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A conservatory in your kitchen? Book explains how.

Byline: Michael Tortorello

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Two years ago, Elizabeth Millard discovered a way to put fresh produce into car food. No, she's not the one who smuggled shredded lettuce into the Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch-Fiery, a 490-calorie, zero-noun snack from Taco Bell.

Rather, Millard, a sustainable farmer outside the Twin Cities, did something even more unlikely: she grew a crop of microgreens on the passenger-side floor mat of her 2005 VW Beetle convertible.

"We were shuttling our box of seeds back and forth from our rented greenhouse space to our house,'' she said the other day. "And I tripped and they fell all over the place.'' Cress, mustards, a little purple mizuna.

Millard added: "Being frustrated and lazy, I decided I would clean them up some time in my lifetime. Which means never.''

It rained the next day. Millard, now 46, and Karla Pankow, her partner in life and in their CSA business, called Bossy Acres, tracked mud into the car. After that, the June sun busted loose and they threw down the top. I think you can see where this is going.

"About five days after the incident, I came out to my car in the morning and there was a beautiful flush carpet of microgreens on the passenger side,'' Millard said. "It looked like a Chia Pet.''

The accident fed the philosophy behind her new book "Indoor Kitchen Gardening: Turn Your Home Into a Year-Round Vegetable Garden'' (Cool Springs Press). This is a how-to guide that describes Millard's experiments raising crops -- sun-loving outdoor plants like herbs, carrots, radishes, potatoes and tomatoes -- in her Minneapolis bungalow.

I, for one, have daydreamed about owning a conservatory: a bright, climate-controlled growing space with windows, supplemental lights and a handy watering source. And here was Millard to tell me that I already possessed such a space, and it was called my condo.

You don't have to be a plant whisperer to enjoy success in this endeavor. Although, occasionally, you do have to be the bee.

In a quest for bug-less indoor pollination, Millard stimulated the tomato's reproductive parts with her electric toothbrush. (Talk about forbidden fruit.) But what she discovered, and what the book illustrates, is that it's possible and even easy to cultivate shoots, greens and the odd root crop with almost no special equipment.

The VW microgreens did not become the stuff of a piquant salad. "I can't imagine the carpet of your car is a food-safe environment,'' Millard said. (What vinaigrette goes with road salt?) Instead, it became a proof of concept. "The lesson is: Don't worry about it so much,'' Millard said of her indoor garden. "If the conditions are right, it will happen.''

In many ways, the gardening conditions in the northland are best suited to ornamental berries, red-barked shrubs and alcoholism.

The professional eschatologists (known elsewhere as meteorologists) were predicting scattered frosts for the night after Millard paid me a house call. It was early September.

The parsley and sage in my backyard could hang on until Thanksgiving. But if I didn't bring the basil inside now, I wouldn't see it again until May or June.

While I was outside, I noticed a volunteer tomato seedling and a stray mint. What would be the harm in digging them up and converting them into house pets? (Millard recommends converting the garage or a three-season porch into a kind of halfway house where the plants can get acclimated.)

I asked Millard about what may still be growing at her house across town. But she had moved out soon after finishing a draft of the book. While she and Pankow shopped for farmland of their own, they were dwelling in a downscale version of that VW Microgreen: a 25-year-old Coachman fifth-wheel camper they bought from friends for $2,000. The quarters were homey; a previous owner had gone through the effort of painting the wallpaper.

"It's surprisingly spacious,'' she said. "It's like a New York apartment.''

Except, presumably, in New York it would have cost $2.65 million in an all-cash transaction and another $1 million for a parking spot.

Millard has good news for the yardless metropolitan. Much of the equipment you need for indoor kitchen gardening is already in the kitchen. Sprouts should grow in a Mason jar with a screen lid for air and drainage.

Soak the seeds (Millard likes the flavor of broccoli). Then, after a day or two, turn the jar upside down and wait.

Are the white filaments edible food or some type of brassica thrush? Millard was noncommittal. "I will sprout things if people ask me to,'' she said. "But I have not been a huge fan.''

Farther down in the cupboards, pie plates or baking sheets make satisfactory planters to grow microgreens or shoots. At the start, plastic wrap can keep the seeds humid. You may even have the shoot seeds in the bulk bin: say, dried peas, raw sunflower seeds or untreated popcorn.

Germination isn't a sign of spoilage; it's the goal here. Millard recommends soaking the seeds for a day or two beforehand, changing the water now and again.

"If you leave them longer than that, they'll give off a really vile smell,'' she said, "like burning moldy feet.'' At this point, you're not raising food but developing a biological weapons program.

The easiest indoor gardening projects look a lot like seed-starting. You don't need much dirt: an inch and a half for sprouts, and maybe half an inch for microgreens (a regular lettuce mix, harvested early).

"You can do that on a paper towel,'' she said. "They're not going to grow into their fullest expression of what they could be.'' But then, who among us hasn't thought about their own dirt nap and harbored the same self-doubt?

Millard had dragged a full bag of vermiculite as big as a pillowcase up the three flights of stairs. This, of course, was a bit of a sight gag: the white filler looks like Styrofoam and weighs no more. The idea was to mix it with a bagged organic compost she likes, called Cowsmo. But any indoor potting mix with a little fertilizer would do.

"You want something that drains really well,'' Millard said. "Dirt from your garden is too dense.'' As a no-pesticide farmer, she welcomed the chance for a clean start. There's a book to be written about how to breed common garden bugs in the house, but let's leave that to the newspaper's entomology expert.

Millard totes a stack of 20-inch black plastic planting flats almost everywhere she goes, the same way a real estate agent seems to bleed a trail of lawn signs. Get the ones with the bottom watering slits and the translucent lids. They are a masterful piece of industrial design, they cost about $1.50 each and they look just like garbage.

A Pyrex casserole dish makes a smarter display. "It may help with the drainage to put a low layer of gravel in the bottom,'' Millard said, prepping the planter. A few handfuls of soil mix flew into the trays. She was no more delicate with the pea seeds and the popcorn kernels, scattering a single layer over the surface. Being housebound, they wouldn't need a coat of dirt on top.

You'll want to sow at the kind of density you would see in front of the stage at Bonnaroo. Once the sprouts come up, Millard said, "you could have someone crowd surf without falling in.''

At this point, Millard mentioned a piece of look-for-it-in-the-basement gear: a box fan. A little airflow helps ward off disease and stiffens a plant's resolve.

My summer corn crop in the yard had been a mixed success. By that I mean it was a success for the squirrels that stripped the stalks clean and a total failure for me, who waited 80 days and got nothing.

"Depending on your conditions in here, after about two weeks you should be able to harvest them,'' Millard said. "Cut them like you're giving them the worst haircut in the world.''

What about lights? This is the question that every lay agronomist seems to ask, Millard said. It's as if she has proposed a suspect workaround: school without homework, say, or an affair without text messaging (I mean, sex).

Millard dutifully runs through the options in the book. A window with southern exposure will get you somewhere. But the plant will need to be close to the pane, where conditions may be drafty. Incandescent bulbs give off more heat than light.

Millard doesn't spend too much time on specialty lighting systems: HID, LED or plasma. This kind of expertise and budget are the province of the marijuana cultivator. We have a lot to learn from them.

Ultimately, Millard recommends cheap shop lights, with full-spectrum bulbs (t5 or t8) and reflective hoods. The adjustable fixtures are better still: You can start them a couple of inches above the newly sprouted seeds and raise them as your plants grow.

We'd moved on to planting herbs and root crops. Untreated potatoes from the farmers' market would turn into suitable plants. Just wait for the eyes to form. Millard suggested putting five or six in a 15-gallon pot. "They should get some light during the day,'' she said. But, "potatoes do well with the whole benign-neglect situation.'' They're like children that way.
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Title Annotation:Homes
Author:Tortorello, Michael
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 11, 2015
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