Ever since Eliot Coleman spoke at the Alaska Botanical Garden's Annual Spring Conference a few years back, Alaskans have gone to great efforts to try to grow food through the winter months in their outdoor greenhouses and cold frames. It isn't easy. And, for my money, it isn't practical. Maybe I am just getting too old to deal with plants in freezing weather.
Anyhow, not to fret. There are actually a lot of edibles you can grow indoors during the long Alaska winter. Yes, you have to have lights to do it well, but if you want to grow your own food in the winter, sometimes you have to do a bit extra.
Let's start with radishes. I know I always complain about the long rows of outdoor radishes hereabout, when most people eat less than a handful of them all year long. In the winter, however, a freshly grown radish is a novelty worth having and even worth tasting. And, you don't need to grow a whole row. A dozen seeds in a small planter box will not only spice up a few salads, it can look nice as a table decoration as well.
Next, carrots can be a great crop to grow in pots and deep flats. There are small, round varieties that don't grow deep and these seem to be designed for indoor pot culture. Again, this is a good-looking plant and a group of half a dozen or so planted one inch apart from neighbors in a six-inch pot will make a beautiful display on the dinner or breakfast table.
Of course, right along with radish and carrots are lettuces. Lots of the leafy lettuces will produce, and produce quickly — provided you put them under lights. In addition, so-called "micro green" mixes make great salads. These include radishes, Swiss chard, basils, beets, dill and cos lettuces. All it takes is a shallow tray to grow a nice salad (and the lights).
If your lighting system allows for larger plants — and it should be adjustable so as to be able to — you should surely consider growing tomatoes. In fact, it is possible to move your outdoor tomatoes indoors and continue to grow them, as they are really perennial. In any case, the plants that produce cherry or plum tomatoes are ideal and will produce all winter long if you take the time to care for them.
And if you can grow tomatoes, you can grow other members of the night shade family, including potatoes. That is correct, potatoes. I know this is an unusual crop to grow indoors, but that is what makes it so much fun. The little peanut varieties are terrific in pots, but even larger ones will produce small spuds. You just need the space. Here is where growing in a garbage pail is a great way to go. The only warning is not to buy potatoes from Outside, as we want to keep Alaska stock free of diseases.
Scallions are really easy to grow and maintain indoors, winter or summer. You buy a bunch at the grocery store and put the whole thing in a glass or jar filled with an inch or so with water so the cuttings will root better. Keep the water at that level and after about 10 days, the roots will have doubled and new shoots will start to appear. Now plant the whole bunch in good soil and let it grow away. Snip off tips when you need the green part of the plants and harvest the bulbs after a couple of months.
Obviously, there are all manner of herbs to grow this winter. Right at the top of my list, though some folks don't like the taste, is cilantro. This is a bit confusing, but cilantro starts as coriander seed, so you have to get your hands on them. The leaves of the plant are what we call cilantro.
Finally, you can buy miniature citrus plants online or, sometimes, locally and these will produce lemons, limes and even oranges. It is worth keeping an eye out for them and getting them whenever they go on sale.
I've obviously just touched the surface here. There are all manner of edible plants grown outdoors that will do just as well indoors given the proper conditions: enough root room to grow and, of course, proper lights. It is a long winter. What else are you going to do? Don't wait. Start now.
Jeff's Alaska garden calendar:
Call for speakers: If you have a horticulture-related skill, the Alaska Botanical Garden is calling on you to speak at its annual Spring Conference. Gardeners share and this is the best way. This is the 25th anniversary of the event and it is on March 10 this year. For more information go to alaskabg.org. Do not be shy. Share your knowledge
Make a luminary: Alaska Botanical Garden, Dec. 16, fee and limited space, go to alaskabg.org. $40 for members and $45 for non-members.
Poinsettias: They are slowly appearing. Buy them early. Keep them out of drafts and don't let the soil dry out.