You don’t have to be a farmer like Elizabeth Millard to grow food all year long. Just about anyone can produce a few fresh edibles, even in the dead of a Minnesota winter.
That’s the message of Millard’s new book, “Indoor Kitchen Gardening: Turn Your Home Into a Year-Round Vegetable Garden” (Cool Springs Press, $22.99), which offers how-to instructions on growing everything from mushrooms to wheatgrass.
“Anywhere you can put a light, you can grow a plant,” said Millard, whether that’s on a table in your basement or a shelf in your dining room. And the minimal effort required is worth every fresh bite.
Millard, a Minnesota native who grew up in the Long Lake/Orono area, and also lived in Red Wing and Owatonna, didn’t start growing food until she was in her early 40s. First she went to Harvard and launched a career as a journalist and business writer.
“When people ask how I got into farming, I like to say that I dated my way into it,” she said. She met Karla Pankow, her “partner in love and agriculture,” during a Habitat for Humanity build in Zambia, Africa. The simplicity of living there, even for just a few weeks, inspired them to build a life together focused on “sustainability, abundance, gratitude and plenty of dirt,” she writes in the book.
Eventually, they launched a CSA farm, Bossy Acres (www.bossyacres.com), and started growing on rented land, raised beds in their back yard and indoors, where Millard was surprised to discover how many edibles could be produced even in a small space, without an expensive setup.
Within just a few growing seasons, Bossy Acres grew into a summer and fall CSA, offering a wide range of greens and vegetables, with pickup sites in the Twin Cities. This year, they even tried a winter CSA. “We had pea shoots growing in the dining room,” she said.
In October, Millard and Pankow bought their own farm in Bruno, Minn., where they now live and grow. We talked with the farmer/author about growing greens in her car, why attitude matters when it comes to vegetables and why the basement makes a great kitchen garden.
Q: Tell us about your indoor gardening epiphany.
A: We were living in Minneapolis, in a Craftsman bungalow, and renting land in Northfield and a greenhouse in St. Paul. We were hauling seeds back and forth all the time, in a Volkswagen Beetle. I was kind of tired one day, and I grabbed a big bin of microgreen seeds. They all fell and made a big mess. I figured I’d vacuum them up some day, then pretty much forgot about it. It rained, then it was sunny, and the top was down. Four or five days later, there was a gorgeous crop of microgreens on the passenger-side floor.
I didn’t harvest them because I didn’t know what chemicals might be in car carpet. But if I can grow stuff on the floorboard of my car, you can grow stuff in your house. I wanted to keep it going. I thought, “How nice to have greens growing inside in the middle of February, when you’re eating lackluster salads from California.” I love to have really fresh lettuce in winter.
Q: How did you come to write a book about it?
A: The book was another bit of serendipity. I was approached by my editor. He’d been asking Audrey [Matson] at Egg/Plant [Urban Farm Supply in St. Paul] if she knew someone who could write about indoor kitchen gardening. She gave him my name.
Q: What are some good indoor starter crops?
A: Start with microgreens. They’re so hardy. Radish greens are good. They’re fast-growing and hard to screw up. You can grow them in a container you already have — blueberry containers are good; they already have drainage. Even bottle caps. Microgreens need very little soil, and they have a shocking amount of flavor.
Q: What’s harder to grow?
A: Sprouts. My editor made me include them. I’m not a fan. I don’t like sprouts, and the need for fussing is too high. I like to set it and forget it. And as a grower, you need a special license to sell sprouts; there are so many bacterial issues.
Q: What plants aren’t worth the bother?
A: I’ve not had luck with things outside our zone. I tried to grow a loofah plant. It looks like a cucumber; you peel the husk off, and you can use it [as a scrubbing sponge] forever. I tried, but it died. Larger tomatoes, don’t bother. I would go for cherry tomatoes. At a certain point, you have to think about the energy it takes. If you’re jacking up your electric bill to grow a couple tomatoes, it’s probably not worth it. Carrots, too. They need so much root depth. Parisian carrots — round and small — those are perfect. You only need a couple inches of soil.
Q: Yours is the first gardening book I’ve seen with a whole chapter on “Attitude.”
A: It’s true. We’ve done indoor growing classes, and I can [spot] the people who overthink it. This is not a tax-preparation course. Let it go. Be a little hippie about it. Seeds want to grow. But don’t over-expect. If you’re going to go “prepper,” and think you’ll feed a family with the stuff in your basement, you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s fun! I’m not going to grow daikon radish in my house; that’s a stretch. But you can grow daikon microgreens with the same flavor. The Japanese are growing all kinds of stuff. They have indoor spaces with hydroponic, aquaponic [growing facilities]. When the apocalypse comes, the Japanese will survive.
Q: What do indoor food gardeners need to know about soil?
A: Inside the house is drier than outside. You can water more and run the risk of mold. But it’s better to use well-drained indoor potting soil, mixed with vermiculite to help it drain. I don’t recommend garden soil. You don’t know what bugs are in there. Every time I bring it in, I have a pest problem. The windows are closed, the heat is on — it becomes a little hothouse with little worms, mites, a bunch of stuff.
Q: Do you recommend using grow lights?
A: The lights we use are regular full-spectrum, fluorescent shop lights. They’re cheap, $6, at Menards and Home Depot. HID (high-intensity discharge) lights get to be more expensive. I put plants on a regular shelving unit, and hang the lights pretty close to the plant.
Q: What are you growing in your home right now?
A: Two little flats of mustard greens, and some cress. They’re super fast-growing, and have nice flavor.
Q: Where in the house do you recommend growing?
A: Think outside the kitchen. We’ve had a lot of success in the basement — next to a water source, and not too hot. I’m a big fan of the basement.