GROWING FOOD INDOORS FROM HOUSEPLANTS

Few pleasures are as great as serving family and friends with food grown at home, and even if you do not have a garden, it is possible to grow some fruit and vegetables indoors, as well as certain herbs.

The area at the sides of windows can be utilized by placing glass shelves on brackets there, and this helps to extend the productive area.

Glass shelves positioned near a window. or secured to a glass door, afford additional space for plants, and enable them to grow in areas where there is plenty of light.

Garden rooms, sun lounges and light frost-proof porches are ideal places to raise food plants. However, there are a few points which should be checked. So far as the kitchen is concerned, the kind of heating used for cooking is critical. Gas, oil and coal fumes do not suit many plants, and some will fail to thrive if there is the merest trace of any of these in the atmosphere, although natural gas is less harmful than the old coal gas. The intensity of light is important. Most food plants need a sunny window-sill. and will become drawn and spindly if set in a dark position.

THE PLANTS

Raising plants from seed gives great pleasure. The contents of a seed-packet often produces more plants than required so therefore only sow part of a packet. I Iowever, it is as well to note that the viability of the seed decreases with age. Many home gardeners might consider buying established plants to be easier and cheaper where only a few plants are required but many of the specialized plants for the home are only obtainable in seed form. It is not convenient – or even possible -to raise by seed all of the plants required. For instance, although chicory and rhubarb are easy enough to force indoors. usually only those people with gardens can produce the mature roots necessary for this purpose. Obviously, the indoor gardener with no garden has to lind a source of stored roots. Some garden centres and shops sell both these. Seedlings are usually transplanted into progressively larger pots, but not all seedlings tolerate or need transplanting. The herb chervil, for instance, tends to sulk if moved. The practice for such plants is first to sow the seed very thinly directly in the final pot, and later to thin out crowded seedlings when large enough to be handled.

Some plants are best sown in succes-sional batches. Among the herbs sown in succession for a continuous supply are oregano, summer savory, basil. chives and lemon balm. The pungency is quite strong in the young growth of these herbs. On the other hand, it is the fairly mature plants ofparsley that have the best flavour.

Herbs and other plants grown indoors will never be as lush as those outdoors. However, their value is that they are near at hand and fresh.

Herbs

It is essential to remember that herbs are not houseplants proper. Some house-plants are able to tolerate low light levels. but herbs are usually from sunny climes and need lots of light. Fven if this is not direct sunlight, it should be strong daylight or the plants will become spindly and drawn, rather than producing lots of leaves.

Basil is at its best indoors when young. It should be grown by successional sowings of the seed. Keep the seedlings warm, their soil moist, and provide as much sunlight as possible. It is not always easy to grow the seedlings on to

large plants, and careful watering of the pots is needed. The plants seem to resent being constantly picked when grown indoors.

Chervil is a fast-growing annual that never makes robust plants. It is best sown in succession. A packet of seed will suffice for several sowings. Chives are easily grown from seed by successional sowings. They germinate easily and grow quite well on a warm window-sill. Leave the seedlings unthin-ned. As soon as the foliage becomes long enough, it can be cut. Take off 2.5-5cm (1 -2in) of the tips using a pair of scissors. It should be possible to cut-and-come again as the clipped ‘grass’ grows. These seedlings will grow into more mature plants. They can be divided in autumn for forcing early in the year, or in spring for use during summer. To divide a mature plant remove it from its pot and examine the roots. The plant is really a cluster of tiny bulbs, which can be pulled apart and small groups potted as separate plants. Mint. Although spearmint is the mint most often seen, the round-leaved woolly type has a much better flavour and is the more highly scented of the two.

Mint grows quite well on almost any window-sill, in sun or shade, as long as it can be kept close to the glass, where the light is strongest.

When grown in a pot, it does best when kept standing in a shallow saucer of water. Fill the pots to one-third of their depth with drainage materials (shingle will do), and then fill with compost. Mint roots can be lifted from the garden in autumn or in early spring. Fill the pots with the string-like roots and pack soil between and around them. Mint can also be grown in water – like a hyacinth bulb. Wash the soil from the roots and place a bunch in a glass jar. Keep the leafy portion well away from the water. If necessary, keep the foliage above the water by placing a lew stones, or some shingle or sand, on the base of the glass, along with a nugget or two of charcoal to keep the water sweet. From time to time add a weak plant food to the water.

Parsley, a biennial, is an adaptable plant, well suited to growing in pots. One to five plants in a 1 5-20cm pot will allow room for the long, strong roots. However, terracotta parsley pots, in which many plants grow from holes in the side of the vessel, are popular. though not o practical. Herbs other

than parsley can also be grown in them. Marjoram, thyme, summer savory and parsley, alone and mixed, do well in such containers. When mixed, the parsley should be at the base; if grown at the top it shades the other herbs. Parsley pots can present problems unless properly prepared. To prevent the water cascading from each hole when the pot is watered from the top. bringing the soil with it. there should be a core of drainage material such as sand or gravel.

First, pour in soil, reaching to the holes nearest the base. Insert a hollow tube with its base resting on the soil, its top protruding well above the rim (a length of hose or pipe, even a slim liquid cannister will do) then, pour the drainage material into this. Before removing it, plant the seedlings, one to a hole, roots laid inside, tiny seed leaves on the edge of the hole (no seed leaves should ever be buried) and the true leaves outside the pot. Pour in more soil. so that the roots are covered and the level reaches to the next layer of holes. Repeat and contine this until the pot is filled. Plant three seedlings around the top edge.

Pour water into the tube until the soil is uniformly moist, then carefully remove the tube. Always add water through this drainage core at the centre of the pot.

Alternatively, simply till the pot with soil in the usual way and water from the base only, by keeping the pot standing in a shallow plate, not a deep saucer, kept filled with water.

Parsley seed is notorious for taking up to six weeks to germinate. However, indoors it germinates much more quickly if the seed-box is placed in a propagator or enclosed in a polythene bag and kept in a warm place. Seed can be sown at any time for growing indoors.

Chicory

When growing naturally, this green-leaved plant has bitter leaves, but if grown in the dark during winter, the forced leaves are pale, sweet and crisp. There are two ways of forcing chicory indoors. The roots can be set in a large pot of soil or compost, and covered with an upturned pot of the same size (to ensure no light enters, block up the drainage holes of the upper pot). Alternatively. place a black plastic bag over the rim of the pot. In each case, the chicons (plump young shoots) have room to grow and light is excluded. Place the pot in any convenient area -the porch, hall, or garden room. It can also be hidden from view under the stairs, in a broom cupboard, or in a cupboard under the kitchen sink. Instead of using pots, the roots can be placed in a strong box and covered with a strong, black plastic bag. Fven the box can be dispensed with and the roots grown in the bag.

Chicory roots should be parsnip-shaped. and of equal lengths (cut them from the base end. if necessary). about 20cm (8ta) long and 5cm (2in) across the top. Any clean ordinary soil will do for pot culture, but the chicons will stay cleaner if this is topped with a layer of horticultural sand.

Begin by putting a little soil in the pot. and then stand three or more roots upright 10cm (4in) apart. Pack soil around them, leaving the top 2.5cm (1 inch) of the root protruding. Water the soil until it is moist but not sodden and allow it to drain. Cover to exclude the light.

A temperature of 7 deg C (45 deg F) should be maintained, and it can safely rise to 16 deg C (61 deg F). Avoid rapid fluctuations. The higher the temperature the quicker the chicons will mature. Forcing should normally take from live to six weeks. Discard the roots once the shoots have been cut. To maintain a succession of chicons. plant at weekly or fortnightly intervals. For the box or bag method, use moist peat. When using a bag, first pack peat into the base, so that it stands firmly, aiming for a depth of 7.5cm (3in)

or so. Plant the roots as previously described. Close the bag in such a way that it does not fall on to the crowns. A cane inside on each side will keep the bag upright.

Cucumbers

Because cucumbers need special conditions when grown in a greenhouse, it may be surprising to learn that they can be grown in the average home. In recent years plant breeders have produced many new cultivars. including one for window-sill culture- a hybrid known as T’cmbaby’. It produces only female flowers, which means that each one should develop into a cucumber. ‘Fembaby’ accepts the drier conditions that prevail in the home, and is resistant to mildews which beset this vegetable and cause growth to become stunted. The plant is small, only 90cm—1.2m (3—4-ft) high, and produces 20cm (8in) fruits. It can be grown on a sunny window-sill in a 20-25cm (8-10in) pot. Unlike most plants, the pots for this cucumber should be kept standing in a deep saucer or bowl holding about a litre (2 pints) of water, topped up every day. The leaves need spraying daily, more than once in hot. dry weather. The best method of training is to fix three supports, one in the middle of the pot. The plant is then trained up this central cane. When it reaches 90cm (3ft). its tip is pinched out. It will then develop sideshoots. two of which should be allowed to grow down the other canes, one to each.

If the shoots appear to go on growing, their tips can be trained across the pot and back up the cane on the other side. The first 60cm (2ft) of stem is trimmed of its leaves, an operation which forces the plant to produce flowers on the main stem, and subsequently cucumbers. Sideshoots should be kept pinched out. Seed can be germinated at any time of the year at about 27 deg C (81 deg F). Mid to late summer is recommended as the time to begin raising a winter crop. Sow each seed individually in small pots, preferably peat ones.

When the seedlings have produced three to four leaves, move them to their final pots. Keep the plants in a temperature of at least 18 deg C (65 deg F) by day during those early stages. Later, they will tolerate a lower temperature, about 1 5 deg C (60 deg F).

Mushrooms

While many of the green-leaved food plants are decorative in some way, others are not. although they usually make up for this deficiency in some other fascinating way. This is certainly the case with mushrooms.

Most people, having grown an indoor crop of mushrooms successfully, continue to cultivate them. And mushrooms have the advantage in that they can be grown out of sight and tucked away. The choice of place to put them is often limited, because apart from needing to be warm, 15-18 deg C (60-65 deg F), and dark, it should also be well ventilated. In addition, once the mushrooms appear, the atmosphere should be kept humid by spraying the soil with water through a fine mister.

Mushrooms are grown from spawn, not seed. The most convenient way for the home gardener to grow mushrooms is to buy a kit. which has a container (usually a bucket or plastic bag), and properly-prepared compost impregnated with the spawn. Instructions for use usually come with the kit.

Generally, the value of the entire crop of mushrooms is about equal to the cost of the kit. The profit – and this is a real one – is that the mushrooms grow a few at a time and can be eaten fresh. Children find mushrooms an exciting crop, being able to go each day to watch how they develop and to pull (never cut) the largest specimens.

Strawberries

It is possible to grow strawberries indoors when they are commanding high prices in the shops. Strawberries are not only delicious to eat. they are lovely to look at and fun to watch develop from the sight of the first flower bud to the last berry. Fortunately, most cultivars flourish quite happily in many different kinds of containers, so long as they have a depth and width of at least 23-25cm (9-10in). A row of large, matching pots, each in its own neat saucer on a sunny window-sill is an attractive feature. There are other containers that can be used, such as terracotta strawberry pots. which are similar to parsley pots. The new tower pots, which consist of a number of cylindrical containers each with a hole for a plant, fitting neatly and tightly one into the other, are decorative and space-saving. The tower can be as high as convenient. The tower is easily handled for turning daily so that all the plants receive an equal amount of light. Strawberries can be grown indoors all the time, but it is not the best method. The ideal way is to keep the containers outside until the plants are ready for forcing. As the large strawberries are divided into summer and autumn-fruiting types, this means that the first

Cucumbers and mushrooms, strawberries and rhubarb – all are surprisingly easy to grow in the home.

type should be brought indoors in mid-February and the second in early September. They need gentle heat, not more than 16 deg C (61 deg F) from March onwards. Once the plants have fruited, they can go back outside to recuperate. 11 is possible to grow them a second year, but for a really heavy crop it is best to begin with fresh plants each year. Runners can be taken from plants in the garden, or plants bought from specialist strawberry growers. Containers must be well drained, and the potting compost should be lime-free. Cultivation entails ensuring that the compost never dries out. although it must not become sodden. The plants should be fed with a liquid fertilizer every fortnight, following instructions. Once the plants bloom they need to be pollinated, because there will not be the bees and other insects indoors to do this job naturally. This is done with a soft paintbrush, taking the pollen from the centre of the Mower and transferring it to another flower.

Children enjoy growing the little alpine strawberries, which can easily be raised from seed. Incidentally, the seed germinates erratically, so do not be in a hurry to discard the compost. Plant one alpine seedling to a small pot and gradually pot it on into larger pots.

Rhubarb

The beautiful, magenta-pink stalks of forced rhubarb are delicious substitutes for fresh fruit for pies and desserts at a time when these are scarce or expensive. The forcing season is from November to February, and one root (or crown as it is called) will yield a worthwhile crop. Two- to live-year-old crowns are best for this purpose. Whether these are lifted from the garden or bought from a garden centre, they should have been exposed to frost for a few days. To do this, leave them lying on the open ground for a few frosty days. Rhubarb should be forced in warm. dark, moist conditions in a temperature of 13-24 deg C (55-75 deg F). One crown is usually enough for a single large pot. tub. box or black plastic bag. If you want a continual supply, plant the crowns in a monthly succession. Ordinary soil or peat can be used. Water this after planting and keep it moist, but never sodden. From time to time check that the roots have adequate moisture. Pull out (not cut) the stems as they are ready, and cover the plant again to encourage more stems to grow.

The roots can be planted outdoors later. It will take time for them to recover from forcing, but eventually they will be productive again. Do not force again.

Sprouting vegetables

This is child’s play, in more senses than one – nothing could be easier. Seed is readily available from many sources. The types of plant used for sprouting include alfalfa, beans of many kinds such as mung and soya, fenugreek. millet, sesame, sunflower and cereals such as oats, wheat and rye. Some of the these are to be found in mixtures, others are sold separately. Approximately, I5g (]o/) of seed will develop into 140-225g (5-8oz) of shoots, depending on the kind. There is also mustard and cress. Except for the latter, seeds should be grown in a warm, dark atmosphere. A suitable environment is attained by using a glass jar covered with muslin or similar material. Children enjoy growing these vegetables because they see the results so quickly. Give them small jars and a little seed. Place the seed in the jar. Cover the top with muslin, held in place with an elastic band. Fill the jar with tepid water poured through the muslin, then shake the jar to moisten all the seeds: drain the water away through the cover, and repeat this three times. Lay the jar on its side in a warm place, such as on a radiator shelf. or in an airing cupboard, for four or five days. Sometimes the seed will germinate in less time. Rinse the seeds twice each day with tepid water. If you like to see

green sprouts, lay the jar in sunlight for the last day.

To prepare the seeds for cooking, float the sprouts so that the seed husks fall away. Drain and serve raw or cooked. Chinese-style.

Instead of glass jars, it is also possible to buy specially designed plastic sprouters, some of which have two layers, one of which takes very small seed such as alfalfa. Some have as many as six trays. so that several types of vegetable can be grown at the same time. Mustard and cress production engages children, and there are many easy ways in which this crop can be grown. Incidentally. mustard germinates first, and is often the only one grown. The seeds can be spread on moist rag or tissue laid in a saucer and kept damp. Horticultural show exhibitors often decorate vegetable stands with pyramids of mustard or cress. These are grown on cones of damp moss which have been rolled in the seed and then kept clamp by being placed in a dish of water. To grow these two crops as a practical salad, use seed-trays or any similar container. When grown together, the cress should be sown three days earlier than the mustard. Allow 20g of mustard and 15g of cress to a full-sized normal seed-tray. Try to spread the seed evenly as you sow it. Slide the box into a plastic bag and keep it in a temperature of 18 deg C (65 deg F). lower at night. Once germinated, the seedlings should be uncovered and kept in a light place. Once the leaves have expanded. the crop can be cut with scissors. The same soil can be used twice for this purpose. Some people cover the soil with a tissue, dampen it and then sow the seeds to keep the crop free of soil.

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