Fresh herbs add unmatched flavor to many dishes, and what better way to make sure you always have some on hand than to grow your own? Growing herbs indoors is a great way to grow edibles even if you don’t have outdoor space, to have convenient access all year round, and to add greenery and fragrance to your home.
All you need is a few plants, containers, potting mix, and a sunny windowsill. Herbs you can grow indoors include basil, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary and thyme. You can purchase plants from a garden center, online, or even sometimes at the grocery store. Annual herbs such as basil and cilantro can be also be started from seed, but perennials such as rosemary and thyme can be difficult to start.
There are planters sold specifically for small herbs, but any kind of pot you like will work. Use at least a 4”-6” pot for each plant, and make sure it has holes for drainage and a saucer to catch runoff water. Fill your pots with a clean, moistened potting mix. Once your herbs are planted, place them in a sunny windowsill that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Water as necessary to keep the soil moist but not soggy, about once a week.
Once plants are at least 6 inches tall, you can start using them! Regular harvesting encourages growth, so do so regularly, but never harvest more than 1/3 of the plant at once.
Whether you have a large backyard or just a windowsill, you can grow food! If you’re not sure how to get started or you’re looking for advice and new ideas, you’ve come to the right place. This is the time to think about getting set up for spring planting, and Phipps’ Porchside Gardening blog has a wealth of information on edible gardening of all sizes. Check out the links below to find posts on getting started in-ground, with raised beds, containers, or even indoors. Happy gardening!
Begin a Container Garden! (part one)- Pre-Planting
Begin a Container Garden! (part two)- Preparing the Container
Begin a Container Garden! (part three)- Planting and Care
General Garden Info
Garden Resources- where to get soil, compost, lumber, seeds and seedlings
Are you new to Homegrown Challenges? If so, click here for more information.
This first month, we challenge you to try something new! As both eaters and gardeners, we can get stuck in routines of eating or growing the same things. While it’s great to have our favorites, there are so many varieties of plants, fruits and vegetables to try and enjoy! In trying new foods we may discover new flavors, have fun exploring, or add a new healthy food to our cooking routines. Come summer you can find unique varieties of vegetables at your local farmer’s market, but for even more options, plant your own!
Follow the April challenges below to try something new. When you do, snap a photo* and let us know. Submitted challenges count towards admission to a free celebration at Phipps Conservatory, and entry into this month’s drawing! This month you could win four free passes to Phipps, or a Cooking with Kids cookbook.
TASTE: Buy and prepare a fruit or vegetable you (or your children) haven’t tasted before.
Look at the market for in season produce. Have you ever tried arugula, asparagus, fava beans, or fennel?
GARDEN: Plant a variety of vegetable you haven’t grown before.
VISIT: Go to a garden center or plant nursery.
These are great places to find inspiration for your garden, pick up a few new plants, and find any tools or supplies you need for the growing season. Click here for a list of Phipps recommended nurseries.
MAKE: Start (or expand) a garden!
If you have lots of space or just a windowsill, you can grow food: build a raised bed, set up containers, grow herbs, or plant a fruit tree. Find tips on starting a garden of any size here.
Have another idea? If you have an idea for a different activity, or you want to take it a step further, go ahead! Just send us a description and photo, and if it relates to the theme we’ll count it.
All submissions should be sent to email@example.com, and include a photo*, your name, and the challenge(s) you completed.
*By submitting an image, each user agrees Phipps shall have a non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the image submitted (including all rights embodied therein) and that Phipps, and their respective designees may edit, modify, post, creative derivatives work of and distribute the image and all elements of such image, including, without limitation, the names and likenesses of any persons or locations embodied therein, in any and all media now known or hereafter devised, including for advertising and marketing, without compensation or notification to, or permission from, entrant or any third party. Credit to photographers will be printed in any and all use cases. Phipps does not guarantee the posting of any image and reserves the right to take down any image at any time.
Once you’ve had a chance to do some planning, read through seed catalogues and order seeds, it’s time to start seeds indoors. Starting seeds yourself saves money, gives you a head start on the growing season, and allows a wider choice of vegetable varieties. Not to mention it provides a gardening fix while we’re still stuck indoors! You need a few things to get started:
- Soilless seed starting mix. It’s important to use mixes especially designed for starting tender seedlings. They will be lightweight, sterile, and retain moisture but drain well. Garden soil is too heavy, and may contain damaging fungal spores.
- Pots or containers. You have a variety of choices here. You can buy pots made of various materials (i.e. plastic, peat, or coir), or make your own by recycling plastic containers (just punch a few holes in the bottom), newspaper, or toilet paper rolls.
- Solid-bottom tray. To hold your pots, and allow for bottom watering.
- Plastic cover. This could be a plastic dome that came with your tray, or simply a piece of plastic wrap.
- Light Set-up. Young seedlings need lots of light, more than most windowsills can provide during winter, so usually additional artificial light is needed. Light set-ups need not be too complicated or expensive- a standard shop light fitted with cool fluorescent bulbs will do the trick. Any of the various sizes of fluorescent bulbs will work, as will the more expensive grow bulbs but they’re not necessary.
- Seeds. Whatever varieties you’ve decided to grow! Reference the back of your seed packets or a seed starting calendar to determine appropriate planting times, which are relative to frost dates. Pittsburgh is USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6, so the average last frost date in spring is around May 15, and first frost date in fall is around October 15.
Once you’ve gathered supplies and you’re ready to get planting, follow these steps and tips:
1. Wet the soilless mix in a bucket or large container. You want the mix to be evenly moist but not soaked, like a wrung-out sponge. This helps with moisture retention, and keeps the dust down.
2. Fill your pots with the pre-moistened mix to within ½ inch from the top. Do not pack the soil tightly; just tap the pots to make sure the soil settles. Place your pots in the solid-bottomed tray.
3. Plant the seeds according to package directions. Use a finger to make a small indentation in the soil, place a seed inside, then cover with soil and tamp lightly. Don’t forget to label what you planted where!
4. Cover the tray with plastic, and put it in a warm place. Increased humidity and warmth aid germination. Heating mats are great, or the top of the refrigerator will work too (around 70o is ideal).
5. Wait for the seedlings to sprout. Keep the soil moist with a spray bottle, and as soon as seeds sprout remove the cover and heat.
6. Place the seedlings under your light. The light should always be about 2 inches above the tops of the plants; adjust the height of the light as the seedlings grow. Keep the light on for about 16 hours per day.
7. Thin out the seedlings if multiple seeds grow in one pot, otherwise they will compete for nutrients and space. Leave the strongest seedling, and snip the others at their base with scissors (resist the urge to pull up extras and repot, this damages tiny roots).
8. Keep seedlings moist by bottom watering when needed. Simply pour water into the bottom tray, and the pots will wick it up. This encourages downward root growth.
9. Fertilize about every 2 weeks. Soilless mix usually doesn’t contain fertilizer, but if yours does skip this step. Good organic options are diluted fish emulsion and sea kelp.
10. Run a fan at a low speed several feet away from the seedlings 1-2 hours per day. This mimics outdoor breezes, and promotes strong stem growth.
Follow these steps, and you’ll have healthy seedlings for your outdoor garden! Before planting outside, harden off seedlings for about a week: take them outside for a few hours, bring them in at night, outside for a few more hours the next day, etc. This helps them slowly adjust to outdoor conditions and prevents shock.
The cold winter months have set in and everybody is thinking of spring. One of the time honored traditions of a family that grows veggies, is immersing yourself in seed catalogs, when January rolls around. It’s a warm day dream that happens to be the perfect time for planning ahead for the new year. I have been spending some time this passed month exploring all of the different catalogs that I could get my hands on. I always enjoy reading the descriptions and looking at the pictures of all the heirloom varieties, that seem to be so endless.
This happens to be the time of year when little is going on with vegetable gardens, even if you have cold frames outside packed full of winter greens. There is some free time to look ahead to spring and summer, as well as reflect back on what crops you grew last season. Maybe there are some new vegetables you would like to try growing or new varieties of old classics that you want to give a shot. This is the time to do it, and so the planning begins.
I usually start by first looking at every vegetable in the catalog followed by; making a list of everything I want to try growing. The list usually starts off long, until I reassess how much space I actually have, and then I start picking apart the selections to essentials. I can’t grow every type of heirloom tomato that looks cool, so I pick one or two and wait till next year to try another variety. I also grow all organic vegetables, so searching for certified organic seed is sometimes difficult when you want something specific. I have had to go through several seed companies to find say a certain organic pepper that other seed companies don’t offer. The process can be long but when looking through all the catalogs it seems so fun to be planning ahead.
Two of my favorite seed companies are Seed Saver’s Exchange and Heirloom Seeds which is in West Finley, PA. To be clear, heirloom does not necessarily mean organic, but many seed companies signify which seeds have been produced organically.
Once I have determined what I am going to be ordering, I can then use this time to decide where I am going to be planting everything. I practice crop rotation so I try to move different plant families around my garden so as to not plant the same kind of vegetable in the same spot year after year. This helps the production and health of your crop as well as maintains a healthy soil. Keeping records of your yearly planting will help you orchestrate this task whenever you plan for the upcoming season.
I have made my selections and ordered the seeds, there is no time like the present to get started. First of all, it is fresh in your mind, so you don’t forget to order when it becomes too late, secondly you might be starting some of your spring crops early. All said, this is the perfect time for starting to plan for something that will be just around the corner.
Reading colorful story books with your children and eating vegetable soup are great ways to spend your time while indoors for the winter.
The children’s book Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert is a perfect combination of the two. This nationally acclaimed book explains the process of growing vegetables, starting from seed all the way to making a pot of soup. A child gathers tools, plants seeds and sprouts, then watches their growth. When the vegetables are ripe, they get picked and pulled, then cut up and cooked into soup! The colorful pictures and vegetable identification provide not only an educational spin on the story but allow children to see a process from start to finish. Not to mention presenting vegetables in a manner that is appealing and could start anticipation for the growing season! A recipe is included to make vegetable soup at the end of the book.
Some of the vegetables included in this story are carrots, celery, onion and potatoes, many of which can be grown in containers and are seasonable this time of year. And all of these vegetables are known to be good for heart health!
But that is not all. A story, soup and some crafting can all be part of a day’s fun. Once the vegetables are prepared for soup, the excess parts of the vegetables can be used for creative vegetable stamps.
Vegetable stamps are fun and eco-friendly. The ends of potatoes (when carved), onion and celery leave especially cool patterns when dipped in paint. Try your hand at some new stamping art and leave a lasting memory of a day spent with loved ones.