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Indoor gardening extends growing season, prepares for spring

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Keeping an indoor garden not only can stave off the winter doldrums, it can ease the burden on your wallet in the spring when you’re preparing your outdoor garden.

For those who want a splash of green this winter on their kitchen window sill, plus a fresh flavor in their dinners, herbs are a great place to start.

Columbus resident Anna Shores, 53, said she believes having plants indoors enhances a home’s atmosphere. Each year, she brings her rosemary plant inside to keep it peppy in anticipation of spring.

“Having indoor plants keeps living things around you, which I think is very important,” said Shores, a member of the Columbus Herb Society. “Just the smell of rosemary is uplifting and a wonderful scent to have in the house.”

Rosemary is easy to propagate inside, Shores said. Just cut a couple sprigs off the original plant and put them in a glass of water, and they’ll sprout roots.

“Once the roots sprout to at least an inch long, transplant to a pot with good soil and drainage to keep the plant growing,” said Mike Ferree, an educator with the Bartholomew County Purdue Extension Office.

The trick is making sure the plant receives the right amount of water, Shores said. Herbs can be finicky about how much moisture they’ll tolerate.

“Rosemary likes moisture, but it needs the tips of its leaves to remain moist,” Shores said. “If you notice the tips of the leaves turning brown, there’s no chance of saving it.”

Herbs must get six to eight hours of sunlight a day or they will die, Shores said.

Shores said basil and thyme also are good choices for indoor plants, and ones she’s successfully rooted in her kitchen window. Both do well indoors with adequate sunlight and water.

Don’t let a lack of experience stop you from jumping in. John Lemley of Columbus, for example, discovered his knack for tending to tropical plants by accident.

In 1985, Lemley and his wife, Judy, were given three banana trees by relatives who had brought them from Florida. The trees’ inability to acclimate to Indiana’s winter weather forced Lemley to begin a tradition that has lasted more than 20 years.

Each fall he digs up the shallow-rooted trees, some as large as 8 inches in diameter and 8 feet tall, and houses them in his basement under grow lights.

“It’s a lot of trial and error, and it’s a lot of fun,” 68-year-old Lemley said. “I’m not good at planting things from seed. This is a way to save money and protect the initial investment.”

A humidifier helps control the indoor environment for about 40 trees, Lemley said, adding that his biggest challenge is not forgetting to water the trees once they’re sequestered in the basement.

Indoor plants don’t require as much water during the winter months, Ferree said. He recommends using a humidifier and grouping plants close together.

“Plants release moisture through their leaves,” Ferree said. “So it creates a little micro-climate when they’re bunched.”

To avoid overwatering, Ferree suggests maintaining good drainage by placing some gravel in the bottom of the plant’s container to allow moisture to move freely. A little bit of wilt can be healthy in some cases — and better than having a waterlogged plant, he said.

Matt John, program chairman for agriculture at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus/Franklin, also recommends properly managing how much moisture plants get by keeping them out of drafts and away from heating vents, which can dry them out.

As Shores and Lemley have found, indoor gardening can be challenging. Successful indoor gardening requires that you control as many variables as possible, John said.

“The most economical way is to have indoor lights,” John said. “Plants need at least 12 hours of direct and indirect sunlight a day.”

If that’s not possible — and in the dead of winter, it probably isn’t — look into grow lights that mimic the effects of sunlight. John said there are kits available, and manufacturers offer recommendations about how many square feet the lights cover.

If gardeners are concerned about pests, don’t panic.

“The life cycle of insect pests and diseases that affect plants are over by fall when you bring them in,” John said. “There’s a minimal chance you may see pests on a small scale, but I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Having live plants indoors can not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also provide other benefits, Ferree said.

“Indoor plants can help with air quality by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen,” Ferree said. “They definitely absorb air pollutants and purify the air.”

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