Growing Food Indoors: One Gardener’s Journey

I’ve always loved the idea of gardening indoors, so when we lived in our townhouse in northern Virginia, I tried to grow food plants outdoors first and then indoors.

My first try was moving a pepper plant indoors. Yes, I got a bell pepper. But, I also got gnats that infested all of my houseplants. It took me months and gallons of neem oil before my coffee cup was safe from these little intruders. But I still liked the idea. And held onto my dream of having a garden.

In July 2010, we moved from our townhouse to a completely off-the-grid earthship* in northern Arizona. It was an older style, designed for sustainability, complete with giant planters in both living room and bedroom! These planters had huge rubber trees and Norfolk pines growing in them. They were pushing on the ceiling! Wow! I could dig them out and plant a real garden indoors! A dream come true!

Then it hit me. The awful smell and the bugs coming from the planters. The water supply was coming from the drains in the kitchen sink, washer, and shower. Obviously neglected, this indoor greywater system was beyond repair. But what about my garden? Surely if I cleaned out the planters, it would be ok.

First, I had to dig up the trees and find good homes for them. Then, there were the holding tanks for the dirty water. Horrible! I used a sump pump to take out the water. Still horrible. Determined to have my garden, I had a concrete master come in and fill the planters and install a drain. After all that, I had the house drains (except the kitchen sink) rerouted so the greywater could be used OUTSIDE where it should be! Finally, I had the concrete platforms to hold my plants in pots. It was October. I had to get started.

I bought an Earthbox. This is a planter that waters from underneath. Good idea here in Arizona where water evaporates quickly. A friend gave me two small tomato plants and I was on my way! I started planting everything. Squash, melons, lettuce, herbs, peppers. I had my garden!

The tomatoes and squash were in the Earthboxes. The remaining plants were in pots. Then I noticed that the Earthboxes were doing well, but the others weren’t thriving. I put organic fertilizer in the dirt; they had plenty of sun. I discovered that it was the watering from above that was the problem. When you water from the top, the nutrients wash out from the bottom of the pot. When the plants wick the water up from the bottom of the planter, the nutrients remain. This is really important in container gardening. So is fertilizer. I’m sure there’s a book about this somewhere, but I am a trial and error type, and I only read directions when things don’t work.

Now what? I had a lot of very tiny plants and a limited budget (Earthboxes are around $50 each). I needed to fix it fast and cheaply. I found some potable water pipe in the hardware store. I cut it to the right lengths and drilled a series of small holes in the lower part. I pushed a pipe down in all the pots. But that didn’t make the wicks. My husband told me he once had a plant that sat in gravel in a cookie tin, and he watered only the gravel and the plant thrived. Hmmm. I drilled more holes in the bottom of each pot. Back to the hardware store for gravel (in the cement department it’s cheaper than the decorative stuff) and cheap plastic things that would hold water. I set each pot in the gravel and watered the plant through the pipe, and then added some water to the gravel so it could be wicked up by the dirt. Sure enough, those plants started growing.

Then I did it. I brought an aloe plant in from outside so it wouldn’t freeze. About a week later, I picked up my coffee cup and there was a gnat doing the backstroke in my coffee. Back in Virginia someone said soapy water in a sprayer would get rid of them. I had one hand on the computer, seeking out neem oil and the other on the sprayer, spraying everything. The soapy water helped keep them at bay, but it burned some of my tiny plants. The neem oil (not toxic for humans) showed up in about a week and I was doing the daily sprays. I wasn’t about to let this garden fail! Our neighbor told me that gnats are attracted to yellow. He said get yellow paper or plastic disposable plates. Cut them in strips and put Vaseline or something sticky on them. The gnats will stick to the plates and die. It worked!

It’s now January. My plants are growing. The lettuce is tasty (we have salads almost every night) and there are green tomatoes and yellow squash. I use the basil a lot and the cabbage and melons are starting to do well. I still find the occasional gnat, but they are fewer and I’m still spraying. In a few months I’ll expand to the bedroom planting space and buy another Earthbox when I can.

Because we have brutal winds and hot summer sun, I’m going to grow indoors year round. Of course I’ll learn to plant an outdoor garden in spite of the climate and short growing season. I love a good challenge.
I’m figuring that in two years my indoor garden will pay for itself. In personal satisfaction, it already has.

Glynis B. DeYong, Off the grid newbie

*Earthship: A passive solar home constructed of natural and recycled materials.

14 thoughts on “Growing Food Indoors: One Gardener’s Journey

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Growing Food Indoors: One Gardener’s Journey | Lehman's Country Life -- Topsy.com

  2. Very good information!! Especially about the bottom watering the potted plants. I’d like to try some container gardening along with my outdoor raised beds. Thanks for all of the great tips!

  3. Wow useful info. I always wanted to live in one of these kind of houses. I live in Sw PA so I don’t now how well they would work out. This has to be the most detailed post I have seen of somone gardening in their Earthship. I’m glad someone is talking about it.

  4. Thank you. It’s an adventure. I hope you get the chance to try one. I think they can be built just about anywhere. In PA, you would have a good outdoor garden, too. Plenty of rain.

  5. The rain worries me. not to mention very very strict building codes. I do get a pretty good garden normally, but now at my new house, I’m stuck trying to improve my clay soil. putting in raised beds this spring for this years garden. Do you like living in one? How big of an adjustment was it?

  6. I am very excited to see this kind of info. I have lived off the grid for 6 years now and my husband and I are finally ready to start building our dream home. I have had visions of an indoor conservatory and have been trying to research the idea for over a year now without much luck. I found a wonderful article in Countryside with pictures of a home in Colorado that sent me down this path of excitement but I have not read much of the problems I maybe facing. I was planning on using my houses greywater but I may re-think that one. My husband seems to think we could run the water through a sand filter before using it in the house. I am a lot like you I learn through trial and error but sometimes a hand up helps a lot. Thanks so much for writing about your experience.

  7. That’s a great story w/ very helpful hints! Butch is building me a garden/sun room for the outdoors to protect my new plants from getting scorched in this Nevada heat & also to start my “starter” plants before the last frost!! This year, I WILL have canteloupes!! :)

  8. I’ve never been able to grow much indoors because my house has only one sunny south-facing window. Enough to start seed indoors in the spring for tomatoes, etc. but not enough to grow full scale. I like what the author did inside the house. Clever.

  9. Apologies for not answering promtly. It’s been rather busy here.
    Veronica V.- Earthship.com can guide you about building one in PA. They build for all weather conditions.

    Dbl Donkey Ranch- We did have greywater in the house when we bought it. It smelled terrible. Yes, you can filter, but we moved ours outdoors to water summer plants instead. Michael Reynolds does a filtering system for greywater indoors. I prefer it outside. Good luck with your project!

    Anna Passwater- Elizabeth Maynard answered your post. That is what I do. Thanks, both of you!

    Dempsey Yates- It is worth it!

    John Juhasz- Thanks, but I can’t take credit. Earthships are built with growing spaces indoors.

    I appreciate all comments and questions. Happy gardening!