Part of what makes a vegan diet so great is the use of the freshest ingredients including herbs and veggies. But groceries are one of the most expensive places to buy fresh herbs, especially in winter. And you can be pretty sure they weren’t grown using veganic methods. In fact, organic produce is usually grown using animal-sourced by-products like blood/bone/feather meal and manure, effectively making most organic herbs and produce non-vegan. But we as vegans are stuck with buying produce and herbs from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and regular run-of-the-mill groceries. Or are we?
This summer I started growing more edibles indoors and ramped up my community garden and back yard garden plantings to include produce that I can harvest during winter in zone 5 or store in a cool cellar or spare room/closet. This means growing and storing lots of squash, dried tomatoes and canned green tomato salsa. I’ve also moved my choicest herbs and greens indoors.
If you want to truly ensure you’re growing vegan organic veggies, start everything from seed yourself rather than buying plants at a garden center. I’m of the impatient sort so some of my stuff I got at the garden center while my tomatoes and basil are from seed.
In the hopes of helping other vegans ensure they have some fresh goodies that are grown veganically, I’ve outlined my indoor crop below and which specific varieties seem to be working best under lights or on windowsills. Tomorrow, I hope to outline a few vegan methods of fertilizing your goodies and keeping bugs at bay. It won’t be terribly comprehensive but it will be a start toward having your own indoor winter vegan organic garden.
Herbs that do well for me under lights or on windowsills.
I LOVE picking fresh basil for sandwiches and quick pasta meals. It’s very easy when you’re growing some on a window ledge indoors. Granted, I’m not going to harvest enough to make a huge amount of pesto from my indoor crop but a few leaves in salads can be just the thing.
- Thai Basil
- Globe Basil
- Lemon or Lime Basil
- Purple Opal Basil
*Essentially any of the small-leafed basils. You can forget about growing the basil with the big shiny green lettuce-type leaves you find at the grocery. It will only get leggy and not produce many leaves over winter. That basil really needs tons of outdoor sun and heat to perform well. It’s just not worth the space for winter growing. And remember, the more you eat your basil, the bushier it will get, so eat up!
Recommended SnarkyVegan recipes using basil:
- Thai Basil Succotash — this is amazing!
- Caprese Relish
The curly leafed stuff grows okay but only if you give it a good head start outdoors in the summer. I potted up 6 plants and left them on the deck from August to just 2 weeks ago when I brought them in and debugged them. (More on debugging tomorrow.)
The flat leaf parsley seemed a little sparse to me, like cilantro, so I haven’t even tried it indoors yet. Seemed like a lot of stem for a couple small leaves and space is an issue.
Overall, sage seems very easy to grow indoors. My regular sage is doing really well. Not that I use sage all that much but it’s nice to have on hand for stuffing and squash dishes.
- Plain old regular sage works best.
- Purple sage is a close second.
- Golden sage does well too.
- Tri-color sage, the one with white splotches, is struggling but not dead yet.
Rosemary is perhaps the one herb that has given me significant fits in winters past. They always seem to die by Christmas which is a bummer because that’s when you need it most for your Tofurky roast and potatoes. After much research and talking with many other gardeners, it seems the trick to growing rosemary indoors is:
- DO NOT let the soil dry out.
- DO NOT let the pot sit in water.
Quite the dichotomy eh? This means I keep my rosemary in easy view, with quick access and a loaded water jug nearby. I also spritz it every other day or so with a water bottle since indoor winter air is bone dry. A pain in the arse? Maybe but I love rosemary so it’s worth it to me. There’s absolutely NOTHING like fresh rosemary on roasted potatoes in January.
Additionally, there are many types of rosemary but you may only find one in your local garden centers, that being what they like to call ‘common rosemary’. I hate when garden centers do that because you still don’t know what you’re getting. For my grow rack, I chose what my garden center had left, common rosemary and a prostrate rosemary. The prostrate is a creeping variety that looks kinda vine-like. I am trying both and neither have died—yet.
Recommended recipe for rosemary:
Cube some potatoes, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped fresh rosemary, roast in oven at 375° F until crispy on the edges. Toss halfway through on the baking sheets. You can’t go wrong with this.
I do have a lavender plant that I bought at a garden center close out so I don’t know which lavender it is but it’s doing well as you can see here. Yes, that’s a swamp monster in the pot.
I have 2 tarragons that I potted up, one doing well, one not so much. But both are surviving though and have lots of new growth. I think when I rescued these at the garden center close out, they were neglected. I’m giving them time to recover before I attempt to cut them back to force new growth.
Also, go for the true French tarragon if you’re going to grow tarragon.
Easy to grow under lights but better if you buy a small plant or start your seeds outdoors in the summer. I’ve never had any luck growing chives from seeds indoors but I do know that other gardeners have done fine.
There is NOTHING like fresh chives on Tofutti® Sour Cream for your baked potato!
Also easy under lights. Thyme is one of those plants you can also grown in partial sun outside so big shop lights indoors make it really happy.
I’m not sure yet if this will be successful during the long haul but I dug up 3 clumps of lemon grass from the garden and potted them to keep overwinter indoors. Lemongrass won’t survive our zone 5 winters and even if it doesn’t grow much indoors, I can save it to replant outside in the spring.
One trick that websites say to do when digging up lemongrass to pot, cut the tops back to 6 inches from the soil surface. This should help it focus on developing roots to replace the ones it lost when you dug it up.
I’ve also read that you can grow lemongrass from seed indoors. I started mine from seed last March but it didn’t really take off until it was transplanted outside in May. I should know more about how lemongrass does indoors in a few months.
Too many herbs to use? Dry them and store them for later.
You know all those rubber bands that the US postal service insists on using with your mail? Wash those babies and bundle some of your herbs then hang them from a door knob in your kitchen until they dry. Crumble and store in airtight containers for later use. Basil is the one herb that loses a lot of its flavor when dried so I always try to use it fresh. But the savory herbs do really well dried.
Vegetables that are doing well for me indoors.
This is amazing! I just discovered this year that there are what are quaintly referred to as ‘windowsill tomatoes’, a.k.a., dwarf tomatoes. I realize I’m not going to get a smashingly huge crop of giant Brandywines but it will be interesting to see if all the little flowers covering 2 of my 4 plants actually produce tomatoes. There are also a few that qualify as dwarf but are sized more to fit in a 12-inch pot. The term dwarf refers to a range of itty bitty tiny tomato plants and some up to 2- or 3-feet tall.
- *Tiny Tim—determinate, 12-15 inches tall, 3/4-1 inch tomatoes
- Micro Tom—determinate, 6-8 inches tall, 1 ounce cherry tomatoes
- Micro Gold—similar to Micro Tom
- Red Robin—determinate, 8-12 inches tall, 1-1/4 inch cherry tomatoes, use an 8-inch pot
- Patio F—a hybrid, determinate, 2-feet tall, 3-4 ounce tomatoes, use a 12-inch pot
- Totem—determinate, 10-12 inches tall
- *Containers Choice Red—determinate, 24 inches tall, baseball-sized tomatoes, use a 24-inch pot
*The two with asterisks are the two I’m growing indoors in my kitchen window. The other nifty thing about the tiniest dwarf tomatoes is that they won’t need staking or cages.
This is still an experiment but so far, not bad. I grabbed all the close out chard starts I could find at the garden center and potted them all up in 8-inch recycled garden pots from the garbage. I did this at the end of August and left them on the deck until just a few weeks ago. They had plenty of time outside to develop decent root systems in the larger pots and now I have big chard plants all over my living room. My goal is to only clip the leaves I need and not cut back entire plants throughout the winter.
Peter—If you’re reading this, they aren’t really chard. They’re really a relative of your favorite lettuce ;-P I wouldn’t try to trick you like that. See—they don’t even have the purple stems!
I found this little gem at the garden center close out. Can you tell I like close outs? Anyway, I potted all 4 tiny starts in a big 12-inch ceramic pot and left it outside all through Fall. It developed lots of flowers and peppers and now I’ve moved it indoors. I’m hoping that so long as it gets sufficient light, it will at the very least survive until May. At most, I’ll get peppers here and there this winter.
Citrus trees also do well indoors over winter.
Meyer Lemon dwarf tree:
I was surprised to learn from my gardener friends on Twitter that Meyer Lemon trees can grow indoors in zone 5 and still bear fruit during winter. Of course, everyone suggested putting the tree outdoors come summer so it gets better light and breezes.
My tree is from Duarte Nursery and I got it for $22 at Home
Despot Depot. They also had dwarf limes and blood oranges but I only had room for one tree. I planted it in a pot measuring 19 inches diameter by 15 inches tall. While the squirrels got all the immature green lemons over the summer, it’s loaded with flowers now so I’m hoping we have no squirrels indoors ;-P
My indoor lighting set up.
It’s just a big metal rack with 4-foot shop lights containing daylight bulbs (I did not spend extra $$ on the daylight grow lights, I simply looked for something in the 6000K range). Keep the lights barely brushing the plants so they don’t get leggy since they’re going to be indoors for many months. If you don’t have much room, you can also use reflective clamp lamps and grow bulbs placed directly over plants. Also, don’t forget your timers. I have all my lights connected to power strips that are plugged into timers so I can ensure the plants get 16 hours of light during the winter. I know that seems like a lot, some websites suggest as low as 12 hours. But I’ve found my plants, esp. the herbs, to be much stronger and less leggy with more light. I also run the lights during the daytime so the plants aren’t confused and my neighbors don’t get wiggy.
South-facing windowsills are good for things that don’t need more sun than you get in December in your zone. Remember, we do get less sun and it’s lower in the sky the more North you are so if your south side is close to another building, you may not get direct sun through the window. Take the angle of the sun into consideration when deciding which plants go on the windowsill versus under grow lights.
Tips for keeping it cheap.
- Use recyclable containers like yogurt and carry out plastics. You can score a bunch of these containers in your neighbor’s recyclables if you don’t have any. I’m often picking through alley stuff looking for containers. Be sure that they’re food grade and be careful punching drainage holes in plastic as some plastics will crack easily. I use an ice pick and push slowly rather than Psycho style. Plus, doing it Psycho style can land you in the ER with a punched thumb. Don’t ask how I know this ;-P
- Use metal food cans by punching plenty of drainage holes with a hammer and nail.
- When neighbors pitch those handy 6- or 8-inch plastic pots from their gardening over the summer, grab them, clean them and save them for winter.
- No rocks for drainage? No problem: use a coffee filter or paper towel to cover the holes and keep your soil in the pots.
- Reuse lids from coffee canisters as drainage trays.
NOTE: Don’t skimp on good potting mix. This is critical for a good winter crop of anything. Using dirt from your yard is an insanely bad idea. Pick through garden center close out sales in September and October for deals on bagged mix.
Cubits — had a nice herb selection earlier this year so check back again
Renee’s Garden — has a nice selection of herbs, especially basils that will grow well indoors
Tomato Growers — carries some dwarf varieties
Territorial Seed Company — carries both seeds and plants
November 6, 2010 at 3:37 pm
What a good idea! I wish that I’d thought of doing that before the frost hit. I have two kinds of basil that probably would have survived. Next year, I guess. :)
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking of setting up one of these in a big south-facing window in our dining room: http://lifehacker.com/5398310/turn-a-sunny-window-into-a-hydroponic-garden . It seems like a good idea for greens and maybe herbs in the winter.
November 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm
Wow thanks for this post it’s inspirational. I move into my new house next weekend and I have to try growing some fresh herbs and chillies. I’ve never had much luck with plants I guess they’ve all realized I’m vegan and committed suicide.
November 6, 2010 at 8:19 pm
OMG I’ve been wanting to try a wall of those bottles but I just don’t have a large enough window. If you do this please let us know how it goes.
Starting basil from seed is the easiest thing ever. No reason why you can’t have fresh basil any time of year. And if it helps, there are plants that hate me too. I can’t grow spinach or example. And oregano still gives me fits unless I plant it outside and ignore it.
November 7, 2010 at 12:27 am
So jealous of your lovely indoor garden! I just keep my thyme, oregano, and rosemary on the porch all winter and hope for the best. Seems to last ok in Seattle.
November 7, 2010 at 1:43 pm
UPDATE: A notice went out yesterday asking that everyone participating in Vegan MoFo only blog about food for the month (or maybe then meant VEGAN food, the way it was written was a tad unclear). Since this post seems to me to fall on the fence (growing food in your home rather than preparing it), I’ll refrain from posting anything that does not include a prepared food dish or item until December 1st. At that time check back for the post I promised on growing herbs in your kitchen using vegan organic methods. I realize this is by far my most viewed Vegan MoFo post and I’m sorry but I don’t want to be eliminated from the blogroll. Thanks for your understanding—Julia
November 7, 2010 at 10:48 pm
I love this post! I was JUST asking someone about this since my lovely rosemary and hot peppers are about the die if I do not figure out what to do with them. I want to keep my rosemary for sure and I also have some potted lavendar too. I thought this was a definite food-related post since herbs go in recipes. Thanks a bunch. I learned a lot!
November 8, 2010 at 10:20 am
I help run a wedding event facility in Birmingham, Al in Birmingham. We have gone so far as to plant our own herbs for a really fresh supply!
November 8, 2010 at 12:01 pm
My kitchen window is east-south-east facing and gets full sun up until about 2:30pm… I think I might try some chives, thyme and basil there.
If succesful, I will add a shelf down the road to make room for more.
Thanks for the inspiration!
November 8, 2010 at 1:58 pm
beautiful shots and that thai basil succotash that you brought over to the commi-g pot luck was SO OMFG GOOD !
November 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm
What a great post. I didn’t know there were so many types of basil. I think growing herbs and vegetables in your home, garden or balcony or basically anywhere possible is a good idea. If you’re growing everything organic, I did want to ask- how do you get rid of pests?
Here are my herbs: http://galstuff.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/my-herbs-garden-and-a-basil-butter-recipe/
I now also have thyme and I discovered three new cherry tomatoes this weekend.
November 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm
I don’t get it why grocery stores prefer to sell some pricey herbs instead of a lot of affordable ones. Maybe it’s about punishing people who don’t feel like doing like you do.
November 8, 2010 at 8:06 pm
hi there! just wanted to let you know we featured this post on the FoodPress.com home page today. such a great guide – well-done post! thank you! jane
November 8, 2010 at 9:02 pm
Well if this isn’t about vegan food, I don’t know what is… How much electricity do you use with the lights, do you think?
November 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm
I think you’re in a milder climate than we are. I also don’t have an enclosed porch and there’s no way I could get rosemary to overwinter on our exposed porch. Not against the mighty Chicago winds. They’re treacherous!
You can totally do this! I can’t grow everything myself so there’s no need to feel like something’s outta reach.
I love it when companies start their own gardens. And you never know when you’re going to need some last minute rosemary for a bridal bouquet.
DO it grrrl! Post pics too ok?
Awe shucks, thanks!
There are way more basils than I could ever count. I’m really wanting to try cinnamon basil indoors. As for pests, here’s what I did before moving all plants indoors: filled a spray bottle with really soapy water and while plants were outside, inspected them for serious offenders then spray the leaves, stems, pots, soil surface with soapy water. Let sit for 30 minutes or so before moving into the dining room where I quarantined them until I was sure they were ok. THEN put them in the big wash basin and saturate the soil so see what crawls to the top. Mostly centipedes. Find new homes for those guys (yeah right), drain the pots and move to their forever homes in the living room. If I see something with mites (tiny little webs are the clue), back they go to the sink and maybe the bathroom for serious quarantine. Only a couple things ended up in the trash because the mites were too many. —I’d love to know what cherry tomatoes you discovered.
I actually know people who live without big windows or any real windows to speak of. Some apartments in Chicago are woefully sun-deprived. Those poor souls are stuck with buying herbs or renting a community plot.
You’re a doll! I just about freaked out this morning and thought WordPress was broken. Thank you! And have you see some of the awesome desserts that the Vegan MoFoers are posting?
Thanks for your vote of confidence. I wasn’t really sure how to read the warning post from the powers that be. It coulda been read two different ways but I really don’t want to risk being excluded from Vegan MoFo if growing edibles wasn’t what they had in mind. —Electricity, my husband calls my lettuce $50 lettuce. But I think the BIGGER culprit is the electric blanket on the bed ;-P So, honestly, I haven’t tracked the lighting bill so I’m not really sure. I was looking into LED lights for a few weeks but the technology’s just not there yet. They still all look like they’re designed for indoor farming of another kind ;-)
November 8, 2010 at 11:59 pm
thank you so much for this!
November 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm
Thanks for your detailed reply. I spray the basil and the lemonquat tree with water every once in a while, it helps a bit but they’re not that clean of pests and it’s also a lot of maintenance, but oh well, if I could only be a full time gardener and cook..
I have no idea what type of cherry tomatoes I got growing since I took the seeds from tomatoes I bought in the supermarket.
November 9, 2010 at 2:30 pm
what a terrific post…. i wish i had read it last week before my massive herb harvest and subsequent hanging to dry fest. i will be bookmarking this to reference later, i really appreciate how thorough it is.
November 17, 2010 at 5:44 pm
Interesting post as my herbs are currently outdoors (its very hot here, i’m in Cyprus) but I have been wanting to bring some in for when we do hit the rain & colder night time temps! Yours all seem to be thriving..
Good luck with your blog issues!
March 2, 2011 at 10:13 pm
You may already know this, but bees and other pollinators do not usually make it up to the second story, so you have to hand-pollinate if you want any tomatoes from a balcony or indoor garden. Joshua Koh at Green Culture Singapore has great advice on this:
March 9, 2011 at 6:43 pm
I think you need to do a little more research on the whole pollinators don’t make it to the second story angle cause we don’t have a problem with that in Chicago. In fact, we have a zillion roof top gardens here with no issues whatsoever with pollinators not finding their way.
December 20, 2015 at 1:34 am
Thank you for such a comprehensive blog of your indoor herb and veggie garden. Absolutely inspiring. I’m much further south (Alabama) than your windy cold Chicago winter weather but also hoping to try my hand at a winter indoor herb garden. Wanted to ask if you’ve ever considered doing an update to this article? How’d the tomatoes turn out? Did the other basil plants also survive? Did the flowers lead to Meyer lemons? Is there anything from this initial group that you think isn’t worth it to try indoors?
December 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm
My indoor efforts have met with some successes but failures too. We’re so far north that in the winter, there isn’t enough sun for fruiting plants. So I never got any tomatoes on my windowsill plants. I should have put them under lights to see if that made a difference.
My herbs did quite well under lights. They were a tad bit leggy in the window, again, I suspect the amount of sunlight. One herb that I did not have any luck with was cilantro. I did try it but it never got bushy. Rosemary is finicky about watering but it held on through the winter.
Things I would not waste indoor space on again: swiss chard, fruiting plants, and cilantro. The basil varieties with smaller leaves did really well. With the possible exception of the purple basil. It go more leggy than the others.
I ended up giving my Meyer Lemon tree away to a friend who had more space for it. I just couldn’t get an indoor lighting set up to work for it and it took up a ton of floor space. My friend moves it outdoors in the summer and he lives in northern Indiana. He keeps it indoors in the winter and gets a good crop of lemons.
The thing about moving plans indoors from outdoors is the insect issue. I’ve inadvertently brought in spider mites and gnats. So anything I grow indoors nowadays I start from seed.
If you want to make a dent in your grocery budget in the winter, I’d go with growing herbs indoors. You won’t get a lot of tomatoes or peppers from indoor plants.
A few other things that grew well indoors are the dwarf leafy greens like dwarf pok choi or growing curly endive as dwarfs in small containers. Curly endive will grow large heads outdoors but indoors, it stayed small and tender. I got my pak choi seeds from here, they have several dwarf varieties:
And my curly endive was just cheap Home Depot stuff.
A word on fungus gnats: they are evil. I haven’t found a great way of dealing with them. I tried making the soil inhospitable by watering with chamomile tea but it didn’t have much effect.
That’s about it I think. I envy you at your warm seasons. I’d be growing all my tomatoes outdoors somewhere (shared yards, community gardens, or my own yard) and drying them for winter storage. Canned tomatoes take up a lot of winter storage space but drying them takes less space. You have to dry them completely (crunchy dry) or they’ll mold but they can be rehydrated for pastas or used in soup in the winter.
Gotta run, thanks for commenting!