Miriam K asks:
What can you recommend for growing in the winter? I work with little kids and the process of planting is meaningful and educational on so many levels. what would you recommend? Thanks!
There are 2 considerations when growing in the fall and winter season. Daylight length and temperature. We're now in early October which obviously means the days are getting progressively shorter. As the days get shorter, growing does continue but gets severely stunted. And as the days get colder, there are only certain vegetables that like the cooler temperatures. Usually, the latest one can plant is mid October and the only vegetable you can do that with is spinach, at least in zone 6 (find your zone). The issues with growing from seed at this time is that the plant needs to establish a certain amount of maturity so it can continue to produce for you all winter long. If you plant too late, you'll have a tiny seedling that will sit there for months and growing will be severely stunted. This situation I described can work in an outdoor "cold frame" which is like a micro greenhouse, or, can also be simulated with a "low tunnel" which is a system of a short hoops and a thin fabric called a floating row cover that lets in light and rain while retaining heat.
This creates a condition where temperatures can be kept about 20 degrees higher than the outside temperature and will protect the plants from excess moisture and wind, which are the other crop killers. This system can also be used to extending the growing season for existing plants. For example, we have a bed of bell peppers filled with green fruit waiting to turn yellow, red and chocolate but we're very close to the first frost date (zone 6). By covering this bed, we enable the peppers to have a longer growing season than what is typical in this region. Or we have lettuces and mustard greens that we planted in early September that can tolerate cold temperatures but not super low temperatures. This gives them the protection to continue growing for us throughout the winter months. With a cold frame system, 2 frames (about 4x8 ft) for each family member should provide fresh food all winter. This, of course, assumes that you built and planned and planted a majority of things by the end of summer.
Growing indoors during this time is more difficult given the lower light levels but it's not impossible. For an educational activity for kids, I think is an amazing way to teach kids to nurture something and provide responsibility. Beyond that, I think they come away with an appreciation of where their food comes from and hopefully will acquire a taste for vegetables! Alice Waters, chef and local food advocate, does a lot of work establishing this system of growing food and cooking in progressive school systems. In terms of what you can grow under lights during the fall and winter, I think leaf lettuces would be the quickest and easiest choice. They like cooler temperatures and you'll be able to cut off baby lettuces and then allow the plant to regrow providing you with fresh salad over the season. We call these "cut and come again."
What you will need for this endeavor are some basic tools.
1) A fluorescent growlight system can range anywhere from $45-100 depending on the size.
2) Wooden wine boxes. I'd go to your local vintner and ask for any old wooden crates. This may be harder to find as most things are shipped in cardboard. I'd then drill a few holes on the bottom for water drainage.
3) Organic potting soil to fill the box.
4) Seeds. There is a huge variety of lettuces which can be ordered through the mail. I like Johnny's Seeds in Maine. You can do a mixed variety or you can select ones that you like (arugula, frisee etc).
In the planting box, seed closely in moistened soil. Ideally you want to have a bottle mister and not pour water directly into the box especially when plants are just emerging. Keep the soil continually moist and watch for the first signs of growth. At that point, put the box under the grow lights for at least 10-12 hours per day. Depending on soil conditions, you may want to add diluted organic fertilizer (seaweed base) every few weeks for continued production.
Hope this helps and happy growing!