Monday, September 23, 2013

Grow Your Own Salads Indoors All Winter

Before we built a small food-producing greenhouse to replace a collapsing south-facing porch, I successfully grew salad greens all winter long in recycled plastic containers under a couple of inexpensive fluorescent shop lights. You can, too!
For starting my spring transplants, I’d already installed six two-bulb shop lights outfitted with full-spectrum grow lights and suspended by chains and s-hooks from the ceiling of my living-room alcove. I used a couple of them for my experiment growing winter greens.
You could hang your lights in an attic, basement, or even a large closet. As long as the space can maintain average temperatures around 50 and has an electrical outlet for the lights, you can grow delicious, nutritious greens.
For planting containers I used some of the recycled polystyrene (both foam and transparent) containers I collect for starting my spring transplants, filling them with a mixture of half soilless potting mix and half compost.

What can you plant?
The simple answer: almost any type of salad or cooking greens—the faster-growing the better—and leafy herbs.
During my first experiments, I mixed together seeds left over from my spring-summer garden, dividing them into three categories with similar germination and growth habits:
  • Various leaf lettuces
  • Kale, arugula, and leafy Asian brassicas (bok choi, mizuna, tatsoi, etc.)
  • Spinach, chard, and beets (for greens)
I also planted a few seeds each of basil, parsley and cilantro in smaller, separate containers.
If you’re buying new seeds for winter planting, I suggest one of the fast-growing mesclun or braising mixes sold by most seed companies.
I scattered the seeds thickly across the soil surface, covered them with a bit of compost, and watered them in well with a small watering can.
Care and harvest
I turned the lights on when I got up each morning and shut them off around supper time. I watered them every couple of days, when the top of the planting medium felt dry. Every week to 10 days, I watered  with a weak solution of seaweed and fish emulsion (available at garden stores).
I started thinning the plants as soon as they’d developed two or three sets of leaves, gently pulling them out by the roots, rinsing them, and tossing them into soups and cabbage salads.
As the plants grew bigger, I harvested the outer leaves and left the rest to grow. Alternatively, you can clip greens from across the whole container with fingernail scissors, making sure to leave the growing tips to produce another crop.
After five weeks of growth, six or eight containers of greens began producing robust, two-person salads three or four times a week for about six weeks, as well as quite a few handfuls of greens to toss into our frequent winter soups.
By the way, producing winter salad greens under lights makes a wonderful project for children of any age. Great science-project possibilities, too!