Outside it’s cold and dreary, but you can still grow your own veggies and herbs indoors in winter to enjoy throughout the season. All it takes is some basic equipment and a little know-how. We’ll break it down for you so you can start enjoying flavorful home-grown herbs and produce in no time!

The Basics

There are really two ways you can go about creating a prolific and satisfying indoor winter garden. The first way is the traditional route: Select herbs and veggies that do well indoors and plant them in separate pots to be placed on a windowsill, or ideally, under a grow light. The other method utilizes a hydroponic system to nourish your plants, so it requires a bit more gear, but works brilliantly. 

Soil Method

To start your indoor garden, you’ll need some seeds or plants (duh), soil, pots and a grow light or a warm area in the house that receives plenty of sunlight. If you start with seeds, be prepared to practice patience — many varieties take several weeks to germinate, let alone produce enough for you to use. (However, you could use this method and think of it as getting a head start on your spring planting!)

Some people prefer to purchase their winter garden plants from a greenhouse or grocer, but you can also try to coax what you grew in the garden over the summer to adjust to indoor conditions. To do this, pot your herbs up to bring inside before the first hard frost. Select the healthiest plants from the garden and check them carefully to make sure they’re disease- and pest-free. Then you’ll need to “soften” them, or get them used to less light. Basically, introduce your plants to partial shade for about two weeks, then deeper shade for another week before finally bringing them indoors. This process is time-consuming but eliminates the shock the plants experience when their growing conditions are changed abruptly.

Herbs and other veggies grown indoors need at least six hours of direct sunlight, or 12 to 14 hours of indirect sunlight each day. That means even a sunny window may not be quite sufficient for proper growth. To supplement, fluorescent lights work beautifully and can be found fairly cheaply at most hardware stores. Hang the lights about 6 inches above the plants and check them regularly to make sure they’re not too close, which can cause burn marks on leaves, or too far away, which causes the plants to get “leggy” as they reach for the light. Alternatively, LED grow lights come in all kinds of sizes, light intensities and setups and can be found easily on Amazon or Etsy. [Writer’s note: I have several of these grow lights, and they’ve kept my indoor tropical plants happy for over two years now.]

Tips

  • Even under ideal circumstances, most plants will be happier outdoors, so there are a few things you can do that will help simulate those conditions. For example, do your best not to overwater. Only give your plants the amount of water they need by watering when the soil is dry to the touch. If you can, water each potted plant from the bottom by placing it in a bowl of water or even a shallowly filled bathtub.
  • Provide proper air circulation. Try not to overcrowd your plants in one spot. This not only increases the risk of spreading disease or pests, but it cramps their style, so to speak. You can also turn on a fan every once in a while to provide “wind” so they can strengthen their bases and “breathe.”
  • Once they’re growing, be sure to use them! Herbs in particular love to get cut back to help stimulate leaf production, so harvest away.

Hydroponic Method

We all learned in elementary school that plants need water, sun and soil to grow, but that fundamental fact is only partially true; the soil is optional as long as you supplement the water with liquid nutrients. 

Growing plants indoor during the winter with hydroponic lightingYou can design your own hydroponic system if you’re so inclined, but the easiest way to grow a hydroponic garden is to purchase a prefabricated one. Many of these small hydroponic growing kits — like the popular Aerogarden, for example — have it all: container, lights, nutrients and seeded plant pods. The lack of soil makes a hydroponic garden ideal for the countertop, and it’s actually more efficient than most traditional methods. All you need to do is keep an eye on the water levels in the tank, add water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks or so, and adjust the LED grow lights to optimize their function. Some systems have programming so you can adjust the color, intensity and duration of light for what you’re trying to grow, and some have adjustable necks so you can raise and lower the lights as needed.

You can make this method more cost-effective in several ways. The typical price of a small hydroponic growing system is roughly $100 and up, and when you add in the cost of the pods it can get a bit pricey. However, most models accommodate “blank” pods that you can make and seed yourself. Or, you can do what I do, and “MacGyver” it a bit: My family eats basil pesto about once a week, so I purchase those live potted basil plants you can get in the produce aisle of the grocery store. I harvest what I need for the pesto, then wash and clean the soil off the roots, and plop the separated plants into the pod holes, sometimes using tape to provide a framework to keep them mostly upright. Works like a charm. Also of note: my model is ancient, circa 2012, and has survived many seasons in the garage and several moves. I haven’t even had to replace the lights yet. It’s a beast, so if you don’t want to purchase a new one, finding a used one online should still do the trick.

Veggies and Herbs You Should Try to Grow

You can technically grow just about anything indoors with care and practice, but some varieties are easier to keep alive. Lettuces, leafy greens, sprouted seeds, radishes, carrots and almost any herb will do wonderfully. If you want tomatoes, peppers or other small fruited veggies, look for a dwarf variety to accommodate the space restrictions inherent to indoor gardening. Happy growing!

Top image: © victorass88, via Canva.com


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