How to Grow an Indoor Survival Garden

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Growing my own fresh fruits and vegetables is one of my favorite pastimes. I love to harvest the sweet bounty of my labors. Sometimes growing your own food is a requirement for survival and not just a pleasant hobby.

Can I grow food inside of my home? Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, lettuce, and greens can all be grown inside of your home with a little bit of knowledge, the right supplies, and some tender loving care.

My adventure in growing food indoors began this year when the pandemic hit, and I realized that I needed to up my game when it came to growing our own food. I am not new to the home production scene, but suddenly I was driven to make it more than a hobby.

My Indoor Garden Production Goals

I have a bit of a unique goal when it comes to my little indoor garden. One of Jon’s favorite meals is a vegetable hoagie sandwich on a 9-grain honey oat roll.

I can store the vinegar, oil, mustard, jalapenos, and the ingredients for my fantastic hoagie rolls in our food storage for at least 5 years. It takes me a little more than one hour to whip up a batch of hoagie rolls and bake them.

What I need is to be able to grow the fresh vegetables year-round for this sandwich. My garden needs to be able to produce lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. We may have to settle for chives in place of the onions, or I can put dehydrated onions in the vinegar and oil for some added onion flavor. 

In addition to keeping my family happily fed, I want to be able to keep a good stock of healthy greens available for use in salads, cooking, and smoothies. Fresh greens and lettuce for daily salads are important to me for a healthy diet. And finally, nothing takes the place of fresh herbs in my cooking. My indoor gardening lets me have all of my favorites, less than 10 steps away from my kitchen.

In this post, we will review some important aspects of growing food indoors. My goals are probably a bit different from your goals. Even growing some lettuce and greens would make a big nutritional difference in a survival diet when you are living off basic food storage.

Basics of Growing Vegetables and Herbs Indoors

Greens are the easiest plants to grow indoors. They are relatively pest and disease free when you do it correctly. This is how I grow my lettuce indoors.

#1 – Plants Need Light – Sunlight or Artificial Light

Very few of us have enough natural light to grow an indoor garden. Vegetables and greens can grow well in front of a window with good sun exposure. Sometimes you may need to supplement with a little artificial light for optimal growth.

Optimal growth will occur with at least 12 hours of light each day. During the short winter months, plants may require supplemental lighting.

Light Bulb Specifications for Growing Plants

You do not need to purchase expensive grow lights. Seedlings can be grown effectively with inexpensive shop lights if you purchase the right bulbs. Use a bulb with a Kelvin rating of 5,000 to 6,500, and an output of at least 2,500 lumens.

To learn more about our inexpensive lighting system, visit our post, Inexpensive Grow Lights to Jump Start Your Garden.

Grow lights should be as close to the plant as possible. You may need to find a way to make your lights adjustable to keep them near rapidly growing plants. If you notice that your plants are yellow or leggy, they may not be getting enough light. Healthy plants will have a beautiful color and a thick healthy stem.

#2 – Give Roots Plenty of Room to Grow

I usually start plants in a small container and then transplant them into a larger pot that will accommodate their adult size. Small containers will limit the potential size of the plant and affect the overall health and production.

If you look at the lettuce plants in the photo below you will notice that the plant in the cup is significantly smaller than the plants in the tub. They were started and transplanted at the same time. The only variable is the size of the container. When you give plants adequate space for the roots to grow they will give you higher yields in return.

Learn more about growing greens indoors in our post, How to Grow Fresh Greens Inside Your Home All Year Long.

#3 – Provide Good Drainage to Prevent Root Rot

Good moisture regulation begins with quality soil. Spend the extra money to purchase a good potting soil for your indoor plants. It will be worth it. A good potting soil will help to regulate the amount of moisture available to your plant.

There are few plants who like soggy feet. I created an inexpensive system using plastic dishpans. Jon drilled drainage holes in the top dishpan. A second dishpan underneath captures any excess water. I placed thin pieces of scrap wood between the dishpans to allow room for the water to drain. It is not my dream system, but it fits in my budget.

#4 – Consider Growing Temperatures

Maintain the right temperature for the plants you are growing. Plants can be quite resilient with temperature swings but there a few basic parameters to consider.

The ideal temperature for growing lettuce is 65-70°. It requires an average temperature of 50° to grow. Too cold will slow growth and too hot will encourage the plant to bolt.

Peppers on the other hand require a temperature of 85° to germinate. After the seedling stage, they are incredibly happy to live in a wider range of temperatures as long as they don’t freeze.

#5 – Air Movement Builds Strong Plants

Plants grown outdoors are stronger because of the constant exposure to air movement. You can mimic that movement by using fans to create a gentle breeze. If your garden is in a room with windows, open the windows to let the natural breezes come through when temperatures are right. Do not mistake drafts for healthy air movement.

#6 – Fertilize Regularly

Indoor plants do not have access to the natural fertilization that Mother Nature provides. They only have the nutrients that you provide for them.

Some potting soil comes with slow release fertilizers, so you do not have to fertilize for a few months. I usually fertilize every few days with an organic fertilizer that is designed for edible plants.

Preppers always have a stock of important supplies. When growing your own indoor garden, this applies to fertilizers. These are a few that are available online that you might be interested in.

#7 – Harvest Daily

The more you harvest responsibly, the more your plants will produce. I start selectively harvesting leaves from lettuce and greens when they are about 4 inches tall. The cut-and-come-again method lets me harvest the young leaves while allowing the plant to continue growing. I do not cut more than one third of the plant at a time. The plant will quickly replace the leaves that I have harvested.

The cut-and-come-again method of harvesting is accomplished by cutting the outer leaves at the base of the plant first, about 1 inch from the soil. The plant will continue to grow new lettuce in the center for a while longer. Harvest in the morning for best flavor and texture.

#8 – Plant All Year to Harvest All Year

Indoor gardening is quite different than outdoor gardening in that it is not defined by the seasons of the year. You plant and harvest year-round.

Continually Plant New Crops

Eventually, all annual varieties of lettuce and greens will bolt and go to seed. Some varieties last longer than others. Most greens and lettuce plants have a limited productive life. By using the cut-and-come-again harvest method, you significantly increase that productive life, but the plants will not last forever.

You can ensure a constant supply of greens by having plants growing at all stages. When you begin to harvest from one set of greens, it is time to plant a new container to ensure that you have a constant supply of fresh greens for your dinner table. Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers do not need to be replanted as frequently as greens.

Try Perennials in Your Indoor Garden

You can plant a few varieties of greens that are perennial. A variety of spinach called Malabar can be grown as an indoor houseplant. I am experimenting with Malabar in my indoor garden.

Many herbs are perennial such as oregano, thyme, chives, and mints. These are beautiful productive plants to keep in your indoor garden.

Grow New Plants by Cloning or Taking Cuttings from Mature Plants

I am trying to time my production of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers so that my indoor garden will start producing right about the time that frost kills my outdoor plants. I have some favorite tomatoes and cucumbers that I have taken cuttings from and started indoors for my winter indoor crop.

How to Make Indoor Survival Gardens Sustainable

There are some challenges with the sustainability of indoor gardens. If you are truly growing a survival garden, resources may be limited including the availability of electricity. These are a few of the challenges and how I am planning to manage the challenge.

No Power to Operate Grow Lights

We will use electricity if it is available. The plants will not die if they go for a few days without lights. Productivity will be reduced, but chances are they will recover.

Take Advantage of Natural Lighting

We may need to carry all the plants outside on the days when weather permits to allow them to get a little sunshine and air movement. Depending on the conditions, we may need to place them in a shady area to prevent them from being scorched by the sun.

Back Up Power

Jonathan is currently experimenting with an LED grow light system that will be easier to run off backup power. We are planning to power our light with solar power. We will let you know how this experiment goes.

Limited Supply of Potting Soil

It is best not to reuse potting soil. Once the plants are exhausted, we add the used potting soil to our compost bin, worm bin, or plant it into the garden with the mature plant.

Potting soil can be sterilized and reused. It is important to kill insects and undesirable bacteria living in the soil. Nature takes care of this without any help, but soil needs to be sterile in the artificial environment we have created indoors.

Plant Propagation and Seed Saving

Once a plant has bolted and begun to go to seed, it is no longer pleasant tasting and is taking up valuable real estate in my indoor garden. Yet without a supply of new seeds, I have no way of continuing to produce food.

I have addressed this problem by planting greens that have bolted out in my garden. There is plenty of room for them to go to seed and I can harvest the seeds without the plants occupying precious space inside.

Seeds can easily be saved from tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. One problem I have, is that some of my favorite, most productive varieties are hybrid, and will not produce a plant (from seed) that is true to the parent. This problem is solved by cloning or taking cuttings from existing mature plants.

My favorite cherry tomato is a Sun Sugar, and it is hybrid. I can store seeds, but eventually they will run out. This year I decided to take cuttings from the Sun Sugar and root them in water. The starts are growing wonderfully well in pots under grow lights. By taking cuttings or cloning your favorite plants, you can grow them indefinitely. It is a great sustainable solution.

Benefits of an Indoor Garden

I am a fan of indoor gardening because of the many benefits. I no longer have to worry about the weather because this little garden is safe indoors.

High Production in Small Space

Indoor gardening has the potential to produce a high volume of edible produce in a small space. I am using shelving and hanging pots from our ceiling to get the greatest productivity from every inch.

Grow Food Almost Anywhere

You can grow food in an insulated outdoor shed, in a basement, in a closet, in your garage, or even right in your family room. Grow lights make it possible to grow in places you never dreamed possible. Your plants still need to be protected from freezing temperatures. Get creative. Find a spot to grow something.

No Weeding Needed – Ever

Weed control is unnecessary in your indoor garden. There is no wind that carries the seeds that sprout everywhere. Just clean potting soil designed to give the roots of your plants a happy home.

Simple Insect Control

In my home garden, I battle with all kinds of insects. Grasshoppers, ear wigs, squash bugs, and a variety of other culprits take advantage of my hard work. Most of them are not invited into my home.

I do have to battle with small greenhouse flies, but I have strategies that seem to be working. We will let you know what we learn in future posts.

Protected Environment

An indoor garden is protected from freezing temperatures, wind, hail, snow, and harsh summer sun. The artificial environment you create in your home has both advantages and disadvantages. That is one reason why I will always have my outdoor gardens whenever possible.

Theoretically your indoor garden is protected from animals (deer, chickens, rabbits, and skunks). We cannot do anything about your family dog or cat. It is also protected from people who may want to take advantage of your hard work.

I am not sure that we can protect your indoor garden from your hungry family. You will be pleasantly surprised how much more interested children become in eating vegetables when they get to be a part of helping them grow.  

Disadvantages to Indoor Gardening

Even with all the benefits there are some significant disadvantages to growing an indoor garden. The biggest is that you don’t have Mother Nature helping the process. But then again, you don’t have her freezing your crops either.

Limited Space

There are space limitations to indoor gardening. I cannot grow corn, or melons, or winter squash. Some plants require more room than I have available. I need to stick to crops that I can grow in confined space containers.

Artificial Environment and Sustainability

I am a huge fan of permaculture, and using organic gardening practices that work with Mother Nature to produce a sustainable crop. Most of those principles cannot be applied in the artificial environment inside my home.

Constant Human Intervention Required

Indoor gardening requires constant monitoring for success. The plants need regular watering. Lights need to be turned on and off. You can automate both the watering and lights, but without that your plants are completely dependent upon you for survival.

Potential Issues with Greenhouse Prone Insects

There are no natural predators for insects inside your home. I am the sole predator. You may have issues with whiteflies, aphids, leafhoppers, and thrips. Knowledge, skill, and vigilance are required to protect your vulnerable plants.

Size Your Indoor Survival Garden to Meet Your Basic Needs

Space may limit your ability to truly provide enough fresh produce to adequately meet your needs. Our goal is to supplement our regular garden produce with our indoor garden, not replace it.

We grow an abundance of fruits and vegetables in our little food forest, our kitchen garden, and our production garden. We bottle, dehydrate, freeze, and store much of this produce, in addition to eating as much as we can while it is fresh. Our short growing season limits our ability to meet our fresh produce needs.

The goal of our little indoor garden is to supplement our food stores with fresh produce, not to replace them. Growing fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, and greens will provide vitamins that our stored foods are lacking. It also makes eating more enjoyable.

We started with getting a jump on the season by growing seedlings and are expanding to a full-production indoor garden. You can start with one light bulb over one plant in a pot and see where it goes from there. We encourage you to take that first step and enjoy a bountiful harvest.  

Thanks for being part of the solution!

Jonathan and Kylene Jones

 

Kylene

Kylene Jones is a blogger, content creator, published author, motivational speaker, homesteader, prepper, mother, and grandmother. She practices self-reliance, provident living, and emergency preparedness in her everyday life. She loves working with her husband, Jonathan, and is committed to helping our community be prepared to thrive during the challenges that lie in our future.