Growing Herbs, fruit and vegetables indoors

Tomatoes are the easiest of the fruiting vegetables to grow indoors

Why grow outdoor crops in the home? There is a simple answer – no garden. Many homes do not possess a garden or any place where crops can be grown except on windowsills, in pots, or in a makeshift greenhouse such as a sun lounge or porch. Fruit, vegetables and herbs can be grown on balconies and patios in tubs, window boxes, and raised beds, but certain crops can also be grown successfully in the living room or kitchen.

Before choosing anything for indoor cultivation, certain factors must be studied. Plants require light, moisture, an adequate rootrun, and nutrients, but the most critical item to consider is space. Although one room can be converted into a ‘growing chamber’, with fans and lighting installed, such a plan is impractical in most homes where room space is always at a premium. In any case, large vegetables such as potatoes, Brussels sprouts and leeks, or fruit crops such as raspberries or blackcurrants, are not really feasible. The answer is to use troughs and large pots in the living room to grow the less usual crops, and pots on the windowsills in the bathroom and kitchen.

Light plays a vital part in the production of healthy plants, so either grow in positions near the windows or use ample artificial light.

If a bank of lights is provided and leakproof trays are used, almost any crop can be grown indoors. Only 6.7sq.m/8sq.yd is needed for an ‘A’ frame with supplementary lights. Sufficient light for most plants can be provided by six 125 watt tubes or by using high pressure mercury, or low pressure sodium lamps, but the cost of electricity may be prohibitive!

As with other plants in the home, avoid excessive draughts and sudden temperature changes. Never let your indoor fruit and vegetable garden dry out or overwater it, but keep it moist and humid.

Various seed firms offer special seed collections of herbs and tomatoes for growing indoors, as well as packs for growing peanuts. These are particularly attractive to children, and any indoor gardening will stimulate their interest in living material.

CROPS TO GROW

Strawberries are probably the easiest of the soft fruits to grow indoors; it is unwise to attempt growing cane fruits such as raspberries or bush fruits such as blackcurrants in the home, although these can be grown on patios. Top fruit (apples, pears, plums and cherries) should only be attempted indoors if there is ample space for development; if they are grown a small crop, if any, will result. A mature pot- grown tree is about 1.8m/6ft or more in height with fruit developing about 1.2m/4ft from pot level.

growing tomatoes indoors

Although they make more growth and require more attention, more exotic fruit crops to grow are peaches, nectarines or apricots. These are also more interesting to the householder.

The choice of vegetables is limited by root-run and space. It seems rather pointless to grow cabbages which are rather mundane and may have a somewhat distinctive odour while growing, as well as being inexpensive to buy fresh. The simplest crops to grow are aubergines or eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, mustard and cress, and possibly dwarf beans, carrots and lettuce.

Aubergines or eggplants, peppers and tomatoes are greenhouse crops and recent plant breeding has resulted in a wide range of cultivars – some suitable for cultivation in the home. Mustard and cress have been a favourite with children for many years and their cultivation is very easy. With some adaptation of the room and careful selection of cultivars certain outdoor vegetables can be tried, such as carrots, choosing early stump-rooted cultivars like Early Gem, Short’n Sweet or Goldinhart, and avoiding cultivars with roots of over 15cm/6in.

With herbs, the larger, shrubby species cannot be grown but some annuals and the more dwarf perennials like chives, marjoram, mint, parsley and thyme make good indoor pot plants that are easy to grow.

Peaches, Nectarines and Apricots

Peaches, nectarines and apricots can be grown from a stone, although some skill and attention is required; There is a risk of failure if the stone is planted in autumn months due to the stone rotting so start your tree in warm weather. Crack the stone carefully with nutcrackers to aid germination and plant it 8-10cm/3-4in deep in a 9cm/35in pot. Cover and keep in a warm, dark place until the shoots appear.

The more usual method of growing peach, nectarine or apricot trees is by purchasing a two-year-old of a known cultivar from a garden centre or nurseryman. They should be potted up in a good rich soil, firming the young tree thoroughly and staking it. The pot size should be at least 25cm/10in, and may be up to 38cm/15in or more. Such pots are in short supply, so a wooden tub can be used. Incorporate plenty of peat and a general-purpose fertilizer into the mix (about 125g/4oz fertilizer per 25cm/10in pot), since the peat will assist moisture retention and the fertilizer will boost the nutrient supply. All three fruit trees are self-fertile (do not need another tree for pollination), but it is wise to hand-pollinate the flowers. The pollen is transferred from the male floral parts, or stamens, to the female parts, or style, by brushing the centre of the fully open flowers gently, using a fine camel hair brush.

When pruning pot-grown trees, remove some of the older harder wood and leave younger wood in its place – this forms the fruiting wood. The fruit should be thinned when it is about 3cm/l1 inch in diameter, leaving the fruits about 23cm/9in apart. It should, however, be noted that after the first year no pruning is done, but after the second year all branches should be cut back by half since this will encourage the production of numerous young laterals. Because the tree has a restricted rootrun, regular feeding is necessary. Work in about 125g/4oz of dried blood into the top cm in the early spring and feed with a well-balanced liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season.

The Peregrine Peach and the genetic dwarf Bonanza are probably the best cultivars to grow, alternatives being Bellegarde, Rochester or a dwarfed Hale Haven. Before growing a peach, nectarine or apricot tree in the living room, please remember that it is normally an outdoor commercial crop and may grow fairly large unless regular selective pruning is carried out as well as feeding to keep the tree healthy.

Strawberries

The best crop to grow indoors is strawberries. The continental cultivars such as Gento and Remont or Fairfax and Catshill should be grown since they have a real strawberry flavour.

A 20-23cm/8-9in pot is used and each plant should be grown singly in a pot. A rich soil is required. When potting up the young plants, fill up the pots until the plants can be placed with the crown about 2.5cm/lin below the top, then hold the plant in one hand, placing mixture around the roots, firming gently with the fingers until the crown of the plant is half

covered. Keep the plants moist and remove any yellowing leaves. Runners will be produced and these can be allowed to fall down from the pot. After the fruiting season the plants should be tidied up, removing dead leaves, and repotting ifnecessary. Young plants can be potted up from the runners.

Other cultivars worth growing include Fra-pendula and the everbearing Ozark Beauty, freely fruiting cultivars, ideally suited to this work, which start fruiting in June with their peak in September.

Vegetables

The choice of vegetables that can be grown indoors may seem rather limited, but if you are lucky enough to have space on balconies or patios, the range can be vastly widened to include almost every type of vegetable.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the easiest of the fruiting vegetables to grow indoors and can be grown with ease in large pots or in specially prepared bags, often known as growing bags (not used in the United States). Temperature and humidity are vitally important. The minimum temperature should be 15 C/60 F when raising the plants, and 10 C/50 F for the growing plants, though preferably 15°C/60°F.

Growing bags contain a peat-based mixture, and because peat dries out rather quickly in dry warm temperatures, problems such as Blossom End Rot may arise. Careful watering must be carried out and the bags kept moist.

In pots it is best to use a loam-based mixture. Always buy fresh material each season as this will reduce the chance of attacks by soil-borne diseases, e.g. Verticillium Wilt. Peat-based mixture can be used, but if it dries out serious problems can arise, and watering can be tricky. The size of pot required eventually will be 25cm/10in and plastic, polyethylene or clay pots are equally good. Commercial growers use bitumen-covered paper pots, but these are not recommended for the amateur since they are unsightly and start to rot after a few months.

There is an open choice between buying plants from a garden centre or nurseryman, or raising them from seed. By buying plants there is little choice of cultivar, but at least the plants have had a good start and should be healthy. By growing them from seed the cultivar choice is open and some pleasure is always derived from choosing and examining different ones. Sow the seed from January onwards in small pots or pans, e.g. margarine cartons, with about 12 seeds per pot, and use a seed or potting mixture. A temperature of 15 C/60 F is required for germination, as well as sufficient water, and germination will take about 10 days.

When the first seed leaves have fully formed and there are signs of the first true leaves, prick out into individual 10cm/4in pots containing a loam-based mixture, and keep the young plants moist. When the first flower truss is showing, plant them in a 25cm/10in pot or container, firming well with the fingers, and give them a good watering to settle the mixture and roots. The seed leaves should be level with the ground. Each plant will need a cane to support it, so fasten the stem with string, wool, thread or twist tie to a cane – this should not be too tight but just act as a means of support. Remove the side shoots except on bush culti- vars, and restrict the plants to five trusses. This means removing the growing tip when five trusses are visible.

Tomatoes must have water, or several nutritional and cultural problems will arise. One of these is Blossom End Rot, which as the name suggests, affects the end of the fruit, with a black-grey ring developing which makes the fruit inedible. It is caused by a lack of water and a high concentration of nutrients in the growing medium. The solution is to keep the plant well watered – but never saturated. One idea is to place the pot in a saucer containing gravel, and keep the gravel wet. To achieve a good

fruit set, pollinate each flower with a camel hair brush, or spray the plants overhead.

From experience Pixie is probably the best cultivar. It is very early in ripening and ideal for indoor cultivation. The fruits have a sweet flavour. Big Early and Golden Amateur are also early, producing a heavy crop of good flavoured yellow fruit. Tiny Tim and Sugarplum produce large quantities of small tomatoes with a sweet flavour. Of the commercial cultivars, Marglobe and Dobies Champion are good fool-proof cultivars with a good-sized fruit, early in ripening and easy to set.

Peppers

Sweet and hot peppers are also easy to grow in pots

Sweet and hot peppers are also easy to grow in pots and containers indoors. Hot peppers require more heat than sweet peppers. (Spice peppers are a different plant.)

Sow the seed from January onwards, as for tomatoes. Germination is slower, and may take up to a month. After germination and the full development of the seed leaves, prick out into 10cm/4in pots and keep warm: if the temperature falls below 12 C/55 F, the plants will turn yellow and stop growing. During flowering the blossoms may drop if the temperature falls below 15 C/60 F. Over 24 C/75 F the fruit is less likely to set. Although this may sound tricky, it is simple- minimum temperature is 15 C/60 F and maximum is 24 C/ 75 F.

Repot into the final containers, such as 25cm/10in pots, about eight weeks after germination, and throughout the growing season keep well watered but not saturated. A gravel-filled saucer is a good base.

Harvest the peppers when they start to turn from green to red. (Green-fruiting cultivars will not turn red, but just mature and then rot.) There is no harm in harvesting peppers too early. A useful guide is that a mature pepper is about the size of an orange.

A good cultivar is Canape, which matures early, with sweet mild flesh and deep green fruits turning red on maturing. California Horder and New Ace are other good heavy croppers which have green fruits when matured.

Aubergines or Eggplants

Aubergines or eggplants are increasing in popularity and can be grown without a greenhouse. Sow the seed from February onwards in small pans or pots containing a seed mixture, and on the expansion of the seed leaves prick out in 10cm/4in pots. Nip out the growing point when the plants are about 15cm/6in high to encourage bushy growth. When the plants are about 20cm/8in high, repot in 25cm/10in pots. To achieve a fruit set either pollinate with a camel hair brush or spray overhead. At no stage should the plants lack water or the fruits will crack. The crop takes 80 days to reach maturity, and the fruits should be picked when the skin is glossy and they are about the size of a large pear or small cantaloupe.

Suitable cultivars, for all purposes, include Black Beauty, an early cropper with oval to round shiny, almost black fruits, and Jersey King, a late cropper with round dark purple fruits.

All these fruiting vegetables profit from a regular feeding once every 10 days with a liquid fertilizer, and in early May a top dressing of a high potash fertilizer should be gently applied.

Mustard, Cress and Lettuce

Mustard and cress are easy to grow, but if they are to be ready at the same time, sow the cress four days before the mustard. In both cases use thick, wet kitchen paper or muslin flannel or cheesecloth, For germination, keep them dark and moist, but after they germinate, place in a well-lit position. About two weeks later they can be cut.

Although large hearting lettuce are impractical to grow in pots, the cultivar Salad Bowl can be grown in a 13cm/5in pot. As it is non-hearting, just remove enough for a salad or sandwich.

Dwarf French or Green Beans

Dwarf beans can be grown in a large pot. Sow three seeds in an 18cm/7in pot containing a seed mixture in March. On germination, place in a well-lit position and stake the young plants with split canes or small thin bamboos. To aid pollination an overhead spray with water will be necessary. Top dress with 50g/2oz of a general-purpose fertilizer per pot about six weeks after sowing.

Plants from Pips and Stones

Tropical fruits such as pineapples, oranges, lemons, dates and mangoes can be grown easily from stones or other simple means – even peaches can be grown this way.

Pineapples

growing pineapples indoors

Cut the top off a pineapple below its leaves, and insert it in a 13cm/5in pot to a depth of 10cm/4in, using a 50% peat/sand potting mixture. Cover the ‘plant’ with a polyethelene or plastic bag to keep the young plant humid, turning the bag inside out daily to avoid damping off. Within a few months some roots and new leaves will form. (‘Damping oflP is a fungal disease encouraged by lack of air, and excessive damp.)

Avocados

The stone of the avocado pear when propagated will produce an attractive small tree. Since darkness is helpful for germination, use a darkened glass tumbler or cover an ordinary tumbler with kitchen foil. Remove the hard stone from the middle of the avocado and fix it, pointed end upwards, in a cardboard collar. Suspend it in a tumbler half-full of water so that half the stone is submerged. Keep the water supply up, and if the stone and glass become covered with a green slime, rinse them under a running tap. After a month or so the stone will start to split at the top, with the root and shoot appearing. When the root/shoot is about 2.5cm/lin in length, pot up the plant into a 10cm/4in pot using a loam-based mixture, which should come to within 2.5cm/lin of the top of the stone. After potting, place the avocado plant in a warm shady place and keep the mixture moist. Once the shoot starts to grow away, move the plant to a well-lit position, repotting when pot-bound and staking the shoot to keep it straight. Eventually the avocado tree will require a 30cm/12in pot and be over 1.8m/6ft tall. Plenty of light is required, but avoid draughts.

Citrus Fruit

growing oranges indoors

Growing citrus trees (similar to Citrus mitis) is easy and they will eventually fruit after six years or more. Never mix the seeds of different fruits in one pot, since they germinate at different speeds. After removing the seeds from any citrus fruit – orange, lemon, grapefruit, etc. -press three into a 9cm/32in pot containing a loam-based mixture and place the pot in a warm dark place. Do not wash the seeds as this will remove some of the enzymes required for germination. After germination, which takes about six weeks, place the pot in a light position. When they are about 10cm/4in high, pot up the young plants, taking care not to break the roots. Repotting will be necessary about every two years or when pot-bound. (A useful guide to judge when a plant is pot-bound is that the top portion should be not more than three times the diameter of the pot, although in pots of over 15cm/6in this rule does not hold.)

Dates

Although date palms can be hard to grow, they are a challenge. Dates require a lot of heat and humidity, but with care and attention a date palm will result. Plant three stones in a 9cm/ 3^in pot and cover it with a polyethylene or plastic bag to assist germination until the shoots appear. Turn the bag inside-out daily to avoid mould and stand the pot near a radiator or warm air vent. When the plants are about 8cm/ 3in in height, repot into individual 9cm/35in pots.

Mangoes and Lychees

More exotic to grow are mangoes and lychees, and their cultivation is the same as avocados. Mangoes at first have fantastic stem contortions and then settle down, giving a junglelike appearance to any home with their long green leaves. Since they are semi-tropical, keep them moist and warm. On occasion a fruit will form.

Sprouting Seeds

Growing sprouting seeds

Growing ‘sprouting seeds’ is a gimmick, but the food value in a sprouting seed is 600% more than in a dry seed. Seeds that are commonly ‘sprouted’ are mung bean, oats, fenugreek, pumpkin and alfalfa. All that is required is a jamjar, or cotton wool, plus water and a dark warm corner, and the almost instant vegetable will be ready within a few days.

It is important to buy seeds that are meant for ‘sprouting’ since many commercial seed firms dress their seeds with fungicides; such seeds should never be used for sprouting.

The same method is used for all varieties. Two tablespoonfuls of seed are enough for three people. Soak the seeds overnight in cold water and rinse in the morning. If a jam jar is to be used for growing, the sides of the jar must be blacked out with black polyethelene or plastic or kitchen foil in order to stop the light from getting in. (Darkness is necessary so the seeds remain white, tasty and nutritious.) Put the moist seeds in thejar and cover with a lid. Place thejar in a dark warm place – the warmer the place the quicker the shoots will develop (temperatures of over 34°C/90°F are too high). Rinse out the beans daily by swirling a little water around in thejar and tipping water and beans into a strainer through which the water is flushed. Frequent washing is important as it keeps the beans fresh; otherwise they are likely to go mouldy.

After about six days the beans will have increased in size by 500% and will be ready for eating. Before cooking, remove any seed coats that are still attached to the shoots.

An alternative method, which is also successful, is to grow them on cotton wool, placed in a foil or plastic tray. Cover with foil or black polyethelene or plastic and keep the cotton wool moist. After several days the seedlings will be ready. They are at their most nutritious when they are about 5cm/2in in height.

Herbs

The herbs that can be grown indoors

Some of the smaller herbs can be grown with ease in a well-lit spot in the home. Treat them like any other pot plant and give them plenty of light and sufficient water. A loam-based potting mixture should be used. The herbs that can be grown include chives, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.

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