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!

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!