Interested in learning how to grow an indoor garden? In my books, How To Grow Vegetables Without Losing Your Mind and Gardening Nuggets, I explain the process of starting plants from seed indoors for plants that you will eventually transplant into your outdoor garden. However, I don’t talk about actual gardening indoors; in other words, growing plants to maturity inside your home.
But after going back and forth about it for a while, I have decided to start growing a limited number of crops inside. I am beginning the process, and so am going to have a blog series (probably one post a week for a while) dedicated to the topic.
In this post, and in the video that follows, I want to answer two questions: Why start an indoor garden? and, What can you grow inside your house?
Reasons to start an indoor garden
There are a number of reasons a person might choose to grow food inside their home.
*1. Greater food freedom.
This blog is all about providing tips and ideas to help you have as much freedom in your life as possible. That includes ideas that empower you to lessen your dependence on corporations to provide your basic needs. I am not against corporations per se, nor do I take the position that “the grid” is evil. However, I fervently believe in the importance of being prepared for emergencies, both long- and short-term.
Knowing how and being able to provide some of your own physical sustenance is an important part of that preparedness. And since not everyone has space for an outdoor garden, and many climates make gardening outside in the winter difficult without heavy investments into greenhouses, learning how to grow an indoor garden might one day save you and your family’s life.
We live two hours away from a health food store, and I don’t think the area farmers who sell at the area farmers’ markets grow their food without chemicals. We will save a lot of money when we no longer have to drive long distances to have all the fresh produce we want! My indoor garden will help with that.
*2. Better light control in the winter.
Except for the tropics, during the late fall to early spring sunlight is not nearly as strong as it is during the warmer parts of the year. Even though it seems plenty sunny, the light is not intense enough for plants to grow as quickly as they do.
When you garden indoors, however, you can control the intensity of light as well as how long the plants receive light during the day.
*3. Climate control.
I touched on this in the first reason to have an indoor garden. Obviously, plants that are grown inside your house don’t need to be protected with frost blankets and row covers, or mini-greenhouses.
Also, I have discovered that even though the frost-hardy plants – greens, onions, and carrots – will survive temperatures down into the low twenties (Fahrenheit) and even lower, the frequent exposure to these cold temperatures stunt their growth. For example, in the spring a head of lettuce grows back eating-sized leaves within a couple of weeks after I have cut off most of its leaves. But in the winter, a plant will take over a month to grow its leaves back to harvest size.
*3. Bug avoidance.
If you subscribe to my YouTube channel and watch every single one of my videos as they come out, you will have noticed that I have said nothing about gardening for a lo-ong time (except the one about strawberries growing in winter, but the flowers never turned into anything).
Confession time: I was embarrassed that I, a veteran suburban gardener AND an author of a book about gardening, failed at her first attempt at a rural fall/winter garden.
Okay, so it hasn’t been a complete failure, but fewer than 25% of the plants that originally germinated made it, so I’m certainly not going to call myself a success.
Why did this happen?
I blame it mostly on the fact that we were crazy-busy trying to finish out our earth-sheltered house so that we could move into it before winter hit.
I was stressed. And both physically and emotionally exhausted from working on the house at the end of most days. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on a garden.
As a result, I didn’t water the seeds often enough to get a good germination rate, and then most of those that managed to break through the soil despite my neglect succumbed to grasshoppers and cucumber beetles.
I wasn’t happy about the money we were spending on the house (sorry, folks, big expenses stress me out, even when I know I can afford them), so I didn’t want to spend money on hoops and row covers. Nor did I want to do any more work in the garden than necessary.
Going forward, I am going to be a lot more diligent about covering my plants, especially in the spring. I discovered that there are many more pests in the country than in the city (duh).
However, working on a house or not, pests – especially grasshoppers – are worse in the fall than in the spring because in the spring they are just hatching out. By the time October rolls around, large, hungry grasshoppers are everywhere. And we live in Zone 7, where they don’t completely disappear until late December to early January!
With an indoor garden, you don’t have to worry about pests. From now on in the fall I will start all my fall and winter crops indoors (with the possible exception of mâche – it rhymes with “wash” – and the definite exception of carrots). Some of those plants will stay inside the entire season, so that I will always have some worry-free greens.
*5. Easier to irrigate.
Eventually, our entire mini-orchard and vegetable garden will be in wood chips and sawdust, making irrigation a non-issue. But not everyone has access to wood chips and many cubic yards of sawdust. Unless you create lasagna garden beds that you constantly add compost to, you will have to irrigate.
And in certain circumstances, irrigation is a tricky business. Our soil is mostly sand, and it often gets around or above 100 degrees in the summer for weeks at a time with no rain.
Can you say, “Irrigation nightmare?”
But when you are growing food indoors, it’s a lot easier to monitor the soil moisture…and a lot easier to water the plants, period. More importantly, the water will go where it needs to go, leading to a lot less waste of that precious resource.
*6. Save money on groceries.
Of course, this is a benefit of growing food anywhere, both indoors and out. But if you love your greens and live in a really cold winter climate and don’t want to bother with/have room for a greenhouse, growing them indoors will keep you from having to buy them during the winter.
And not everybody lives in a house! And those in apartments don’t all have a balcony (a north-facing balcony would be mostly worthless for growing either veggies or flowers). If they would grow some of their own food inside, they would lower their food expenses.
Disadvantages of growing food indoors
I’m not going to sit back and pretend that having an indoor garden has no problems. There are actually several disadvantages to growing a garden indoors.
The plants have less nutrition.
University studies have proven that plants grown under lights contain many fewer phytonutrients than their counterparts grown outside in the sunshine. In a future post, I am going to show you how to alleviate that problem.
And I will assert that eating food that you grow chemical-free under lights is going to be healthier than the three- to seven-day old food you buy at a store, even though it was grown outside in the sun.
You will have an ongoing electric cost.
If you are trying to be as electricity-free as possible, having an indoor garden will not work for you. You’re going to have to have lights, period.
No, a south-facing window will not be enough.
That said, the type of lights I’m going to recommend in the next post don’t use that much electricity, and if you live in a normal-sized house that requires heat in the winter and A/C in the summer, the lighting will be a drop in the bucket compared to the house’s climate-control costs.
Even if you set up a hydroponic system, there will be some mess involved. If you do it the old-fashioned way, as I am planning to, with soil, there will be even more mess.
Definitely don’t plan to have your indoor garden in a carpeted room or closet.
Now, onto the other question I promised to address at the beginning of this post:
What can you grow in an indoor garden?
What kinds of crops can you grow inside your house under lights? Really, if you have the space and money for all the equipment and energy needed, you could grow anything and everything! But since most people don’t want a watermelon or pumpkin vining through their home, I’ll stick to the more realistic crops, starting with the smallest plants.
- Low-growing herbs, such as thyme and oregano.
- Swiss chard
- Mint-family herbs
- Bush beans
- Dwarf peas
- Pepper, both hot and bell (dwarf varieties would be best)
- Determinate tomato plants (won’t grow as tall/vine as long as the indeterminate varieties)
- Regular-sized peas
- Cucumber (if you’re willing to keep it well-pruned)
Now, if you grow the nightshade vegetables (tomato, zucchini, eggplant, and pepper) anywhere, inside or out, I highly recommend that you only grow them for one season. The reason is that the nightshade vegetables contain toxins that can cause a problem for people who try to eat them all year long – a problem such as an allergic reaction or a sensitivity that leads to burping and/or bloating.
The bigger the plants you want to grow inside, the more complicated your lighting system will be because you will have to figure out how to get it up high. Because they need larger containers, they will also take up more space.
Even determinate tomatoes can grow out of control, and peas and cucumbers will require some kind of trellis to support them.
I want to have some lettuce during the summer, but where we live lettuce bolts in May or June. So I will grow some lettuce in my indoor garden in the summer, to go with the tomatoes and basil I’ll be growing outside. I’m also considering growing a few bush bean plants inside during the spring and early summer because flea beetles can destroy the plants before they even start producing.
We will eventually transition to a “Back To Eden” garden, which supposedly facilitates such high levels of health that most pests leave plants mostly alone. But since we are going to mulch our orchard first, it will probably another year or two before I get the entire garden in wood chips. So for the moment, yes, I am going to be concerned about flea beetles.
In the fall, I will grow several pots each of lettuce, kale, spinach, and Swiss chard. I will also grow baby kale and broccoli in sprouting trays, which will get harvested after a week or two of growth.
I may try dwarf sugar-snap peas, too, just as an experiment so that you know what it’s like.
If you’d like to learn how to grow an indoor garden, stick with me! A great way to do that is to sign up on the form at the top of the page, because besides getting an inspiring e-book you also get on my e-mail list so that you can be advised of new blog posts as they get published.