If you’re growing your own food indoors year-round, maximize your efforts by growing plants that yield the highest value in four areas: money, taste, convenience and variety. Here are 5 high-value crops that are easy to grow indoors, along with some growing tips for each.
Whether a fruit, vegetable or herb has high value is partly in the eye (and taste buds) of the beholder.
Green peppers may be a good value in that they’re less expensive and better tasting to grow rather than to buy — but they’re not a good value if you don’t like green peppers. (In which case you clearly have NOT had my mother’s stuffed green peppers.)
The point is, the highest value comes from growing plants you and your family are most likely to enjoy. Before we get to the specific advantages of certain food plants, here are some overall advantages of growing any food indoors:
- Less waste: How much produce do you throw away every month because it went bad before you could eat it? Being able to pick your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs only when you need them should certainly cut down on waste. If you make the effort to grow too much of something, you’re probably more inclined to preserve it than to chuck it.
- Organic options: Organic produce generally costs plenty more than non-organic. And yet it costs little to no extra money to grow organic food — especially indoors in containers, where you’re not worrying about amending existing soil or protecting against outdoor pests or weeds.
- Nutrition: When mass-produced plants are harvested early for longer shelf life in a store, they may not have developed as much of their essential nutrients as when they’re grown to full ripeness.
- Reducing your carbon footprint: Most of us can’t get close to growing enough food indoors to feed a family. But everything we do eat from our own indoor garden is one less item that had to be transported to a store with fossil-fueled vehicles. It’s also one less item that required excessive commercial fertilizers and pesticides.
Harvesting sweet basil grown in an Eco Garden House.
Value Adds: Cost, Convenience, Taste
Herbs such as thyme, rosemary, tarragon, mint and sage are typically sold at grocery stores in small packs for anywhere from $3 to $5.
Most of us cook with just a few sprigs of herbs at a time. Growing the herbs you tend to use most often puts them at your fingertips when you need them, without waste.
We include taste as one value of herbs, not because they’re likely to taste better than cut herbs from the store, but because they taste better than dried herbs in many dishes. Dried herbs tend to be more pungent and can take over a dish, and they can leave a gritty taste on your tongue.
This is a broad category, so for more complete growing tips, read our previous post about indoor herb gardening do’s and don’ts.
In general, you may find it useful to choose a few herbs that grow well in the same conditions, if you don’t want to pay attention to differing lighting and watering regimes. Here’s a breakdown of herbs that prefer dry and wet conditions:
- Wet – basil, chives, chervil, cilantro/coriander, mint, parsley, tarragon
- Dry – bay, lavender, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme
Use a clean potting soil mix for herbs. For the dry-loving plants, mix two parts potting soil with one part sand or perlite, and perhaps a bit of lime to raise the alkaline level.
For many herbs, the aroma — and health benefits — are largely from the essential oils the plants produce. These oils develop better with lots of sunlight. For growing year-round, a grow light is often the best way to get healthy, aromatic herbs.
Value Adds: Taste, Cost, Variety
This fruit tops our list for crops that taste far better grown at home vs. purchased at the store.
These days, many grocery stores stock a greater variety of tomatoes than the standard rock-hard roma, bland beefsteaks, and pricey grape or cherry tomatoes. “Heirloom” is the new marketing ploy. Indeed, some of these new varieties taste a little better.
As with any variety of tomatoes bound for grocery stores, however, these newer varieties still require a longer shelf life than homegrown tomatoes. The fruit must be rigid enough to stand up to shipping and stacking. So they’re generally picked well before they’re ripe.
And even at its best, a store-bought heirloom tomato at upwards of $5 per pound won’t taste as good as a fresh-off-the-vine homegrown tomato that cost you a relative pittance to grow.
Tomato plants are cost effective to grow indoors because one plant can easily produce five to 10 pounds of fruit within a smallish footprint, depending on the varieties you choose.
Read our post “Grow Your Own Food Indoors: Tomatoes — a 5-Step Guide,” for advice and links about growing the most fabulous tomatoes year-round. Here are some basics:
You can grow larger tomato varieties indoors, but for maximum yield, grow smaller varieties that won’t pull the vines down. Also choose “indeterminate” varieties, which produce fruit much longer than “determinate” varieties.
In the Gardening Know How blog, Bonnie Grant recommends these varieties for growing indoors:
* Red Robin
* Tiny Tim
* Toy Boy
* Florida Petite
She also recommends varieties that typically grow well in hanging baskets, such as Yellow Pear and Burpee Basket King.
If you’re growing tomatoes in an indoor grow tent, train tomato vines up strings tied to the top frame, or up trellises.
It’s best if your grow unit has vertical grow lights in the corners as well as overhead lights, so as the vines grow they’ll get adequate light even if your other plants require the overhead light to stay closer to the floor.
Think Warm Thoughts
Tomatoes can be a bit higher maintenance than some plants in the winter, as they generally prefer temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees. Depending on where you live and how warm you keep your home in cold weather, an indoor grow unit may be necessary for great tomatoes.
A south-facing window may work if it’s not drafty and if the ambient temperature doesn’t dip below 65 degrees.
Although tomatoes like ambient heat, it’s important not to use certain types of grow lights that are too hot down close seedlings or maturing tomato plants.
High-intensity discharge lights, such as high-pressure sodium or metal halide bulbs, are often used in grow rooms. However, they’re too hot to position down within four inches of most plants, which is about where you want the lights, especially for seedlings.
High output (HO), full-spectrum fluorescent grow lights, such as a T-5, are ideal for tomatoes. These lights stay relatively cool while producing four times the light of most incandescent bulbs, and twice the light of standard fluorescents.
Think Fertile Thoughts
Tomatoes planted indoors can use some fertilizer every week. Without a breeze, birds, and insects to jostle the plants, you should use a small fan to help the plants pollinate. Or just give them a little shake and run your hands through the plants a bit when you water them.
Sweet and Hot Peppers
Value Adds: Cost, Variety
The key value for growing your own sweet peppers is cost. Depending on the season, they often cost in the range of $3 to $5 per pound (for red, yellow and orange peppers), sometimes for peppers with obvious wrinkles and soft spots.
The main value of homegrown hot peppers is variety. A typical grocery store will have jalapenos, and maybe a couple of other varieties, like pablanos, seranos or habaneros. Yawwwwwn.
If you love hot peppers, grow your own and experiment with the many versatile and flavorful varieties. We recommend the blog Chili Pepper Madness for a robust list of peppers separated by heat level, with brief explanations of each pepper’s flavor profile.
Sweet pepper plants don’t produce large quantities of peppers, so the value you get depends on how many plants you have room to grow. Plant them a few months apart so you can have a continuous supply.
Many hot peppers, on the other hand, easily produce dozens of peppers per plant. This is perfect if you want to make your own hot sauce (and you do, even if you don’t know it yet!).
You can also roast and freeze hot peppers for mid-winter pots of chili and stir frys. This is far easier and cheaper than toasting or reconstituting dried chili peppers.
How to Make Your Pepper Plants Produce All Season
If your pepper plants seem to be giving out, you can rejuvenate them by pruning branches that aren’t producing. Khang Starr shows how to do this in the video below. We recommend Khang’s YouTube channel for pepper growing strategies.
Many pepper plants do well in pots that you put outside in warm weather and bring inside for cold weather. They’re perennials, so if you treat them well they’ll produce year after year.
If you’re starting from seeds, try a mix of about one-third compost to two-thirds potting soil.
Peppers planted outside can go a long time without water, but inside in containers they should be watered every day. Just make sure the pots have good drainage, and don’t super-soak the potting soil.
Value Adds: Cost, Convenience, Taste, Variety
This plant delivers all four values. It’s often upwards of $4 per pound in stores, even though it costs next to nothing to grow.
It’s a versatile plant. Depending on how you grow it, you can harvest its tender greens, the longer, curly green leaves or “scapes,” young (or “spring”) garlic that’s pulled from the soil before maturity, and full-grown heads of garlic.
Through each of these phases, the flavor deepens from mild to robust.
The garlic you mostly see in stores is “softneck” garlic with white, papery skin and layers of cloves. The “hardneck” variety tends to be bit more pungent and have a more symmetrical structure of a single circle of cloves.
If all you want is a continuous supply of tender garlic greens — and once you start cooking with them, you probably will — you only need to sprout whole cloves from a store-bought head of garlic in water, then plant about an inch deep in a small container of potting soil. As the greens come up in a couple of weeks, you can trim the greens off as you need them until they stop growing (which depends on the amount of light, heat and other conditions).
If you’ve got a south-facing windowsill in your kitchen, you’re set for garlic greens. Plant two pots a few weeks apart, and when one gives out, pull out the depleted clove and start over. Then you won’t run out.
On the other hand, if you want to grow different varieties of the more flavorful hardneck garlics, you’ll do better with a larger pot and grow lights if you don’t get enough sunlight in the winter.
It’s better to get hardneck bulbs from a trusted nursery or seed company, or from a farmers’ market. Different varieties can mature in three to six months, on average.
If you’re growing hardneck garlic, harvest the curly scapes after the pods have formed but before they flower, if you can. This forces the plant to direct its nutrients into the garlic heads. Or, you can just let the stalks grow until they begin to die back, which usually indicates the heads have formed.
To harvest and cure the garlic, the Urban Gardeners Republic blog says:
Loosen the soil and gently remove the bulbs. Remove large clumps of dirt from the bulb, but there’s no need to heavily “clean” them and do not remove the papery husk. The husk will help slow the process of sprouting and will help them keep longer in storage. Bulbs should be hung from the stems and dried for 4-6 weeks in cool dry location.
When ready to store, trim the stems about 1 1/2- 2″ from the bulb. Store garlic in a dry (low humidity) location that maintains a temperature around 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit (10 – 15 degrees Celsius). Hardneck varieties should keep for about 5-6 months; softnecks may be stored up to about 8 months.
The Greatest Value: Learning to Cook and Eat Better
Whichever food plants you choose to grow, you’re getting the built-in value greater than just money, convenience, variety and taste: You’re motivating yourself to cook more at home, and to eat better food.
Only one in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables. We’d like to believe that if you’re reading this blog, you eat more fruits and veggies than the average American.
But you might be surprised at how much of a difference it makes when you grow your own food. You’re proud to harvest something in one room, walk into the kitchen, prep it, cook it and eat it — especially if you do it as a family.
Kids might not immediately fully appreciate the lessons of growing and eating some of their own food, but the lessons won’t be wasted in the long run. How much is that worth?
Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?