Grow Indoor Herbs and Veggies–Even in Small Spaces!

Indoor basil plants

When I began this blog a month ago I shared a trick I learned for making indoor plants flourish. In that post, I promised to eventually share a few tips for getting started on indoor planting for those who are novices. Also included are a few ideas for branching out (pun intended) if you’re already a practiced potter.

If you’re just getting started, you’ll need a few basic supplies:

  • Pots with drainage holes and a catch plate
  • Potting soil
  • Bark, wood chips, or mulch of some kind
  • Seeds
  • Sunny spot to place your pots (indirect sunlight is fine for most plants)

Gardening supplies can be purchased at your local nursery and at many common Big Box stores such as Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, and Tractor Supply. I recommend using unpainted clay pots for your indoor planting, as I’ve found that some of the decorative clay pots I’ve purchased leach their colors into the soil (I no longer use these pots to plant anything I’ll be eating). I discovered this one day when I over-watered one of my plants and the water that spilled over the edges of the catch plate was the same color as the pot.

As you can see in the photo above, I’ve used plastic pots as well, although I plan to transition to clay once I uproot my basil plant and replace it with kale (unfortunately, the mangy munchkin seems not to like basil, so I don’t need such a large plant anymore–notice the smaller one I’ll be replacing it with in the adjacent pot). I’ve read so many reports of plastics leaching chemicals into the environment that I worry we might be ingesting a small amount of toxic residue when we eat from the plants in plastic pots.

When I first potted my plants a couple of years ago I couldn’t locate organic potting soil, so I used the standard Miracle-Gro potting mix available at Walmart. When I replenish the soil each spring, I replace several handfuls of the old soil with several handfuls of an organic compost that I’ve since identified at Tractor Supply if I don’t have any of my own backyard compost ready (another post to come on the topic of home composting sometime in the future).

Covering your soil with a layer of mulch is important for keeping moisture from evaporating out of your pots and leaving the top layer of soil cracked and dry. In a pinch, a few handfuls of grass clippings will do the trick, too, although it won’t be quite as attractive; layer the clippings an inch or two thick since they will shrink down as they dry out. Grass clippings will double as food for earthworms if you go the route suggested in my first post (note that the earthworm trick is only for established plants and not seedlings).

So now that your pots are ready, what are you going to plant? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box–or pot–when it comes to selecting the herbs and veggies you’ll plant. What kinds of herbs and veggies do you most like to eat? I like to choose my indoor plants based on cost savings. Fresh herbs and greens are often the most pricey items you’ll find in the produce section, so I tend to plant those. Just remember that the size of the plant will be in proportion to the size of your pot. If you’d like to grow a nice-sized kale plant, you’ll need a larger pot like the big green one in my photo. A bunch of kale equivalent to the sort sold in the grocery store can be harvested from a healthy kale plant about twice a month–just make sure to leave enough leaves (I generally leave about half) for the plant to continue absorbing sunlight and performing photosynthesis, otherwise it will die.

If you have kids, allow them to help you decide what to plant. Doing so is a great way to get them into gardening and to teach them where their food comes from. I grew a pea plant last winter since the mangy munchkin loves fresh peas. She was incredibly excited when we were finally able to harvest the pods and split them open to eat (in that vein, it’s a great lesson in patience, too!).

I purchase my seeds from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds, where prices aren’t much higher than at the Big Box stores but quality is much better. You can request a free catalogue and browse the dozens upon dozens of options. Look for herbs and veggies that recommend a plant spacing of about 12 inches or less, as those that require 18 inches or more will develop root systems too large for indoor planting. If you have extremely limited space for plants, you can also try Bambeco’s garden-in-a-bag approach. When I lived in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia, I grew cilantro, basil, and chives this way and was pleasantly surprised by how well the plants flourished.

Another option for those with little space is to purchase a packet of claytonia seeds. Claytonia is a delightful little salad green with tiny white flowers that are also edible. It would grow well in a small pot and could be harvested periodically for a stylish addition to salads; in the meantime, it will serve as a pretty decoration.

There are endless possibilities for indoor planting that will enable you to enjoy fresh herbs and vegetables throughout the year. Just make sure to refresh your soil at least once a year in the manner suggested above so that your plants will have the nutrients they need to flourish. And DON’T try to save on the cost of pots or potential leakage by purchasing pots without drainage–you will end up with swampy, stinky soil that will kill whatever you plant. To avoid leaks and messes, simply water slowly using just enough water to see a small amount trickle into the catch plate (eventually, you’ll get used to how much water your plants need and won’t have to watch for the trickle).

Happy harvest!

Reading Weeds to Identify Your Garden’s Needs

Bedded down for winter

After pulling weeds and tending to plants all summer, it’s tempting for a gardener like me to hang up the hoe as soon as the last bunch of kale is gathered and the last tomato is picked–or frost-bitten, as is often the case in Montana. Finally, a break from the daily maintenance of a 52-foot plot!

But before stowing away all of my implements for the winter, I have a few final tasks to tend to. In a plot like mine, sewn on soil that is far from ideal for planting, it is critical to take measures to improve the soil a little bit each year so that its clay-like, calcium-poor quality will gradually transform into a carbon-rich, nutrient-dense bed for my fruits and vegetables.

This past May I attended a soil seminar by international specialist Nicole Masters, who has been consulting with a local rancher in my area to improve the health of his grazing range. I gleaned numerous takeaways from Masters’ workshop, which focused on practices engineered to get carbon back into our soils and out of the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. Most of these practices must be implemented well in advance of planting in order to reap their benefits, making fall just as important a season for gardeners as spring and summer.

During her seminar, Masters discussed the critical role that carbon plays in retaining moisture and nutrients in our soil as well as the consequent decline in fertility that occurs when topsoils are mistreated, as they commonly are in industrial agricultural operations (not to mention the disruption caused by urban and suburban land uses). In the middle of the last century in Montana, where I live, soil carbon levels hovered around 20% whereas today those levels linger between just 1.5 and 2.5%, resulting in reduced moisture and nutrient content. No wonder we are not getting enough minerals such as magnesium in our systems for healthy sleep!

Masters shared numerous soil-building practices that can help reverse this trend such as minimizing tillage, herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers and replacing them instead with natural soil amendments such as organic compost, compost tea, cover crops, fish meal, manure, mulches, and lime, all of which provide food for the microorganisms that play a critical role in soil health as well as add the nutrients necessary for plant growth (man-made amendments simply furnish isolated minerals without feeding soil organisms). Much of this I already knew; I bed my garden down with leaf and grass clippings every fall (as shown in the photo above), underneath which I leave the remains of any plants I pulled up. The clippings and plant remains feed the earthworms and microorganisms beneath the surface throughout the winter. In the spring, I add a handful of organic compost along with each seed that I sow.

But one thing I DIDN’T know before attending Masters’ seminar was how to read the weeds in my yard to determine just what types of soil amendments I should be adding to my soil to correct its unique imbalances. According to Masters, every weed species has evolved to thrive in very specific soil conditions, a fact that can be a boon to gardeners rather than a bane. By identifying the weeds in our plots and determining the types of conditions that those weeds thrive in, we can learn a great deal about the types of soils we are dealing with.

As for me, the dandelions, Canada thistles, lambs quarters, and scouring rushes that populate my plot indicate that my soil is low in calcium and phosphorous and high in potassium and magnesium (most soils in eastern Montana actually have the opposite problem: they are too high in calcium and too low in magnesium). Note that just because a soil is high in a particular mineral doesn’t mean that the mineral is necessarily available for plants to absorb; without a healthy balance of soil organisms, minerals remain bound up in an unavailable form.

So how did I read my weeds? I purchased a publication Masters recommended entitled When Weeds Talk, by Jay L. McCaman. The text includes table after table detailing the conditions in which hundreds of species of weeds thrive (you can likely find similar information online). The downside to the publication is that it doesn’t include images, so I purchased a copy of Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies, which has the pictures and descriptions I needed to identify my weeds.

To identify the weeds in your own yard, you can talk to neighbors and friends who have lived in your area for awhile; to other gardeners and farmers; and to extension agents from your state’s university system. If you don’t live near an extension office, you might be able to mail specimens of your weeds to the nearest extension office for identification, which may or may not entail a fee. Once you identify your weeds and figure out what they tell you about the nutrients (or lack thereof) in your soil, you can develop a plan appropriate for your own plot’s improvement.

After identifying your garden’s needs, I recommend doing a Google search for organic or natural soil amendments, making sure to include the specific nutrients you need in your search query. In the search results you’ll find options for purchasing amendments online as well as gardeners’ tips for making your own amendments at home. As for me, I discovered that saving up all of my eggshells throughout the summer, boiling them (to kill any potential salmonella), air-drying them, then crushing them and adding them to my soil in the fall will fix calcium back into my soil by spring (the microorganisms and earthworms need about three months to break the eggshells down and release the nutrients). I keep a jar next to my sink so that I can store my eggshells there after rinsing them out; once the jar is full, I boil the shells then dry them on a cookie sheet in the sun (you can do this in the oven as well). Once they’re dry, I crush them in my fists and add them to a tub full of crushed eggshells that I build up during the winter, spring, and summer.

In a few weeks, once nighttime frosts set in and my kale finally kicks the bucket, I’ll work the crushed eggshells into my soil and cover my bed with a layer of leaves and grass clippings to feed the earthworms and microorganisms that will work their magic throughout the winter to make my soil just a little bit better next spring than it was in springs past, thereby making my fruits and vegetables evermore nutrient dense.

Creepy Crawlers

Flourishing basil plant

For my debut post I thought I’d share a little trick I discovered for making my indoor plants thrive.  Winter will soon be upon us, forcing those of us in northern climates to move our plants indoors.  I always try to maintain a few potted herbs for use in cooking throughout the year since purchasing them fresh at the grocery store can be quite expensive.  This post will focus on improving existing plants, while a future post will issue advice on how to get started with indoor planting if you’re a newbie.

Above is a picture of my basil plant, which exploded in green, aromatic lushness after I made a few improvements to its soil in the early spring.  Until then, it had eked out a miserly existence in the potting soil I had planted it in two years prior.  With just two short branches, it produced only a handful of basil a month.  Now I can pick a handful or more every week.

What did I do?  I added a pair of earthworms to the soil!  After noticing the huge difference that earthworms had made in my garden, it occurred to me that they might be able to do the same for my potted plants indoors.  Not knowing much about the biology of earthworms, I did a bit of research on the Internet to figure out whether my idea was actually a good one.  The jury seemed out–I could find arguments both for and against earthworms indoors–but at least I learned that I wouldn’t have to deal with a worm infestation spilling out into my house if I gave it a shot:  if there isn’t enough food for the worms or the conditions aren’t quite right, they will enter into a state of hibernation until better conditions return.  In other words, they won’t crawl over the edges to escape!

Earthworms play a huge role in soil health, making nutrients more bioavailable, increasing aeration, balancing pH, and feeding beneficial soil microbes with their castings (aka poop).  To thrive, they need lots of organic matter to consume, so along with two earthworms from my garden I added a few handfuls of compost (which you can purchase anywhere gardening supplies are sold) as well as a handful of grass clippings from the yard.  To make room for the new material, I removed several scoops of the old potting soil from the outside edges of the pot so as not to disturb the roots of the existing plant too much.

Within a couple of weeks, my two-branched plant became an eight-branched plant that provided enough basil for delicious homemade pesto!  Since I never pick more than half of my leaves at once, I actually had twice the necessary amount.

If you can’t find earthworms easily in your yard, you have a couple of options:  1) Send your kids on a worm hunt!  This is best done after a heavy rain.  2) Purchase a carton of night crawlers from a bait shop.  WalMart and other retail stores with outdoor departments often sell them in refrigerator cases during fishing season, which can extend from early spring until late fall.  Put a couple of worms into your pot and release the rest into your yard.

If you’re interested in reading more about earthworms, I found this site very informative. It’s important to note that adding earthworms to your potting soil may not be a good idea if you’re growing new plants, as this site warns they may damage young roots.

It’s also very important to note that if you split an earthworm in two, it will NOT generate two earthworms.  At best, the head of the earthworm will survive and grow a new tail; at worst, you will kill your earthworm.  So please be kind to these helpful critters!