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

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.

Basil:

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

Greek Basil

Purple Basil

  • 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:

Parsley:

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.

Sage:

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:

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:

  1. DO NOT let the soil dry out.
  2. 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.

Lavender:

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.

Tarragon:

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.

Chives:

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!

Thyme:

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.

Lemongrass:

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.

Tomatoes:

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.

Containers Choice Red Tomatoes

  • *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.

Swiss Chard:

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!

Tabasco peppers:

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.

As you can see, most of my pots are recycled food containers or garden pots.

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.

  1. 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
  2. Use metal food cans by punching plenty of drainage holes with a hammer and nail.
  3. 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.
  4. No rocks for drainage? No problem: use a coffee filter or paper towel to cover the holes and keep your soil in the pots.
  5. 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.

Sources:

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

Botanical Interests

Tomato Growers — carries some dwarf varieties

Territorial Seed Company — carries both seeds and plants