Sweet potatoes and yams are two of my all-time favorite vegetables. (If I’m ever marooned on a deserted island, I pray these tubers accompany me.) Sweet potatoes and yams are not true potatoes. These tubers are members of the morning glory family, and as such prefer warm feet, unlike our traditional spuds that are oblivious to cold.
So when I learned that a grower in Homer produces bumper crops of yams and sweet potatoes in her high tunnel every year, my hopes soared. She sprouts the slips from store-bought, organic varieties (to avoid anti-sprouting chemicals) in February by poking toothpicks in the tubers’ midriff (remember doing this in grade school?) and setting them in a jar of water. “When the slips (shoots) are 3 to 4 inches long,” she says, “I break them off and put them in water or soil to root.” In April, she plants them in the tunnel (hoophouse) under a mini-hoop of cloth supported by wire hoops.
Her account was music to my gardening soul and I posted several how-to questions to her. Meanwhile, while waiting for her responses, I’ve put a “start sweet potatoes” note on my February calendar.
Starting sweet potatoes indoors got me thinking about other plants that you can grow in the warmth of your home. Of course, there are all manner of YouTube videos, blogs and books to prod you along, but my favorite source is a heart-warming adventure by Richard Langer called “The After Dinner Gardening Book” (last published in 1972, you can still find used copies online or at your favorite library). Langer raised a jungle in his New York apartment, urging forth such extravagant ceiling raisers and creepers as palm trees, papayas, yarns, coconut trees, and mythic delicacies like pomegranates and mangoes, not to mention sunflowers. It’s well worth the effort to include this classic on your bookshelf or in your bathroom.
So let’s journey into the world of plants to grow indoors, beyond ferns and Christmas cactus. First on the list, and to be timely, season-wise, is the amaryllis. I prefer an amaryllis over a poinsettia. Why? Whenever I’m tempted to buy a poinsettia, all I have to do is visualize how it will look after a few weeks in our house, with too little sunlight and desert-like conditions created by the woodstove and in-floor heat.
Amaryllis bulbs, on the other hand, hold on to their tropical look much longer. With their large, trumpet-shaped flowers that come in an amazing array of colors and bicolor patterns — red, pink, white, salmon, even green — amaryllises are easy to keep looking fresh.
Blooming amaryllis are often given and received as gifts. Most people gift or receive an amaryllis already planted. The pre-planted Amaryllis gift boxes normally take no more initial effort than simply watering them with room temperature water to bring them into growth. Keep the potting medium moist, but don’t over-water! Set the plant in a brightly lighted area and when the shoot appears begin feeding with a slow-release organic fertilizer every few weeks.
Most homes are heated to a comfortably warm temperature range of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit during winter, ideal for growing a good number of herbs and vegetables. Can you think of a more satisfying project for kids? The winter cold though is not as much of an issue here as low light conditions. Meaning your choice is limited unless you provide additional light to imitate the sunny outdoors.
Even a sunny, southern window may not provide sufficient light in winter to support vegetables that have a high light requirement. As a general rule, leafy vegetables can manage with much less light than root vegetables. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants need more light to ensure a good yield. However, they can thrive in a toasty sunroom. Sprouts and edible fungi don’t much care for light, so they can be grown in the garage or basement. Try your hand at growing some of the following edibles and let me know how it goes (grows):
• Tomatoes: Best grown in the sunniest area in your house.
• Bell peppers: Like tomatoes, given enough light, bell peppers can give a good yield when planted in rich, well-draining potting mix.
• Red (cayenne) peppers: Easy to grow; blossoms smell like gardenia flowers.
• Radishes: Said to be one of the most rewarding veggies to grow indoors during winter.
• Lettuce: All varieties do well as they need no more then 3 to 5 hours of dappled sunshine on a windowsill. Too warm a space, though, and they wilt and droop.
• Kale: They don’t grow as large indoors as outside, but worth a try since they are healthy greens either way.
• Chives and scallions (bunching onions)
• Microgreens: Combine seeds of salad greens, the cabbage family, beet family, and gourmet greens (arugula). Allow them to grow for a few weeks until they develop a true set (usually the second set) of leaves. Harvest the greens above the soil.
• Oregano: Easy to grow, you’ll want to have an oregano plant in your kitchen all year.
And hey, let’s not forget the best edible plants to grow: sprouts. Highly nutritious, anyone can grow sprouts in their home. Soak edible seeds in water, drain and keep them in a warm, dark cupboard for three to four days, rinsing them in plain water several times during this period to avoid fungal and bacterial diseases. When the seeds germinate and put out cotyledon leaves, the baby plants are eaten whole, roots and all. You can make your sprouts from lentils and garbanzo beans. Oil seeds like sunflower, mustard and flax seeds can be sprouted, too, as can broccoli and kale seeds.
Finally, amaryllis bulbs aren’t the only indoor plant that makes a great gift. A ready-to-grow edible seedling or sprouting kit might be just what a friend needs to ward off the winter blues.
Gardening tips and recipes are featured in Marion’s new 2017 calendar. To learn how to grow stuff in Kodiak, talk with local growers. Join the Kodiak Garden Club, or sign up for Kodiak Growers Facebook group. To contact Marion, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Facebook, Instagram or visit her blog at marionowen.wordpress.com.