Our gardens in many lights

lundi 27 février 2012

For winter, why not invite vegetables inside?

Cet article en français. 
Este artículo en español.

Louise :
Charming, isn't it?
Tomatoes, potatoes, swedish turnip, garlic, lettuces or peppers, these are not plants that we imagine inside our homes. But why not? 
What do they have that's so different from our ornemental plants that beautify our living quarters? After all, these are plants, and some are very pretty. 

Actually, the big difference is that for a plant to be able to produce fruits or replace munched leaves, it requires more energy then when it just has to stay there and "be pretty". This producing plant will need more of everything (fertilizer, light and sometimes even warmth). 

A bunch of cherry tomatoes leaning lazily against the next planting pot.

But it's definitely possible to cultivate edible plants inside, with a little bit more care then what ornemental plants require. That's what I discovered in the winter 2010-2011. For those of you who are lucky enough to have a very sunny spot, it's even possible to use only natural light. When it comes to growing vegetables inside, I myself use two different techniques  that I will present here

A suspended garden

The first source of inspiration that allowed me to consider seriously the possibility of having a winter edible garden inside is the discovery, in january 2011, of the website Windowfarms, a site that proposes nothing less then to create a vertical hydroponic garden, simply hung in a window, at a very affordable price.

Image result for windowfarms images

Picture published with the permission of Windowfarms.
This one is their manufactured model.
Water bottles or soft drinks bottles are recycled,
small basket filed with clay pebbles are the nest for plants,
a bit of silicone tubing, metal wire and hooks for hanging the structure, 
a timer and a small air pump (the same we use in aquariums) allow for the circulation of water,
artificial lighting (depending on the vegetables you want to grow and your situation) and a  sunny window.
There! You are now a " window farmer" !

For the big picture, hydroponic culture consist of growing plants without soil; we replace the soil with an inert substrate. This substrate offers a physical support for the plant; I use clay pebbles. The irrigation of those plants is done with pH balanced, fertilized water (naturally or chemically, up to you). Finally we have to provide enough light to allow plants to grow. Here's what Wikipédia, amongst many, have to say about hydroponics. 

My personnal experience 

The growth of my plants
has been fast from the beginning.
We were in February.
I built my first Windowfarm in January 2011. It was really simple, though not very pretty, because I was too anxious to try out this type of gardening to loose my time on such things as aesthetic frivolities (I can also be very lazy on occasion).

On this picture you can spot my young and tender vegetables, about a month pass germinating stage.  On the lowest level, I transplanted two climbing pole bean (they became monstrous). 

On the middle level, two nasturtium plants are nestled comfortably.

Finally on the third level, two cherry tomato plants found their home ("Christmas grape" and "Yellow Pear Shaped ").

Except for the nasturtiums, all of these plants were taking so much space that after a couple months of growth, a single more plant would not have survived in this window!

And then, it became serious 

One year after construction, my vertical garden produces vegetables that
are entirely organic, vegetables we can eat fresh while watching the
snowflakes fall just outside this very same window. And this without any artificial light. 

During that winter, I read almost every archived article on 
(it's a lot of material to read). When I became more self-assured, I started to work on a more ambitious project. 

My windowfarm, built at the end of the 2010-11 winter.
Made of porcelain pots.
On this picture, it was just starting in function,
being only a couple of weeks old.
My goal was to create a windowfarm without plastic, a pretty one and one that wasn't relient on electricity to pump its water.

Taking inspiration in all I read, I decided to use glazed porcelain planters, made of the same material as an ordinary coffee mug.

I am very satisfied with the result, even with some corrections still needed on the overall conception and functioning of the system.

My three main goals have been achieved: my irrigation system is made of durable materials; it works without electricity (by gravity only) and barely contains any plastics. (This fall I replaced my plastic reservoirs with nice buckets made of galvanized steel covered in a baked paint.) Furthermore, this construction is really pretty (at least it is to my personal artistic sense).

Finally, it can acommodate a lot more plants than my plastic test model, since it contains 22 planters. But of course, these plants must be small enough to live together, so I made the wise choice of choosing dwarf varieties. It's one thing to plant parsley and lettuce close together, an entirely different one to plant a pumpkin plant in such a facility !

But the possibilities are still surprising. For example, there's no way I can install a zucchini plant in there, but I found a dwarf variety of cucumber called "Space Master", recommended for... small spaces (the vine still grows to a healthy 1 to 1,5 meters long). My plant took all the space on the bottom of the window and only gave me... one cucumber before meeting its death, most probably caused by my inexperience.

What about traditionnal culture in soil?

This swedish turnip was already growing in a container outside
with two kales. I brought it inside so it could fatten a bit more.
It ended in a soup, leaves included.

I owe this to Ray Browning, an experimented gardener from the North of the United States : He convinced me that it was possible to grow either kale or pepper inside the house. Here's where you can find him on YouTube (Dance in the Sunshine channel, Praxxus 55712). It truly worths a detour, because Ray's way of gardening is unusual but still so well-rounded, either for inside or outside gardening. 

This used light garden cost me 175$ with the
fluorescents and the plastic trays.
At 40W per tube, it cost me about 28 cents
of electricity per day for 16 hours of light.
This installation gives me
 24 square foot of gardening surface.

Not too long after, Marie-Claire found this treasure for me : a light garden for indoor growing. New, these babies cost a lot but this one is used and comes from a lady from Montreal who grew african violets to sell them.
So, last fall was just a new adventure in ways of gardening for me! I started by installing my shortest vegetables on the bottom of the rack. 

Thyme and strawberries (they both eventually died), mint still going strong, kale, a couple of young eggplant and peppers (they are having trouble), onions, garlic, calendula and rosemary (that are all ok), oregano, tomatoes and swedish turnips grow well. A couple of ornementals and I just finished sowing strawberry spinaches. 

Bringing plants from outside inside, however, brought insects, most of them I managed to eradicate. Some aphids still roam around,  damaging my calendulas, but that is all.

I could have spared myself all this trouble if I had used new, sterilized soil and made new plantings inside.

Later on, I installed two more fluorescents on a home-made structure, each light being hung perpendicular to the roof window I have in the attic, a window that's oriented West. Enlarging this space like this allows me even more plants coming from outside. 

From this portion of my indoors garden, we occasionnaly eat eggplants, peppers, sorrel, kale leaves, cauliflower, broccoli and pelargonium leaves (yes, it's edible!). 
I also have from there one or two young tomato plants that are just starting to grow and potatoes that have begun making stalks and leaves. Another tomato plant started from the smallest cutting, started producing flowers. Add to that a few tubers of jerusalem artickokes freshly planted in a big container (with the intention of simply putting the container outside this spring, since it is such an invading plant and it's almost impossible to get rid of once it's there).

A couple more ornementals have found a place in this spot, an heliothrope plant amongst them, which exhales an exquisite vanilla perfume every evening.

My garden under the roof window in the attic, viewed from the side.
My two fluorescent fixtures cost me 35$ each and I used wood scraps
to make the holding structure. I also recycled old mirrors
to multiply the light, but aluminium paper would have worked too.
I also bought two small fluorescent fixtures for 5$. I plan to fix them on the wood
beams to give a better lighting source to those plants that aren't as close to the window as it should.

Front view of the garden. Notice the small orange peppers 
hanging from the green plant on the right.  The two big plants on the left are eggplants.

My plants in the attic are less vigorous than the ones in the hydroponic system, but these ones had to spend some energy to acclimate plus the insects that came with them did some damage. 

A tiny pepper... but so fresh, so delicious!

An eggplant, ready for harvest. 
Its tiny sibbling, left, needs a little more time to ripen.
Bringing these eggplants inside to save them from the frost
rewarded my with a dozen of fruits.

In conclusion

Winter gardening inside doesn't beat outside gardening in the summer of course, but still, I find that between germinations from the kitchen and the summer vegetables that I either froze, dried or prepared one way or another, being able to put fresh produce on my table, even if only ponctually, blesses me with infinite gustative satisfaction. Even more, I can still garden in winter!

I won't even try to deny this : the simple fact that these produce come from my home and were nurtured by me modifies my perceptions about their taste and makes them oh! so much better!

Bounty right in the middle of January.
The eggs comes from a collegue raising hens.
I receive a dozen once in a while in exchange for perennials divisions 
that I gave her last spring.
My fresh, homegrown vegetables, from left to right :
watercress, garlic stems, rosemary, mint, sorrel and kale;
dried thyme at the bottom; swedish turnip leaves in the white plate;
 and in the transparent plate, tiny "Doe Hill" peppers
"Red Robin" cherry tomatoes and "Slim Jim" eggplant. 

I baked this beautiful omelet with the ingredients from the photo above this one, 
adding some ham from half a pork I bought from a local producer, 
olive oil, salt and pepper. The zucchini and potatoes do come from the grocery store,
but my fruit ketchup is made mostly of ingredients I have grown and harvested
last summer.

Check my next article on windowfarming to learn more about it!

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