollar store. I put potted plants in the trays making it easy to move several plants at one time while protecting surfaces from water damage.
- space - Space is of course the limiting factor when growing indoors as everything else (eg. lighting, temperature, humidity, water, nutrients) can all be controlled. I use a lot of the principles of square foot gardening so I always look at ways to 'grow up not out'. There are all kinds of shelf units available that can be fitted with grow lights and there are several products on the market for growing small (eg. table top, self contained units) for growing indoors. Of course, there are hooks for hanging edible potted plants from the ceiling. Sometime, thinking outside of the box works too. I turned one south facing window in our second home into a lovely grow space by adding shallow shelves that held 4 - inch potted plants. The window was still functional but it did eliminate the need for curtains on that window. A small, rigid plastic kiddie pool (bought at an end of season sale for about $5) can be turned into a stunning indoor garden. Pop all your edible potter plants into the pool, camouflage the edge with a row of plants in self watering containers, add a couple of grow lights and you have lovely, easy to care for, low maintenance indoor garden that can be the focal point of a room as well.
- time savers - Growing edible plants indoors need not be time consuming. If anything it is easier than growing outdoors because there are a lot of time savers available. Use self-watering pots (dollar store, Wal-mart) or make your own using plastic bins. Watering a couple of times a month is likely all you will need from there especially if the heat or AC is not on. Use water bulbs in potted plants, another dollar store find that works quite nicely to lessen the number of times you need to water. An inexpensive indoor drip watering system can be set up using plastic aquarium tubing. This clear tubing can be discretely run to water all your plants from a single location. I use wooden plant dollies with plastic casters (dollar store find) to move larger plants around when needed. The casters don't mar up our laminate, tile or marble flooring and I don't have to worry about injuring myself moving heavier plants.
- successive plantings - Some plants (eg. herbs) are cut and come again meaning the plant will continue to grow and produce even though you harvest some of it. Never harvest more than a third of the plant. Other plants like leaf lettuce are depleted upon harvesting. For that reason, grow them in larger pots and treat them the way you would in a square foot garden by repeated sowings. If it is a plant you use a lot of, plant multiple pots then combine with repeated sowings as a pot is harvested to ensure a steady supply. For example, plant four pots a day or two apart with leaf lettuce. As the first one matures to harvest, the next one will be a couple of days behind and so on. Harvest some or all of the first pot, work up the soil a bit and sow more seeds. Continue in this fashion for a steady supply. You can do the same with any vegetable grown indoors, adjusting the spacing between plantings as desired.
- cost - For very little investment, even as low as $0 you can easily have a rather productive indoor garden set up. Honestly, most equipment can be found for free and chances are you already have what you need on hand. The cheapest way to get seeds is to collect them yourself either from your outdoor garden or even from some of the produce you purchase in the grocery store. Seed exchanges are a cheap source for seeds for only the price of a stamp. Electricity for lighting should be minimal as well if you use CFL bulbs. I have spent about $20 so far establishing an indoor garden here that is still very much a work in progress. A lot of the materials, shelving and planters can easily be found on Freecycle or very cheap at yard sales. Higher end, self-contained growing stations will cost somewhere between $50 and $80 but there is a return on that investment so they can pay for themselves. The biggest expense with indoor growing is the energy to operate any grow lights. Grow lights are necessary indoors to give the proper light spectrum for healthy plant growth. In general grow lights are incandescent, fluorescent, CFL and LED. Forget incandescent grow lights. They are cheap to buy but can increase your hydro bill by $20 or more a month. LED lights are expensive to buy but very cheap to operate. The standard in growing indoors has been the fluorescent tube lighting but the newer and cheaper to operate CFL grow lights are now on the market. CFL bulbs should be in the higher wattage range and despite a bit higher cost of operation as opposed to lower wattage CFL, they are still less expensive to operate than fluorescent tube lighting.