Everybody needs a food garden.
No matter how small your garden and meager your harvest, the fresh food you produce there will will be tasty and nutritious. It will connect you with the natural world.
Okay, maybe you don’t have much or any outdoor space. It’s midwinter. Seed packets have yet to appear in local garden centers.
Well, you could follow my earlier suggestion to grow baskets of winter greens under a shop light. But you could also start an indoor salad garden that would give you attractive houseplants without planting a single seed.
Load up your cart
Begin in the produce aisle of your local supermarket. Toss in a couple bunches of celery and and couple of heads of Romaine lettuce (or other lettuce attached to an intact base), a few small onions, and several packages of the fresh herbs you use most: basil, oregano, mint, thyme, sage, rosemary. You’ll want stems four to six inches long.
Head for the organic section to collect a couple of sweet potatoes, a few beets, a few large radishes, and a few unwaxed turnips. Why organic? You’ll want your roots to sprout, and many conventionally grown root vegetables have been sprayed to prevent sprouting.
These vegetables comprise your garden starters. The cost is negligible, because you get to eat a lot of what you’ve bought.
You’ll also need:
- Containers for your plants. Your imagination is the limiting factor here. The only requirements for a good plant container: It must hold soil, drain well, and have contained no toxic or hazardous materials. Coffee cans, plastic buckets, galvanized tubs, with drainage holes punched into the bottom and sides; clay pots of any size or shape, burlap bags, wooden crates, polypropylene shopping bags, sandbags, window boxes, cut-away soda bottles, a length of PVC pipe with planting holes cut out, pieces of roof gutter with holes drilled in the bottom.
- A bag of sterile potting soil. Don’t use ordinary topsoil. It’s too heavy for indoor plantings and may contain weed seeds, spores of plant diseases, and insect pests.
- Some form of liquid fertilizer. You can find many complete liquid fertilizers at garden centers (and even make your own). I use a commercial product containing a mixture of fish emulsion and seaweed extract. (Very smelly, but the smell dissipates within a few hours.) Use any fertilizer according to package directions.
- Sunny windowsills or a full-spectrum fluorescent light fixture or two. Although leafy crops don’t need as much sun as those that flower and fruit, your growing crops will still need a few hours of sunlight each day. Indoor growers have developed some truly ingenious ways to make the most of what light they have.
- A watering can and maybe a plant mister. You can even make your own waterer from a plastic jug. A repurposed spray bottle or one from the dollar store will work fine for misting.
Growing salads and soup greens
- Celery from a stump Just cut the bottom two inches from a bunch of celery (refrigerate the stalks fo later use), and “plant” it, root-side down in a saucer of water or an inch or two of pot of moist sand or potting soil. Leaves, then tender stalks will slowly emerge from the center. When the stump is well-rooted, transplant it into a larger pot. You’ll be able to harvest tender stems and leaves for soups and salads for many months.
Romaine or other lettuce from a stump Follow the same procedure as for celery. Pick the outer leaves as they mature, leaving new leaves to grow from the center.
Clone new basil, sage, mint, thyme, oregano, or rosemary plants Remove lower leaves of the stems of fresh herbs and set the stems in water. Keep the water fresh.Once your stem has a good set of roots, you can plant it in potting soil in a suitable container. Keep the plants growing in a sunny windowsill or under a full-spectrum fluorescent. Trim “branches” as needed to clone new plants. light.
Sweet potato foliage Unless you patronize ethnic supermarkets or do a lot of Asian-style cooking, you may not know that sweet potato foliage is edible, tasty, nutritious--and makes a gorgeous, irrepressibly vining houseplant. Note: Don’t try this with regular potatoes, whose sprouts and leaves are poisonous. Slice the sweet-potato root in half or leave it whole. Use the toothpick method to suspend your sweet potato in a jar of water with the cut side under water until it begins rooting and sprouting. Each little “eye” above the water level will grow a new slip that you can remove and place in water to root. You can even grow tubers from your rooted slips in a large polypropylene shopping bag or other suitable container if you have enough space.
For fresh green onions, cut a bit of the root ends from cooking onions (leaving an inch of so of flesh) or from a bunch of scallions and plant them in a pot of moist growing medium. You can even plant a whole cooking onion that's begun to sprout. Trim blades for use as the new scallions reach harvestable size.
To grow beet, radish, or turnip greens, follow steps similar to those outlined for sweet potatoes. You can use the toothpick-suspension method, or plant your cut roots in a large shallow bow with water, clean sand or some some small rocks. Remove the largest outer leaves (if any),cut off about a third of the root and set the flat cut end in the bowl or so from the bottoms of several good-size beets (so they will sit firmly) and place them in the bowl. If the root has leaves, remove (and eat) the largest, leaving a few tiny leaves in the center. Once each root grows a healthy set of roots and leaves, plant it in a container of potting soil. As the new plant grows, harvest the outer leaves for salads or cooking; leave the center leaves to grow.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.