Folks without greenhouses-even apartment dwellers-can enjoy
homegrown vegetables with . . .
by Charles G. Loeb Jr.
Charles G. Loeb Jr. It's a typically bone-chilling winter
day in southern New York State, with the mercury huddled at
20°F and six feet of crusty snow on the ground. Yet
I've just picked some fresh Swiss chard for tonight's
dinner! In another day or so, I'll gather some kale. I
harvested tender, green broccoli a week ago, and-a few days
before that-picked brussels sprouts.
No, I don't have a greenhouse, or even a cold frame. My
crops are all grown in containers. I start them in late
summer, let them reach maturity outdoors, then bring them
inside when frost threatens.
The "green thumb bug" bit me a few years ago, when I first
experimented with indoor plantings of tomatoes and
cucumbers. Then in 19811 rented a warehouse for my
wholesale and mail-order spice business and decided to set
up a rather ambitious container garden on the piece of
asphalt pavement that came with the lease. During that
summer my wife and I savored tomatoes, zucchini, peas,
beans, kale, okra, chard, lettuce, and broccoli . . . all
from my 200-square-foot plot of pots.
After the first hard frosts, I moved the remaining few
containers of kale to the attic. I didn't really expect the
plants to survive, because the single, east-facing window
there receives only three to four hours of sunlight (when
there is any) during the short days of fall and winter.
Moreover, since I only use the warehouse for a few hours
each week, I keep the temperature there below
I was flabbergasted, therefore, at seeing how the kale
flourished. My family ate one plant in January and another
in February, and-later that month-I put the remaining two
back outside. They seemed to almost spread their leaves to
the cool late-winter sunshine and, in early April, yielded
a bumper crop of greens.
With that experience behind me, I decidedin the spring of
1983-to plant enough containers to provide my family with
fresh vegetables at least once a week through the cold
months and early spring. Although I concentrated on crops
that would grow back after harvesting (chard, kale, and
broccoli), I also planted brussels sprouts and cabbage
(which store well) and two varieties of lettuce. All in
all, I put in about 60 plants, staggering the sowings so
that each vegetable would be fully grown by October
We had an unusually mild fall, and Jack Frost didn't move
in until mid-December . . . but when he came around, he
seemed determined to make up for lost time! Like much of
the rest of the country, we had the coldest Christmas on
record. By then, of course, my plants were safely upstairs.
I put shelves across the window and placed the best
specimens on them, to make the most of whatever sun we were
blessed with. I arranged the rest' of the plants on the
floor . . . where they had to settle for a thin ray of
light that made a slow arc from 8:00 AM until noon. (During
the late afternoon, I actually had to turn on a light to
find anything in the 60-square-foot attic.)
Even so, our nine chard plants were very productive, and we
ate their greens once a week. By February, the leaves were
small, but new growth continued. If anything, the baby
shoots were more tender and tasty than the early pickings.
The 30 regular kale plants and the five of the flowering
types (which are as tasty and more colorful than
the standard kind) also produced weekly harvests right up
until I was able to pick outdoor crops in the early
The broccoli, too, was a delightful surprise. Each of the
ten plants produced scores of small but delectable sprouts.
However, there weren't quite enough for a full meal at each
picking, so this winter I'll plant more. The three cabbage
plants weren't expected to grow inside, and they didn't.
But one small head made some delicious cole slaw, and the
other two, which were put outside in early spring, were
ready to pick in just a few weeks. My five brussels sprout
plants were harvested by late January.
CONTAINER PLANTING TIPS
In the course of my experiments with winter container
gardening, I've picked up some general knowledge that I
would like to pass on.
Pots: Almost anything will do, from
plastic milk containers to redwood planters, as long as
they're big enough and have drainage holes in the bottom.
However, I prefer plastic pots that are squared off at the
bottom to allow the plant roots to spread. These are also
lighter than clay pots (you may be moving them a lot), and
they do a better job of reducing evaporation. Containers 8"
to 11 " in diameter-which can be purchased from most garden
supply stores for about $1.25 to $2.00 - proved to be
adequate for all the types of produce I've grown so
Soil: I use regular potting soil, which
costs about $3.00 for 40 pounds and can be used over and
over again as long as a good fertilizer is applied at
regular intervals. Each 11 " pot for broccoli needs about
20 pounds of soil. The other plants can be grown in smaller
containers. (You could also, of course, mix your own
potting medium . . . recipes can be found in many garden
Watering: When outside in the summer,
container-grown plants generally need water at least once a
day. I don't use saucers outdoors, but they're essential
indoors to protect your floors. In winter, a soaking every
week or so is usually enough . . . but do check your plants
more often than that. If they feel dry, douse them. Mature
vegetables tend to get thirsty, and they won't suffer if
they have "wet feet."
Fertilizing: Generally speaking, you will
have to feed your pot-grown vegetables more often than you
would garden plants, because the frequent watering washes
away the nutrients. If you use a fertilizer that must be
scratched into the dirt, be careful not to damage your
plants' roots. If they become exposed, sprinkle the
fertilizer over the surface and then cover it with more
potting soil. Feeding should be done every week or biweekly
while the plants are outside, but it can be discontinued
during the winter.
Sunlight: Leafy crops need at least six
hours of sunlight in the summer, and flowering plants
should have two or three hours more. If one location isn't
bright enough, simply move the pots to follow the sun. Once
they're mature and indoors, though, this factor isn't as
critical. They'll pretty much make do with what's available
until you're ready to harvest.
A CROP-BY-CROP GUIDE
Swiss Chard: This superproductive green
just doesn't know when to quit! It's the only vegetable
that grows equally well in cool or hot weather. I'm now
eating chard that I started in April, and it's just as
flavorful as the small sowing I made in August. I've had
best results with Lucullus Light Green (available from
George W. Park Seed Company, Box 31, Greenwood, SC 29647,
and other companies). There's another fine variety, Rhubarb
Chard, that has red veins and stems and makes an attractive
companion to the green species. If you plant chard in an 8"
pot around the end of July and keep the leaves picked
before they reach 15" in length, you'll be rewarded with
copious production. Fifteen plants are more than enough to
allow a family of four to dine on this delicacy about once
a week. Chard is tolerant of light frost, but why take a
chance? Bring it inside when the season's first freeze is
Kale: "What is it?" and "Can you eat it?"
are the typical questions visitors ask when they first see
my spectacular flowering kale. This showpiece vegetable
would be a standout in any ornamental garden, yet it's just
as tasty as regular kale.
It forms a tight head with a creamy white center that's
surrounded by less compact, green outer leaves. There's
another variety that's red-on-green (Frizzy Red, from
Park). I think these plants are too pretty to disfigure by
partial picking, but when each full head is harvested,
it'll provide up to four portions. I also grow the standard
kale, which continues producing after the outer leaves have
been cut. Kale should be grown in 6" to 8" pots and started
in mid-July. The cool fall weather brings out the color,
and the vegetable actually needs several nights of frost to
make it sweet. In fact, it's one of the most frosttolerant
Broccoli: The sprouting types are the most
prolific. After producing small main heads, they'll send
out side shoots over a long period of time. These get
smaller following each picking, but their taste sure holds
up! I'd recommend Green Goliath from Burpee (W. Atlee
Burpee Company, 300 Park Ave., Warminster, PA 18991). But
remember that, because broccoli has deep roots, it will
require a big 11" pot. I sow my winter crop in midJuly and
have found that broccoli can take some frost.
Lettuce: I'm partial to Park's Mission,
which has a head that doesn't always form up if planted in
mid-July for winter pickings. Even so, it's just as good as
any loose-leaf lettuce I've ever grown. In addition, I grow
Bibb, which has small but sweet heads. Since lettuce roots
are shallow, a 6° pot is fine. I don't risk any frost
with lettuce. Even in the protection of the attic, the
outer leaves tended to turn brown, but we were still able
to have fresh salads through most of January.
Cabbage: 1983 saw my first attempt at
growing this vegetable. I was given some seeds but didn't
learn what variety they were. This season, I'm
experimenting with Park's Darkri, a fast-growing,
medium-heading variety. Last year I started cabbage in
mid-July in 8" pots. The plants seemed to hold up nicely
Brussels sprouts: Like kale, these
minicabbages taste sweeter after a few nights of frost.
Sprouts require a long growing season and should be started
early in July. My 19831984 choice was Burpee's Long Island
Improved, which yielded a profusion of sweet, tender-but
only marble-size-sprouts, which we were able to enjoy until
the end of February. A friend at the New York Horticultural
Society suggested that the stunted size of the sprouts
probably resulted from the unusual sustained heat our part
of the country suffered during the outdoor growing season.
For the winter of 84/85, I'm trying jade Cross E Hybrid
from Burpee, which should yield bigger heads.
INDOOR FARMING FOR
The light and heat in my warehouse attic (and the absence
of available space in my apartment) limit the varieties of
crops that I can grow. But homeowners-even those who can't
install greenhouses-can combine artificial lights with
higher indoor temperatures to insure fine harvests in
attics, basements, or spare rooms. After all, there's no
spacing problem with containers. Just put the pots side by
side, touching one another. And, especially if you have
shelves, a surprising number of plants can be placed in a
relatively small area to yield a greater bounty per square
foot than many outdoor gardens.
Whether your harvest is large or small, though, you'll be
sure to welcome the marvelous taste, nutrition, and
freshness your homegrown produce will provide. You'll
experience the fun and satisfaction of being just a bit
more self-sufficient, too.