Do you miss eating tender, fresh greens from the garden? Making salads from store-bought packages of baby spinach, lettuce, and mesclun grown in Mexico or California just isn’t the same. So why not grow your own greens? It’s not hard, even in winter. All you need are some grow lights or a south-facing window, seeds, potting mix and a little time.
Growing greens indoors not only perks up your winter salads, it can be a conversation starter with your child or grandchild about where food comes from. Visit a supermarket together and have your child check the produce aisle for the countries of origin listed on packages of vegetables and fruits. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of buying this imported food. Ask, "How much energy does it take to ship food across the country, or an ocean, to get it to this grocery store? How could eating local food make a difference?"
Now that you have your child’s attention, propose growing some of your own food indoors right now. Here’s how:
Growing Great Greens
Greens are the easiest crops to grow indoors. Grow spinach, lettuce, mesclun mix, mustard or kale and you can begin to harvest micro-greens within a month! Fruiting vegetables, such as eggplant, tomato, cucumber and squash, need more space than the average home can offer. To get started on greens, however, you just need a few things: A bright sunny window and/or grow lights, seeds, pots and soil.
At the local garden center select quick-maturing varieties of greens that won’t grow too large, such as ‘Tom Thumb’ or 'Black Seeded Simpson' lettuce varieties or other greens like arugula. Purchase soilless potting mix and plastic growing containers. You can also get creative and grow salad greens in recycled household containers. For example, the clear plastic containers that store-bought lettuce mixes come in make excellent growing trays. The key with any homemade container is to poke drainage holes in the bottom and be sure to put a drainage dish below.
Let There Be Light
The most important aspect of indoor growing is providing the right light. In December and January the sun is at its lowest angle in the sky and its lowest intensity of the year. The days are too short and dim for good plant growth. However, using a simple shop light you can increase the light intensity indoors enough to grow greens. Purchase a 2- or 4-bulb fixture and use either full-spectrum grow lights (the best option) or a combination of cool-white and warm-white fluorescent tubes. These bulbs will give your greens seedlings the right combination of light wavelengths and intensity to grow strong and full.
Planting and Growing Seeds
Have your child fill your containers with moistened potting soil. Next, sprinkle the seeds about 1-inch apart on the soil surface and barely cover them with soil. You may want to help young children with this step. Place the planted containers under lights and keep the seeds and soil moist. Keep the bulbs on for 14 hours a day. Once the seeds germinate, keep the lights positioned just a few inches above the seedlings. Adjust the lights daily as the plants grow. A timer is a worthy investment, so you don’t have to remember to turn the lights on and off. At this time of year, your greens should grow beautifully with just occasional watering. If the leaves turn pale green or yellow, give the plants some liquid fertilizer when watering, being sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Once the leaves on the greens are a few inches tall, it’s time to start harvesting. Remind your child that you won’t be growing full heads of lettuce like the ones you guy at the stire. The idea is to harvest a few leaves at a time from each plant and then let them grow again. That way, the plants won’t take up too much space and you’ll get multiple harvests. Harvesting is easy. Using scissors simply cut the greens 1 inch above the soil line, leaving a few larger leaves in the center to keep plants healthy. Lettuce, spinach and mesclun greens will grow back to yield another harvest in a couple of weeks. After a few harvests the plant stems may get thick and the leaves may remain small. This indicates it’s time to compost the potting mix and roots, and start over.
Depending on the size and number of containers you and your child plant, your family can eat fresh salads for weeks using this simple indoor growing system. For fun, purchase a package of store-bought greens and do a blind taste test against your homegrown greens. See if your child can tell the two apart. He or she may be amazed by the difference in taste!