I’ve just re-planted my kitchen windowsill over the weekend and hope to get plenty of foodie goods from it over the next few weeks.
Most plants do better outdoors but if you have no outside space then you can still grow yourself some tasty crops, with the added benefit of being able to sow and cut most of them all year round. This can be done on a shoestring budget, or you can spend a few pounds more and go for gourmet plants or attractive pots and planters.
If you’ve never tried it before, here are a few basic pointers. Your windowsill conditions will dictate what thrives and what doesn’t. A cold, north-facing window with little direct sunlight might be better for delicate herbs and salads, and a south-facing window with four or more hours of daily sun might be better for chili or tomato plants. One of the most common problems is things rotting, so pots need plenty of drainage. To avoid waterlogging, a water mister spray can be used to make sure plants don’t dry out, and tiny amounts of water every few days works better than occasional soakings.
Most indoor plants need plant food when they’re in an active growth phase for more than two weeks, in spite of what you may have heard about herbs preferring harsh conditions, and the plant food needs to be one that’s safe to add to anything that’s going to be eaten. While it’s really cheap to use soil from outside, potting compost or sterile growth mediums are less likely to bring pests and diseases into your kitchen so it’s usually well worth paying the extra for it.
What can you grow?
1. Herbs: especially parsley, basil, and coriander. You may also have good luck with chives, mint, lemon balm, chervil, dill and marjoram/oregano, depending on the growing conditions. While I love to eat coriander at dinner time, I don’t like the smell from a whole pot of it while I’m making a cuppa in the morning so it has to live on the outside doorstep instead, but you may feel differently. If you have an outside garden you can bring in pots of rosemary, thyme, sage etc over the winter, but be warned that they may stop growing while inside the house and they’re not usually happy to live on an inside windowsill all year round.
2. Baby salad, microgreens and lettuce: you can either grow whole lettuces or sprout baby leaves and pick them quickly. For the price of two supermarket packets of baby leaves, you should be able to get enough seeds to grow your own salad for several months. Whole lettuces tend to work best if they’re ‘cut and come again’ types, where you can remove a few leaves from one lettuce (or even most of the top of the lettuce) and a few days later new leaves will grow back. They tend to be open lettuces like lollo rossa, and you can also get this effect with more exotic leaves like mizuna.
Baby leaves and microgreens sprout up quickly in 10-21 days and thrive in shallow punnets, and if you stagger the sowing weekly then you can have one punnet growing while another is ready to crop. There are many varieties that lend themselves to this such as: sorrel, dandelion, lambs lettuce, most conventional lettuces, rocket, cresses, chicory, endive, corn salad, radicchio, arugula, purslane, chervil, certain edible varieties of nasturtium and mustards. You can buy ready-made mixtures of these seeds, including mesclun mix and others, or just buy them singly according to taste. Pea shoots also come into this category and are another cut and come again crop, but they need to be planted in pots at least 2cm below the surface of compost.
3. Sprouted foods: sprouted seeds, grains and pulses can be ready to eat in as little as two days. Popular sprouts include alfalfa, chick pea, green lentil and aduki bean, but you can also sprout sunflower seeds and even broccoli seeds. Try mung beans if you want to grow the beansprouts that are used in many Chinese stir-fry dishes. They can be soaked and then sprouted in glass jars with cloth over the top or in a commercial sprouter – a quick search online will show you the best methods. Don’t sprout kidney beans to eat raw as they can give you a form of food poisoning. If you grow the sprouts without waterlogging them, once they’ve sprouted you can keep them in the fridge for a few days.
4. Chili peppers and tomato plants: warmer windowsills can be home to some types of tomato and pepper, but check information about different varieties as some are better suited than others. You need to like the smell of their foliage if you’re going to grow them indoors.
5. Others? Some people say you can grow other plants on a kitchen windowsill, such as beetroot. I can’t vouch for this as I haven’t tried it, but you’d need a fair bit of space to get a decent crop and they’d take many weeks to grow. If it did work, you’d be able to eat a few of the baby beetroot leaves as salad or in stir-fries.
Be on the lookout for cheap seeds, specially in January and February. I’ve had really good luck in the past with ones from Lidl (29p), Poundland (6 for £1) and Aldi. You can also swap half a packet with a friend if you have more than you need of one type. Friends and neighbours with allotments or greenhouses might give away surplus seedlings for free too, if you’re looking to grow whole lettuces, chilis and tomatoes – or you could be offered some on Freegle or Freecycle if you ask politely during Spring. Then all you need are pots with drainage holes, maybe some stones/gravel/broken pottery to aid drainage in larger pots, growing medium/compost and maybe some plant food.
If it’s going to be inside the house, I like a mini-garden to look pretty as well as be practical. If you’re going to grow baby lettuces, it’s easy enough to hide those repurposed plastic pot noodle cartons inside some kind of planter or box. I’ve seen yogurt pots tucked away into pretty teacups, and bigger plants put into old teapots and even old metal fish kettles, but it really depends on your personal taste as some might find that too twee. At the moment we have a long zinc planter from a hardware shop that holds three pots of herbs, and I’ve also managed to use a few empty bean cans (labels removed) to make small industrial-looking mini-planters that go nicely with it.
At Golightly Gardens
I’ve just planted mint, parsley and sweet basil using seeds I had left over from last year, and I’m also having a go at growing pea shoots from surplus seed peas. This time I’ll try to remember to re-seed the pots as I crop the herbs to keep a continuous supply. Some of the window space is taken up by a mini-propagator at the moment, but from late spring that will be replaced by either beansprouts or punnets of rocket. I love spicy food too, so last week I bought the latest Poundland seed bundle called ‘nice and spicy’, from which I’m going to try to grow a cayenne pepper plant, some spicy purple basil, and a lot of baby leaf mix (mizuna, cima di rapa, green pak choi and red mustard). I might even try to grow one or two of the pak choi and mizuna plants to maturity in separate pots if I can hold back from eating the baby leaves.
The Poundland sachet also had mustard greens and coriander in it, but they’ll have to be grown outside by the doorstep and don’t count as part of the indoor garden. The outlay for the kitchen windowsill so far this year is £1, which isn’t too bad at all for what could potentially be quite a lot of fancy food. Pictures will follow when things start to grow, as empty pots aren’t very interesting to look at.
Do you grow any food on your kitchen windowsill? Are you thinking about it?
EDITED TO ADD: We now have a little online club for windowsill growers to swap tips, ideas and bargains. 100% free to use and non-profit. It’s right here on the Penny Golightly forum – anyone can read the comments, and it’s really easy to sign up if you’d like to join us and make your own posts and ask questions. Please feel free to have a look and join in.