Ever wanted a kitchen garden? Read on for a brief guide to micro-indoor farming and putting vacant window real estate to productive use.
Chances are that you have a free window looking out at a yard, a few feet away from you as you read this. Perhaps you are in a climate controlled office or house. For the really lucky, a winter proof and vacant sunlit room maybe available. There is probably an empty disposable container around as well. Dirt, container, sunshine and climate control, you have everything you need for a small patch of green. All you need to grow it is seeds and some time. Best of all, it can work year round, living through the frost of winter and the scorching heat of summer. Avid gardeners bring their plants indoors and winterize them and if you have small pots suited to tight spaces, shade tolerant plants can survive winter and yield a small crop during the season. A few potted plants don't take significant effort to maintain, add greenery to your surroundings and improve the environment. They can even help combat SAD. Just don't overdo it and take some simple precautions. Before you know it, you will have some beans, peas, pepper and flowers, or whatever you want, growing in the vacant kitchen window.
Step 1: Before You Start
Although you can likely grow plants anywhere, here are some factors to take into account before you begin:
1. Permission: ensure that other tenants, inhabitants, landlords, managers, parents, authorities and neighbors don't have problems with any plants in the window. Some cities and municipalities require approval for growing plants in certain places. Your office may have a policy against plants. Restrictions vary so just make sure you have the necessary permission to grow plants.
2. Moisture: plants and water go hand in hand. If things will rot near plants or the window sill will spoil from exposure to water, don't plant there or use moisture barriers to keep the surroundings of the plants safe from water damage.
3. Structure: the potted plants don't look big, but a few pounds of soil maybe too much for a rickety propped up board. To avoid a mess of wet dirt, soggy plants and containers, make sure the platform or space can take the load.
4. Light: depending on the plants you choose, you need between 4 to 10 hours of light everyday and if you don't have that much, you might need a growing light for the plants or you may have to settle with ambient lighting. Note that it probably isn't worth the financial and energy investment to grow one to five plants with artificial light.
5. Temperature: climate controlled spaces can accommodate plant needs for any season, but if it is sixty below freezing outside and the house is at ten degrees, the window might still be too cold for the plants to produce or grow. Use a thermometer to measure the temperature and find a warm spot in the window or close by where you can grow plants. The temperature should be at least 10°C(elsius) or 50°F(arenheit).
6. Living Things: plants don't come alone. The soil you use will likely have eggs and insects that may be bothersome when you grow plants. Cover the plants and soil, use sterile dirt or heat the soil at a high temperature for some time to limit/ prevent bug problems.
7. Allergies: consider allergies that people or you may have to plants and avoid growing poisonous or hazardous plants such as rosary peas, castor beans or poison ivy. Kids and pets will likely eat plant parts as well and even seemingly benign plants can harbor toxins that can be fatal. Grow safe plants and keep out of reach of children and pets.
8. Safety: you don't want to drop a dirt filled pot on you foot or on a passing pedestrian on the ground. Anchor plants or take precautions to prevent falls on either side of the window.
9. Space: most small vegetable plants can grow in even a square inch of space but choose plants based on the available space and conditions. Herbs and small flowers are good for cup gardens or smaller. Beans, peas, lentils, short vines, etc. can be grown in small spaces.
10. Opportunity Cost: if you stretch wire or use a trellis in the window or even if the plants grow too much, you may loose the serenity of the view. You may also not be able to use the window sill for other things such as shelves or perhaps even open the window for ventilation.
Step 2: Support Structure
Once you have considered the constraints and possibilities, you should select plants suited to them. In most cases, your plants will need support to grow and guide their stems. A trellis or cable support system is in order for such requirements. Here is a shoestring, bootstrap trellis and cable support (string net) short guide:
1. Trellis: there are various ways to make a trellis on Instructables and the internet, however for short plants, a coated wire organizer or a basket with wide gaps works well. You can probably find one around the house or buy one for under two dollars. Coated wire doesn't rust or break easily and it allows plants to make use of the most sunlight. Plastic or wire baskets can be used to the same effect as long as the gaps are large enough not to strangle the plants and allow them to pass through.
Trellises should block as little light as possible. Also ensure that the trellis won't tip the pot over.
Put the pots in the coated wire organizer and let the plants grow along the wire. Two to three pots to an organizer is good measure.
2. Cable Support: if there is a curtain rod over the window, you can run strong string or thin rope from the it to the pots and tie cords across the vertical lines to make a lattice or net.
Thin cables will work, however plants prefer slightly thick cords to 'twirl' around.
To keep the lines in place, string them through a hole in the pots or anchor them. They can be left free, but it isn't as effective or pretty without tension. If there isn't a curtain rod or other anchor, you will need a frame or nails to tie the string or rope to.
Bear in mind that an extensive support system is not necessary and you can add it as and when needed. Don't splurge on a support system.
Step 3: Container
With the necessary support system in place, you can start filling soil in pots or containers. Any good sized water resistant container will do. Ensure that it is strong enough to hold the soil and withstand movement. Avoid plastics that are not sun and moisture tolerant. Also ensure that they are free of soluble and insoluble products that may be harmful, such as BPA, Phthalates, PVC, etc. #3, #6 and #7 NTP rated plastics are bad in this regard. Generally, food containers should be fine even if they contain toxic substances because it takes a while for the plastics to degrade and travel through the soil to plants. For brief periods of growing (under 4 to 6 weeks) and as long as you don't use them in long hot summer time, the produce should be safe to consume.
Depending on the plants, you may need good soil drainage. To this end, make a three to five small holes (1mm to 4mm) around or in the bottom of the container. Be careful not to cut or otherwise hurt yourself while making drainage holes. Any method that creates a sizable void will is fine.
The lid of the container usually has a greater diameter than the container and makes a good tray with its raised edge(s). Put the lid under the container to hold the drained water.
Monitor the drainage regularly to avoid the accumulation of standing water in the trays because some insects (mosquitoes maybe) can be active in winter and may find the temperature (heated house) favorable. Anything that can happen in summer and spring with the same conditions can happen in winter as well, under the same conditions.
Fill the pots about two thirds full with filler or standard soils and make the rest of the way up to around the edge of the container with top soil and mulch. Don't worry if it is full to the brim because watering will cause the soil level to fall slightly. Avoid using too much mulch as it will decay indoors (inedible mushrooms and rot anyone?). The mulch will help insulate the plant roots.
Step 4: Sprouting and Planting Seeds
Seeds normally take a few days to a few weeks to sprout. If you want to sprout them quickly, place them on a moist paper towel and put them in a container or plastic bag and close or seal them in for a few days. Make sure to put the germinating setup in a suitable environment (room temperature plus or minus twenty degrees depending on the plant). Search the web to find the suitable temperature for your choice of plant.
Check the seeds once a day and when the seeds have sprouted, wait half a day to a day (you can wait for a few days but between a day or two is ideal) and bury them under loose shallow soil about a quarter to half an inch deep. Do not press the dirt as it may crush or harm the young plants. Bury the sprouts with the stems upwards and roots downward. Exposed roots will weaken the plant while planting them lower than the stem will allow the plant to grow right way up quicker. If there are exposed roots, cover them with a little dirt. Avoid planting too many seeds in one pot as it will be hard to thin them to a few plants in the small space. I grew peas and beans together alongside radishes and tomatoes.
Step 5: Watering and Care
In the first week, water the plants lightly once a day. Don't flood the pot, about a tablespoon of water per plant is enough. If they are growing really quickly and the dirt drys quickly, double the amount of water or adjust watering as necessary. Do not let the water drown the soil, it should be amply damp not wet. Note that over watering can lead to flaccid plants just as under watering can result in wilting, because some plant roots need air to breathe while more water can cause plants to rot.
In subsequent weeks, increase the water amount and decrease the watering frequency to about once every two days to twice a week. The amount of water will depend on the type of plants being grown.
Unless your soil has the nutrient content of barren sand, it will likely suffice. If necessary, fertilize with a general purpose nutrient mix and apply lightly to soil. Avoid powerful fertilizers as the plants don't need much fertilization and even small amounts can be too much with high strength mixes. A small amount will be enough for the desired effect. Substances with strong odors shouldn't be used because the scent will spread indoors.
Step 6: Watch Them Grow
For the most part, guiding plants along the support structures will be the only required maintenance for the small garden. Between three and five pots is a good number for a decent window sill. More than that may lead to overcrowding of the sill and the associated responsibilities for upkeep.
In about four weeks, there should be flowers on your plant and within two weeks after that, you should have produce ready for harvest. Time required will vary with plant choice and some plants may take all winter to yield fruit or vegetables. If the conditions are less than ideal due to a low temperature or bad growing conditions, it can take double the time. Unsuitable conditions and a variety of factors may result in there being no yield at all.
Yield or no yield, the presence of plants and a frame of greenery will add beauty to a white winter canvas. Hopefully, you will have an easy garden and enjoy watching plants grow as you do the dishes.