Now that days are getting longer (after the Dec. 21 winter solstice) and seed catalogs are arriving, do you ever feel impatient to plant edibles?

Indoor gardens fill seasonal gap

Small space indoor gardening, often called “countertop gardens,” may be a new way to fill the gap between fall and spring outdoor gardens.

The biggest challenges for growing fruits and vegetables indoors are low light and lack of pollinators like bees and wind. Nevertheless, you can control water, soil and fertilizing and augment the lighting.

Light augmentation needed

During the winter, light from sunny windows is not adequate for growing healthy plants. Fortunately, many innovative products have been designed for countertop gardens. These devices come in various sizes and expand your choices of what to grow.

Grow lights and planters can be found at garden centers and online. Even a full spectrum fluorescent light can benefit plants in an indoor garden.

Also protect plants from drafts or excessive heat so they won’t dry out or be otherwise compromised.

Plant and container selection

Once you have identified the area and lighting source for your indoor garden, select the plants and containers.

  • Plant compact, dwarf varieties by seed to start indoor garden

With only a countertop, you can grow a reasonable selection of herbs, vegetables and fruits. Shelley Levis, author of “Countertop Gardens,” recommends:

  • Sprouts and microgreens,
  • Salad greens such as arugula, beet greens, spinach and kale,
  • Root vegetables such as carrots, radishes and beets,
  • Fruits, vegetables such as strawberries and cherry tomatoes, and
  • Herbs such as basil, chives, cilantro, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.

Compact or dwarf plant varieties will thrive indoors better than regular plants. Planting with seeds, especially heirloom seeds, is an excellent way to start an indoor garden.

  • Use containers of all sizes, shapes and composition, as long as they drain well

Containers can vary in shape and composition but must have good drainage. The size of the container depends on the plants you have chosen. Refer to the guide printed adjacent to this article for suggested plants with container size.

In addition to pots, plant in interesting flip-lid jars, a sunken counter sink, in a stacked terracotta planter and various other creative do-it-yourself design choices.

Growing requirements differ from outdoor garden plants.

Soil

Potting mix sold in bags has a blend of ingredients and is the preferred soil base for indoor gardens. Even garden soil that has compost is not suitable for plants in pots because amendments like compost and manure tend to be in the process of breaking down, thus do not meet the requirements of fast-growing container plants.

Fertilizer

How often to fertilize your countertop garden depends on the plants. Sprouts and microgreens do not need to be fertilized since they are harvested and consumed when plants are young. Salad greens do not require much feeding although longer to develop. Herbs need little feeding to thrive.

Tomatoes and peppers are heavy feeders and require weekly fertilizing to produce a good crop. These plants will deplete soil nutrients faster than if they were planted in an outdoor garden. Adding eggshells to the planting medium can prevent calcium-loving plants like tomatoes from developing root rot.

Fertilizers are available in granular or concentrated liquid types. Liquid fertilizers tend to be faster-acting while granular fertilizers are more long-lasting.

A rule of thumb for feeding countertop grown plants is that “less is more.” Too much fertilizer can lead to problems such as burn or leggy growth. In general, add granular fertilizer to the potting mix and boost it with a liquid feed every few weeks.

Water

Watering countertop gardens depends on the temperature and humidity in your home as well as how developed the plants are. For example, seedlings require gentle watering when they first emerge. Mist the soil with a spray bottle.

As the plants grow, use a watering can with a shower nozzle to gently water the soil. Avoid watering plant leaves, for wet leaves can lead to fungal problems.

Tap water contains chlorine and other chemicals that can harm seedlings and some young plants. For countertop gardens, let tap water sit overnight to allow the chlorine to dissipate before watering.

Humidity

Countertop gardens need close to 50 percent humidity. The air in most homes is only 10 to 20 percent relative humidity. Thus, it is important to mist plants regularly to avoid wilting. In some homes a humidifier may be a practical way to keep optimal humidity in the room.

Benefits

In addition to year-round availability of home-grown produce, benefits include gardening in a pleasant environment without the hazards of harsh weather conditions, pests and most plant diseases. Enjoy the process and the produce.

The Gardeners’ Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension – Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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