Center County farmers, producers offer tips for indoor gardening

Excited about gardening season, but don’t have the space for rows and rows of your favorite Pennsylvania produce? For the eager green thumb with limited or no outdoor space, Center County farmers and producers offer a bevy of tips and tricks for getting the biggest harvest from some of the smallest spaces, with a focus on culinary gardening, for easy additions to your quickest weeknight meals.

It all starts with choosing the right spot. Sunny patios, porches, sunrooms or windowsills are desirable, says Ethan Davis, owner of Strong Roots Organic Herb & Vegetable Farm in Penns Valley. Kim Tait, owner at Tait Farm Foods in Center Hall, adds that herbs tend to prefer south or west-facing windowsills.

While windowsill growing is preferable to using artificial grow lights, Hector Troyer, farmer with Sowers Market urban farm in Houserville, clarifies that “modern windows tend to block more light than older windows, making them less desirable for lighting, but they also block out more cold.” He notes that most indoor plants grow best between 60 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once you’ve identified the best space for your culinary garden, it’s time to pick your plants. Herbs are recommended for kitchen windowsills, but if you have a patio or deck, you can broaden your approach to include more produce.

“Compact basil, cilantro, thyme, chives, rosemary, oregano and other fresh herbs are great for a kitchen windowsill. By having them at your fingertips, you’re more likely to use them. Just use a sharp pair of scissors to cut them when you want them. They’ll regrow,” Davis said. “If you have a patio, (you can) grow cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, bell peppers or eggplant, (or) kale, spinach, arugula (and) lettuces. You can get about one pound of greens for every one-by-three-foot planting box. You could get three or four lettuce harvests depending on the variety. Ditto on arugula. Spinach and baby kale are slower. Kale, if you grow it full size, will last until hard frosts.”

For faster greens without a patio or deck space, Mindy Worrick, owner of Bear Meadows Microgreens, recommends — what else? — microgreens. She says many varieties just require soil, water and light, for fresh greens within 10 days. While optimal growing conditions are around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 40% humidity, this specificity isn’t crucial and even providing airflow to avoid mold issues while growing is as simple as adding a fan to your space.

“They are very forgiving,” she said. “I will always grow microgreens for food. There is so little waste compared to buying lettuce and other salad ingredients… The nutrition is superior to mature vegetables, which requires a lot more time and resources to grow, including the time required to transport them to the stores. They really are ideal plants to grow indoors (and) exciting for kids and everyone, because they grow so quickly and easily.”

Troyer also recommends some quick-growing greens and herbs, noting that pea shoots can be ready to eat in as few as 10 days and alfalfa sprouts in as few as seven days. Radish greens are harvestable within a week, while basil microgreens are harvestable in around 14 days.

But what if you’re more accustomed to growing outdoors? If this year is your first time attempting a culinary garden, it’s important to realize the different challenges you’ll face moving your produce indoors.

“Indoor growing is much different than outdoor growing,” Troyer said. “Indoor plants need very close attention. They do not have the benefit of nature’s resiliency that outdoor plants usually enjoy. You completely control their environment, for better or for worse.” He says to closely monitor temperature, soil moisture, light levels and nutrient quality, and to always use high-quality potting soil purchased from a greenhouse or nursery supply store (his recommendation is Martin’s Garden Center in Tyrone).

Lastly, be sure to water and feed your culinary garden appropriately. Over-watering can be a big issue for home growers. Davis says to allow plants to dry out between waterings, but not to let them go “bone dry.” As you strike a balance with your watering, it’s also important to strike a balance with plant food and fertilizers. He adds that plant foods with “nitrogen (N) (are) good for vegetative growth. Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) are good for flowering and fruit stages. Don’t over-fertilize with N or you won’t get as much fruit.”

Of course, even with a world of care and precaution, if you’re not finding your culinary garden is producing as much as you’d like, the above farmers and producers can help with that, too. All offer locally-grown produce either direct-to-consumer or via area farmers markets.

Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at holly.ridd@gmail.com.

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