The Absentee Gardeners

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn
Starting seeds in a sunny window. - Photo: Liz Riley

I’m eating my houseplants. Or rather I should say I’m growing plants indoors that I can eat. Herbs, greens, and some vegetables can be successfully grown in and around your home if you can address the basic needs of your plants.

Temperature & Location – The outdoor growing season starts when soil temperatures reach a plant’s optimal range. Cool-season plants grow best below 70°F while warm-season plants prefer temperatures above 70°F. Using indoor, or sheltered locations, allows you to get an early start on the growing season by providing the ideal temperature and to match the location with the plants’ needs. A garage, an outside storage area, or a protected balcony or porch can be a great place for cool-season plants. Place a thermometer near your plants as you may need to cover your plants or use a heat mat to keep nighttime temperatures from dipping too low. You can extend the growing season and avoid spring frosts by starting plants indoors and then transitioning them outside once conditions match their needs. As our days warm up plants can be moved from warmer indoor locations, to cooler protected outdoor spaces, and then to outside beds. NC State University publishes a planting calendar with dates for planting outdoors. Refer to: In selecting your site, remember it’s easier to tend to those plants situated in convenient locations, as nearby access to water and other materials makes maintenance simpler.

Light – Most of the plants we eat need 6-8 hours of full outdoor sun to grow. South-facing windows may provide that much if they are not blocked by trees or structures. Lacking adequate daylight you can supplement with incandescent, fluorescent or LED lights. Set the light source on a timer for 12-16 hours. More intense light will help keep young plants from becoming leggy. Place the plant closer to the light source and then back away as it matures. Brown leaf edges may suggest the plant is too close to the light source while pale or smaller leaves may indicate the plant is not getting enough light.

Water, Soil, and Tools – Moisture is essential to germination and development of young plants. Too little water prevents plants from getting started but too much water and young plants will likely succumb to disease. While plants can grow in a variety of media it is essential you achieve the correct balance of both providing enough moisture and drainage. It sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. Allowing containers to dry out between waterings will stress young plants so develop a watering routine which keeps the growing medium moist, but not soggy. Warm locations will dry out pots more quickly and small containers tend to dry out faster than large ones. City tap water often contains chemicals to protect the quality of our drinking water which can be hard on young plants. Pour water into a clean container and let it sit uncovered for at least 24 hours before using on your plants, as this allows the chlorine and other chemicals to dissolve and dissipate.

While many containers, locations, and growing mediums can work they all need to be free of pests and contamination. Pests can hide in pots brought indoors for the winter, and recycled plant containers can harbor pests and pathogens. Sterilize containers before reuse by soaking in 1 part bleach to 9 parts water for at least 10 minutes. Tools, materials, and our hands can transfer pests and pathogens among plants so spray or wipe your hands, tools, and materials used with disinfectant when moving from one group of plants to another.

Starting plants indoors now allows you to get a jump on our coming growing season. Have faith gardeners, spring will be here in a few weeks.

You can find more from us on Twitter @AbsenteGardener or email:

Starting seeds in a sunny window. seeds in a sunny window. Photo: Liz Riley
Eating my houseplants

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn