Gardening grew in popularity during the pandemic, with many Americans having more free time at home, as well as a desire to eat more healthfully to boost their immunity. According to trade publication Greenhouse Product News and Axiom Marketing’s 2021 Garden Survey, 86% of homeowners plan to continue gardening in 2021 and 47% say they will be planting more.
Since not everyone has an expansive outdoor gardening space, indoor gardening (favored by 46%) and container gardening (enjoying 32% popularity) have become accepted ways to grow herbs, greens, vegetables and other food plants.
There are ways to combine both in kitchen or patio gardening, but these can potentially present challenges for cultivators, particularly with maintaining the best soil for nutritious produce.
Importance of Soil
“Soil health and fertility is the necessary foundation for healthy food sources for all of us,” observes chef and culinary consultant Katy Sparks in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “Soil composition directly affects flavor and nutrition,” she continues, pointing to the presence of minerals and organic matter as key factors in what growers can expect from their produce. Farmers are focusing on soil science, she says, but many home gardeners may not be.
“There’s a common saying that the best farmers raise healthy soil, not vegetables,” shares urban farmer Melanie Lidman of O2 Artisan’s Aggregate in West Oakland, California. “The soil you use is the most important aspect of your home garden, though it’s often the place where people cut the most corners.”
Lidman advises against buying the lowest-price soil bag at the garden center, declaring it the biggest mistake home growers make. “There are 18 essential elements that plants must have in order to grow properly, including things like magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, copper, zinc, and phosphorus. These elements help plants grow strong, and are also an integral part of human health and warding off diseases.” We obtain them by eating produce raised in that rich soil. “As a home gardener, you have complete control over your soil, and can make it as nutritious as possible!” She declares.
“Soil needs air, water, minerals, organic matter, and microbes in sufficient quantities at all times to function well,” explains Dan Kittredge, executive director of the educational nonprofit Bionutrient Food Association. “Everything else is dirt.”
In order to be sure your plants produce the most nutritious produce for your table, he says, “There should always be a large enough amount of soil for a plant to have at least as much mass below ‘ground’ as above.” In other words, your five-foot tomato plant needs more than a six-inch pot on your window ledge to flourish.
“Container gardens can be wonderful, but better to err on the side of larger than smaller if possible,” Kittredge suggests. The good news is that soil nutrition is not dependent on size, so this approach is great for people with limited space who want to experience the joys of growing their own vegetables. “Just make sure there is proper drainage,” he recommends.
“Container gardening needs light, airy soil,” notes Lidman. At the end of the growing season, you’re going to replace some of the existing soil with compost if it’s outdoors, she says. That helps keep the microorganisms alive.
The challenges mount when you try cultivating food plants inside, which is increasingly popular, especially among those who want to eat healthfully, but don’t have garden space outdoors.
Secrets for Successful Indoor Food Plants
Since growing herbs, greens and even small vegetables in the kitchen has been trending even before the pandemic, how do you ensure their success and nutrition? It’s trickier, Lidman admits, particularly since it’s not a space where you’d use fresh compost.
“Indoor plants are a great place to use a bit of liquid organic fertilizer (make sure it is specifically for growing edible vegetables), or – the gold standard, humus – from worm composting.” This odorless material is “like giving your plants a hug and an ice cream sundae: they will love you forever,” she chuckles.
Another option Lidman suggests is compost tea, allowing some compost you’ve been collecting in a secure container, (perhaps under your sink), to steep in a bucket of water for a few days and then using that water to water your plants.
Positioning food plants in your home may be the easiest part of the process. There are now indoor grow systems with lights and drainage built into wall cabinetry and islands available through cabinetry makers. There are also plant-growing built-in appliances and countertop models available. Some of the appliance and countertop growers are not soil-based, so they won’t provide the nutrients that thrive in that medium.