Becoming aware of where our food comes from is a big issue these days, and more and more people are turning to home gardening to ensure the quality of their food. If you have a sprawling yard with plenty of space and the desire to grow, you are capable of raising almost everything you want to eat. To do this is a tremendous effort, so I’m taking a more moderate approach. As an Angeleno, I have zero outdoor space to garden… not even a patio! What I have is a small window in an office where my Tillandsia and succulents take their place. I’m sure there are plenty of New Yorkers and other urban dwellers who are in a similar situation.
Carving out a space in an already crowded space can be difficult. So why not make indoor garden space part of the kitchen? Kitchens are the showpiece of any home, hold the most value out of any room in a home and can command higher real estate prices if they’re decked out. I’m proposing two options: retrofitting an existing kitchen with garden space, and ideas for new/remodeled kitchens with garden space. The space can be as small as a table top for an herb garden or a vertical drip irrigation system growing a variety of plants. Even the top of a pot rack makes a great place for a lettuce bed. While this is not complete self-sufficiency for your produce needs, it’s a step towards getting away from food shipped in from far away places. On top of it all, fresh food tastes better. When you cut herbs straight from a healthy plant, it’s no substitute for what you’d get at a grocery store in a plastic clam-shell package.
Chefs spend their lives acquiring food from a variety of sources and they’ve realized that they can grow their own and save money. Financially, growing your own food can seem like a big initial start-up cost, however I think the benefits outweigh the price. And the chefs and restauranteurs agree. There’s less concern about freshness and availability when it’s growing out back behind the restaurant (or sometimes right in the middle of the restaurant!).
Anyway, when it comes to your own garden, a little preparation goes a long way.
The Retrofit Option:
1. What do you like? Start by looking around at the fresh produce you have in your kitchen. Do you like eating those things? If so, this a good starting point. Certain foods like citrus, avocados, melons and raspberries will be very difficult to grow indoors. Leafy greens, herbs and peppers are more indoor-friendly and easier to take care of. You can advance to a Meyer lemon tree later…
2. Choose plants that have similar needs. Research the growing conditions of the plant. Most things will grow well at room temperature with a grow light. Leaf lettuce is a great place to start since it has very shallow roots (no need for a large pot) likes cooler temperatures and a lot of light. If you’re an apartment dweller, you should probably assume your window daylight is going to be enough. Grow lights have become smaller, cheaper and more efficient which has made indoor garden much more sustainable. If you’re just starting out, there’s no point in picking plants that need different soil types, different lighting needs, different watering conditions, etc. You’ll be so confused trying to remember if lettuce needs nitrogen fertilizer or a balanced NPK. Plus you’ll have to buy more and more supplies and the expense of your garden will grow long before the food even starts to show. Which brings us to…
3. Get supplies. As a general rule, indoor plants need 10-14 hours of daylight, well-draining soil and regular watering. Even though you have a bright window, it’s still considered “filtered daylight” if you’re farther than 2 feet or so from the window itself, so count on getting some kind of grow light. I have this one inside of a basic reflector and it’s doing great. It’s about 6500K which is on the low side of the actual daylight spectrum, however it’s sitting about 6 inches above my plants so they’re getting great light. The more plants you have, the more lights you’ll need.
To stretch your dollars, starting plants from seed is the way to go. I can purchase a pack of 1,200 Buttercrunch lettuce seeds for $2.99, or one young organic plant at my local nursery for the same price. Seeds germinate and grow into transplant-able seedlings at different times, but since I mentioned Buttercrunch lettuce let’s say 30-40 days until they’re strong seedlings. So with a little planning you can make your garden more cost effective.
Don’t bother with those seed trays that you see at nurseries. You can dig through your recycling bin and find all kinds of plastic containers to use for your seedlings. As long as you cut holes into the bottom, you can use half gallon milk containers, cool whip tubs and so on. The seedlings will be in there for a relatively short amount of time until you plant them. If you’re “direct planting” something like peas or tomatoes, all you’ll want is a good pot with good drainage.
4. Set up your space. Now it’s time to determine how much space you’re going to need for this whole venture. If you’ve started small then this step should be a lot easier. You’ll want to be able to keep an eye on your seedlings so no places that are too high or where you’ll forget about them. Decent air circulation should also be taken into consideration, so no closets unless there’s some kind of awesome ventilation system. Most plants don’t like chilly draft either, so the conditions shouldn’t be too breezy.
5. Get on a routine schedule. If you don’t trust yourself to vigilantly watch after your plants, this is yet another reason to start small. Even still, keep track of how often the soil becomes such that it’s time for watering. Unlike the outdoors, your indoor environment is much more controlled so you don’t have to worry about frosts or super hot days. If you’re fertilizing, keep this on your calendar as well. I don’t typically fertilize that much and just add a time-release fertilizer lightly to some potting mix and call it a day. If my plants seem to be suffering, then I consult Google to see what my plants need. There is such a thing as too much fertilizer and you can ruin your crop. Rarely have I had a plant that collapses for no reason.
The Remodel/brand new kitchen plan
So you’ve got a blank canvas to work with. You lucky devil you! I’m sure there are lots of ways to go about this, but as I am an excellent planner, here’s some thought-starters to talk about with your contractor/builder/architect…
Where are the windows and which direction do they face? Is natural light a viable option as a main lighting source? Could you possibly put in a skylight? Since your garden is a food source, it’s nice to locate it close to where you’ll be preparing food. This pot-rack-turn-lettuce-keeper is out of the way and yet still visible. I like it when you can decorate with food.
Using LED grow lights makes for virtually zero energy costs when it comes to grow lights. There’s plenty of debate whether or not they’re as good as fluorescent, but like with all new things you’ll have people absolutely convinced the old way is the right way. I like using fluorescent because it’s similar to what plants would get naturally, but it’s an interesting concept using blue vs. red LED’s. Blue is supposed to increase vegetative growth while red is supposed to trigger a hormonal response (usually makes flowers bloom). LED’s have a much higher initial cost but you’ll recoup your costs in a short amount of time.
Hydroponics and aeroponics make great indoor growing systems. You’re a bit more limited on the types of things you can grow, but it’s a very efficient use of resources. Vertical aeroponics is being adopted in urban environments, especially rooftop spaces and tall spaces, since you can use the vertical space you wouldn’t normally be able to use in a conventional garden. The initial start up cost is significantly high, takes a lot of planning and there are a lot of new concepts to learn when maintaining this type of garden, but certain plants (including Buttercrunch!) do very well using hydroponics. Since this is a system with no soil, you’re mostly responsible for water and liquid nutrients.
So you have an endless amount of options, no matter what size space or budget you have. Having a small garden in your kitchen is attainable on almost any budget. You just have to have the will to grow!