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How to grow veggies indoors or out, in the coldest months of the year 

When the gray days pile on one after another and the streets are coated with melting sludge, growing plants, herbs and vegetables at home can be spirit-lifting and surprisingly simple.

Several varieties of cold-hardy vegetables will grow in outdoor containers during North Carolina's relatively mild winter months. And many herbs, leafy greens and flowering plants that don't require a lot of light will grow in small indoor spaces under fluorescent lamps. For the adventurous virtually any vegetable, including those requiring eight hours of sunlight per day, like tomatoes, can be grown in indoor greenhouses with the right amount of know-how. No matter where you live or how much space you have inside or out, you can grow something during the coldest months of the year.

click to enlarge PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JUSTIN COOK. STYLED BY MAXINE MILLS.
  • Photo illustration by Justin Cook. Styled by Maxine Mills.

"You don't have to be limited to thinking vegetables can only be grown in the ground," says Alyssa Campo, the manager of Fifth Season Gardening Company on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. "Many of the winter vegetables grow incredibly well in containers."

Fifth Season Gardening stores specialize in hydroponics, home brewing, organic gardening and urban D.I.Y. The company has a second Triangle location, in Carrboro, as well as two other locations across the state and one in Charlottesville, Virginia.

To grow winter vegetables outdoors, Campo recommends planting seeds in organic soil in a 1-gallon pot that's at least 8 inches deep. Varieties of radish and carrot, parsnips, beets and peas will grow through winter months. The Danvers 126 carrot and the Misato Rose, or winter radish, grow particularly well during a North Carolina winter. Beets, radishes and peas will even do well in a balcony box; broccoli and cauliflower are also cold-hardy.

Some lettuces, spinach, chard, collards and kale will grow into the winter months, but, if you want to eat them, they may require a bit more outdoor space to grow. "(The lettuces) aren't your normal grocery store varieties," Campo says. "They're beautiful, almost like purple plants, so if you don't grow them as food, you can grow them as ornamentals. And you could even grow them in a Solo cup if you wanted to."

Herbs will grow indoors year-round, and thyme, dill, cilantro and Moss Curled parsley do well outside during the winter. "The first time I grew Moss Curled parsley, it snowed 6 inches, and I dug them out the next day and they were like, 'Hi, we're still here," Campo says. "I was dumbfounded. It's just the coolest plant."

If you plan to garden indoors, your first step is to procure some fluorescent lights. At the minimum, use CFL bulbs from a hardware store, but plants actually prefer a particular color spectrum of about 6500 on the Kelvin scale. Look for these bulbs at gardening stores. Fluorescent bulbs come in different sizes and lengths, and can be mounted or hung vertically or horizontally, or daisy-chained together to cover a large amount of space. An unusable corner of counter space, for example, could be transformed to grow a single plant by mounting a fluorescent light to a cabinet above it.

"A single-strip light will give you great seed starts that's more along the lines of spring growth," Campo says. "You will notice when plants aren't happy, they will start stretching to the light." Generally, the more light the plants are exposed to, including any ambient sunlight, the better the growth will be.

If you're eager to try growing light-intensive plants in an indoor greenhouse, you will want to buy either High Intensity Discharge or Light Emitting Diode light bulbs. "This light most mimics the sun. It's that bright and has the right kind of color spectrum," says Campo.

Indoor gardening has been growing as a hobby in the area, she says. "I can't say how many people from Cary have come in here, wanting to convert the bedroom of their kid who just went off to college."

There are many ways to do an indoor greenhouse, which ranges in size. You can buy a mid-size model for around $100, convert an entire room if you have the space, or do it yourself with some shelve units and thick plastic.

To do an indoor greenhouse right, expect to spend a lot of time and $400–$1,500 on materials and energy costs; some young plants need at least 12 hours of light per day. Campo says there is no discernible difference in flavor and nutrition between plants grown outside and plants grown under artificial light.

"When you're growing in winter," Campo says, "it's not always about the cold but the fact that there's just not enough light. Being in an environment like this is peaceful."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Winter's zone"

  • "It's not always about the cold but the fact that there's just not enough light."

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