When the cold winter winds whip the snow into massive drifts, let a hint of summer into your home by growing your own lettuce. As long as you have a light source, you can raise your own greens, which taste much better and are more nutritious than anything you buy in a supermarket.
how to garden indoors and grow your own salad
- Flower pot or planter. We use three-foot long rectangular planters, because they sit side-by-side under the grow lights and maximize the space.
- Potting Soil. Use a good name brand potting soil, not soil directly from a garden or ditch. You want the soil to be soft and somewhat fluffy. This allows for good drainage and root expansion.
- Lettuce Seed. Loose leaf lettuces work the best for indoors, because their growing season requirements are shorter and they don’t need the extra light and energy to make heads. The best seed we have found is New Red Fire, but Red Sails also works well. We also grow arugula (also known as “rocket”), but I am sure you can try a variety of other seeds, such as kale, for a vitamin-packed winter salad. Buy seed in the spring when it is readily available, and hold onto it in a cool, dry location until you are ready to plant. Or, order seed online from places such as Harris Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Pinetree Garden Seeds or Fedco.
- Water. Because of the dry climate of most modern homes, lettuce needs to be watered frequently, as much as once a day. Pour tap water into a gallon jug and let sit for 24 hours with the cap off, to allow the chlorine to evaporate from the water. Use this water to water your lettuce (and other houseplants).
- Light. We use fluorescent grow light bulbs in four foot shop light fixtures for our source of light, but any window that gets at least half a day of sunshine will work just as well. Just remember to turn your plants every day, to ensure even growth. If you used fluorescent lights, maintain the light bulb height at about 6-inches above the plants. As the plants grow, raise the light accordingly.
- Temperature. Until they sprout, the seeds need warmth. Place them on a table in the sun or near any warm spot in your house, such as a stove or a furnace register. Check often after the first day or two. Place your growing containers in light as soon as the seeds sprout. Once the sprouts appear, heat isn’t a big deal any more. Winter greens actually prefer life in a cool room of your house. The room we use generally ranges between 55-65° F. A hot room will cause the lettuce to bolt, or go straight into flower production. Bolted lettuce is bitter lettuce, and doesn’t taste very good.
PREPARING THE PLANTER
Cover the drainage holes of your planting container with gravel to keep the potting soil from clogging the holes. Pour the potting soil into your container, press the soil down firmly, and fill the planter until you have soil to within an inch of the top.
Make ¼-inch furrows with your finger, place the seeds about ½-inch apart and cover the seeds with soil. Or, scatter the seeds around the surface of the planter and cover lightly with soil.
Pat the soil down around the seeds and water until it runs into the holding tray under the planter. Place in your warm location. You should see lettuce starting to sprout in about three to five days.
Your seedlings may look a bit thin and weak at first. One way that we strengthen our weak-looking seedlings is to turn a fan on low, aimed at the plants. We figure plants outdoors get plenty of air movement and look strong, so air movement indoors is a benefit to the little lettuce seedlings. Our son, Bill, calls this the daily plant aerobics. Once the lettuce has developed their third or fourth leaves, the fan isn’t as necessary.
Harvest by cutting carefully with a knife about one inch up the plant from the soil surface when the leaves are about five inches long. The leaves will grow back at least once more. Pull the plants out and reseed when the lettuce starts to bolt and produces a bud.
We usually plant eight planters of lettuce each winter, seeding two per week in order to guarantee a steady supply of lettuce. However, even two planters under lights give you cheap, healthy food. The lettuce is very tender and delicious, and tastes great in salads and on sandwiches.
HOW TO GARDEN INDOORS WITH PETS
One thing you have to guard against is marauding house cats. This specific blog was scheduled earlier, but our first attempt to grow lettuce this winter ended up upside down on the floor within an hour of planting, thanks to our little grey kitty, Rosemary. What a mess! Thank goodness it hit the tile floor in the sun room and not a rug or piece of furniture. Cleaning mud out of furniture is no fun.
Also, cats like greens as well as you do. Depending on how many house cats you have (we have four), your delicious homegrown salad fixings can end up looking like the attack of a truckload of billy goats.
The best way we’ve found to handle house cats and winter indoor lettuce is to grow the lettuce in a room which has a door we can shut. That way, we get our fresh salad without worrying about cat antics.