Big strides have been made in the techniques and technology used for indoor gardening. From automation and LED lights to the proliferation of simple, functional hydroponic setups, indoor gardening in Alaska is more attainable than ever. With our short growing season, why not take advantage of the winter and grow something you can eat?
The most practical and productive things you can grow indoors would be microgreens, lettuce, herbs, cucumbers and tomatoes. For non-fruit bearing plants (greens, herbs and lettuce), you don’t even need special grow lights — regular fluorescent lights will do. Some microgreens mature in as little as a week while many other types of greens mature in as little as three weeks.
While not as productive or practical, here are some of the indoor edibles on my wish list in case Santa is reading: a kaffir lime tree, lemon grass, bay laurel, brown turkey fig, calamondin oranges (small, bitter oranges), passion flower, and a tamarillo tree.
I want to grow my own kaffir lime and lemon grass. They are not readily available in Fairbanks, and the Thai recipes I use always call for them. Fresh bay leaves are extra flavorful and since you need herbs in small quantities, I think I can produce enough to satisfy my need. One of my favorite pizzas combines fresh figs, fig spread and bacon, and fresh figs are also difficult to find in town, although they are available when they’re in season at the Co-op Market.
Calamondin oranges are bitter but more productive than other types of citrus when grown in an indoor environment. Have you seen a passion flower? It’s a wild and beautiful thing that I would not mind having in my living room. Tamarillo trees are basically wild tomatoes. They take about two years to mature so, of course, they could not be grown outside. Fruits and vegetables that are closer to their wild ancestors tend to be more nutritious. Unfortunately, these exotic edibles are not as easy to grow as many houseplants, but maybe, some day, they will reward you with a tiny morsel to savor. Plus — bragging rights!
I interviewed my mom, Maggi Rader, for this article because she has grown exotic plants. With floor to ceiling, south-facing windows that look out over the Tanana Flats, her home is ideal for indoor growing. She is currently growing a lemon tree (purchased locally) and just harvested a ripe lemon. She expects she might will get a few more this year. She has found that you have to be very careful when you transplant your citrus plants. She’s also growing a coconut, plumeria, and passion flower, all of which she picked up as small seedlings from the airport in Hawaii. She grew a banana to a nice size, but it didn’t produce fruit. She fertilizes every three weeks or so and uses a citrus specific fertilizer for her tropical plants.
My mom has had a lot of problems with pests — in particular spider mites — but doesn’t have any pest problems right now. Dealing with pests is one of the more frustrating parts of growing indoor plants. Check out Extension’s publication on houseplant pest and control: bit.ly/34lzqGZ.
Holm Town Nursery, Fairbanks’ only local, year-round greenhouse, does not have too many exotic indoor edible plants right now, but it does tend to carry quite a few in the spring and summer, including citrus and bananas. Although the greenhouse doesn’t special order plants, it does take input from gardeners on what they’re interested in purchasing. It also carries a wide variety of hydroponics setups if you’re interested in growing less exotic but more practical edibles like lettuce and greens.
Mile 5.2 Greenhouse in Eagle River carries a wider variety of exotic edible plants and ships them throughout Alaska. Some of the plants are quite mature and thus more expensive, but because they are more mature, it means you’ll be eating their fruits very soon. You can also order plants on the internet from any number of greenhouses, but be sure to sleuth their shipping policies before shopping. You’ll also have to do more research and make sure that what you choose will be appropriate for indoor gardening. For example, look for plants with a dwarf or semi-dwarf habit or be prepared for a jungle to take over your house.
In “Indoor Edible Garden: Creative Ways to Grow Herbs, Fruits, and Vegetables in Your Home,” Zia Allaway provides a wealth of inspiration and ideas for indoor growing and provides some basic growing tips.
Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District has developed a useful website for Indoor Gardening in Alaska, particularly if you’re a teacher and would like to use it in your class: bit.ly/2PrP5jH.
It’s not too late to add a plant or two to your Christmas list or to pick one up from Hawaii.
Heidi Rader is a tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at 907-474-6620 or email@example.com.