How to Grow Basil and Tomatoes in the Winter MonthsNov 27, 2020 ● By Megy Karydes
Photo Credit B.J. Miller
Move over houseplants, indoor gardens are taking up residence this winter. With more time on our hands, wanting to spend more time outdoors and being concerned about food availability, many of us turned to the pandemic-safe activity of gardening this summer. Now that the season is over and we’re missing the fresh-from-the-garden taste of vegetables and herbs, we’re wondering how to bring those growing opportunities indoors. Experts say indoor gardening is easier than we think and encourage us to give it a shot this winter.
“This year, so many found peace and simple joys in nature, so it’s all too understandable they want to bring some of that feeling home with them,” says Kasey Bersett Eaves, owner of Ravenswood-based Vivant Gardening Services. Enjoying all gardening has to offer isn’t restricted to the outdoors.
“I’ve noticed especially apartment dwellers with no yard or patio space are wanting to create the feeling of one in their living room,” notes Bersett Eaves. “Herbs have been very popular (when no one wants to make a trip to the grocery store), but also any plant that can be propagated easily. New growth of baby plants provides a feeling of hope unlike any other.”
“Outdoor gardening can be labor intensive, requires dedicated outdoor space and can be time consuming,” says Polly McGann, owner of Illinois-based Happy Leaf, LLC. “Because indoor gardening eliminates those aspects, it has been an attractive option for a whole set of new gardeners to learn the joys of growing their own food. Seasoned outdoor gardeners are looking for new takes on old hobbies and most importantly, are looking to extend their growing season.”
Thanks to the availability of grow lights that are affordable and appropriate on a home growing scale, it’s easy to introduce indoor gardening. Adding the movement and interest towards more local food, the increase in food safety recalls and issues, and the pandemic, most people are ready to give it a try.
Happy Leaf sells advanced LED lights for enthusiastic growers and unsurprisingly, most of the questions McGann and her team field involve learning about what makes their light a better option than other choices on the market. “They want to know how efficient they are, how long they will last, what kinds of yields to expect and if they can grow their favorite plants successfully using our lights,” McGann adds.
Bersett Eaves often gets questions about low-light plants. “For people in small spaces without much natural light, any greenery can brighten a room,” she adds. “Of course, that’s difficult for those who want to grow food indoors, and so naturally I’m also getting many questions about grow lights.”
Even those with outdoor gardening space are intrigued with indoor gardens. The coronavirus pandemic added additional layers of concern. Many people wanted to reduce trips to grocery stores, were spending more time at home and wanted to eat healthy food, according to Hank Adams, CEO and founder of Skokie-based Rise Gardens.
Rise Gardens offers indoor hydroponic gardens and has seen a surge in sales since March—a 750 percent increase. With a three-level system (it is modular and accommodates one, two or three levels), Adams says we could get 12-plus salads a month, including tomatoes, greens and herbs, through the Rise Garden. “And believe me, the arugula and other greens have never tasted fresher and more delicious,” he advises. “Consider that lettuce bought in a grocery store is typically at least a week old by the time you eat it, and you’ll notice a difference in flavor immediately.” Adams adds that cooking sites like Tasty recipe guides that encourage people to use fresh herbs in their meals also have influenced a demand for home-grown, “arms-reach” herbs.
“Freshly picked plants are far more nutritious than ones that have been transported over 1,000 miles and sat in distribution centers and grocery shelves,” he says. “They are also protected from exposure to any pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, making them clean and nutritious. As education about food miles, climate change, and health and wellness increase, so do people’s attention to food sources.”
For others, tackling the winter blues was the motivating reason to start indoor gardening. “After gardening outside for many years and living through the inevitable ‘gardener’s depression’ that comes along with watching all of your beautiful, hard-earned plants die back in the fall, I decided to try and bring some of that green indoors, literally,” says Chicagoan Julie Fehler-Render, who grows microgreens and more from her northwest side home. She remembers when she would haul in planters of peppers, marigolds or herbs to try and extend the season, but they were never very happy or successful after living a full summer outside. “I eventually moved on to starting microgreens inside to rekindle the joy of spring seed starting,” she explains. “This year, I have two trays going, as well as several pots of herbs.”
For the past six years, Fehler-Render has been running the teaching farm at her son’s elementary school, “hopefully instilling the love of gardening to all elementary aged kids and their parents.” She was fielding more questions and requests for help last spring than ever before from all ages. Her specialty is growing microgreens throughout the winter, an activity she began two years ago. She normally grows kales or a greens mix, but this year she’s been enjoying growing pea shoots to make into pesto.
Microgreens are easy, she says, once you know a few simple tricks. “Anyone can do it, but the right trays and growing medium are the key to success.” In the past, Fehler-Render had one small grow light set up in the kitchen that she uses for microgreens. Last spring, she added two more sets above the fridge for seed starting, and currently has potted herbs under them for the winter. “Since I am using every little bit of space I have, my deciding factor for which lights to purchase were mainly based on size, followed by ratings,” she notes.
Like an outdoor garden, indoor gardening is not without issues. Bersett Eaves recognizes that pests and bugs are a concern, and for a beginning indoor gardener a bug infestation is understandably devastating.
“There’s so many gardeners that will tell you to grab a coffee and have a chat with your plants first thing in the morning,” she says. “Really it’s just a practice of not rushing your garden process. If you tend your plants leisurely, like a visit to friends, then you will notice when something is amiss and have the time to look closer.”
For first-timers that are nervous, she recommends a set of sticky stakes. “These yellow pieces of sticky paper near your plant will catch most of the annoying pests that can bother your plants, and it will show them clearly so you can identify the culprit quickly,” she says.
To handle indoor bugs, Bersett Eaves counsels not to panic. Instead, she recommends doing some research to determine the life cycle of the pest, because that’s the most important detail. “There’s nothing more defeating than treating aphids for a straight week only to find the next generation hatching,” she says. “If you would have looked up the life cycle, you would know you only needed to truly deal with them once a week and could have spared yourself a lot of unnecessary work and trouble.”
Bersett Eaves helps gardeners at all stages through her company, from new growers wanting to plan their gardens to seasoned gardeners wanting a trusted set of extra eyes and hands when tackling a long project. “Many gardeners this year also found themselves working as caretakers of kids learning at home, elderly relatives or businesses and needed help staying on top of the garden tasks,” she says.
Regardless of their circumstances or level of gardening experience, Bersett Eaves offers 30-minute remote garden answer sessions where she and clients talk about everything from pest issues to planning out their kitchen garden for the season and teaching classes on various gardening topics. She’s hosting a class on Growing Microgreens this January, as well as a series of dates for gardeners to get together and answer questions in a series called Gloves Off Garden Talks.
Megy Karydes is a master gardener-in-training currently trying to grow tomatoes, peppers, herbs and lettuce in a Rise Gardens system. She’s going to try the Kratky Method next.
Gloves Off Garden Talks: (January class on Growing Microgreens): www.VivantGardens.com/workshops.html
Happy Leaf YouTube videos: YouTube.com/c/happyleafledgrowlights
Rise Garden YouTube videos: Visit the Rise Garden YouTube channel