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Grow Your Own Food

There are many reasons to grow your own food indoors. Not everyone has land to garden on or lives in an area with a long enough growing season to produce any of their own food outside. Growing your own food indoors is a great way to extend the growing season if you do live in a region with a long enough summer to grow food, but one that also experiences cold winters.

Growing one’s own food can be a great source of pride It is a way to know that you are controlling what inputs your food is exposed to as well. You can grow your own food with nutrients and amendments produced conventionally, organically, or those that you create yourself. In some cases, growing your own food can save you money as well (read on to learn about growing food from scraps). There is definitely an upfront cost to materials to get started though, but this will even out and end up in your favor soon enough if you stay at it. Dollar for dollar, investing in growing supplies and seeds or seedlings yields (pun intended) better returns than the stock market for most gardeners. It should be noted though that not all plants can be grown easily inside. Whether it be because of the relatively small space, the lack of natural sunlight, lack of pollinators, or the temperature, it should not be expected that you can grow any type of plant inside. There are many though, that can be (see the last section below).

Growers who opt to grow indoors have the freedom to control all aspects of a plant’s environment and needs. Outdoors, the soil, water, and light are taken care of more or less on their own; inside all of these aspects need to be supplied and managed. Though this can mean more work than growing outside, it also means that your crops are not subject to all of the varied weather phenomenon that can make outdoor growing a challenge at times. It also means that animals like, deer, rabbits, or groundhogs are not going to eat your crops either, though indoor growing is not without some pest challenges at times.

Successful indoor growing starts with planning how you are going to grow your food and setting the stage for success. This includes deciding which growing method(s) will be used and how your crops will receive sufficient amounts of light, water, nutrients, and air circulation, as well as how temperature and humidity will be controlled.

Different Growing Methods

 

Growing your own food indoors can be as simple as sprouting some seeds on the windowsill, or as complex as setting up an elaborate aquaponics system. The most common form of indoor growing is in containers or pots, using potting soil or soilless media to grow them in. Using a variety of different sized trays and pots, along with a nutrient rich potting soil or compost blend is a great and easy way to grow your own food indoors.

This method starts with clean, well-draining containers, and a nutrient-rich potting medium. This could be a commercial blend used right out of the bag, or your own mix of compost, peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, or any other ingredient you need for a healthy, well-draining mix that will support high-yielding plants. Do not use soil from the garden. It is too easy to bring in weed seeds, pests, chemical residue, and garden soil does not drain as fast as potting blends.

Containers too, can be purchased or can be any repurposed vessel, can, tray, cup, or pot, so long as it can drain and has been cleaned out between uses. Keep in mind that shallow trays are good for starting seeds, or for crops like greens, but for bigger plants, make sure that the container is at least 12 inches (30 cm) deep or more. Window boxes can be repurposed for growing some food plants indoors, such as carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips, garlic, onions, as well as greens and herbs.

Hydroponics

 

Some folks shy away from the thought of setting up an indoor hydroponic system out of concern about how complicated it might be. There are definitely, highly complex hydroponic systems out there which will set you back tens of thousands of dollars, but in reality, you can start growing your own food with hydroponics with as little as a 5 gallon bucket and a pump. Like anything else, a hydroponic system can be as simple or complex as you care to make it.

A hydroponic system at its most basic is a method of growing plants without soil, where the roots are in constant or near constant contact with water. At a minimum, it has a water reservoir, a device for adding oxygen to the water and a grow light. Most systems are indeed more complicated and sophisticated than that, but they are not so complex that the average person could not learn how to use it and become proficient with some practice and trial-and-error.

Hydroponic systems are great for growing greens, and fruit producing crops like peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. They are not ideal for root vegetables like carrots, onions, radishes, or the like. For first-time hydroponic growers, there are many kits on the market that come with everything you need to get started, including seeds of food crops that are easy to grow hydroponically.

Other Methods

 

A great “introductory” way to grow food indoors, is to plant some of your food scraps. Several commonly tossed out ends and pieces of vegetables can actually be planted and will grow back to be harvested again. This will also be a good introduction to both hydroponics and soilless growing methods as these are started in just water and then are often transplanted into potting soil. This is generally most successful with greens and onion-type plants. It works for celery and cabbages too.

After you have cut the parts out that you are going to eat, save the bottom portion of your heads of lettuce, Bok choy, celery, radishes, beets, cabbages, etc. and put in about a ½ inch (1+ cm) of water so that it covers the base, but not so much that the whole thing is submerged. Toothpicks can be stuck in to add some stability if needed. Cuttings can be taken from herbs as well and stuck in water to encourage root growth. This should then be placed in a sunny window or under a grow light. Once roots have started to develop after a few days, these can be transplanted to your tray, pot, or container to keep growing. Some will continue to grow for multiple harvests, others might only produce a few leaves or stalks before needing to get tossed out.

These are by no means the only methods of growing food indoors, just some of the more common ones. There are numerous commercially made and do-it-yourself methods of growing food. There are countertop all-in-one growing systems that come with everything you need to just plug-in and start growing, there are folks who convert a closet into a mushroom farm, there are individuals that have intricate systems where animal wastes feed plants and the plant wastes feed the animals. This is one of the beautiful aspects of growing your food indoors; there are only the limits of your imagination (space and budget notwithstanding!).

Another practice of note when growing your own food inside is to pollinate. Since there are not bees (hopefully) flying around your home or in your indoor growing area or other beneficial insects, it is sometimes necessary to help the pollination process along if you find that you are getting flowers, but there is no fruit developing. This can be done with cotton swabs, paintbrushes, or tissues. Simply swab gently in the center of the flowers and continue to do so from flower to flower. Good air flow can often be a substitute for having to do this, but in some setups, nature needs a hand here.

Setting up Your Indoor Garden

 

Once you have settled on a growing method, it is time to get your indoor garden area setup. Keeping mind that your plants will need to be kept warm, have access to water and light, there are still many options for setting up your indoor grow space. You will also want to setup in an area where pets or people won’t knock your plants over by accident. If you are able to reserve an area that gets natural light for some or all of the day, that should be considered first, though plants can certainly be grown successfully without any sunlight, using only grow lights. Check what the lighting needs of the types of plants you are growing, as not all plants need the same amount of light. Plants like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants will do best with more than 12 hours a day of direct lighting. Leafy greens however can thrive in as few as six. Make sure that you can provide the appropriate amount of light for your crops.

Set up your growing area by a south or west facing window if possible. Plan on using supplemental grow lighting though as the duration of daylight hours in the winter (in the Northern Hemisphere) is not usually long enough for successful plant development. If you have to rely solely on artificial light, then it does not matter what direction your garden faces. Start out with fluorescent lighting specific for plant growth or LEDs. Most other types of commercial grow lighting would burn too hot for a small, indoor setup. Make sure the lighting is such that you can both keep it close to the canopy of the plants you are growing, but also so it can be raised up while the plant grows. Reflectors as well as mylar or aluminum sheeting can be used to increase the amount of light your plants are exposed to if you are having a difficult time giving your plants enough light.

Make sure that your indoor garden can be kept warmer than 55 F (13 C) and depending on your plants needs, and that it can also be set to at least 80 F (27 C) as well. Most plants need to be kept warmer when germinating and in the early development phases than as they mature. Different temperatures may be needed at different phases of growth like the fruiting or flowering stages. Controlling humidity is equally important.

Just as different plants have differing temperature needs, the same is true for humidity levels. Some plants can do fine with humidity levels as low as 30 to 40 percent, while other plants thrive in air that is as high as 90 percent humid. Different growing phases also require different humidity levels. These levels can help to be created by putting trays of water near your plants, misting the foliage with spray bottles throughout the day, growing plants in your bathroom, and of course utilizing humidifiers and dehumidifiers as needed.

Good airflow helps to keep your indoor plants healthy and productive. It helps to reduce the incidences of both fungal diseases and pest infestations. Higher amounts of CO2 that your plants will get with increased air flow also help your plants increase their use of water more efficiently and help them to growth strong and healthy. Standard fans can be utilized to help with this or ones that are specifically designed to be used in production environments are widely available as well.

Indoor plants of course do not get the benefit of rainwater. They also are generally not as deep-rooted as their outdoor counterparts. Unless growing hydroponically, an irrigation timer will make life easier. Otherwise, it will be important to check moisture levels often and be able to water as needed. Too much water is usually fatal to most plants, so this is not an area of indoor gardening that can be “called in”, but rather should be carefully managed for best results.

If it is challenging to set up an ideal environment indoors, consider a grow tent. They are a self-contained growing “closet” that can be designed to create a perfect environment for plant growth and can be set up anywhere indoors. Other options include heated basements, heated garages, and porches, if space for growing cannot be dedicate in the main living areas.

Most likely crops for success

 

Not all crops grow well indoors, but there are many that can be grown successfully in small spaces, with or without natural sunlight. The time of year will dictate somewhat of which crops can be grown, unless all of the climatic inputs, light, heat, moisture can be managed artificially. Greens, microgreens, many types of herbs, and several types of bulb-vegetables (onions, garlic, etc.) can be grown successfully indoors almost any time of year.

These crops can take cooler temperatures in environments that don’t exceed 70 F (21 C) during the day and can go down to 55 F (13 C) at night. They can also take lower light levels. Leafy crops such as arugula, lettuce, kale, sprouts/microgreens, or spinach will all do well in these conditions. Bulb and herb crops such as chives, scallions, green onions, garlic greens (yes, the leaves are edible and taste like mild garlic!). Once you have the hang of growing these, you can try root crops such as radishes, beets, turnips, potatoes, or carrots. If you can provide more heat and light, there are several other crops to try.

Vegetables that develop an edible fruiting body, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or beans can be grown, if you have the space for them. These should be grown if daytime temperatures are at least in the 65-70 F (18-21 C) range, if not higher, and nighttime temperatures are above 55 F (13 C). Other herbs crops can be grown as well, such as cilantro, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage.

Growing food plants indoors can be a lot of fun. Experimenting with different types of plants, using different types of growing methods, can help you to determine what will grow best in your unique growing setup. You can make the process more productive by keeping good records of what you have tried to grow and when, what method you utilized and what the results were. After a few trials, you should begin to get a picture of what kinds of food plants are best suited to your particular growing area.