A kit from California-based Back to the Roots provided a 64-ounce jar, soil, tomato seeds and organic fertilizer pellets. Photo by Tom Atwell

It is lovely to have fresh vegetables that we have grown available all through the year, even if they are just something we add to our sandwiches at lunch.

Our storage crops – winter squash, potatoes, carrots, beets, garlic and onions – are options throughout the winter. But it is more exciting to harvest something and eat it fresh.

With the unusually warm autumn we have had this year, I was able to cut lettuce from the garden through mid-November, but when temperatures dropped to about 20 degrees, that came to an end.

I did plant some lettuce in a cold frame in early October, but that is only about an inch tall now, so I am not sure it will produce cuttable leaves before the temperatures are so cold in the miniature greenhouse that the greens stop growing. And even if they do grow well, I may not want to wade through snow drifts to cut a bit of lettuce.

To increase the chances of late lettuce next year, I have ordered Pinetree Garden Seeds’ winter mix lettuce, which you aren’t supposed to plant until six to eight weeks before the expected first frost. With no frost until mid-November this year and as early as mid-September in the past, guessing that date will be a challenge.

The lack of outdoor vegetables forces me to start growing indoor food plants, more for the entertainment value than the calories they produce. I wrote about mushrooms last week, but there are other options, too.

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The latest experiment is growing a cherry tomato plant in a jar on our dining room windowsill. My wife, Nancy, found the kit offered by Back to the Roots, based in California. It includes a 64-ounce jar, soil to fill it, tomato seeds and, for when the plants get a little bit larger than they are now, organic fertilizer pellets. I now have three plants, each about two inches tall. When the plants get to be four inches, I will have to remove another one.

You need a south-facing window for this project, because the tomato needs at least six hours of sunlight a day. You could use artificial lights, but we gave up on those when we stopped growing our own seedlings for the summer garden.

A single orange grows on a tree in Tom Atwell’s house. Photo by Tom Atwell

One of our favorite semi-success stories is that we are now growing oranges – or at least an orange.

The Calamondin orange tree we bought at Skillins in 2019 has produced its first crop – one orange that is about an inch in diameter. It’s said to be sour, but even the single orange is bright enough to look good in our living room, so I would rather look at it than eat it anyway. The tree eventually will grow two feet tall, but it isn’t there yet.

This coffee plant has grown to over six inches. Photo by Tom Atwell

About the same time we bought the orange, we bought a pot with several coffee seedlings at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop. They are now in a larger pot and over six inches tall, so we have hopes.

A more practical indoor crop is microgreens. We were given a kit with everything you need to grow them last year, and they produced well.

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For those who want to grow more than the few we grew in our small kit, Johnny’s Selected Seeds has all the supplies you would need, as well as many different options for the kinds of greens you might want to grow.

Some people like to harvest the greens when they are little more than an inch tall, while others let them grow up to six inches. Try both, and see what you like best.

The most low-key of all the winter crops you can grow is sprouts. Nancy and I first grew these in the 1970s, took a break, then resumed during the pandemic. Rinse the seeds, drain them and place in the bottom of a one-quart jar with a screen or cheesecloth on the top, and wait about a week for them to spout. We have typically used a sandwich mix, but you can use broccoli, radish, alfalfa, kale, peas, beans and more. One advantage of sprouts is that they don’t need sunlight, which can be hard to find in some homes.

We also have banana and fig plants in our living room, but they have one major difference: I doubt they will ever produce food. Indoor fig trees, will produce crops in Maine or so I’ve been told. But Nancy and I have waited patiently for years now and have just about given up hope.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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