It is especially rare to find fresh, regionally grown vegetables during winter in the San Juan Mountains, when most of our produce comes from warmer and further-away locales such as Florida, California, Mexico and even as far away as Chile and Argentina. Not only does the shipped-in produce lack flavor, its carbon footprint is disconcerting, to say the least. But when you’re cooped up for nearly three months straight, it’s the creature comforts that keep away the blues – that is, a nice meal made with fresh, inspired ingredients. So what’s a high-altitude dweller to do? Grow an indoor garden, of course.
Yes, with the proper lighting, growing medium and fertilizer, you can start repurposing all those plastic salad containers as growing trays for your own – albeit modest – indoor garden. Live in a tiny condo on the dark side of town? No problem. Even in the San Juan Mountains, it is possible to reap a reasonable harvest of a wide variety of greens, sprouts and herbs, from November to May. And there’s nothing like tending a garden to stave off the winter doldrums, not to mention beautify your home and cleanse the air.
According to Scotty Abrahams, owner of the thriving Telluride Hydroponics & Organics in Ilium Valley and Colorado Hydroponics & Organics in Montrose, any garage, bathroom, woodshop, shed or closet can be utilized as an indoor growing space. In his own crowded Ilium Valley shop, amongst bags of growing mediums and shelves overflowing with tools and liquid fertilizers, Abrahams has carved out a 4 x 12 space next to his bubbling compost tea brewer. Here he grows a regular crop of specialty greens and sprouts for chef Eric Eckert, of Flavor Telluride.
“This all started to merely promote the tea,” says Abrahams, who has developed his own highly specialized compost tea fertilizer using biodynamic compost made from locally collected materials (including cow manure from Norwood), worm castings, sea kelp, molasses and a few other proprietary ingredients. “It’s a locally made, organic and living plant fertilizer. An individual cannot make or buy fertilizer as good as this,” he says.
TeaCo compost tea is Abrahams’ not-so-secret ingredient to pumping out micro greens, broccoli sprouts and basil every 10-12 days, enabling Eckert to plate locally grown food in his restaurant even during the darkest and coldest of winter days.
To create such a consistent and reliable harvest, Abrahams uses high-efficiency, low-energy T5 fluorescent grow lights (5/8-inch tubular fluorescent bulbs with reflectors), which hang from a chain and can be raised and lowered as the plants grow. “I’ve got the lights on 24 hours a day,” he says. “That’s a big advantage during the winter.”
Beyond that, his setup is pretty basic. Seeds are sprouted in simple plastic trays filled with good quality soil mix (although a soil-less mix works well, too, he says), watered regularly, and fertilized with his compost tea.
Abrahams emphasizes the value of using non-chlorinated water. “It’s the secret that many beginner indoor gardeners don’t recognize.” For those using chlorinated tap water, he recommends letting it stand for at least 24 hours, or buying a chlorine and sediment filter or RO filter, which his company sells for between $110 and $325.
To increase his vertical growing space, Abrahams layers plant trays between lights.
And he’s realistic about his plant choices, growing crops that thrive in cooler temperatures. “I can’t grow broccoli sprouts in the summer; they wilt. In the winter, we can grow more cold-hardy veggies,” such as mustard greens, kale, radishes and Bibb lettuce. “What you grow is really dictated by what’s going on outside.” Other options might include spinach, cilantro or even calendula and pansies for some color.
At home, Abrahams maintains a winter garden with his wife, where they grow herbs that they dry, such as oregano, and sprouts, including sunflower, broccoli, radish and wasabi. They also grow red leaf lettuce and Bibb lettuce. “We rotate different trays of greens” throughout the season, he says. And as spring approaches, they use their indoor setup to get a jump-start on summer plants, particularly crops like tomatoes, which struggle to set fruit and ripen within Telluride’s short growing season. Summer plants will be “bigger, better and more bountiful,” when started indoors and fed compost tea, says Abrahams. Similarly, plants can be finished indoors after fall’s cold weather sets in.
Those who live in warmer-weather climes, such as Norwood or Montrose, might be able to bypass grow lights, so long as they have a good south-facing window. Norwood residents Nancy Heim and Lucinda Carr have had great luck growing indoors during the winter. “We start the seeds inside in the fall,” says Heim. “Last year, we grew spinach and all kinds of lettuces, radish and basil.”
But she and Carr have had particular success with cherry tomatoes, which they hand-pollinate every one to two weeks. “I tape a paintbrush to the end of an ultrasonic toothbrush and go around from blossom to blossom, touching the flowers,” says Heim. The vibration of the toothbrush mimics the movement of a bee that would pollinate the plants if they were outside. “It takes a good three months to get fruit,” she says, so Heim typically starts her tomato seedlings in September for a Christmas harvest.
Heim’s one frustration with planting indoors has been bugs, which can be a product of planting in soil, particularly if reusing the soil from season to season.
As an alternative, Abrahams specializes in soil-less hydroponic growing systems, where plants are grown in mineral-nutrients solutions with or without another inert medium, such as perlite, gravel or coconut husk. Hydroponic systems require less space and reportedly produce larger plants that have fewer problems with disease.
Though they require more of an initial investment, these systems are equally good for winter growing. For those looking for an all-inclusive indoor hydroponic growing system, Abrahams recommends Ebb and Flow, Hydro Bucket and Deep Water Culture.
Whatever the method, with the proper tools and techniques, growing an indoor garden is well within anyone’s reach.
Whether you’re looking to supplement the dearth of quality greens at the supermarket or simply want to brighten up your living space, options abound for winter gardening success.
For a good link to step-by-step growing instructions and tips from the National Gardening Association, go to http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=201011-how-to.
For information on Telluride Hydroponics & Organics, visit www.tridehydro.com or call 888/340-8854.