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An indoor experiment: vegetable gardening gone mad

I wrote this article a while ago when I thought I'd give growing vegetables indoor a try. It was bizarre, unnatural and it didn't really work. Some people may not think the experiment was that odd. After all you might always sow your tomatoes and other vegetables indoors in winter before transferring them out in spring to your garden. But this experiment was about growing vegetables totally indoors. No garden and no direct sunlight. Couldn't be done? You're right... it can't, but read on if you want to find out more about this dismal experiment.

Why was I crazy enough to do this for starters? It was all about adding something different to the office environment. Usually all you see indoors in offices are bland boring indoor plants. Why can't you have something that's interesting and a talking point (after all Peter and Trevor in the office at the time had a massive collection of snow domes and a mountain of Coke cans respectively).

But it wouldn't work I hear you say. Vegetables need at least 6 hours direct sunlight a day to get anywhere. True. But I thought surely there must be some specific varieties of vegies that can grow under reasonably low light conditions. I posed this question to the rec.gardens.edible newsgroup on 12 March '98. I was surprised to actually get some responses back. Understandably most of the responses recommended mushrooms. I know I did say "low light environment" but I didn't expect people to take that too literally. And anyway, I didn't particularly like the taste of mushrooms at the time. Another suggestion was bean sprouts (a bit boring). It wasn't until Pat Kiewicz's suggestion that I started to think this might work:

"You can grow sprouts of all kinds (broccoli and other crucifers being both trendy and nutrient-packed) without lighting. You can also get kits for various kinds of mushrooms. (Be advised, fungus gnats can easily and overwhelmingly infest indoor mushrooms kits...)

Of the vegetables I *start* indoors, the ones that do best with just window-light are leeks. Though I don't think growing full-sized leeks in on a window-sill would be very practical, you might be able to keep a nice pot of chives happy there."

I also received another suggestion:

"I have a 4 ft-high potted lime tree in a sunny bay in my living room (where light-filtering shades are hardly ever raised) that bears fruit. It currently has 9 baby limes and is still blooming.

Vegetable possibilities include greens that require darkness for blanching, such as, Belgian endive and ones that are eaten very young such as, curly cress. You could also grow mesclun with inexpensive lighting (around here (Washington, DC) one can buy fluorescent light fixtures, that are ready to use, for about $10. I've used them to grow seedlings indoors to transplant size for years.) You could also grow a variety of sprouts: bean, alfalfa, and the newest fad here in the US: broccoli. Good luck."

I did a search on the web for information about growing vegetables indoors. I wasn't finding much. Lots of information about starting tomatoes and other vegies indoors in winter and also a bloke flogging off his book on the net. I then stumbled on an article titled "Container Gardening Indoors" produced as part of the Michigan State University's extension course. It was a gift from heaven. I read through the information again and again and thought "Yes I can do this".

I bought a lovely new fake terracotta plastic elongated pot and some perlite and vermiculture from the nursery. The article recommended a one third mix each of potting mix, perlite and vermiculture. When I started pouring out the perlite and vermiculture I thought this couldn't be right. They'd be hardly enough potting mix for the vegies. So I strayed from the formula a little. Instead I mixed the proportions to one quarter each of perlite and vermiculture and the remaining half potting mix. I also churned a bit of homemade compost to help give the seeds a bit of a kick. On Sunday, 15 March I sowed a drill of Royal Oakleaf and Rouge d'Hiver lettuce seeds.

Indoor vegetable gardening: could it be done?

By Thursday, 19 March tiny seedlings had sprouted up. Although they turned out to be tomato seeds in the compost. These seedlings didn't perform well under the light conditions. By Tuesday, 1st April I had a bunch of collapsed tomato seedlings and still no sign of a lettuce seedling, so I decided to cheat a little. I brought into the office some Rouge d'Hiver seedlings that I'd been growing in full sun at home and transplanted them. They too were a terrible failure. They started well but then started growing strangely. Instead of producing broad lettuce leaves they were extremely elongated. And given time, even with regular watering, they withered and died.

So the experiement was going in the direction I initially thought... failure. But I kept trying. On Friday, 5th June I sowed two drills. I mixed together baby carrot and radish seeds. By Tuesday, 9th July the radishes had sprouted and were growing reasonably strong. I got plenty of leaves but the radishes don't want to form a globular root.

Theoretically (according to my research) you can also grow mini cabbages, broccoli and either capsicums (bell peppers) or cherry tomatoes. The other day I found in an old edition of the American magazine "Organic Gardening" an article about growing capsicums inside. It was oriented toward growers who toward the end of autumn (fall) should transplant their capsicums from their garden into pots and bring them inside over winter. The article discusses that you can still get fruits by hand pollinating. It also discussed transplanting them back outside in spring. I don't see why they can't continue growing indoors.

As my experiment was such a total failure I ended up moving the pot to a window sill and planting some cherry tomato seeds. Surprise surprise, but once I'd added light into the equation they kept growing and growing. And the tomatoes were very tasty! Of course then the office I was working in moved and whilst I got a new window, it didn't get near enough sunlight.

But if you've also tried growing vegetables indoors and it actually worked out please e-mail me, I'd love to know what you did!


Last Updated 23 October, 2008

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