It’s that time again. The weather is turning cold, telling us it is time to turn over the garden, plant some cover crops and go without garden-fresh veggies for a season or two. Go without garden-fresh veggies? If that sounds unbearable to you, you’re in luck. With just a little bit of planning and effort, and a minimal amount of cash, you can continue enjoying the benefits of healthy veggies throughout even the coldest of seasons.
We have all tried our hand at growing herbs, or even salad greens, on our sunniest windowsill, with varying levels of success. Personally, I can get seeds to germinate on a windowsill, but the produce I end up with isn’t much to write home about. I’m glad to report that I now know this is not my fault! Even the sunniest window doesn’t provide enough heat and light to support the requirements of most plants. Fortunately, I have a small closet in the breezeway that has been collecting broken tools and odds and ends that would serve me much better as a veggie grow room.
A grow room can be as fancy or as simple as you want it to be. You can go to the local hardware store and spend hundreds of dollars. Or you can look around your house and find creative ways to use what you’ve already got. The only thing you must ensure in a grow room is that it can meet plants’ basic needs: space, light, water, support structures, nutrients, and sustained temperatures.
Let’s talk about space. If you have an indoor or outdoor closet, basement or garage space, or a spare bedroom, you can turn it into a year-round vegetable garden. The space you choose will need at least one electrical outlet (or an extension cord long enough to reach the closest outlet) and a nearby water supply. It is better if the floors are wood, cement or tile because carpets tend to attract and hold on to moisture and bacteria. If the room has windows, you can allow your garden to have natural light which will cut down on the electric bill.
Once you get your spare room emptied out and cleaned up, create a very basic floor plan. This may sound like a waste of time but trust me on this. It is also a waste of time to rearrange the shelves, fans, and plants over and over again until you find the perfect fit for everything. Take some time to determine the size of the room, especially if you are planning on purchasing shelves and equipment. While it might not be a big deal to waste some time, wasting money on items that don’t fit is not what we’re about!
Once you have your space ready and your tables or shelves moved in, it is time to think about your lighting needs. Different plants have different light requirements but generally speaking, you will need one 600 watt light for every 6 feet of space. The amount of light you provide is not your only lighting consideration. Different plants do better with different types of light. For example, blue light will promote leafy and vegetative growth, whereas flowering and fruit-producing plants do better with red light. You can start with florescent lighting, but as your indoor garden expands you may want to invest in halogen lighting or LED grow lights. You can also line the walls and floor with mylar. This will reflect the light around the room, making the most of your lighting source while also preventing moisture damage.
There is not a standard wattage for every grow room. Plants are like people; they each have their individual preferences. Generally speaking, leafy vegetables can manage with less light than root vegetables. Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers need a great deal of light. Sprouts and fungi don’t care for light at all.
Water is another important consideration for plants grown indoors. Because they are in containers and exposed to sustained light, heat, and wind, these plants will dry out much more quickly than plants grown outdoors in the ground. Mist plants daily and give them a good watering when the top of the soil becomes dry. You don’t want to keep them in soggy conditions, but you don’t want them to dry out either. A great tip to help you avoid drying out your plants is to set the plants on a large tray or baking sheet filled with water. In addition to the water they receive from you, they can drink the water from the trays.
Plants grown indoors do not have access to the nutrients found naturally in garden dirt. You can help your plants receive the nutrients they need in two ways. First, when starting your plants, do not use regular garden dirt in your pots. Garden dirt is heavy and will compact in containers, choking your roots and making it very difficult for plants to thrive. Use a mixture of compost, peat, and vermiculite. You can use any container as long as it is the appropriate size for the plant and has adequate drainage. Starting your plants in the correct growing medium is a great start, but indoor veggies will also benefit from fertilizer. Actively-growing plants will appreciate a feeding of compost tea every three weeks.
You have multiple choices when it comes to sustaining temperatures in your grow room. These choices can cost hundreds—thousands, even—or a few bucks. As I am starting a small grow room in a closet—just enough to provide my family with fresh greens throughout the winter—I am opting to spend just a few bucks. This entails a space heater for warmth and a box fan to move the air around. If you’re looking into starting a large growing operation you may need to consider industrial-sized heaters and fans.
Regardless of how large your grow-room operation is, the goal is to draw in fresh air and get rid of hot air. Fresh air should flow in at the bottom of the room and be released at the top of the room, where hot air naturally flows. If you’re concerned about the room getting too hot, position the fan to blow toward the light. This will help to keep the temperature down.
Now that you have the logistics taken care of, you can decide on which plants to use. As always, do not grow vegetables that you or your family will not eat. That being said, if you grow a majority of tried and true favorites, experiment with a container or two of new produce. You never know what might become your new favorite.
There are a couple of things to consider before choosing your plants. First, choose your containers wisely. Leafy-vegetable containers need to be at least four inches deep for adequate root development. Root vegetables obviously need more space, while large vegetable plants such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers will need even larger accommodations. Next, it’s important to understand that fruit-bearing plants are not going to do as well indoors as their leafy counterparts. They will require much more attention, especially when it comes to pollination. It is possible to hand pollinate vegetable plants if you are willing to put in the effort it takes to learn the technique and the time it takes to pollinate the plants. That being said, you’re more likely to enjoy success with particular veggies and herbs. Pick your favorites from this list of leafy vegetables and flavorful herbs:
Although pests are not usually a problem in an indoor grow-room, you can grow some pest-repelling plants, such as marigolds, alongside your produce. Not only will it help with any possible pest problems, they are bright and cheery to look at, and are big sellers at farmer’s markets.
Once you enjoy the success of a personal growing-room you can expand into a growing operation large enough to meet market demands. Microgreens and baby greens are terrific options to grow indoors, as they are not allowed to reach the stage of development that requires an excessive amount of attention. Their quick seed-to-greens turnaround is the closest gardeners can get to instant gratification. If you start these tiny greens on a rotating schedule you can harvest greens every 7-14 days. Another great thing about micro and baby greens is that even though the local farmer’s market might be over in your town, high-end restaurants and catering services are always thrilled to buy these specialty greens, especially when they are fresh and local.
Don’t let the cold weather put you off of gardening and eating right. Play around with the idea and create an indoor grow room of your own.