Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print
If you're like most gardeners in New York, you grow fruits, herbs and vegetables outdoors from, say, Memorial Day through Labor Day, Halloween if you're lucky. And then you either shut down your horticultural endeavors until spring or you focus on houseplants.
If you're like Bob Clark of East Setauket, you pick plump, juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes to serve for Thanksgiving, and set your eye on freshly grown peppers in the dead of winter.
Clark, 61, is successfully growing what most of us consider summertime plants in containers under a 4-foot shop light in his basement, and he's reaping a nice harvest.
In addition to helping us save on produce bills and -- even better -- avoid pale-orange, mealy, grocery-store tomatoes, indoor winter gardening allows those of us in colder climates to enjoy the miracle of seed-to-table food year-round. I won't sugarcoat it -- undertaking such a project is a bit of a commitment, but those who love growing things will enjoy the process and the improved mood that's sure to ensue.
The first thing you'll need to ensure success is a good light source. Light is essential for photosynthesis, by which plants make food to nourish themselves. Without it, plants will grow spindly and won't produce well. Although you can try placing plants by your sunniest window, that isn't likely to provide all that's necessary for plants to thrive fully. Days are shorter during winter, and even when the sun is shining, it simply isn't as strong as it is during summer. For optimum success, fluorescent lights, such as those Clark uses, are ideal.
Knowing that he starts his summer vegetables in his basement every March, Clark's daughters gave him a heated 2-by-4-foot grow mat for Christmas last year. The engineering manager by day built upon the potential of that gift by building something he calls a "veggie thermos" -- a rectangular enclosure made from Styrofoam-insulated panels, which he placed under a four-bulb fluorescent light fixture. The combined warmth provided by the mat, insulation and lights kept seeds "nice and warm at around 80 degrees," he said, and they just "took off."
This past summer, Clark said, it occurred to him that if his seeds could germinate so successfully indoors in March when it's so cold outside, his system might enable him to grow plants all winter long.
"So I got some bush and patio tomato seeds, some small pepper plant seeds and carrots," he said, adding that he planted them in 2-gallon plastic pots after drilling holes in their bottoms for drainage. Next, Clark affixed the shop light to a chain, which allows him to raise it as plants grow, ensuring the light source is always just an inch or two above plant tops. In addition to daily waterings, he treats his plants to weekly doses of Miracle-Gro.
After enjoying homegrown tomatoes with his Thanksgiving dinner, Clark became even more optimistic about the future of his winter harvest: "My wife even lets me grow some carrots in a container in the bathroom."
10 edibles you can grow indoors: