I’ve always been a fan of gardening… it probably has something to do with spending all that time out in the sun with my great grandmother digging in the dirt as a kid and enjoying the great things that came from it when it was ultimately time for harvest. I lost touch with this joy for a bit in my 20’s but there was nothing like the mind-numbing contrast of the cubicled office to make me want to get back outside and get my hands dirty. After buying my first home with some property, doing some real gardening was high on my list.
One problem living in the part of Pennsylvania that I do is that the outdoor growing season doesn’t last all year long 😢 I started doing a bunch of container gardening just so I could bring things like peppers and herbs inside over the winter. This was mainly in order to get a jump on the next season… assuming they got enough sunlight, I didn’t forget to water them or it didn’t get too cold where I was keeping them. Some of my failures here made having a dedicated indoor space for gardening a high priority when looking for my current home.
My indoor “gardening space” started out as just a small shelf in a closet in my laundry room. The early intention was to set it up as a staging area for starting seeds and growing transplants indoors so that they could be planted outside as soon as conditions allowed. My laundry room was perfect for this since it was by far the most humid room in the house and also the warmest due to it’s placement right next to my furnace. Both conditions being ideal for starting most seeds.
I started with a pretty simple germination station and a supplemental heating mat since many of the things I wanted to get a head start on require warm germination temperatures. I also use peat pellets as my growing medium. There are cheaper ways to do this, but these are very effective in my experience, not all that messy and they help with adding some much needed organic material on a regular basis to my shale and clay rich soil. They also help with transplanting the plants which I’ll get to later. You put the peat pellets in a few days before adding seeds and mist them down every day until they expand a bit. At this point, you can add your seeds and continue to mist them as needed, making sure that you don’t make conditions so wet that mold starts growing on the pellets. In a few days, you should have some sprouts which you can then transplant.
Most seeds don’t require light to germinate, so this basic setup works great as long as you are on the ball about getting germinated seeds out of the station before the sprouts start to require light. Since this requires transplanting, which can take some time, I eventually added a small LED setup. This helps in three distinct ways. It buys me more time before I NEED to transplant. It gives me the ability to work with seeds that do require light to germinate and it also allows the sprouts to become much hardier before transplanting since they can use the light to continue growing. I don’t have the best finesse when transplanting sprouts, so any help I can get in having seedlings that can take some abuse during transplanting is always helpful.
Switches and Outlets
Some of you might be wondering about the tech involved at this point. There’s already one light and a heating pad involved, neither of which you’d really want to run 24/7. Suffice it to say that like everything, I started out small just using power strips and manually turning things on and off. Eventually, I moved to using timers and then automated, programmable outlets/switches since the manual management became annoying and unreliable. It’s really amazing how much you can do with these COTS products and things like IFTTT and the Google Assistant. I still use much of this basic hardware, but have supplemented with some custom hardware based on the raspberry pi and software that I wrote using Android Things and Actions on Google. If people are interested, I can document this in another post. It’s another thing that I hope to make available to others at some point after working out most of the kinks and documenting it more thoroughly, so let me know if you’re interested!
No matter how you start your seeds, eventually you’re going to need to transplant them. You could attempt to take them right from the seed starting area to the outdoors, but if you’re not doing this under the utmost growing conditions, you’re likely not going to have the best of luck. This means you need some capability to handle this phase indoors as well. Assuming your intention is to ultimately put these plants outside in a garden, this phase differs from the germination stage in a few notable areas:
- You will need a space for growing plants.
- You will need light; ideally adjustable to accommodate your growing plants.
- You will need an effective strategy for watering around all of these electrical systems that prevents over/under watering.
- You will need actual soil for the plants to put down a root system.
- You need ways of strengthening your plants so that they don’t become too weak to survive outside.
Space is the Place
Even when I carved out that initial shelf in my laundry room closet to start my seeds, I knew that eventually I wanted to take over the entire closet. The first shelf started about 4 feet above the ground which gave me some serious growing space underneath. This height was also perfect for installing an adjustable fluorescent grow light system. In order to maximize the effect of the lights, I first covered all of the surfaces below this shelf with aluminum foil to reflect all light back at the plants. I chose a fluorescent system since I wanted it to be reasonably economical and didn’t need the added heat from the more energy consuming lights. At the time that I installed this, LEDs weren’t really viable due to their cost and questions regarding their effectiveness for growing plants. This latter concern has been addressed with newer models and I’ve since supplemented the base install with programmable LED arrays that allow me to tune the light wavelengths in order to optimize it for my plants and goals. Blue wavelengths encourage growth while reds encourage flowering/fruit production. You can see in many of the photos that the light is either skewed to red or blue or a mix depending on what I’m trying to accomplish.
Electricity and Water don’t mix
Obviously, after adding a few lights, heating elements and other controls, thinking about how to route power to everything becomes a concern… Especially when you factor in the need to water everything on a regular basis and deal with the inevitable situation where the water spills or goes someplace unintentional. It didn’t take me long to build catch basins beneath every spot where I place my plants in containers. There are a lot of benefits to this and I just found the largest plastic containers with lids available and use the lids. This depth is effective enough at keeping any over watering inside the lids. This has the added benefit of allowing you to water your plants ‘from the roots’ if you use containers that have holes in the bottom (which I would definitely recommend to prevent both under and over watering). These lids also allow you to route the power along the outskirts. No matter what, you definitely want to use GFCI outlets EVERYWHERE. I still do most of my watering by hand, mostly because I spend a bunch of time inspecting anything I’m growing on a regular basis anyway, but I’ve been experimenting with automating the watering in various ways.
Put roots down
The main goal of the ‘indoor transplant’ stage is to create plants that are hardy enough to put outside. One of the most fundamental things at this point is to provide everything the transplants need to create a healthy root system. This starts with using the peat pots mentioned earlier. They allow you to easily move the sprouts into a secondary container without disturbing any of the roots that have started at this point. Choice of container is the next step. I already mentioned that having a container with holes in the bottom and watering from the bottom of the container encourages healthy root growth but forcing roots to grow deeper in order to find water, but the size of the container also matters. Think about your timeline for moving the plants outdoors and the growth rate of your plants and adjust accordingly. If you’re moving them outdoors within a few days or a week, you can get by with a small container, but if it’s a plant that’s destined to stay in a container, or spend weeks inside first, you’ll want something much bigger. You can do multiple rounds of transplanting, but I like to think ahead about this and reduce the number of times I need to move the plants. No matter what container you decide on, you’ll need to fill it with good soil. Fill the container about 3/4 of the way and then take your sprout in its peat pod and tear the webbing on one side to make it easier for the roots to push through and place it in the center of the container. Add more soil around the plant and then water it deeply. Transplant complete!
At this point, you’ve almost replicated a safe environment to reasonably approximate the conditions for preparing your plants for the outdoors. One thing you’re missing is stressors on the plant caused by weather conditions and inquisitive insects and animals. You can prep your plants for this by adding an adjustable, oscillating fan to the mix. I like to avoid directly blowing air on my plants and opt to have the fan face a wall and have the breeze ricochet back onto the plants.
What I’ve described here is a pretty effective way to get the jump on your growing season. Before putting your plants outside permanently, you’ll want to put them out during the day for a few days to ‘harden’ them. This is another area where having a system of trays makes things easier! I’ve been able to harvest weeks ahead of my neighbors when I get cooperative weather using this method for seed starting and I’ve been able to make that even better using techniques to create micro-climates outdoors (definitely another post).
If you have enough space, it’s also very easy to tweak this setup to create an all year round indoor growing environment. I do this mainly with peppers, greens and herbs. I’ll plant in permanent containers, move outside when the weather is right for the plants and then when it starts to get cold, prune the plants back and bring them indoors. I can then tweak the environment to either make the plants mostly dormant until the next growing season and put them back outside again, or to continue flowering and fruiting while inside. I have some pepper plants that are several years old at this point!
Interested in indoor gardening? Have you built something similar? What’s holding you back? I’d like to hear more from you!