Growing Green in the Kitchen

By Charlie Nardozzi


Press: Open large version of photo for print use.

It may still be winter in much of the country, but don't let that stop you from growing a few of your own vegetables and herbs. Growing edibles indoors isn't just fun, it's a good reminder to eat a healthful diet based on fresh, pesticide-free produce. So fire up your imagination and start planting some bountiful basil, aromatic arugula, and luscious lettuce now to create fresh salads and dishes this winter. Here's how to get started.

What to Grow?

The first step is to choose plants that grow well indoors. These plants must be able to thrive in the less than ideal light conditions and be small enough to grow and mature in a pot without taking over the windowsill or kitchen. Some herbs, such as parsley, are better brought inside as mature plants from outdoors in fall. Herbs grown for their seed, such as coriander and dill, won't grow well indoors. But there are many others that will grow well. Here are some of my favorites.

Grow Your Own Sugar

One of the coolest (and sweetest) herbs to grow indoors is stevia. Stevia is a sugar substitute that has almost no calories. You've probably seen packets of refined stevia powder in health food stores - it's 300 times sweeter than sugar! You can grow stevia indoors too. The sweetness is in the leaves, which are 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar. That means you'll need just a few to sweeten your tea, coffee, lemonade, soup, stew, or baked beans.

Stevia is native to moist soils and semitropical conditions of the mountains of Brazil and Paraguay. You can grow it from seeds or transplants. Since stevia seed can be expensive and takes a while to germinate, it's best to purchase transplants available through the mail or at your local garden center. Grow them in pots indoors filled with well-drained potting soil and place them where temperatures stay above 70 degrees F. Keep the humidity high, as leaves are susceptible to drying. Although a slow grower, stevia will produce a bevy of leaves. You can move the plant outdoors in summer and enjoy the sweet harvest until frost.

Herb Gardening Statistics

According to the National Gardening Survey the amount of money spent on herb gardening reached a record high of 451 million dollars in 2007. An estimated 13 million households grew herbs last year. While that's only 11 percent of all U.S. households, it still represents a lot of herb growers. Herb gardening was most popular with households 55 and over, women, married households, college graduates, and those with incomes of $75k and over.

 

  • Arugula (Erica sativa): The dark green, serrated leaves add a spicy zip to salads.
  • 'Blue Boy' rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): More compact and diminutive than regular rosemary, reaching only 24 inches tall. It flowers freely and has excellent flavor. Rosemary is best bought as plants.
  • Dwarf garden sage (Salvia officinalis 'Compacta'): Smaller leaves and more compact habit than regular sage, dwarf sage grows only 10 inches high.
  • 'Fernleaf' dill (Anethum graveolens): While standard varieties grow tall and go to seed, this dwarf form of dill grows only 18 inches tall.
  • 'Grolau' chives (Allium schoenoprasum): Has strong flavor and thick, dark green leaves. Grows only 8 to 12 inches tall.
  • Lettuce and mesclun mixes: Seed of several varieties are mixed in one packet. Mesclun may include greens such as kale, Swiss chard, mustard, and spinach. Harvest while the leaves are still small - usually within a month of sowing seeds. They don't need a lot of space, so they're perfect for indoor culture. Also, use scissors to harvest a few leaves from each plant, and allow them to regrow for a second harvest.
  • Mache (Valerianella locusta): This small-leaved, European green has a tender texture and an almost minty flavor.
  • 'Spicy Globe' basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum): A dense, compact form of basil that's only 8 to 10 inches tall with good flavor.
  • 'Tom Thumb' lettuce (Lactuca sativa): This looseleaf lettuce variety produces tender, full-sized buttery heads no larger than a tennis ball.

Indoor Growing Supplies

Lights. While these herbs and greens can be grown indoors with as little as 4 hours of direct light per day, for best results keep them under grow lights. Plants grown on a windowsill will yield some produce, but because sunlight is variable, they may become leggy and less productive. You can use full-spectrum fluorescent grow lights, or match one warm white bulb with one cool white bulb in a two-fixture shop light to get a wide spectrum of light for your plants.

Containers. Individual 4- to 6-inch diameter plastic or clay pots are easiest to use - just be sure they have drainage! Use sterilized, bagged potting soil for your seeds and seedlings - garden soil is usually too dense for container growing, and may contain microbes and insects that will impair the growth of your indoor garden. Sow 3 seeds per pot and thin to one healthy seedling after germination. Another option, especially for lettuce and mesclun mixes, is to plant in a shallow, plastic rectangular-shaped tray that has drainage holes. Fill the tray with moistened potting soil and sow the seed in rows or broadcast the seed over the whole area. Cover the seeds with potting soil and moisten. Since you'll be harvesting the greens while they're small, there's no need to worry about overcrowding or having enough space to grow them.

Start harvesting when the leaves and sprigs large enough to use, and leave at least a third of leaves on each plant if you want it to regrow.

Keep Them Growing

Once your seedlings are up and growing, place them under the grow lights set on a timer for 14 hours a day. Raise the lights as they grow keeping the seedlings only a few inches above the lights so they don't get tall and spindly. Keep the soil moist by gently watering from above, or filling a waterproof tray under the pots with 1 to 2 inches of water that soil will soak up from below. Provide nutrients with a liquid fertilizer diluted according to the directions on the label.

Pests are seldom a problem when growing herbs and greens indoors. However, keep an eye out for aphids, mealybugs and spider mites on the foliage. Spray plants with insecticidal soap if you see these pests.

Moving Out

Some of your indoor garden plants, such as lettuce and arugula, will be spent before spring arrives. The herbs, on the other hand, can be transplanted into the garden. Once all danger of frost has passed move your basil, thyme, sage, chives, and other perennial herbs outdoors on a deck or patio. If the height of the plant is at least 3 times the diameter of the pot, repot them into a container one size larger for summer growing. You can get creative by mixing and matching herbs with other plants in larger containers or window boxes. So, what started as an indoor garden to grow some winter greens is versatile enough to become part of your outdoor summer garden!

For more information on growing edibles indoors and out, sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, Edible Landscaping with Charlie Nardozzi.

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