Monday, January 27, 2014

8 Tips for Growing Indoor Herbs in the Winter

One of my two perennial lavender plants that I have been keeping indoors during the cold and dark days of winter.  My permaculture herb spiral can be seen outside the window in the background, which I use to grow herbs outdoors during the growing season.  

 Last Saturday, I attended a half-hour class on growing herbs indoors during the winter.  It was being offered for free at one of my favorite local garden centers, so the price was right.  Also, since my experience with keeping herbs alive that I brought inside for the winter has been less than stellar so far (sadly, I’ve had a number of botanical fatalities so far…), I thought that I could learn a thing or two (which I definitely did!).

Since I’m sure that I’m not alone in my herb-growing endeavors, I thought that I’d share with you what I learned from both the mini-class and the handout that they provided to the participants.  This information may be pretty basic for many of you, but many new gardeners like myself are starting from square one, and we need all of the help we can get.  I hope this information is helpful to many of you seeking to maintain some culinary and medicinal herbs indoors during the wintertime. 

8 Tips for Growing Indoor Herbs in the Winter

1.  The most forgiving herbs to grow indoors.   Just about any herb variety can be grown indoors if its basic growing requirements are met.  However, parsley, chives, mint, thyme and oregano tend to be the most forgiving varieties when it comes to inadequate or inconsistent watering and lighting, and also tend to be more disease-resistant.

2.  Light.  In general, herb plants need to have about 6-8 hours of sunlight to grow (the more, the better).  During the wintertime in many regions, there is simply an inadequate supply of direct sunlight during the day.  If this is the case where you live, a grow light (which provides the full-spectrum of light for growing plants) may be necessary to help supplement your light source.  Fluorescent lights can also be used, but grow lights provide the best light for your plants.

3.  Water and humidity.  Since most varieties of herbs originate from the Mediterranean, they tend to do best in somewhat drier conditions.   The basic rule of thumb for indoor herbs is to water less often, but more thoroughly.  Let the soil be dry to the touch between the times that you water, and when you do water your plants, water until it runs out of the bottom of the pot.  Don’t let your herbs sit in water for more than a couple of hours (you can put pebbles in the bottom of the pot to assist with drainage), which can cause root rot problems. 
  • The higher the temp and the lower the humidity in your home, the faster your soil will dry out.  
  • As is typically the case for watering plants, water the soil, not the leaves.  Watering the foliage can lead to fungal conditions.
  • Plants in smaller and terra cotta pots will tend to dry out more quickly.

4.  Fertilizing.  The recommended fertilizer for herbs is a balanced fertilizer, with equal parts nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K).  This will typically show up on the label as something like “10-10-10,” with the ratios being N-P-K.  Nitrogen is important for leaf growth, phosphorous is important for the growth of buds and blooms, and potassium is important for the growth of roots and stems.  A fertilizer that enhances the growth of blooms is not recommended, since for most herbs (although there are certainly exceptions to this rule such as calendula), the medicinal and culinary portion is in the leaves.

Generally, herb plants only need to be fertilized about once per month when they are actively growing.  Since many herbs can be dormant during the winter, you likely won’t need to fertilize them much during this time unless you see evidence of active growth.  

The mini clippers that I purchased for herb harvesting.
5.  Harvesting.  To harvest your herbs, what works best is to use a small pair of pruners, called “clippers,” or “snips.”  These tools will help you to cut and harvest the delicate herb stems and leaves.  Do not yank on the leaves or pull stems off.  This can create injuries to your plants and provide entrance points for pathogens and infections.

The more you harvest, the bushier your herb plant’s foliage will become.  Also make sure to nip the flowers off of your herb plants.  By cutting the flowers of the plants off, the plant will put its energy into growing foliage and not into reproducing (flowers are a reproductive part of the plant).

6.  Pests.  There are a number of pests and diseases that can affect your indoor herb plants, especially for those plants brought in from the outdoors.  Common pest and disease problems for inside herb plants include aphids, fungus gnats, and white flies. 

Inspect your plants regularly, and never use chemical pesticides if you will be eating your herbs or using them medicinally.  Insecticidal soap work well if you spray it on all of the leaves, but be sure to wash off any plant material that you harvest, as there will likely be soapy residue remaining on the plant. 
Other pest tips:
  • For fungus mites, let the plants dry out.    Problems with fungus mites should decrease as the favorable conditions for fungal growth decrease.
  • Sticky traps are also good for dealing with fungus gnats and white flies.
  • You can also try dipping the foliage of the affected plant into a bucket or large bowl of tepid soapy water.  Gently spraying the foliage with some weak soapy water using a water bottle should also work. 

7.  Transferring your herb plants indoors and outdoors.  
When transferring outdoor plants indoors:  Place them in a shady outdoor location for two to three weeks before you bring them indoors, or the leaves may drop off due to a lack of energy needed to maintain their thick outdoor leaves.  Once you have brought them indoors, try to give them as much sunlight as possible.

When transferring indoor plants outdoors:  Just like us, plants can get a sunburn if not given a chance to develop their thicker and stronger warm season leaves before being placed in the outdoor sunlight.  To avoid scorching your plants when transitioning them to the outdoors, first place them in outdoor shade for a couple of weeks, and then to full sun.  This gives them an opportunity to develop tougher leaves to withstand the more direct outdoor sunlight of the spring and summer.

8.  Tips for Mixed herb Containers
If you want to grow more than one variety of herb plant within the same pot there are a few things to keep in mind:
  • Determine the growing needs of each of your herb plants, including how large each plant will be when it grows to maturity.  Your plants will need room to breathe and grow.  For a 12” diameter pot, there should be no more than five plants, and in the case of some larger plants, even this may be too crowded for the space available.
  • Mounding or trailing plants like thyme, oregano, and peppermint should be near the edges or toward the front of the pot. 
  • Tall plants like rosemary and columnar basil should be planted toward the back or in the middle of the pot.
  • Mid-range plants like sage, chives, and parsley should be arranged in order of shortest to tallest from the edge of the pot.

Bonus info:  I also learned during the class that the essential oils of herb plants growing indoors during the winter will likely not be as potent as those grown outside in the sun during the warm time of the year.  The warmer temperatures and the increased access to sunlight during the growing season encourage the plants to produce more of these phytochemicals, but these conditions are generally absent during indoor winter conditions.   Don’t be surprised if the herbs that you are growing indoors during the winter have a milder scent or flavor than you are used to.

If the leaves on your plants have a burned look, they may have gotten too cold and have gotten a little frostbitten.  This can happen if you have your plants sitting on the windowsill of a drafty window.  Moving the affected plant(s) back from the window about 6-8 inches should make your chilly plants happier.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My First Experience Growing Microgreens

Last fall, I was shopping at one of my local garden centers, and was thrilled to discover that their end of growing season clearance sale was going on.  I then proceeded to have a great time picking out a plethora of different seed packets for my garden next year.  I have heard that the germination rate of older seeds may not be as great as first year seeds, but I was excited to find so many different types of seeds at such a great price, and was willing to try growing them anyway.  In the meanwhile, I have tried to store these seeds in a relatively cool and dark place to keep them as viable as long as possible.  Here is a great article about the germination rates of older seeds and how to tell if yours are still good.

During this shopping experience, I also came upon a table with other clearance items, including some greatly price-reduced kits for growing microgreens, the seedlings of various vegetables and herbs.  Intrigued, and given that the kits were only $2.00 a piece, I purchased two of them, along with a number of additional microgreen seed packets sitting on the same table.   I brought them home, and stored them underneath a table holding the potted herbs that I am trying to keep alive throughout the winter (I’m sorry to report that my current indoor potted herb success rate is less than spectacular without a grow light, however.). 

The autumn passed, as well as the recent holiday season, and soon January arrived.  I had been keeping busy with work, the busyness of the holidays, and all of the responsibilities of home upkeep, and so I forgot about my microgreens kits.  Then one day recently, I looked out of my window at the snow… I looked at my potted herbs on the table… I looked back out of my window at the frigid, white, lifeless, snow and sighed.  I missed the sunny days, the warmth of spring and the summer, and the fresh foods harvested from my garden.  

I looked back at the herbs on the table, and then I noticed the microgreens kits just sitting there beneath that table, waiting for new, green life to spring forth and bring freshness to my world until spring finally arrives and it will be gardening season again!  Okay, I admit it: those of us living in the temperate North have to savor any fresh & green plant life wherever it may be found during the long and chilly winter season.  I have personally been known to lurk around botanical conservatories and in the tropical exhibits at zoos just to be around living plant life in the wintertime.  Don’t deny it, you’ve been there too.  I’ve seen you!

So, I decided to try growing the microgreens, and that growing something green in the middle of winter would be fun.  Included in each kit were two packets of microgreens seeds (my first try has been a kit that contained arugula seeds), a special growing pad made from natural plant materials that serve as the substrate to grow the greens in, and a plastic reusable growing tray with a “biodome” cover that acts as a greenhouse to help provide the warm and moist environment for proper seed germination.   

The fairly simple process required to get started using the kit is:
     1.)     Wetting the germination pad
     2.)     Sprinkling the seeds on the pad
     3.)     Placing the tray in a sunny location
     4.)     Ensuring that the germination pad remains saturated as the plants grow
     5.)     Keeping the tray covered with the plastic cover until the seeds germinate 

I found that I only had to water the growing pad about twice to keep it saturated with water over the course of the seven days that it took for my microgreens to grow, approximately once every three days.  Of course, if I had kept my microgreens tray in a warmer and drier spot such as near a radiator, I would probably have needed to water the growing pad more often.  By the end of the week, I had little baby arugula plants growing that should add a tasty, spicy flair to my salads, sandwiches, and soups, and provide me with some superior nutrition, such as even more vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene than the mature version of these greens.   

They were fresh, they were green, and they were mine at a fraction of the cost of getting them from a grocery store or restaurant.

No Kit? No Problem!
Yes, I grew my first batch of microgreens by using a kit, but you don’t need to have a kit to grow fresh and delicious microgreens yourself.  To grow microgreens, all you really need is a clear or opaque shallow plastic container such as a salad box, some cardboard, potting soil, some seeds, and a location with lots of light such as near a window or a grow light.   I am a firm believer that you can do a lot of things yourself at home without needing to purchase a lot of fancy equipment.

Almost any type of seed can be grown as microgreens, but the most tried and true varieties include arugula, beet, chard, asian greens, and some varieties of specialty greens,due to their color, appearance, and flavor.  After an average of about 7-10 days (some varieties can take as long as 14 days), the microgreens should be ready to harvest after the growth of the seedling’s first true set of leaves.  The microgreens should be cut at the soil surface above the roots (the roots should not be eaten), and then washed, allowed to dry, and store refrigerated in a plastic bag and eaten within about seven days.  You could also harvest them when you are ready to eat them.  Just don’t let them get too big or they won’t be microgreens anymore!

Aren’t Microgreens the Same as Sprouts?
I myself had some confusion concerning the difference between microgreens and sprouts, having never grown either one prior to about a week ago.  Upon doing a little bit of research, I came to find out that there are actually several very important distinctions between the two types of greens, with the primary difference being how both types are grown. 

Sprouts are seeds that have been germinated in only water, and are generally harvested after about two days’ time.  They grow without sunlight, and have just grown a root, a stem, and pale underdeveloped leaves.  They require frequent rinsing to reduce opportunities for bacterial growth, which can be a potential problem with growing sprouts.  All parts of the sprout can be eaten, including the roots of the sprout. 

Microgreens, on the other hand, are grown in soil or other growing medium, require sunlight (or a grow light) to grow, and take about one to two weeks to grow before they can be harvested.   The greens should be cut along the soil when harvesting, and the roots should not be eaten.  Only after the leaves are fully spread should the microgreens be harvested.  The sunlight and air circulation that the microgreens receive while growing reduce the opportunities for bacteria to proliferate, providing for a safer option than sprouts (I recommend that you do your own research on the proper techniques for growing sprouts if you would like to grow them yourself.).   

Both sprouts and microgreens are quite nutritious and contain many vitamins and minerals that are great for your health.  Both are also great ways to get some fresh veggies into your diet all year round, and even if you have limited space to grow things such as in an apartment, be hopeful because you can still grow something!

Watch My Microgreens Garden Grow!
Below are pictures taken of the various growing stages of my microgreens.  I love to learn and document the processes of living things, so this was fun to watch as the little baby plants germinated and grew from seeds.  The next time that I grow a batch of microgreens, I will grow them much more densely to get a greater volume of greens growing at a time.

This is the kit that I used to grow microgreens (I am not a representative for this particular brand.  It is simply the one that I purchased and used for my own purposes. ). You can find many other brands of microgreen kits available both online and in stores.

The arugula seeds that came with the kit.  You can also see the growing pad in the background, which the kit label stated as being made of, “Kenaf plant fiber and an FDA approved binder, 
grown and made in the USA to strict horticultural standards.”  There you go…

The seeds sprinkled on the growing pad after I first watered the pad.  As you can see, there were spots that weren’t quite saturated.  After this picture was taken, I made sure that all of the pad was saturated at all times to provide plenty of water for the greens to grow.

The “biodome” cover included with the kit, providing a greenhouse environment for the germinating seeds.  You can see from this picture that some water vapor and condensation began forming shortly after placing the cover on the tray on Day 1.

After a couple of days, the seeds began to germinate and were growing roots with root hairs.

The first little leaflets started to grow.

And grow some more...

And, a few days later…

A few days later…

The arugula microgreens on Day 7, ready for harvesting.

A few of the harvested microgreens, ready to be served.

The arugula microgreens made a flavorful addition to my organic salad last night!  Very tasty and nutritious!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ten Great Homesteading Activities to Help Beat Cabin Fever
“Brrr…..!”  I think that’s the sentiment felt by nearly everyone in the nation over the last week as we have been experiencing record low temperatures throughout the U.S.  For those of us in the Upper Midwest of the United States, temperatures have been near or below zero until a few days ago, and frigid wind chills have kept many of us indoors.  It has been a pretty cold winter so far, and after the excitement and busyness of the holiday season have worn off, it leaves many of us yearning for the warmth of spring and summer.  

Even though the bitter bite of winter can keep us inside, it is a great time to start planning your garden and work on other valuable homesteading activities that you have been putting off.  If you are starting to get Cabin Fever from being inside all of the time, here is a list of ten homesteading activities that can help you beat the long and dark days of winter.

Image courtesy of khunaspix/
1.  Plan your garden for next year.   Once spring comes, there will be a flurry of garden activities, such as soil preparation, planting, mulching, and the buying of garden supplies.  It will be Go Time, and you want to be prepared.  A little planning for what and where you will plant can go a long way in increasing the success of your garden next year, and help to keep you organized.   Drawing a diagram of your yard or garden, as well as creating a schedule of when you will plant different plants can be especially helpful.  Could you use a coldframe, to grow something earlier or later than usual?  What about exploring some different gardening techniques such as strawbale gardening or squarefoot gardening?

Image courtesy of zirconicusso/
2.  Get your soil tested.  By knowing the conditions and the health of your soil, you can determine which plants will grow best in your garden or backyard, and if you need to add anything to your soil to improve it (Hint: Adding compost and other organic matter can go a long way in solving many soil problems).  Collecting a soil sample is something that you need to do before the ground freezes for the winter, but if you collect one in advance, you can submit it for testing during the cold time of the year.

Soil tests are performed by local cooperative extensions or by private labs, and will typically cost you about $10 or less.  The test will reveal your soil’s pH level, nutrients that might be deficient, and the percentage of organic matter in your soil.  If heavy metals and other soil toxins are a concern, your cooperative extension or lab should also be able to test for those as well.  

Here is a great article that explains additional information about getting a soil test done and how to properly take a soil sample.  Home soil test kits that you can use yourself can be also purchased at your local garden center, and should include a chart to help you interpret the results of your test.   

3.  Order your seed catalogs.  This is the time of year when seed catalogs come out both in print and online, and a world of gardening possibilities is at our fingertips.  Heirloom varieties…, organic varieties…, strange colored varieties of carrots and tomatoes?  They’re all there if you look for them.  Go ahead and dream!

Image courtesy of pixtawan/
4.  Catch up on your reading.  I don’t know about you, but during the growing season, I have all that I can do to keep up with the tasks of caring for my garden and my home.  The winter is a great time to read up on gardening and homesteading topics since there is a little more free time to be had (Parents, you’re excused!). 

Image courtesy of voraorn/
5.  Make your own herbal remedies.  Winter is the perfect time to experiment with making some medicine out of those herbs that you grew in your garden last year, or even out of common ingredients that you can purchase at the grocery store or order online.  Have some lemongrass that you harvested last fall and dried in your dehydrator, or some extra ginger root that is just sitting in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer?  Try making tinctures out of them. 

There are many books available on making herbal remedies, as well as many online resources that can help you to learn the process of making herbal medicines.  Herb Mentor is one of my favorite websites on making herbal remedies, and they also have a podcast that you can subscribe to called Herb Mentor Radio.  If you are seeking to purchase bulk herbs at a reasonable price, I highly recommend checking out Mountain Rose Herbs.

6.  Create something bubbly.   Learning how to make various types of lacto-fermented foods and beverages is not just for the growing and harvesting seasons.  Making gingerbeer and other non-alcoholic lacto-fermented beverages can be a fun and tasty activity.  After trying my hand at making kombucha and ginger beer, I much prefer to drink them than almost any commercially-produced sodas, and they are much healthier for you too.  This is particularly due to the good, probiotic bacteria that they contain.  

If you are someone who chooses to enjoy a little alcohol every now and then, try making some mead or home brewing some beer.  Kits can be purchased to brew your own beer at home, and books are available to direct you in making mead.  I have personally never made beer or mead before, but Sandor Katz’s book The Art ofFermentation would be a great place to start learning.
7.  Learn and practice some new skills.  Looking to learn how to do wood carving, make bone broth, sew or knit?  What about learning how to save seeds or taking a first aid class?  Online resources available to learn from are abundant, such as through YouTube, and your local library should have a plethora of resources on just about any subject.  Local community colleges or Community Education organizations might also offer courses on skills that will help to increase your self-sufficiency and confidence.

Image Courtesy of FrameAngel/
8.  The inside of your home needs some care too.  Painting and other projects that got put on the back burner during the spring and summer can be worked on, and it’s also a great time to think about what you can do to make your home more water and energy efficient.  While some projects are best reserved for the warm time of year such as upgrading to more efficient insulation and windows, you can still increase the efficiency of your home by doing things such as:
  • Installing water-saving devices on your shower head and faucets 
  • Installing a new dual flush toilet in your bathroom 
  • Replacing your older, less efficient appliances with newer, more efficient ones 
  • Plugging many of your electrical devices into a power strip that can be turned off when not in use
  • Installing a programmable thermostat in your home and setting it to reduce the temperature of your home by a few degrees at night and when you are away  
  • Cleaning or changing forced air filters will increase the efficiency of your home heating and cooling system 
  • Adding drapes and blinds on your windows will add an extra layer of insulation to your windows (Just be sure to keep them closed at night to reduce heat loss through your windows!).  
  • Having a home energy audit can also be a great way to find out what would save the most energy in your home, and utility companies often offer great deals to do so.

Image Courtesy of SOMMAI/
9.  Give a shout for sprouts!   While winter is generally not the time that most of us consider growing much of anything but houseplants, you can still grow some fresh green veggies indoors.  Sprouts are a great and inexpensive way to grow something fresh and green right at home, and they are bursting with great nutrition such as fiber, minerals, and protein.

The equipment that you need to get started is fairly simple:
  • Organic sprouting seeds (such as sunflower, alfalfa, mung bean, radish, clover, kale, chia, cabbage, and broccoli) 
  • A quart-size, wide-mouth glass Mason jar 
  • A 5-by-5 inch square of cheesecloth with a wide-mouth metal screw band, or a fine-mesh screen lid for wide-mouth Mason jars specifically designed for sprouting 
Sprouting occurs in a non-sunny location (think seeds germinating in the dark underground), so your kitchen counter is actually an ideal place for your sprouting jar.

Organic sprouting seeds should be available at your nearest natural food store, or you can order them (as well as sprouting equipment) online from sources such as Gourmet Seed International, Handy Pantry, Park Seed Co., Sprout House, Sprout People, Sproutamo Corp, or Sproutman.  

To learn more about how to grow sprouts, check out the great video resource below!  Please note:  My research revealed that you don’t need bright light from a window or other source to sprout seeds, but the host in the video demonstrates sprouting on a windowsill.  Go ahead and experiment to see which method works best for you.  Science experiments are awesome!

Image courtesy of dan/
10.  Work on simplifying your life.   This is a great time to take a step back and re-evaluate all of the things going on in your life and simplify.  What things in your life are unnecessary?  Is it time to go through your attic or basement and get rid of things you haven’t used in years?  What do you want to accomplish in the coming year?  By unloading unnecessary things in our lives, we reduce clutter and stress, and this makes us happier, more balanced people.  Letting go of things can be a challenging process, but in the end, we are freed up to pursue those things that are the most important in our lives.
11.  Befriend some of the critters in your neighborhood.  Okay, I admit that this is one more list item than ten, but I feel that it deserves an Honorable Mention.  The wintertime is a hard time for everyone, including the wildlife around you.  Yes, if you live in a temperate climate, it’s certainly true that the wildlife around you are pretty well adapted to colder temperatures, and will likely survive just fine without your help.  However, showing them a little love by putting out some food such as suet and seeds for the birds, and providing them with a clean, heated water source could help take the edge off the cold winter weather. 

You might also consider planting some shrubs or other plants during the growing season that retain their seeds or berries throughout the fall and winter, and can provide a source of food for foraging wildlife when nothing else is growing.  Be sure to focus on those plant species that are native to your area to ensure that the plants are well-adapted to your climate, the local wildlife are adapted to them, and to keep your plants from becoming an invasive variety

While we can’t change the cold winter weather, we can certainly use our winter hermitage time indoors to further our homesteading goals and to gain new skills.  Even when we can’t garden outside, there are plenty of fun activities that will help to keep you occupied and tide you over until the warmth of spring and summer arrives again! 

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