As the days get darker and shorter in the northern hemisphere, Jews celebrate the light. On Chanukah we light our ever-increasing number of candles to symbolize growing light, and to recall the menorah that kept burning in the Temple. Now that the Temple is no longer, we have to find new ways of increasing the light. One creative way to pay tribute to our ancestral celebration of light during the darkest months is: an indoor garden!
If you love and appreciate quality food, you already know that the closer you are to the source of the ingredients, the fresher the food, the higher the quality, the greater the health benefits and the more nuanced and exciting the flavors. There’s just no way around it, friends: food that was harvested 5,000 miles away in Chile, transported to the Mid-Atlantic and consumed weeks or months later can simply never compete with something you pick out of your garden. That’s all well and good, you say, but, Josh, we live in a four-seasons climate, so…what’s for dinner in December?
Which brings us to the subject of indoor growing. We already manipulate temperatures, light and humidity in our homes, so why not add fresh edible plants to the list of life forms we sustain under these simulated conditions?
Plants need a few things to grow; soil temperature is a factor, as well as humidity in the air, but really when growing indoors, lighting is the major consideration. While most seeds can germinate regardless of light quality, as soon as the plant has leaves, it needs a certain amount and quality of light to survive and continue growing. It’s more then you might think; the incandescent and fluorescent lights in your home are not strong or close enough to sustain most edible plants. Likewise, plants thrive on light that contains a full spectrum of colors, like the sun, so it’s best to procure some type of grow (or plant) light.
I will say that for most of us, indoor, winter growing should probably be confined to culinary herbs and fresh salad greens. Getting plants to fruit, and to build up sugars in those fruits, requires specialized equipment and conditions. Leaf-based plant foods are great though; fresh basil or cilantro can totally transform many a dish, and nothing beats a tender, succulent salad of fresh greens.
There are a few different ways to grow food indoors during the winter. On a small scale, there are a variety of products and kits, like the AeroGarden, on the market that are self-contained and include appropriate lights, drainage and growing receptacles.
Cultivate the City is a DC-based social enterprise that provides access to both education and materials for growing food inside the city. One of their projects is working with the J. O. Wilson Elementary School on educational gardens.
“We are setting up two indoor gardens for the pre-K students,” says Niraj Ray, founder of Cultivate the City. “In this case we are using the AeroGarden systems, which will grow a few lettuce plants that the kids will feed to their classroom turtle. The idea is to teach about the lifecycle and needs of the plant as well as helping keep the kids engaged over the winter season.”
Scaling up from there, farmers and committed gardeners often start seedlings for early crops indoors on heat mats under fluorescent tubes. The next size up from an AeroGarden-type setup would be a grow rack: metro-style shelving with two to four racks of lights hanging right above trays of seedlings. This type of setup can be custom made by securing lights to the bottoms of shelves or purchased from garden stores or online vendors like Gardeners.com.
Even if grow lights are not in your budget, there are some fun indoor growing projects you might try this winter. Sprouts are easily cultivated in a quart-size mason jar. You can design your own little system or get started with a kit from a retailer like SproutPeople.
Another interesting indoor growing project is growing portobello and white button mushrooms using kits. The kits usually cost under $50 and put out several flushes of mushrooms. Mushrooms, of course, are not plants, and their growing needs are different as well. While the kits do require regular misting and somewhat specific conditions to achieve maximum yield, they offer a fun project to do with children and another contribution to a fresh, local winter meal.
Top photo courtesy of Cultivate the City