Can I grow tasty lettuce in my closet?
April 22, 2008 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Can I grow lettuce and other veggies all year long?

I live in DC where it snows in the winter (some times). I grow lettuce in the spring/summer but I only get to eat off of it for a couple months if that long. I don't want to buy lettuce from the grocery store any more. Can I grow lettuce (and other herbs/veggies) indoors with any success all year long?

I've researched a little but most of the indoor gardening info out there is related to marijuana which can be a much larger and different plant than lettuce. I need advice on the lighting, soil, temperatures I think -- the same sort of stuff but on a smaller, lettuce-specific scale.

My mom, a gardener, says that it's possible but that it won't taste good enough to be worth my trouble. Does she have a point?
posted by metajc to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I recently acquired an aerogarden which is kind of gimmicky in a "seen on tv" way, but might be worth your money. It's basically a small self contained hydroponic system that's supposed to reside on your kitchen countertop. You won't be able to grow a ton of lettuce, but I planted their herb kit in January and I'm still harvesting fresh herbs over four months later. Might not be as big a scale as you'd like but they do have lettuce kits. The downside is that they're trying to lock you into buying more seed pods from them, but there might be a creative way around this.
posted by fatedblue at 11:58 AM on April 22, 2008

I think it's possible, but it'll cost more than buying it at the grocery store. You're talking about a greenhouse, pretty much, and it would have to be heated in the winter. That's going to cost a lot of money in electricity.
posted by Class Goat at 12:18 PM on April 22, 2008

Some people grow lettuce in a "hot box" in the late winter/early spring. Build a little box out of bricks, fill the bottom with manure, fresh manure and a layer of sandy topsoil. Plant the lettuce in the topsoil and then cover the box with glass. Water occasionally when things get dry. The manure fertilizes the lettuce and creates enough warmth to keep the mini-greenhouse warm. On warm days, take off the glass to keep the crops from overheating. By the time other people are putting in their first crops of lettuce, you'll be uncovering the hot box and picking fresh greens.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:21 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need a coldframe. Put it on the south side of your house and you should be able to grow greens all year.
posted by bricoleur at 12:22 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it's possible to grow lettuce inside. A hydroponic setup is going to make any vegetables you might grow much more expensive than the ones you can buy at the store. However, I know that you can grow lettuce outside, even in the snow, if you have enough space.

The books you need are Solar Gardening: Growing Vegetables Year-Round the American Intensive Way by Leandre Poisson and Gretchen Vogel Poisson and The Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman.

One of the books talked about building raised beds with a cover made out of the same material as some greenhouses and the other mentioned using small solar cones to cover the vegetables. There was some mention of helping to heat the beds with compost but you definitely don't need a full size greenhouse or electric heat.
posted by Ariadne at 12:24 PM on April 22, 2008

We, too, are in DC, and have a smallish but intensively managed outdoor garden. We're able to harvest ample amounts of lettuce in all but the 4 coldest months. I share your aversion for store-bought stuff. It's not just the money--home-grown just tastes better.

The lettuce we planted in the fall survived the winter (as did the parsley and chard), though it didn't grow much, so I wonder if just a little help outdoors would suffice--I'm thinking cold frames as opposed to an all-out greenhouse. We've discussed it for our garden, but we don't have anywhere to store the frames when we're not using them.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:26 PM on April 22, 2008

Some folks call it a sling blade I call it a kaiser blade.

The coldframe bricoleur linked is a fancy version of the hot box I spoke of.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:28 PM on April 22, 2008

One last thing, I promise. If you build your hot box/coldframe in your garden bounds, MrMoonPie, and out of a temporary structure, like loose bricks/blocks, you can just dismantle it as the spring comes on and just use the material for edging until winter rolls in again. The manue or fresh compost, plows right in come spring once the lettuce goes to pot.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:32 PM on April 22, 2008

Response by poster: Solar Gardening, cold boxes, cold frames, hot boxes, aerogardens -- all awesome, thanks!

Feel free to recommend more books if you know of any!
posted by metajc at 12:37 PM on April 22, 2008

Well like pot, one thing you'll need to be aware of is light/dark cycles. If you want to do this indoors you'll need to figure out the optimal light to dark ratio. Theoretically you could set up a system that, if lit continuously, would never bolt. It's often light cycles more than temperature that often will push a plant into flowering. So if you could set up an area with a rich bed, and then lit it well and always, I don't see why you couldn't do this. But what you'll pay in electricity will quite likely surpass what you might save on your store-bought lettuce. And I doubt this could be done without artificial light as I don't think the plants will get enough light over the winter. They'll start listening to emo and sulking all the time, like a typical depressed adolescent not getting enough sunlight. (I kid, but still, it's unlikely much thriving will occur)

Another consideration will be variety. Go with those that are harvested young and then plant in cycles, assuming each cycle will last two to three weeks at best, of course that average comes from my garden experience. Forcing immaturity with light may result in longer harvest periods. Those baby lettuces are probably ideal. Baby lettuces are pretty tough and disease resistant. I can recommend most of the varieties sold through Cooks Garden. You'll note that many are either for cold weather or hot. My guess would be the colder varieties will do better than the summer varieties indoors. Remember to cut when harvesting, rather than pulling or you'll pull out the whole plant.

Let us know if you try this and what your results are. Our house came with two "mystery" closets when we bought it. We've since referred to these as the grow rooms. If this works for you then maybe I'll try it next winter.
posted by Toekneesan at 1:31 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pollomacho, you might use the same box for either a coldframe or a hotbox; that doesn't make a coldframe and a hotbox the same thing. A hotbox, as you correctly described it, has something added to it (fresh manure) to heat it up. A coldframe doesn't. I wasn't merely echoing your suggestion. I was suggesting that in DC, a properly placed coldframe will be sufficiently temperate for most greens.
posted by bricoleur at 1:42 PM on April 22, 2008

I've had lettuces survive over the past winter here in the UK just by having them in a raised bed (50cm or so) in a sheltered, south-facing spot. Admittedly it was a mild winter with not much in the way of frost or snow. So I can see that a coldframe would probably be a viable approach. Rocket also seems to over-winter quite well - the flavour of mine doesn't seem to be affected at all by the cold weather.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:01 PM on April 22, 2008

i'd like to second Ariadne's suggestions:

Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest is an excellent book on growing things year round

as is Solar Gardening by Leandre & Gretchen Vogel Poisson

posted by jammy at 2:04 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

My confusion, I thought that as your link included the line: An electric heating cable, available for this purpose, can be placed in the soil to provide additional heat. That we were essentially talking about the same thing. I've also heard the terms used interchangably for heated and non-heated hot boxes/coldframes.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:06 PM on April 22, 2008

Definitely Elliot Coleman. And it's a little less directly relevant but you might enjoy John Jeavons's books.
posted by sully75 at 3:21 PM on April 22, 2008

I heard something about the narcotics officers driving around with IR cameras(detects heat), looking for people growing things in their closets. Please be careful if you go this route.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:47 PM on April 22, 2008

Best answer: I doubt you'll need a hotbox in DC, a coldframe should suffice. You may want to spend some time poking around the DC Urban Gardeners site for more information and links to resources.
posted by weebil at 5:04 PM on April 22, 2008

I heard something about the narcotics officers driving around with IR cameras(detects heat), looking for people growing things in their closets. Please be careful if you go this route.

I've heard of them checking outsized electric bills, but IR cameras without some prior suspicion seems a little over the top, even for our Lords and Masters.

Then again....
posted by IndigoJones at 5:43 PM on April 22, 2008

Best answer: Wait a minute, why does anyone growing lettuce need to be careful? For using suspicious kilowatts?

I think those fuckin terrorists did win.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:27 PM on April 22, 2008

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