Writer : indoors

Growing Greens Indoors

Over the years, I've probably had more failures than success trying to grow greens and herbs indoors during the winter. Even with moderate success, it seemed more trouble than it was worth; easier just to pay the premium prices at the food store.

Whether I've gotten tired of those tender, expensive greens turning into a soggy mass shortly after purchase, acquired more patience, or become more frugal, I decided to try again. To my surprise it's been a delightful success with minimum hassle.

I have a large two shelved plant stand that usually collects magazines and seed catalogs until April, when I start my vegetable seedlings. It comfortably holds two standard 12"x24" plant trays per shelf (end to end) under a 4 tube, 48 inch florescent fixture. An 8" x 24" x 6" deep plastic flower box was placed in each tray and filled with my own soil mix (heavy in compost). I broadcast basil seed in one and a mesclun mix in the other, watered them thoroughly from the top, and covered both with plastic wrap.

When the seedlings were small, the trays were elevated on wooden blocks, so the tops of the plants were always just a few inches from the lights. The lights are on a timer set for 16 hours, and the distance between lights and shelf is 15". In total disregard of spacing instructions, both boxes are crammed with plants. I fill the bottom trays about 1/3 full of a water-fertilizer mix as soon as they empty.

The basil is harvested by leaf until plants begin to touch the lights. Then all the tall plants are cut down to the lowest axillary buds. Seedlings that started a bit slower, hovering beneath their bigger neighbors, shoot up into the newly opened light and are harvested in turn when too tall, allowing the first cut plants to spring into the void. This see-saw cycle continues for months.

I harvest the mesclun with scissors like cutting lawn, starting at one end of the planter and continuing sequentially to the other. By the time I've completed one pass, the first section is about ready to cut again. Because the plants are so thick, they thin themselves somewhat with lack of light shriveling the weakest. Lettuce can become dominant unless special care is taken to harvest larger leaves out of sequence. Since the arugula is quite strong, it doesn't take much to give the mix pungency.

Outdoors, such well-fed, succulent growth would be a magnet for pests. I haven't had any bug problems, but then I don't have many house plants and keep the thermostat at 64. Any potential problem with fungus gnats ( all that compost and regular soil) is curtailed by watering from the bottom.

Next year I think I'll have both shelves going and find someplace else for the magazines and catalogs.