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Indoor vegetable growing.

Killing frosts won't ice your gardening for the year if you've done a little planning ahead. Fresh homegrown salads in January, even tomatoes in February are indeed possible, even in the far North.

Some of the goodies besides tomatoes you can enjoy indoors while the snow flies and cold rain drips are peppers and parsley, lettuce, chives, various herbs, watercress and tiny carrots. You can have radishes, beets and Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage, spinach, garden cress, and even beans.

The major limiting factor to your winter garden are your own time, energy and dedication, and the amount of space you have available that's suitable for growing. You must be able to maintain a high humidity and fairly warm temperature and provide a good light source for 14 to 16 hours a day.

The first steps toward a winter garden should take place in late summer and early fall. Round up plenty of clay pots and planter boxes, fill a large tub full of pebbles to use in trays under the pots to keep wet in order to heighten humidity, and assemble the ingredients for mixing your own potting soil.

We get buckets of clean sand, a small bale of peat moss, large boxes of well-rotted compost from a hot pile, and soil from the best area of the garden. We sterilize the soil by putting small buckets full in a leaky container and pouring boiling water over them.

We also double check our supplies of fertilizers such as bonemeal, fish emulsion and liquid seaweed. They're hard to find in fall. We've also set up a manure tea arrangement in the basement corner near the root cellar -- a smaller version of the 55-gallon tea tank we have in the garden. Plants producing fruits and heavy foliage in the winter require just as much fertilizer as they would in the summer. In fact, some gardening books suggest that they require more because the plants may be subject to more stress than in the garden plot.

When planning your winter garden, you'll have to stick to dwarf or non-spreading vegetation. Obviously, you can't grow pumpkins in the bathroom or sunflowers in the bay window. And your crops won't come near to matching summer's quantity because of space limitations, but they should be of superb quality, if you're fussy and thoroughly attentive to their needs. Who cares if January's salad is a third the size of July's anyway -- if it's fresh and pure and your own harvest?

Large south windows, supplemented by grow-light lamps to give the equivalent of 16 hours of daylight, are best for the highest quality results, although we have raised fairly decent crops of parsley and chives by west window light alone, and Dave Belanger reports that he had soybeans reach a good healthy maturity in pots in the east window.

Now for some specifics.

The pepper is a perennial in its native environment. It's only where winters freeze that it must be treated as an annual. You can either seed pots or boxes especially for indoors in fall, wait four months to harvest, and plant them outside again in spring; or you can reverse the process and bring plants in from the garden, over-winter them, harden them off as usual, and when the weather's stable in spring, set them outside again. Either way gives a giant leap on the next outdoor season's produce.

Because peppers are tender, they must be carefully dug up, potted in deep pots, and pruned before there has been even a light frost. In a harsh climate, the plants should be given a coldframe-in-reverse treatment--give them a week or two to get used to the pots before attempting to move them into the house. And they should be safely acclimatized to the house before the building is heated. That will take adaptation on their part, too. If suddenly brought into a warm, too dry house, they will react to the shock by dropping their leaves and dying. This is generally true of all plants you may attempt to over-winter.

Make every effort to keep humidity high around the peppers, and other crop plants, as well. Use pebble trays, mist sprays, pots of water on the stove, humidifiers, even recirculating waterfalls, if necessary.

All varieties of garden peppers -- sweet green, yellow banana, and the green and red hots -- will flower profusely and bear fruit during the winter months, if given enough light and humidity. The indoor peppers will be smaller, only one-half to one-third the size as when they're grown outdoors, but they can be harvested as soon as they're big enough to handle.

Since there are no insects in the house, you'll have to do the job of pollinating the flowers for them. Use a cotton swab or an artist's brush to hand-pollinate the fresh flowers.

Tomatoes will also need to be hand-pollinated. Also a perennial and a member of the same family as peppers (Solonaceae), the tomato can be a bright winter companion if you choose dwarf or cherry tomatoes, or determinate type garden tomatoes. A friend reports excellent results growing the Michigan-Ohio greenhouse variety in her dining room window with the day lengthened by side-mounted grow-lights. "They're no relation to the hothouse tomato," she sniffs.

Tomatoes may be started for the winter by allowing the garden tomato plants you've selected to grow suckers long enough to get about one-half inch thick and to produce a bud. Then cut the suckers off the parent plant and root in a bed of clean sand. Transfer to pots large enough to accommodate the roots when new growth is strong and healthy, and repot when needed.

The plants will require daylight conditions for 16 hours. They need to be fertilized every two weeks, but if you get too much leafy growth, prune them back to the point where the flowers are emerging, and don't forget to hand-pollinate the new flowers.

The winter garden is where we can borrow ideas from our city friends who have learned to grow almost any vegetable in containers. When you put in the fall garden in July, seed some clay pots especially for the winter garden. Sink the pots right in the row, and two weeks before the first frosts are expected, prune the plants lightly and start "softening them off" for the house.

This method works well for parsley, oregano, thyme, the mints, basil, winter savory and rosemary. Parsley, a biennial, can also be carefully dug from the garden and placed in a pot deep enough to handle its taproot. Trim foliage severely, and let it adapt to the pot and to the house conditions. Later, when cutting it for use, trim the outer leaves, allowing the center leaves to develop outwards before they're cut.

Use the same method for cutting leaf lettuce in the house. Late-sown lettuce plants may be lifted for the house, or lettuce can be directly seeded under the grow-lights.

If you have a watercress bed, take cuttings in fall and root them in jars of water. Since the plant is a perennial, the cuttings can be planted in good potting soil when the roots are about one fourth inch long, and the pot placed on a pebble tray. This will give you a couple of crops during the winter. If you want just one crop, keep the cress in the jars, changing the water daily. Watercress can also be seeded even in the cold of winter, and if kept constantly moist, you'll have a crop in 50 days with enough left over to establish a bed outdoors in spring. We use a fiber-glassed wooden tray that's six inches deep.

Garden cress or pepper grass is the quickest and easiest salad green known. It's ready for harvest in two weeks, and should be planted every week to maintain a continuous supply. Fertilize heavily and give plenty of soil moisture.

Chives may be brought indoors for the winter, but they need a "rest." Transplant a clump of garden chives into a five-inch pot and sink the pot into the ground. After the first killing frost, mulch the pot or put into a coldframe for about 90 days. Then bring in the house and water it. There will be fresh chives for harvesting by January.

Shallots, a small onion of the multiplier type, lends its delicate flavor to French cooking. It may be grown indoors, treated like an onion, if planted in sandy soil and given ample moisture and fertilizer.

Beets grow well in the winter garden, especially the smaller and sweeter spring varieties. Thin the plants to three inches apart after they have their true leaves and use the thinnings in salads. They're delicious. Fertilize heavily.

Swiss chard, a member of the beet family grown for its foliage, is a delight in the winter garden. It will stand repeated cuttings if fertilized well. It tolerates lower humidity than most other greens.

Carrots are rewarding. Use the dwarf or short varieties and thin the seedlings to one inch apart. The tiny discards add variety to winter salads.

Spinach, like Swiss chard, is well adapted to winter culture. It thrives in cool temperatures of 50 to 65[degrees]F., and demands heavy fertilization. It matures in 50-some days but may be harvested whenever the leaves are large enough.

Chinese cabbage, which takes three months to maturity, can be individually planted in three-inch pots. It is another cool weather plant, so it does well indoors. It's the basis for delightful stir-fry dinners in December, January and February. Just add some sprouts, mushrooms, onions, various greens and maybe a pepper or two.

There's one additional fillip to winter gardening that won't yield you much in the way of produce, but sure chases the blues -- miniature fruit trees. Picking a fresh lime or lemon while the blizzard rages, or just simply drinking in the color of the bright, undyed oranges has rewards far beyond the vitamin C they'll add to the diet.

Order the miniature varieties from nurseries, pot in rich soil, water, fertilize, and mist frequently and there will soon be beautifully fragrant citrus blossoms to hand-pollinate. The trees don't like drafts and the humidity must be kept high. They will tolerate cool temperatures.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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