Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Last Year

Last summer we made our first try at indoor veggie and herb gardening. In one long window box, we planted spinach, basil, cilantro, and rosemary. I know, it was ambitious and a bit crowded, but we had to try it to see what, if anything, would grow. We bought seed packets and potting soil at the local gardening and hardware store and planted everything in the one box all on the same day. I think it was May when we planted, but I can't be sure. We placed the box in a northeast facing window.

The reasons:
We wanted to try our hand at indoor gardening of herbs and vegetables to see if we could do it year round. We love to have baby spinach in salads, but we usually use it on our sandwiches in place of less nutritious lettuce. My husband can't get enough cilantro. We had hopes to put it in homemade salsa and on other Mexican type dishes. As for the basil and rosemary, we're always finding them to be common ingredients in recipes. We figured we'd rather have an "endless" supply of these herbs than buy a pack from the supermarket only to use a small portion and have the rest rot before we can get to it all.

The problems:
  1. The direction that the window faced was suboptimal, but it was the best we could do with the windows of our apartment. Still, no trees or other buildings were around the window, so when the sun came in, it had a clear shot at the window box.
  2. The humidity in the apartment was a bit high. Mold was a happy camper in the apartment, but never grew on walls or anything like you hear for serious mold problems. You wouldn't believe the trouble I had trying to get fresh fruit to ripen on a counter faster than it would get moldy. I eventually had to abandon my favorite summer fruits, peaches and nectarines, because I could never get them ripe before the mold started. For those of you out there who are eating crunchy peaches and nectarines, you don't know what you're missing from a fruit so juicy it drips down your face. Yum!...but I digress. So the mold would sometimes take hold of the soil in the window box.
  3. The aphids and other bug-a-boos eventually found out how tasty our herbs were. Yes, I did say this was an indoor gardening experiment. See attempted solution #1 for an explanation. The aphids and other bug-a-boos saw their opportunity and took advantage. One day we woke up to find the cilantro covered in an aphid infestation! The horror! The green aphids mainly stuck to the cilantro and sucked the living juices out of it. Near July, we started to have these small, round, black dots, which were bugs. They didn't seem to be eating any of the plants, but would set up shop and make these web-like lines all over the plants. They seemed to like the basil best, but could also be found on the spinach and just cruising around the window box. I still have no idea what these things were.
Attempted solutions:
  1. To dually address problems #1 and 2, we would place the window box outside for a couple of days at a time to get some more sun and to dry out a bit in the fresh air.
  2. I did some research on aphid control by searching the internet and asking friends with experience. The common answers were to get some ladybugs, which will prey on the unsuspecting, feasting aphids, or to spray soapy water on the cilantro. Many sources said the ladybugs would fly away after a couple of days. I wasn't prepared to let ladybugs loose indoors. Anyone who's ever had ladybugs invade their home knows that it's something you'd rather not repeat. As for the soap, we didn't want to involve any chemicals if possible.
  3. So here's what we actually did. Everyday, I would wake up and spend maybe 45 minutes with tweezers picking the aphids off the cilantro. At one point I thought I had them under control, perhaps even eradicated. But a week later, they reappeared with a vengeance. If you haven't looked into the aphid life cycle, it's fascinating. Check it out here and here.

The results:
The rosemary had a very low germination rate. Only about three popped up out of maybe 16 seeds. These were the slowest to germinate of the four things we planted, but that was expected from the estimated times. However, there was a huge window of weeks between the first and the last to germinate. We had similar results with rosemary in a planting we did on Labor Day last year (2006). The few seedlings that did grow stayed very small and weren't worth saving at the end of the experiment.

The spinach had a very good germination rate, near 100%. It grew very leggy, i.e., with long thin stems and small leaves. Very few leaves grew before the plants spiked to flower in early July. Our experts said it wasn't getting enough light. As the spinach was headed downward, the little, round, black bugs started to invade it. Needless to say, the spinach was never harvestable.

The basil grew really well and seemed to be happy in our window box. I think more light might have helped it grow faster, but it was definitely doing well. As I said in problem #3, the little, round, black bugs really liked the basil. This made it somewhat unappetizing. When I dismantled the window box indoor garden experiment, I harvested the basil and rinsed it thoroughly. I then froze the leaves, but I don't think we've ever used them. I couldn't get rid of all the little black bug-a-boos, so I was less than enthusiastic to eat bug-basil.

The cilantro was a bust! It also grew leggy, though less leggy than the spinach, probably because it needed more light than it was getting through the window. Still, it didn't do too poorly and might have been a success if the aphids had never colonized. They sucked out any strength the cilantro had--a real tragedy! If I had been making an aphid farm, I would have been very pleased.

The indoor organic garden wasn't a complete failure. I think it could have been a better success with a south-facing window and no outside time to be colonized by nasty pests. Oh well, better luck next time with our new found knowledge and experience.

Have any advice or questions?