Indoor gardening

I thought I was ready to say goodbye to gardening for the year and snuggle up with a book, but I’ve changed my mind and decided to try growing more things indoors over the next few months. Topping my list of plants to try under the grow lights in my basement are lettuce and micro-greens, but I’m already potting up more amaryllis than I usually do too.

I figure it’s the long fall that’s got me longing to keep digging in the dirt. If you’re in the same place, I hope you’ll find some indoor growing tips you can use in this column. For those who are ready to put the kettle on and start reading, allow me to recommend two books that I recently finished and loved: “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.”

OK, let’s talk growing lettuce indoors. I’m used to starting lettuce from seed in the garden, but it will be new to me to try to grow it under lights during the winter. To prepare, I’ve talked to gardening friends about how they go about this, and I’ve read a fair amount too. It doesn’t seem like it’ll be too difficult, but I will fess up if things don’t go so well.   

If you don’t have grow lights of any kind, you can set some up easily. My light setup is very simple and was not expensive to put together. Basically, it’s a metal four-tiered shelving unit from Menards outfitted with sets of cool-white fluorescent light tubes. The lights are mounted in common shop light housings that you can find at any hardware store and they’re suspended above the shelves from chains that can be adjusted as the plants grow.

For this lettuce experiment, I’m going to buy several types of seeds, and it seems smaller, leafy varieties are the way to go indoors. I buy most of my vegetable seeds from Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com), so for starters I’m ordering Baby Mesclun Lettuces Cut and Come Again, Renee’s Baby Leaf Blend and Sweetie Baby Romaine. Plant your seeds according to package instructions in either standard planting trays or even those plastic clamshell containers that you buy butter lettuce and other types of produce in.

You won’t be covering the seeds with much potting soil, but once they’re covered, spritz the surface of the soil with a little bit of warm water and then cover the tray with plastic wrap (or close the clamshell). Place the containers under the lights, which should be about 4 inches above the soil. It’s easiest to put the lights on timers, leaving them on for about 14 to 16 hours each day. Spritz the soil with lukewarm water occasionally so the soil doesn’t dry out. In a week or so, seedlings will start coming up and you can remove the plastic. As the lettuce grows, keep it watered and lightly fertilized (I use fish emulsion.) If all goes well, we will all have fresh lettuce that we grew ourselves in the middle of winter. If not, well, try, try again, I say.

Want to grow some amaryllis? Great! You’ll find amaryllis bulbs everywhere right now and many of them will soon be on sale, which is great because they can be spendy. No matter what the price, before you buy take a minute to check the bulbs out. You want them to be large so you’ll get more than one flower stalk, and they should also be firm as opposed to shriveled and dry or squishy and kind of moldy. That sounds like a no-brainer, but bulbs will do anything to go home with you for the holidays and it’s easy to buy bad ones if you don’t actually touch them and examine them closely.

Pot your amaryllis bulbs up separately, or together in groups of three if you’ve got room for a pretty large container. Bulbs need space to grow, so choose pots that are at least 6 or 7 inches deep and wide enough to allow an inch or more on all sides of the bulbs. Always use pots with drainage holes and go with potting mix rather than garden soil, which will hold too much water.

To plant them, put a few inches of potting mix on the bottom of your container, position the bulb and spread out its roots a bit and then add more potting soil until only about a third of the bulb is above the soil line. Pat that soil down lightly, water well and you’re done. Place your amaryllis in a sunny window and water it only when it seems dry (wait to fertilize until greenery appears). Soon, flowers too gorgeous and otherworldly to be believed in the gloomy white/gray of winter will open up and make you forget that there are still months to go before spring. I’m telling you, it works every time. 

Check out Meleah’s blog: www.everydaygardener.com for more gardening tips or to email her a question or comment.