By Charlie Nardozzi
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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