As I write this, I’m chewing on a spicy little arugula seedling that I grew from within the last couple of weeks. Considering that it’s -15C outside right now where I am, and there’s a good 3” of snow coating everything, I hadn’t expected to be chowing down on fresh greens unless I’d bought them from the grocery store, where they’ve been marked up exponentially as out-of-season luxuries. How did I manage to coax these sweethearts into growing, then? The answer is actually quite simple, and surprised me as well: south-facing windows.
The idea came to me when I was researching Earthships with my husband; now that we’ve relocated to a rural area, we’re hoping to get out of our current rental and into our own home within the next few years—preferably one that we’ve built ourselves. As such, we’re delving into different building method, with the earth-bermed, passive-solar homes at the top of our list. These buildings take full advantage of south-facing windows to grow a great deal of food indoors, year-round, and reading about them made the creaky little wheels in my cranium spin with something like this:
My house has south-facing windows.
There is a ledge beneath those windows.
I have vegetable and herb seeds.
I also have small pots and planters.
I… could use those pots to …grow… the seeds… near the windows.
Once the thought formed itself fully, I ran to dig out my gardening supplies. Soil was harvested from the garden outside and left near the windows for 24 hours so it could warm up, and then it was then some arugula seeds and some water and left to do its magic. As we only get about 8 hours of sunlight these days, I’ve been putting a desk lamp over the sprouts for an extra 2 hours every morning and evening to boost the sprouts’ growth, but the sunlight’s been doing most of the work. I’m certain that the arugula would grow without the lamp’s extra input, as the seeds I’ve planted around it are thriving just as well, sans lamp – parsley, basil, oregano, and a lettuce mix are all popping up like crazy, and I’ll be starting some kale soon as well.
If you’re fortunate enough to have south-facing windows in your home and you’d like to try growing some food plants over the winter months, observe the light that comes in for a few days to see how it moves around the inside of your space. It would be ideal to document the light flow with photographs so you can make notes about which indoor areas get the most light over the course of the day, as that will help you determine which plants to grow via which method. In the past, I’ve had great luck with upside-down pop bottle planters for indoor winter gardening, as they can be suspended from curtain rods to hang at various levels to maximize their exposure to sunlight. In fact, if you hang them between the window glass and a white curtain, the fabric will reflect light around your plants for even greater light absorption.
Hardy winter greens such as rapini, chard, kale, and even most lettuces can thrive in weaker light, as can herbs like parsley, chervil, mint, rosemary, thyme, and chives. As seedlings are rarely available in wintertime, start your seeds in pots beneath lamps to kick-start the growing process, and once the seedlings are 3-4 inches tall, you can either transplant them into the upside-down bottle planters, or thin them into separate pots to place on a window ledge. (You don’t need a special lamp for this process, by the way; I just use an old desk lamp with a frosted 60-watt bulb in it.) Remember that lettuces, kale, cabbages, and the like all need a fair bit of space—think of the average size of a head of lettuce—so even though a single lettuce seedling might look sad and lonely inside its own pot, it’ll grow to fill that space very, very quickly. Take care not to over-water these greens either, as too much will rot their roots.
Heat-and-light-loving plants will not thrive in the weaker light that winter has to offer, even if it streams through your windows rather enthusiastically. If you’re really keen on growing tomatoes and peppers in the depth of January, then go for miniature varieties and hang/place them in the warmest, sunniest spot possible — they might not yield much in the way of fruit, but you might have a bit of luck with them. Speaking of luck, if you find that one interior wall of your house gets a significant amount of direct sunshine every day, you’re quite fortunate indeed. If you wouldn’t consider a living “green wall” to be unsightly, consider growing beans or peas against that wall! A surprising number of climbing bean/pea varieties can thrive in partial shade, so they can thrive quite merrily with a full day of pallid winter light. Should you be interested in growing these, rig a lattice up against that sunny wall and secure a long, narrow planter box or eaves trough at the bottom of it to plant your seeds in. As they grow, they’ll climb that lattice to create a lush living wall that just happens to produce food for you as well.