What do dedicated gardeners do when winter puts an absolute and final end to the gardening season? Begin gardening indoors, that’s what.

Sure, some species are not entirely suitable for indoor growing. Squash, cucumbers, root crops, beans and a host of others are best reserved for outdoor growing. But other, faster-growing species lend themselves perfectly to indoor cultivation.

Indoor vegetable gardening means container gardening, and the same considerations that apply to container gardening outside also apply when gardening indoors. That is, plants in containers, whether houseplants or vegetables, depend upon the gardener for food and water. Plants grown outdoors in the ground have access to rainwater and also nutrients stored in the ground, but not so with container-grown plants.

Also, sunlight requirements don’t change when plants are grown indoors. For sun-loving plants, this means growing in a sunny, south-facing window or resorting to artificial lighting. For most casual gardeners, the equipment needed to grow long-term species such as tomatoes are hardly worth the effort.

But what about crops that do well in semi-shady situations? Well, greens come in at the top of this list. And that was what inspired me to bring one of my EarthBoxes inside for growing lettuce this fall and winter.

Insipid substitutes

Much of the supermarket lettuce we buy in winter is hardly fresh. My last trip to the grocery store for leaf lettuce saw me leave the produce aisle in disgust. The lettuce was all wilted and hardly fit for human consumption.

Perhaps worse, unless you purchase organic lettuce, which costs more than conventionally grown lettuce, chances are the produce you buy contains a considerable amount of pesticides.

At least when growing lettuce at home, we can be assured of its purity and also its freshness. And because lettuce grows so quickly, we can expect to harvest numerous crops throughout the course of the indoor growing season.

I have grown lettuce indoors before and the experience of picking and eating lettuce grown right in my own kitchen was fulfilling indeed. No need to run to the store, even when blizzards sweep our state, because ingredients for a great salad are already close at hand.

But there is one catch, and that is, garden centers and shops usually put their gardening material away for the winter. Seeds and potting soil, without which we cannot grow anything, are hard to come by in fall and winter.

Old seed

The answer to this scarcity of seed is that last season’s seed should remain viable for some time. So if you haven’t discarded last year’s seed packets, it’s time to dig them out for planting this winter.

Of course, as time passes, germination rates decrease. This just means that we need to plant more seeds than when using fresh seed. And if all the seeds manage to germinate, it’s easy to pluck out the extra seedlings. I like to, instead of pulling unwanted seedlings up by the roots, cut them flush with the soil with a sharp pair of scissors. This leaves the roots in the soil, where they can act like compost, nourishing succeeding generations of plants.

I save my old seed packets for up to three years. Sometimes, when each packet has just a few seeds left, I’ll mix them together for a delightful lettuce medley.

It may be possible with some seed companies to purchase seed any time of year, but in most cases last year’s seed is only available until late fall and new seed doesn’t come online until midwinter. The only way to find out is to contact the company directly and ask.


Herbs, ideal for indoor growing on windowsills, are similarly difficult to find seeds for in the off-season. Again, if you have saved those half-used packets of basil, chives or other herbs, you are all set. But barring that, there is another option.

Many supermarket chains sell potted herb plants, and these are mature plants, ready for your windowsill. Interestingly, the price per pot for a living herb plant is about the same as for the packaged product. But these already-picked herbs are usually wilted when we buy them. So what constitutes the better deal, wilted, pre-packaged herbs or fresh, healthy herbs growing in a small plastic plant pot? I opt for the living plant.

Last year I bought a pot of bush basil and placed it on a sunny windowsill. That one plant gave me fresh basil all winter, and in spring I set it out in the garden, where it continued to grow.

While shopping for potted herbs, I spoke with a lady who was considering buying some potted basil, but was convinced that picking it would kill the plant. I managed to convince her that judicious trimming would not harm the plant at all and in fact, would stimulate even more growth.

So if you have absolutely no access to herb seeds, the pre-potted variety is a good alternative and well worth the few dollars the stores charge.

Care and feeding

No matter what species of lettuce or herbs you grow this winter, remember that you are the sole supplier of nourishment and water to your plants.

Remember also that soil in pots dries out quickly, meaning we need to keep close watch on the container and then water accordingly. I use either of two ways to determine when a potted veggie or herb plant needs water. Usually, it’s easy to just lift the pot and if it feels very light, it’s time to water. Probing deep into the soil with a finger also gives a good indication of dryness or wetness, but this has the disadvantage of possibly harming the plant’s roots.

Regarding feeding, each species has its own requirements, and these are usually noted on the seed packet. If not, a look through a garden catalog may well give feeding requirements.

But with herbs, I have found that the less you feed them, the stronger they will become. This is evident in outdoor growing, where herbs growing in nutrient-rich soil usually are big and lush, but not very flavorful, while those growing in less-than-perfect soil may not become as large or bushy, but will have a stronger flavor. This is particularly true for medicinal herbs, but that’s another story for another time.

I’ve stumbled upon an ideal way to feed plants with absolutely no effort. For short-term plants such as greens, I plant them in Miracle-Gro potting mix. This contains nutrients that will feed a plant for up to six months. But well before that time you will have already harvested your greens and planted new ones.

Tom’s tips

It’s easy to figure out germination rates for old seeds. Just place 10 seeds in a wet paper towel, fold the towel and place in a dark, warm environment. Check for germination after a few days have elapsed. If only five seeds have germinated, then the germination rate is 50 percent, and so on. Knowing this, you can plant accordingly.

Have fun, and I hope you all enjoy your winter gardens.