You can enjoy your own herbs and vegetables even during the winter months.
There is nothing like fresh herbs clipped right off the plant to flavor a hearty soup, stew or casserole when it is cold outside.
“Herbs are the easiest crops for simple winter gardening,” said Nan Fischer, founder of the Taos Seed Exchange. “They don’t need large pots and will grow well with bright light or full sun. Group together a variety of them in decorative pots, or make a complete herb garden in one large container.”
The best herbs are basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, mint, rosemary, chives, sage and lavender.
“Some are perfectly happy in pots all summer too, so you can start them from seed or cuttings, grow them out through the winter, then put them outside in the spring,” Fischer said. “You can dig up the perennials in the fall to put in pots and bring inside.”
Greens, like herbs, are easy to grow in a sunny window. Fischer says that she usually has kale, spinach and chard growing in her kitchen.
“For leaf lettuce, I recommend grow lights for optimal production and flavor,” she said. “Romaine lettuce, though, does well with lower light because it’s dense and crunchy.”
Carrots, radishes, onions and beets also grow well indoors during the winter.
Light, food and water: The basics
No matter the season, plants need light to flourish. If they are indoors, the right set-up to assure that they get enough can be simple as a sunny window or as elaborate as a system of grow lights.
“You can cram a lot of plants on shelves with lights, but if you just want a few pots of herbs, a windowsill will suffice,” Fischer said.
As for water and nutrients, plants take them up according to the amount of light they are getting and the current temperature. They need less feeding in the short cold days of winter.
“Herbs and greens on a windowsill need less water than a tray of plants under a grow light that is on 12 hours a day,” Fischer said. “Always check before watering. We kill plants more by overwatering than any other reason. Be sure the soil is dry on top before watering thoroughly.”
She recommends buying or making a well-draining potting mix.
“You need it to hold water yet drain easily, too,” she said. “Sounds like a paradox, I know, but commercial mixes do just that. Containers can be anything your creative soul wants them to be: paint over old clay pots for one-of-a-kind planters; scour second hand stores, flea markets and yard sales for anything that will hold soil and let water run out the bottom, even if you have to drill drainage holes in it.”
Other possibilities are buckets, baking pans, grow bags and even livestock troughs.
“Insects will still attack plants in winter,” Fischer said. “Aphids and spider mites seem to be most common indoors. Depending on the infestation, I either clean them off or compost them. Spider mites are so tiny that by the time you see them and the damage they do, it’s already a large infestation so I usually toss those plants. Aphids can be washed off, but you have to check the plants daily because they propagate very fast.”
Since bugs attack stressed plants, the best way to keep them healthy is giving them the right amount of water, nutrients and heat.
“The heat from direct sun can stress them, too,” Fischer said. “I hang a piece of lace over the windows to cut the heat a bit. Plants still get enough light, but the environment is cooler.”
Ventilation and air circulation are necessary, too.
“A hot, stagnant room is heaven for bugs,” Fischer said. “Plants do better in cooler temperatures with bright light and some air movement.”
National Seed Swap Day is Jan. 31.
“To celebrate that, I will have some seed exchange stations set up in town and one at the Dixon Market,” Fischer said. “At the Habitat ReStore, we will have a small seed swapping event and some goodies to munch on. We are working out those details right now.”
The second Annual Taos Seed Exchange Seed Swap will take place in March.
“Hundreds of people came out for it last year and seed donations are rolling in for this year’s event,” she said. “Those plans are being firmed up as well.”