Edible Houseplants

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Coffee fruit - Coffea arabica

A coffee plant (Coffea arabica) will produce it’s colorful “cherries” indoors.

Question: Are there any houseplants that are both edible and attractive?

Clecio Turgeon

Answer: There are many tropical plants that are both easy to grow indoors and give us something to nibble on or to add to our recipes… but you won’t find many among the most common houseplants we grow. Most “everyday houseplants” are either not considered edible or are even poisonous. The latter group includes such popular plants as philodendrons, dieffenbachias, oleanders and most euphorbias. You don’t want to eat those!

What follows is a description of some the more interesting edible houseplants.

 

A Growing microgreens on plastic white cup

Micro-greens aren’t really houseplants.

Plants Dropped From the List

I eliminated from the get-go certain plants that I just don’t consider to be houseplants. For example, I didn’t include most of the herbs brought indoors in the fall to grow over the winter, as in my opinion they are not really houseplants and in fact really struggle to survive indoors. You really couldn’t grow them indoors all year.

Nor did I include herbs and vegetables that are sown indoors with a view towards a quick harvest of fresh foliage: sprouts, micro-greens and baby vegetables, for example. Again, in my book, they may be indoor edibles, but they’re not really houseplants. Likewise rooted carrot tops, sprouted sweet potatoes or celery bases sitting in water. They just aren’t houseplants to me.

There are also a few poisonous plants that are edible only after they’re given some kind of special treatment, like cooking, soaking, pounding or being reduced into powder, such as taro (Calocasia esculenta) and variegated manioc (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’). I didn’t think it was a good idea to include potentially dangerous plants in a list of edible houseplants, as some readers might skip the “fine print”.


Everyday Houseplants That Are Edible

Here are the few common houseplants, ones readily found in almost any garden center, that just happen to be edible.

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Calamondin orange (X Citrofortunella microcarpa)

Calamondin Orange (X Citrofortunella microcarpa, syn. X C. mitis)
This is the only citrus commonly offered as a houseplant. It is inevitably already in fruit when you buy it and you just need to give it good conditions (especially, strong light) for it to continue it bloom and produce abundantly. The fruits are very bitter, but they can be used in cooking, especially in the preparation of marmalades. For suggestions of other less widely available indoor citruses, see Indoor Fruits below.

Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
The flowers are edible and often used in herbal tea. Here’s an article about this plant: The Secrets to Growing a Hibiscus Indoors.

Coffee (Coffea arabica)
Young coffee plants, usually scarcely more than seedlings, can easily be found on the market, but may be 2 or 3 years from blooming… and 5 to 6 years before producing enough beans to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally you find more mature plants already producing their highly perfumed white flowers.

You can actually eat the sweet flesh of the coffee “cherries” that follow or simply clean, roast and grind up the “beans” (seeds) to make a delicious drink.

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False shamrock (Oxalis triangularis)

False Shamrock (Oxalis triangularis, syn. O. regnellii)
The leaves of this popular houseplant can be purple or green, with or without a silvery or pink marking… and they are quite edible, with a sweet/sour taste. This comes from the oxalic acid they contain. However, oxalic acid becomes toxic if eaten raw in large quantities, so moderate your use. Or cook the leaves before use. Just to reassure you, remember that spinach, which we routinely eat, also contains oxalic acid and is also toxic if eaten raw in excessive quantities. As they say, the poison is in the dose: eating a few leaves will not harm you.

Ornamental Pepper (Capiscum annuum and others)
All peppers are edible, even the ones sold as ornamental plants. Be forewarned though that ornamental peppers are hot peppers, indeed, very hot peppers, generally stronger then jalapeños.

You may sometimes see them bearing the label “unfit for human consumption”, though. Why is that? It’s not because the fruit itself is poisonous, but because it was treated with an insecticide that is potentially harmful to humans. Organic gardeners will consider the fruits spoiled for life; others can wait a few weeks, then rinse the fruits before eating them. Both can harvest the seeds and grow them to produce fruits totally safe to eat in the second generation.

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Ornamental pineapple (Ananas comosus cv)

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)
There are several varieties of ornamental pineapple, for example with reddish foliage, variegated leaves, colored fruit, etc. And all produce fruits which, although they’re often smaller than commercially grown pineapples, are still edible.

Besides ornamental varieties of pineapple, you can also buy a fresh pineapple and root its crown. And yes, it will eventually produce an edible fruit.

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Lemony rose scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’)

Scented Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens and others)
There are a multitude of varieties of scented geranium with an incredible array of scents: lemon, rose, coconut, apple. peach, strawberry, cloves, etc. In addition to rubbing the foliage to release their scent, you can use their leaves in cooking to impart a delicious aroma to your meal. Richters (Canada) offers an especially wide choice: more than 70 varieties of these highly perfumed plants!

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Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa)

Swiss Cheese Plant or Monstera (Monstera deliciosa)
Often mistaken for a philodendron (which is a close relative), the monstera, with its huge, deeply-cut leaves, certainly makes an impressive houseplant. When it reaches maturity, which can take many years, it will flower indoors, producing a white inflorescence recalling a calla lily. And the flower is followed by a sweet-tasting fruit, which is the reason for the botanical epithet deliciosa. The fruit can take 11 to 12 months to mature, and doesn’t change color too visibly at maturity. So how do you know it’s ripe? When the green scales that cover it begin to drop off, it’s ready to eat.

Note that the entire plant, from its roots to its leaves to its immature fruits, is toxic. Only the mature fruit is edible.

Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis)
Yes, tea plants. although not yet as common as the other everyday houseplants presented here, are found more and more often in garden centers. Here is an article about how to grow one: Homegrown Tea in Your Teapot.


Indoor Fruits

There are hundreds of different tropical fruit trees, all of which could theoretically be grown indoors, but most won’t produce for decades, will become too large to make good houseplants or require really extreme growing conditions. Since they are unlikely to ever produce fruit in your home, I excluded them from my list.

In this group of “forbidden fruits”, you’ll find most of the tropical fruits that can be grown from seeds or pits harvested from the fruits you buy, such as avocados (Persea americana), mangos (Mangifera indica), and papayas (Papaya carica). Of course, if you look hard enough, you may be able to find dwarf varieties of these plants that will produce fruits indoors, but otherwise its best to consider most tropical fruits you grow from seed simply as foliage plants!

What follows are a few fruiting plants that are more suitable for growing in our homes and that really do make good edible houseplants.

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Barbados cherry (Malphigia glabra)

Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra)
Pretty pink flowers, bright red cherrylike fruits on a small shrub that fits neatly into most home decors. What’s not to like?

Cacao Tree (Theobroma cacao)

A challenge to grow and not readily found on the market, a cacao tree can still produce cacao beans at home… if you turn your home into a hot and humid jungle year round.

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Key lime (Citrusaurantiifolia) makes an easy-to-grow indoor citrus.

Citrus (Citrus spp., Microcitrus australasica and Fortunella spp.)
As mentioned in the article A Lemon or Orange Tree From Seed?, real lemon trees, orange trees, grapefruit trees, etc. are simply too large and too slow to produce to make good indoor fruit trees, unless you can find grafted dwarf varieties.

Other lesser-known citrus fruits, faster in growth and of a naturally smaller size, make much better indoor plants. This is particularly the case for the Meyer lemon (Citrus x meyeri) which, despite its name, is not a real lemon, the Key lime (C. x aurantiifolia) and the Australian finger lime (Microcitrus australasica). You can sow any one of these and have fruit 2 years later!

Kumquats (Fortunella spp.) too make excellent indoor fruit trees.

Common Fig (Ficus carica)
It prefers to pass its summer outdoors… and has the bad habit of losing most of its leaves during the winter, leading to a rather stark appearance, but the fig tree still quite readily produces figs indoors. Moreover, its foliage is edible too.

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Dwarf banana

Dwarf Banana (Musa spp.)
Even a dwarf banana tree takes up a lot of space indoors (among the smallest cultivars are ‘Super Dwarf Cavendish’ and ‘Truly Tiny’) and also require a lot of heat, humidity and sun to produce fruit. Plus they may take years to produce bananas, but still, most will eventually do so if your conditions are right.

The pink banana (Musa velutina), with pink flowers and fruits, is another small-size edible banana you might like to try, but you’ll have to eat around its large seeds.

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Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)

Dwarf Pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)
This is a miniature version of the rather large pomegranate tree whose fruits are found in the supermarket. It forms a small to medium-sized shrub with orange flowers that will readily produce small but nevertheless edible fruits indoors. Even if you grow it from seed (it comes true to type), it will bear blooms and fruits in only a few years.

Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa)

This small thorny shrub with shiny leaves makes a good houseplant and readily produces white flowers and edible red fruits. It is sometimes used as bonsai. Both the stem and leaves, and even the sap, are poisonous. Only the ripe fruit is edible.

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Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)

Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)
This vigorous climber will need a good trellis, but can produce its white flowers with a purple halo and its purple or yellow fruits (the color depends on the cultivar chosen) in a sunny spot indoors. There are plenty of other species of passionfruit that do well indoors, but only a few produce edible fruit.

Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus, H. polyrhizus, H. megalanthus and others)
These climbing cacti take up a lot of space, but bloom fairly easily when they reach maturity (after 5 or 6 years), producing enormous white fragrant nocturnal flowers followed by large red or yellow fruits with white flesh that is dotted with tiny black seeds. This is a good example of a plant you can grow to fruiting size from seeds harvested from fruit purchased in the supermarket. You just have to be patient!

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Fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger)

I grow a smaller and closely related cactus, the fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger), with hanging flattened zigzag stems whose very fragrant nocturnal white flowers often give small edible green fruits… but it’s difficult to judge when they are ripe. It too takes years to begin to bloom, but once it starts, it will faithfully continue to do so.

Pixie Grape (Vitis x Pixie® Pinot Meunier)

A dwarf mutation of the Pinot Meunier grape vine which produces fruit all year on a small plant… and its leaves are edible too. It can be grown as a houseplant, but is also hardy outdoors.

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Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Roselle (Hibiscus sabadariffa)
This shrub with small yellow hibiscus flowers grows quickly from seed. In fact, you can treat is an annual if you wish. It produces red fruits often used in drinks and jellies.


Indoor Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices flavor our meals and often have medicinal uses as well. I limited the choice here to varieties that really make decent houseplants.

Bayleaf (Laurus nobilis)
In my opinion, this is the only “classic” herb that grows well enough indoors to make a good houseplant. It will grow indoors for years, eventually forming a tall shrub if you don’t prune it. The leaves can simply be plucked and used fresh as needed.

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
This climbing plant produces smooth shiny leaves and long spikes of green berries that turn red at maturity and is not difficult to grow indoors if you can offer good humidity. The berries give black, white or red pepper, depending on the treatment you give them.

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Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
You can readily grow ginger from rhizomes purchased locally. Beware though that the rhizomes offered in many supermarkets were treated chemically or irradiated in order prevent them from sprouting. There is no use planting those! You need live rhizomes, with buds indicating they are ready to sprout. An Asian supermarket should have some.

Just push a section of rhizome into a pot of growing mix and water: a green rather bamboolike plant will soon start to sprout. Over time, the rhizome will spread and you can then harvest and eat any surplus. Don’t expect this plant to flower indoors, though: it almost never does.

Other spices in the ginger family also produce edible rhizomes and likewise make excellent houseplants: galanga (Alpinia galanga), turmeric (Cucurma longa) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) are only a few examples.

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Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)

Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)
This is a bulbous plant with grasslike leaves and small pink trumpet flowers. The whole plant smells like garlic. If you use the edible leaves and flowers in your cooking, they’ll give the meal a garlicky scent, but without the bad breath that follows eating real garlic. The name society garlic come from the idea that you could safely eat it before attending polite society functions.

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The variegated forme of Spanish thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus ‘Variegatus’) is probably more popular than the species.

Spanish Thyme or Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus)
This plant is neither a thyme (Thymus spp.) nor an oregano (Origanum spp.), but rather a tropical plant closely related to the coleus (Plectranthus scutellaroides, syn Solenostemon scutellarioides and Coleus blumei). It’s a very popular herb in tropical countries where its thick leaves lend taste of oregano to cooked dishes. It’s very easy to grow.

Stevia or Sweetleaf (Stevia rebaudiana)
Increasingly popular for its sweet leaves that give dishes a sugary flavor without adding calories… and it makes a decent houseplant.


Indoor Vegetables

There aren’t many plants you could call vegetables that also make good houseplants. I could only think of the following two:

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Malabar spinach (Basel alba ‘Rubra’)

Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)
An ornamental climber with mucilaginous leaves used to replace spinach, Malabar spinach is often grown in hot climates where real spinach doesn’t grow well. The species itself produces green stems and white flowers, but B. alba ‘Rubra’, perhaps even more commonly grown, has reddish stems and pink flowers. Both are very easy to grow.

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Spineless nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica ‘Burbank Spineless’)

Nopal or Barbary Fig (Opuntia ficus-indica and others)
Many different opuntias are used as nopals, but Barbary fig is the most common one. This cactus with flattened pads does produce edible fruits called Barbary figs when grown outdoors in a hot, dry climate, but indoors it rarely blooms, let alone produces fruit. It made it onto my “edible houseplant list” by virtue of its edible pads.

Nopal is the name commonly used in Mexico for the pads treated as a vegetable. You’ll probably need several plants if you want to start harvest nopals, as the plant is very slow growing. You have to singe off the spines before you eat the pads… or use spineless (or nearly spineless) cultivars like ‘Burbank Spineless’.

This plant will need full sun to do well indoors. And yes, you can root a pad from the grocery store to start a new plant.

Where to Find Edible Houseplants?

Many of the plants above are not found in just any garden center, so here are few places where you might want to look for them on the Web.

For herbs and species, try Richters, a Canadian company that ships to the US and probably offers more choices of herbs than any other.

For unusual fruits and vegetables, try Flora Exotica, also a Canadian company that ships to the US, while Top Tropicals is an American company that ships to Canada and many other countries worldwide. Logee’s, in the US, is a good source for American readers, but no longer ships to Canada.

For European readers, try AlsaPlants. If you know of any other good mail-order sources of indoor edibles in Europe, let me know and I’ll add them to this text.

Bon appétit!

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Can You Grow Vegetables Indoors in the Winter?

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20151105ACan you grow vegetables indoors in the winter? I’m not talking here about starting seeds indoors you’ll be planting outdoors later, but rather vegetables you can really grow in your home during the dark days of winter. The grocery list would include tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and others: the same veggies you normally grow outdoors during the summer. Is that possible?

My answer is a very timid yes, but it isn’t going to be easy.

Lack of Light

The limiting factor in growing vegetables indoors in the winter is light. Meeting the plants’ other needs is simple enough. We already heat our homes and vegetables need about the same temperature as people. Watering is easy to organize (just don’t forget!) and there is a wide range of soils, fertilizers, pots, etc. you can use. But where are you to get the intense sun that vegetables prefer?

That’s not a problem in the summer outdoors or even indoors in front of a large south-facing window, but in autumn and winter, with their short, gray days and the sun’s reduced intensity, it’s just not so easy to succeed.

But don’t lose all hope: there are still a few possibilities. Here are some, from easiest to most complicated.

  1. Sprouts

20151105BMany vegetables and grains are a snap to sprout and the only equipment you need is a Mason jar and a piece of plastic mosquito screen. Plus the technique is certainly simply enough.

Just pour about about 1 or 2 tablespoons of seeds into the jar. Cover the opening with a piece of mosquito screen and hold it in place with the metal screw band of the lid (you won’t need the flat part of the lid). Now cover the seeds with 2 inches (5 cm) of cool water and soak overnight. In the morning, drain, then pour in more cool water, swish the seeds around to rinse them well, then drain again. From now on, twice a day, pour in enough cool water to cover the seeds, shake a bit, then drain well. Your sprouts will be ready in about 5 to 10 days (each type has its own schedule). You’ll known they’re ready when there are roots visible, but before the first leaves (cotyledons) have fully developed.

No light at all is needed at first, but after two or three days, a bit of natural sunlight will give greener sprouts. You’ll have to experiment a bit on that level: some people find paler sprouts tastier than green ones.

Keep several sprouting jars going with various seeds at various stages of maturity so you’ll have something to harvest daily.

Why are sprouts so easy to grow? Because you harvest them at a very young stage, before the lack of intense light harms them… and before anything has time to go wrong!

  1. Microgreens

20151105cThese are much almost the same as sprouts, but you sow the seeds in soil… and harvest them a few days later than sprouts, in about two weeks, when the cotyledons (first leaves) are fully developed. For microgreens, more intense lighting is required or they will etiolate (stretch for the light). A place on a sunny window (winter sun does suffice) or under a fluorescent lamp, for example, will be needed.

You can harvest microgreens with scissors, cutting them off at the base, or pull them out of the potting mix and rinse them well to remove any soil particles, as their roots are edible too.

Here are some vegetables, herbs, and cereals that make delicious and easy-to-grow sprouts and microgreens:

  1. alfalfa
  2. amaranth
  3. arugula
  4. basil
  5. beet
  6. broccoli
  7. cabbage
  8. carrot
  9. chervil
  10. chickpea
  11. clover
  12. corn
  13. corn
  14. fennel
  15. lentil
  16. lettuce
  17. mung bean
  18. mustard
  19. oats
  20. onion
  21. parsley
  22. pea
  23. radish
  24. rice
  25. rye
  26. sesame
  27. soy bean
  28. spinach
  29. sunflower
  1. Salad Greens Under Artificial Light

20151105DLeafy vegetables require less light than fruit-producing vegetables and root vegetables and ripen more rapidly. That means you can grow them without too many complications. However, not in front of a window in the fall or winter: there just won’t be enough light to grow healthy leaves. However, with a simple shop-type 2-tube fluorescent lamp suspended over a table or a shelf, you can grow leafy vegetables anywhere: in the basement, the attic, under a staircase, in a closet, etc.

You’ll have a choice to make when it comes to buying a lamp. Until very recently, T12 fluorescent lights (the kind you see everywhere in stores and office buildings) were the most widely available and the cheapest. However, they are now considered a bit inefficient. A newer format, the T8, with narrower tubes, is catching on more and more. It is more efficient that the older T12, but has been, until recently at least, considerably more expensive. Both do a great job growing leafy vegetables. And in case you wondered, T12 tubes will only fit T12 lamps and T8 tubes, only T8 lamps. The jury really is still out on this, so I suggest buying whatever lamp best suits your budget.

Whatever kind of lamp you choose, buy Cool White tubes or their equivalent. They are the cheapest on the market and amply suffice for growing leafy greens. You don’t need the very expensive full-spectrum horticultural tubes when your are “just” growing greens. (They were designed to stimulate bloom and bloom is the last thing you want leafy vegetables to do!)

You’ll likely only be using your fluorescent tubes for about six months a year, so they ought to last for 6, 7 or even 8 years. Change the tubes when they begin to darken at the ends.

Finally, you’ll need an inexpensive timer to make sure your plants get the light they need each day. I set mine to 14 to 16 hours to encourage a bit of extra growth.

Growing leafy vegetables under lights is certainly simple enough to do. Just fill pots or trays with moist soil (I prefer potting mixes that contain mycorrhizae, a beneficial fungi) and sow the seeds about ½ to 1 inch apart (1-2 cm), barely covering them with mix. Adjust the height of the lamp so it is about 6 inches (15 cm) above the trays or pots. As the plants grow (and they’ll grow very quickly!), raise the lamp so it remains about 6 inches (15 cm) above the plants themselves.

Water as needed when the soil is dry to the touch, adding a little seaweed fertilizer to the irrigation water when you do.

How you maintain your plants as they grow depends on you, though.

Some gardeners like to grow their vegetables well-spaced so each produces a nice individual rosette. If so, transplant the seedlings into individual 4- to 6-inch pots (10-15 cm) when their leaves start to touch. The maturity rate will vary, but, to give you an example, most lettuces will form a beautiful small but ready-to-harvest rosette in 40-60 days.

I prefer to harvest my greens without going through the hassle of transplanting. This close spacing gives a sort of hodgepodge of leaves where the individual plants aren’t too recognizable, but they will be ready to harvest sooner, in about 20 to 30 days, when they are about 6 inches (15 cm) tall. Just cut them about ½ inches (1 cm) from the ground… and let new leaves grow back. This “cut and come again” method normally gives a second harvest, sometimes even a third.

With either method, make successive plantings from early fall right through the winter so you’ll always have fresh salads to harvest right through until the outdoor gardening season begins.

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Mesclun.

You can grow most leafy vegetables following one or the other of the methods described. If you’re just starting out, I suggest trying mesclun (a mixture of greens): it will give you a bouquet of flavors in little space. Or sow individual varieties, like lettuce (leaf lettuce grows the fastest), spinach, arugula, beet (for its leaves), etc. You can also grow several herbs this way, notably basil, coriander (cilantro), and parsley.

As for root vegetables, the easiest to grow indoors is certainly the spring radish: just follow the method described above. For other root vegetables, use deeper pots, space the plants more carefully… and stick to baby vegetables: baby carrots, baby beets, etc.: they’re faster to mature. It isn’t as easy to grow full-length root vegetables in a pot.

  1. Combine Sun and Artificial Light for Fruiting Vegetables
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Though they grow right in front of a window, these tomato seedlings just aren’t getting enough light.

I’m not a great fan of growing fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, beans, etc.) indoors for a winter harvest. They tend to be very tall, very needy plants that grow weakly when they don’t get enough light. Plus they are slow to mature, taking months, not weeks like leafy vegetables… and the longer you grow a plant under less-than-ideal conditions, the more things are likely to go wrong. But if you insist on trying…

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Combinjng natural light and fluorescent lights will give the intensity fruiting vegetables need.

The cheapest way to go is combine natural sunlight and artificial lighting. You could, for example, hang a 4-tube (for greater intensity) fluorescent lamp over plants placed near the brightest window possible, raising the lamp as the plants grow (keep them about 6 inches/15 cm from the top of the plants ). I suggest using dwarf varieties of fruiting vegetables, such as those designed for growing in pots: small determinate tomatoes, patio cucumbers, dwarf French beans, etc. That’s because it is very difficult to adequately light tall plants under fluorescent lamps: usually only the upper leaves get enough light and the lower leaves struggle.

  1. Grow Room

Or convert a room in your home into a grow room.

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Tomatoes in a grow room.

This is the same technology commonly used for growing marijuana indoors: 400- or 1000-watt high density discharge lamps installed on the ceiling providing light as close as possible to sunlight in intensity and in quality. This will likely require major modifications to your home: an additional electrical box, a special air conditioning system, a CO2 generator, etc. Expect to pay handsomely just to get started… and there will be a big electricity bill to pay every month as well. You can grow your veggies in potting soil or hydroponically: the choice is yours. As you can imagine, though, you’ll have to grow a lot of vegetables to make this veggie grow op worthwhile.

A Final Word

So, going back to our original question, about whether it is possible to grow vegetables in indoors even in winter… Yes, it is, but I still suggest sticking to sprouts, microgreens and leafy vegetables. Leave the fruiting veggies to real indoor vegetable gardening maniacs… or just wait until summer and grow them outdoors which is, after all, where they prefer to be!