Dine well whether Armageddon comes or not. Share your own tips and experiences growing good munchies!
Here is frosty December, and Global Warming absent without leave. It snowed 12/1/2009 in Dallas, a rarity, with more likely in a couple of days. Brrr. Several weeks ago most of the plants had to come in, with the first threat of overnight lows in the upper 40's °F (<10 °C). Thus began this year’s dirt-cheap, low-to-no-tech Wintergarden.
For the last two years we've been growing our own vegetables and spices as much as possible. Some current constraints: we live in an apartment now, rather than a house, so we had to learn how to grow food in pots (not too many!) and how to use windows well in the cold months. One major advantage: our supply of chemical-free, vitamin-rich, delicious foods remains uninterrupted by Winter. Other rewards keep multiplying. In addition to giving improved nutrition and flavor to our munchables, the practice of gardening ameliorates a lot of stress generated "out in the world." Financial savings over grocery shopping have been quite noticeable. The learning curve was not very steep due to the wealth of online information written first-hand by home gardeners. The title of this article is a link to a LARGE number of such posts. A single site with a wealth of tips, good science, and ongoing research and discussion: Howard "The Dirt Doctor" Garrett's Organic Gardening & Living.
These pictures approximate our own plants; I'll replace them when I figure out how to load pictures from home.
Tomatoes and red bell peppers raised here at home offer an excellent example of added value. We have, from time to time, bought some tomatoes and peppers at both "regular" grocery stores (Kroger, Wal-Mart, and Albertson's) and "organic" places (New Flower Market, farmers' markets, Whole Foods, Central Market) for comparison. Our tomatoes are as – and usually more – tasty and juicy, and the peppers sweeter and more flavorful, than even the most expensive ones we purchased. Both vegetables (oh alright, maybe tomatoes are fruits) are much deeper red than store-bought versions, and they keep longer without rotting. Actually, we often just pick what we need off the plant and use it right then, but sometimes the crop is so large we keep them refrigerated for many days before use. We began two cherry tomato plants about 5 weeks ago, and these will be tests for indoor veggies raised from seeds purchased last spring.
We grow a number of spices for ourselves as well. If you've never compared the delicious tastes and aromas present in foods prepared with freshly-picked spices to those obtained using dried storebought versions, well! You will be shocked. Hit up some neighbor or friend for some fresh basil or oregano to sprinkle on your next spaghetti or turkey soup, and you'll be hooked. We currently grow rosemary, basil, oregano, cilantro, chives, and Italian parsley (yes, that kind actually tastes good!). The first three are very easy to propagate by just rooting a cutting in a bit of water. We'll probably expand our range of spices this year.
Our biggest investment in all these plants is time, and even that was not much. Probably 2–3 hours per week for the whole group, including watering, pruning, spraying , and harvesting. We've saved a lot of money just on those two plants, with peppers at the store typically $1.50–$2.50 ($4 for "organic") apiece, and tomatoes running ~$3–$4/lb ($4-$6/lb for "organic"). These plants were purchased as small (~6" tall) starters at Home Depot for $1 each at the end of March. One potted tomato plant has given us, since that first May harvest, probably 10–12 lbs. per month. The pepper plant yielded over 60 lovely red bell peppers so far. We spent $30 on potting soil, perlite, and an organic fertilizer concentrate called Garret Juice (still have most of it). Mulch, compost, coffee grounds and other amendments were free (see below). Both plants matured outdoors, but have been inside for the last month and are still producing nicely, with cute little babies formed in the last week showing every promise of continuing harvests.
For potted plants, clay pots are the best. For those in straitened circumstance, inexpensive substitutes are everywhere. Until we become debt-free, we will continue to use mainly those black plastic pots discarded (or given to us) by all the nurseries and landscapers. Such containers, especially if large (>8" tall), are inferior as received to clay pots, and uglier: they are not tapered, absorb and transmit too much heat to the roots, and do not breathe. The straight sides raise the rate of soil compaction and rotting roots, so we'll have to re-pot each year instead of every two to three years. The other problems were easy to fix by using a push-pin to poke a few dozen tiny holes all over the lower part of the pots, and draping dyed old T-shirts over the side to block direct sun on the pot, minimize water loss, and give a more pleasing appearance. For drainage / reservoir purposes, we use the plastic tops from large coffee cans for smaller pots, hard plastic plates for medium (4–7" wide) pots, and foil pizza pans (3/$1) for the 5-gallon pots.
Fine dirt in outdoor gardens is awesome, but in pots is your enemy. Don't use it, or any other material of small particle size, since these quickly lead to soil compaction and root rot. Here are two reviews of why this occurs: Physical Characteristics of Growing Mixes, EPIC GARDENS. It really doesn't matter a lot what "soil" is used (we use equal portions of peat moss / sand / perlite / mulch) if the particle size is small enough to allow good wicking (capillary) action to draw water up as needed from the reservoir, and large enough to avoid a high perched water table (PWT).
AMENDMENTS / FERTILIZER
Mulch can be purchased; we just gather some from the wooded creek nearby, and put a 1–2 inch layer at the top of the pot. The soil amendment we use is compost from table and cooking scraps: fill a plastic bucket with sealable lid (one of those Tidy Cats containers after the kitty litter is gone works great) with all the non-meat scraps / waste from the kitchen, including some coffee grounds, mix it a bit from time to time, and keep it heated in the sun. Once full, it fully composts in ~2 months (3–4 months during winter).
Coffee grounds are an excellent fertilizer, as they are insoluble and slow-release. We just layer a bit around each plant every few days, or sprinkle sun-dried grounds into the mass of dense, bushy plants like oregano prior to watering. If you mix a fair bit of coffee grounds into the soil of newly potted plants, they really grow fast. We sometimes put table scraps in a blender with some water and pour the resulting smoothie into the pot. The only purchased fertilizer we use is Garrett Juice, a mix of molasses, apple cider vinegar, seaweed, and compost tea (Garrett Juice Plus also has some fish byproduct, very good for certain enzymes), but we use it diluted and not very often.
About once every week (summer) or two we mist the plants with diluted Garrett Juice. Very good for promoting foliar feeding and successfully combats tomato blight, etc.
Healthy, unstressed plants don't have much in the way of insect problems, especially indoors. Sometimes we pick off leaf-munching caterpillars in the summer. Once in a while we spray with garlic-pepper tea (see the Dirt Doctor site linked above) if mites or aphids get started; caterpillars don't even start if we've sprayed recently.
This is the toughest issue for us now. None of our windows face due south, but the plants do okay with the available southeast- and southwest-facing windows. We tape a clear plastic dry-cleaner's bag onto the window to stop the direct sunlight-through-glass burning effect from occurring. We are considering investing in a grow-light to increase the yields.
From Indoor Vegetable Gardening, the third link in this article's title (google list):
Here are a few vegetables to consider for indoor growing:
Cherry tomatoes, determinate vines
Hungarian sweet peppers
Various hot peppers
Leaf Lettuce of all types