Iâ€™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 werenâ€™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. Iâ€™m sure thereâ€™s a book about this somewhere, but I am a trial and error type, and I only read directions when things donâ€™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 didnâ€™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 itâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 wasnâ€™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!
Itâ€™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 Iâ€™ll expand to the bedroom planting space and buy another Earthbox when I can.
Because we have brutal winds and hot summer sun, Iâ€™m going to grow indoors year round. Of course Iâ€™ll learn to plant an outdoor garden in spite of the climate and short growing season. I love a good challenge.
Iâ€™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.