Winter gardening indoors

| 09 Mar 2012 | 11:24

    Gar Wang, Warwick For most gardeners winter is a welcome respite from daily weeding and scouring for pests. But for me, the cold months are not as labor free as before. With each year I have increased the variety of vegetables I grow on the south-facing windowsill of my living room and have come to see January as the beginning of an active growing season.

    By the end of that month, I have already germinated leek and onion seeds in flats of potting soil. These seedlings will be the first to be transplanted into the garden as soon as the soil thaws. Most leeks require 80-110 days from germination to harvest so an early start is important. The stout-stalked leek variety Bleu de Solaize has been a favorite to over-winter since it endures repeated cycles of freezing and thawing with minimal protection.

    The tastiest portion of the leek is its white shaft which results when the developing stalk is covered with soil or mulch to prevent exposure to sunlight. Known as blanching, this technique is a common practice used on other plants when milder flavor is desired. I grow another leek, Lincoln, for its tender, long shank that does not require blanching. White asparagus is simply ordinary asparagus prevented from developing chlorophyll by mounding soil or mulch over the emerging shoots. Young endive, dandelion and escarole become succulent salad greens when covered with an upside down pot for a week prior to harvest.

    Although spring’s last frost will be months from now, I begin sowing leftover lettuce seeds in 30-inch planter boxes that I fill with a 2-inch layer of compost topped with 3 inches of organic potting mix. Seeds do not germinate well in straight compost since it tends to be too rich and dense, resulting in straggly seedlings. Instead I mix well-rotted leaf mold and peat into my sifted compost to create loft and to enhance water retention in my homemade potting mix. Since it is so difficult to purchase quality, organic compost (somehow buying soil goes against my grain of pragmatism), I sift and reserve several five-gallon buckets of my own compost every fall to use in potting mix. Lettuce germinates best at temperatures below 70 degrees so my planter by the cold window offers perfect conditions as long as the soil is kept moist.

    I prefer loose-leaf lettuces for their prolonged harvest. Unlike heading varieties, I can pluck the outer leaves over several weeks without diminishing the vigor of the plant. Oak Leaf, Lollo, Salad Bowl and Tango are tried and true favorites; however, there are numerous heirlooms that come in an array of stunning colors and shapes. In several other planter boxes I toss in leftover seeds of claytonia, spinach, arugula, cress, mustards, Asian greens, radishes, mesclun and scallions. I also push cloves of garlic into the soil and enjoy “green garlic” by the time the other plants mature. Although these indoor garlic plants do not produce significant bulbs, the leaves and stems are delicious.

    Pea shoots are another easy-to-grow indoor treat. Fetching high prices, the tender tips and tendrils of pea plants have been enjoyed by Chinese for centuries. Snow peas, snap and shelling peas (Pisum Sativum) are suitable for pea shoots; however, the flowers and seeds of perennial sweet peas (Lathyrus Spp.) are poisonous. For winter harvest, I prefer Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas which I soak overnight in water before planting one inch apart. I find that presoaking large seeds increases germination rate significantly. Last year I sowed the seeds on February 6 and was harvesting shoots two weeks later. Snipped at the juncture of the first set of leaves and stem, the plants regenerated by repeatedly putting forth new shoots at the severed joint. We enjoyed fresh pea shoots for weeks in salad and stir fries. By the time the stems became tough, the soil outdoors thawed, and I was able to transplant these pea plants into my raised beds. These thrived in my garden and provided us with beautiful, edible blossoms and snow peas throughout the spring.