Even the occasional reader knows I insist that everyone have a light system for maintaining plants during the winter months. Maintenance is, of course, just one of the great things about having a set of lights. Not having to wait until April when there is enough natural window daylight to start seeds is another. You can start seeds at the same time as the local nurseries.
Far too often, however, even I forget a third advantage of having a set of plant lights, and perhaps it is the best thing about owning lights. Simply put, we can grow anything we want during the winter months. Anything.
I was thinking about this the other day when someone mentioned they only use Stevia for sweetening things. I have always wondered how this plant would do outdoors here, and I know that in some places it is overwintered indoors. Why don’t Alaskans grow it? Could be because stevia plants require at least 15 hours of light a day to produce enough leaves to make growing it worthwhile. With lights, all you need is a bit organic potting soil and some room, as these plants can grow to 3 feet.
All the major seed houses carry stevias. There are several varieties, but Stevia rebaudiana is recommended. As an added bonus, you can grow your plant outdoors this summer and bring it back under lights to continue the harvests during the winter. Stevia plants last up to five years. Now, that is sweet!
That got me to thinking about the so-called “miracle berry,” Synsepalum dulcificum. This is the plant that produces a berry which, when eaten, causes sour foods to seem sweet to taste. Eat a lime! Here is a plant you might keep under lights all year long. I grew one once from seed, but didn’t realize it took three years to get fruit and didn’t have a location where the temperatures would remain warm. I also didn’t have the best lighting system. Time to try again? Check out this fascinating berry on the internet. You may want to order some of the berries first, then consider growing a plant or two.
No need to stick to the exotics when growing under lights. Really, a set of lights allows you to grow anything. How about potatoes, for example? Again, you need a bit of space, but the idea of growing potatoes in the middle of the winter may have escaped your imagination. You can use supermarket potatoes if they sprout — not all will. Next year, save some of your summer harvest to use.
You can grow your spuds in one of those 5-gallon, plastic buckets after you punch in some drain holes. Place a few inches of mulch or well-draining potting soil at the bottom. Plant your chits — pieces of potato, each with at least one eye. Put the buckets under lights and, just as you would outdoors, add soil or mulch as the plants grow so that just a few inches of tips show. After they start to develop flowers, put the buckets in a cool spot to move the sugars from the leaves to the tubers.
And, of course, you can grow tomatoes in the middle of the winter. How can you beat that? You can’t. Try several different kinds. You can grow indeterminate tomatoes as perennials under lights. Who needs an outdoor greenhouse?
Really, you can grow any herbs you like if you have lights. We like to do a bit of Japanese cooking, so perilla — shiso — is an ideal herb for us to grow. It is so easy, but you can’t do it in the winter unless you have lights. The same is true with all of the traditional herbs like dill, mint, chives, oregano and fennel. All it takes is a lighting system.
Try it. Who knows what will become of using your winter lights to actually grow new things instead of just maintaining your houseplants. It could become another facet of your hobby. Instead of just growing for the winter, for example, you may end up growing things under those lights all year long, things like licorice, which takes three to five years, or that miracle berry plant. You can now even grow cannabis. Try the feminized, auto-flowering varieties.
My point: With a set of grow lights, you can grow anything. They are not just for maintaining your houseplants or for starting summer’s plants from seed. What do you want to grow? Simply use your web browser to see if you can grow it indoors and look for instructions. If you are a regular reader of this column, you should already have the lights.
Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar
Alaska Botanical Garden: Ice sculptures! On display during daytime admission hours, Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., as well as Friday and Saturday evenings in January during holiday lights. Tickets required; see alaskabg.org. Sculptures will be on display until the weather melts them.
Nurseries: It is always interesting to see what they are doing this time of year, so try to visit. Besides, seed rakes are coming out.
Sweet peas: You can start yours and pinch them back to create bushy plants that will bloom sooner than the traditional April starts. It is up to you. Our favorite sweet pea seller is reneesgarden.com