If all the plants in your outdoor garden were frozen during the last cold spell and you are already craving the taste of fresh herbs and vegetables, there are ways to continue to grow - even during the cooler days of fall and the cold days of winter. In Taos, there is a wealth of knowledge on indoor growing techniques. Gardeners and experts were willing to share their advice with The Taos News, along with stories of success to inspire you to get started.
Everyone seems to agree that the best chance for success is typically to place your indoor plants in large south-facing windows to provide as much sunshine as possible. Plants need to be out of direct sunlight and be nourished with good soil, organic fertilizers and water. Challenges of indoor gardening include dealing with pests and making sure that there is fresh air circulating in your indoor garden.
Starting a garden inside doesn't have to be complicated or require a lot of supplies. Herbs are among the easiest plants to try if you are new to the process.
Native Taoseña Carolyn Love said, "I once took large Mason jars and grew herbs in the windowsill. I used large jars with a layer of tiny gravel, added soil and then herbs. It was fun and beautiful."
Herbs and vegetables
Local herbalist Lucy McCall brings in some of her herbs from outside, including rosemary, passionflower and rose geranium. Some of these herbs she keeps in pots and others she digs up from the soil. Although she places most of her plants in a sunny window, she said, "Some want less sun and may do better in a northern window - like turmeric."
She grows greens such as Swiss chard and kale in a sunny entryway and uses a southwest-facing greenhouse to start lettuce in February. One challenge she has had is keeping pests like whiteflies away from her plants, especially basil.
Other gardeners also take advantage of sunny spaces to grow. Carrie Adele Dean Schultz said, "I grow in our passive solar sunroom, which also heats the house. It works great. I grow kale, chard and collard greens and some herbs. There are two large beds built in the room, which I lined and filled with soil-less soil from Petree Nursery. I made a drainage system just in case and voila!"
The key to success is finding the right light for the plant and introducing some sort of air circulation. Nan Fischer, founder of the Taos Seed Exchange, said, "Direct winter sun is really hot. I put pots in a sunny window with lace or voile over it. I have a spot between two sunny windows that seems to work well. If it gets too hot, you need to add circulation: either a fan or a window cracked open."
Perhaps some of the most impressive indoor gardens in Taos can be found in the Earthship community west of town. The visitor center at the Greater World Earthship Community, located just west of the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, is a demonstration site for all the learning done on sustainable living here over the past more than 20 years. Visitors can see how Earthship living allows families to grow a good portion of their own food.
Like all of the Earthship homes in the community, the building faces south, creating a perfect indoor garden sunroom along the front face of the building. Michelle Locher, Earthship Biotecture food production and plant specialist, is charged with growing the garden in the visitor center. Even now as the days grow shorter, this garden is in full bloom still producing flowers, herbs and vegetables.
Locher points out that most of the plants are grown in brightly colored food-grade buckets suspended by ropes from the wood frame of the building. "Plants need big windows, fresh water, good soil and nutrients to thrive," she said. Her method for planting the 3-gallon buckets is covering the bottom one-third with hydroponic ceramic beads and adding an inch of straw. The straw keeps the organic potting soil that fills the rest of the bucket from falling into the first level of beads. A section of plastic pipe is inserted down into the first level to allow her to provide liquid nutrients that reach the roots of the plant. She explained, "This is a closed system, so there is no dripping; it can be used in anyone's house."
A walk through the greenhouse reveals an astounding variety of plants, including fig trees, melon and cucumber vines, garlic chives, kale, parsley, chard and basil plants that are as big as a tree. We tasted a ripe Roma tomato wrapped in a basil leaf. Locher said she uses the leaves to make lots of pesto and the greens to make salads for the staff of the Earthship Visitor Center. She pairs plants that taste good together, like tomatoes and basil, in a bucket and the plants seem to grow well together, too. Colorful flowers, like the edible pineapple sage, along with pink bougainvillea and geranium, are intertwined with the vegetables. In order to grow a variety of plants, Locher creates microclimates in the greenhouse, hanging shade cloth over the windows near plants that need less sun.
Pests can be a problem here, too. Locher says that the warm greenhouse creates a cushy environment for pests and she picks the bugs off by hand or uses an organic pesticide.
Locher explained the symbiotic relationship between the building, greenhouse and the seasons. "We adhere to a seasonal planting schedule. In the summer, cucumber and melon vines and trees thrive, providing shade for the inside of the building. In the winter, the fig trees drop their leaves and we plant chard and kale and other low-growing vegetables that allow sun to come in and warm the living area."
For indoor gardeners that are just starting out, she suggests starting with herbs like basil, garlic chives and parsley. "Once you get the hang of it, add tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers," she recommended.
Supplies and advice
Supplies are available locally for indoor gardening from Petree Nursery and the hardware stores. One particularly good source for both the supplies you need to grow and advice on how to do it is Earthgoods, located on Bertha Road next to the post office. In its 4,000-square-foot space, Earthgoods has demonstration gardens of lettuce, herbs and even a separate growing tent for cactus. The staff can help get you started with an indoor garden, small or large.
Casey Davis, the managing partner, says that some of the easiest things to grow are sprouts and wheatgrass. He said that they need less light because they have such short lifespans that the lack of light is not an issue and they can be grown in a small space.
For other plants, they will do best if they have an additional source of light to extend the day. "South-facing windows are superior. But even so, you may need additional lighting to prevent plants from going dormant, which is a possibility with less than 12 hours of sun. Any source of light may prevent dormancy, but for plants to really thrive and bloom, they need special 'grow lights' because plants require a different spectrum of light than what we perceive of with the human eye," said Davis.
Earthgoods offers potting soil of all types and supplies for hydroponic growing - in which the plants get their nutrients through liquids rather than soil. When you harvest your garden produce, you can find supplies for canning, as well as making beer and wine.
Davis comes from a farming family in Kansas. "Farming is in my blood," he said. "When I came here, the desert challenged me to increase my skills."
Davis and his staff are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and helping people get started. "We are garden geeks," he said.
For more information on local gardening, join the Taos Farm and Garden group on Facebook. Contact the Earthship Visitor Center at (575) 613-4409 and firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at earthship.com. Earthgoods is located at 120 Bertha Road; call (575) 758-9131 or visit sustainabletaos.net.