"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Basement Full of Garden

This time of year our basement resembles a strange nocturnal garden full of potted plants whose foliage we rely on to help sustain us through the winter months. Just before the ground started to freeze this fall we potted up Belgian & Batavian endive, parsley, Swiss chard, celery, red sorrel, and other greens. We are even experimenting with rhubarb, arugula, and various lettuces this year. Some of these (not the Belgian endive) we leave outside, after potting, for as long as possible so they can more easily adjust, via new root growth, to their enclosures and receive the last few rays of sunlight before entering the gloom of our root cellar/basement for the winter.

Most of these plants are brought upstairs into the light a few at a time starting in January to help supplement our daily salads. This is especially helpful on days that the weather or time prevents us from gathering greens from under our row covers. This week finds the plastic on all of our covered rows firmly secured to the ground by a thick layer of ice making it difficult to remove the covers without tearing them and was a good reminder that I needed to start encouraging growth from our potted plants. Within a week of sitting next to a somewhat sunny windowsill the plants begin to quickly green up and grow. Many of them can be cut numerous times before needing to be replaced.

While our Belgian endive roots were much smaller this year due to the fact that I did not thin them properly (again) we have simply stuffed more into each container enjoying the leaves all the same. The endive does not produce a very good second crop after the first cutting but the roots can then be used for coffee, tea, or roasted chicory chips.

Belgian endive beginning to put out new shoots, they will become very bitter once subjected to sunlight but possibly more nutritious.

This Batavian endive's blanched color will transform to dark green after being exposed to light for a few days.

Parsley is an excellent cut and come again crop that not only thrives in the basement but outside under our row covers as well. It seems to maintain it's greenness long after the other plants have begun to pale in the darkness. I will be growing Hamburg, a root parsley, this year and think/hope it might also perform well in this unnatural environment.

They don't look like much now but I just brought these plants upstairs and trimmed all the bad leaves off, they should start growing soon.

While all but the smallest leaves of the Swiss chard outside in our covered rows have finally succumbed to the weather and turned to mush after numerous freeze and thaw cycles those in our cellar live on. The potting up of Swiss chard is a little new to us in that we have only been experimenting with the forcing of this plant for a couple years. I have noticed that the more mature chard with a bigger root system hold out much better than the younger plants and will provide us with at least a few good cut and re-grow cycles before they are spent and begin to focus on bolting to seed.

I left a few of the smaller leaves on the chard but cut most of them back to compensate for any root damage caused during the potting process. After two months in the dark they are still maintaining their color pretty well.

Our hybrid Utah celery performs much better in the basement garden than its open pollinated kin Giant Red whose stalks tend to be more hollow and can get a little tough as the months progress. We find the new smaller shoots are best off this variety whereas the Utah's bigger shoots are better able to maintain a firm crunchy texture. This year I will be growing three new types of open pollinated celery in the garden in hopes of finding more varieties for winter forcing. I would like to try Safir, Par-Cel, and Ventura. That said, I still love my wild and temperamental Giant Red celery because of its cold hardiness and unusually strong flavor and will probably always save a spot for it in the garden.

We do not normally bring our celery upstairs due to the size of the containers and simply harvest shoots as we need them directly from the root cellar where they continue to put out new, albeit pale, growth.

Occasionally we separate a few of our more gnarly less palatable kohlrabi to bring upstairs and after being subjected to sunlight will harvest the greens. New shoots will then form at various places on this bulbous vegetable's "stem" allowing for numerous harvests. When you use a beet or kohlrabi in this manner the vegetable itself will become tough but can still be used as a food source for animals. Although I did experiment with beets and found that they were still pretty edible if used directly after the first forced growth had been harvested. The bigger the root or bulb vegetable the bigger the greens.

To control this leafy growth on my "good" kohlrabi, the ones whose thick stems I wish to eat, I will either keep them in a cooler part of the basement or am simply diligent in pinching back any growth before it takes hold, much the same as with my potatoes and carrots in the early spring when the cellar begins to warm a bit.

Arugula and the "frilly lettuces" as I like to call them seem to be holding up pretty well, time will tell the outcome of these and decide whether they are worthy of the indoor garden. Although, so far, I have been surprised at how long these lettuces have retained their green color in the gloom of our root cellar. I only potted up thirty 8" pots of the lettuce and arugula for this experiment, but could do many more next fall if we are pleased with the results. My fear is that they will immediately bolt once introduced to a warmer environment...I shall soon find out.

Lest I forget to mention them we also force, to some degree, turnips (the ugly ones), onions, dandelions, and my favorite forced veggie...beets. Tending hundreds of potted plants in ones basement may seem like quite the ridiculous chore but if it keeps me out of the grocery store I am more than game for the task. With any luck, this basement garden alone will provide us with a couple large salads every week during our most challenging months. Gardening never really ends around here it just takes on different, sometimes unusual, forms.

For more of my scribblings on forcing check out last January's post Forced To Provide.


Silke Powers said...

Oh, wow, Mr. H! There is so much planning that goes into not just the growing season(s), but also the dormant time! You must have a lot of space in your cellar to be able to store all of these great veggies. I guess here in more temperate climates (although it doesn't feel like that right now), with no basements, greens can be grown year round. Once again, I am totally impressed!! :)Silke

Jo said...

Your basement garden is amazing. How much light is in your basement? Do the plants pretty much live in dormancy for several months until you bring them upstairs? I would think that they would either get very very stringy or just die out. That's what would happen in my dank, dark basement at least!

Emma said...

This is so fascinating. I wish we had a basement :)

kitsapFG said...

I have not seen this practiced before and it is very interesting. I do not have a basement to give it a try - and since our winters are quite mild in comparison to most other folks - really can achieve the same results by protecting my garden beds as we do. However, I am still totally in awe about how you are doing this. This is a great alternative for someone in a more harsh winter growing climate. Thanks for sharing this.

It's me ...Mavis said...

My husband would have me committed if I had hundreds of potted plants down in the basement...he flips out every year when I line the windowsills with seedling trays :) I however... think it's pretty darn cool what you and Mrs. H are doing. Very cool indeed.

Stefaneener said...

Wow! Your winter gardening requires much more dedication than mine. I never knew that things would hold for so long in gloomy weather. Good for you! You two must eat really well all year long, then.

You Can Call Me Jane said...

This is fantastic. Now why is it that we have never though of this?! Thanks for this idea. We may be using come next year. Can you share your basement's average temp.?

I am very pleased to have finally had a chance to visit your site. Excellent indeed:-).

el said...

And it probably all smells great too: you know, damp earth!!

I have Par-cel if you want some seeds. It overwinters well here in the greenhouse so it might make it in your tunnels...as well as in the basement. It works better than the Italian stuff, anyway. It shows up in almost every savory dish; won't live without it now!

happy basement foraging

Katrien said...

I had no idea this was possible. How much light do you have in your basement? We have a large basement and should try this too, next year...

CG said...


Sylvie said...

whoa!!!!!! and again: WHOA!!!!!

Mike - I expect your basement is very cool but frost free? does it ever freeze?

Do you use garden soil, or do you add anything to lighten it up (maybe your soil does not need to be lighten up....)

Belgian Endive is absolutely on my list. Lat year, I dug up a few roots of wild chicory and the results were encouraging, but I need to get that dark space to blanch them. Too bitter for me otherwise.

You do not mention white flies or aphids. For me, that is often the issue when plants produce fast soft growth in winter. Is that not a problem for you?
Parcel (aka. cutting celery) is a plant I would not be without. Now... be warned, it looks like parsley. Do not expect the fat stems of "regular" celery. This is celery that was bread for its leaves. I use the young ones in salad, the older ones I chop for soup, stews or other savory dishes.

Thanks a lot again for such an in-depth posting.

Naomi said...

Just fabulous, Mr H!!

Your nocturnal garden is doing much better than my summer one *sigh* - and I'm both a little jealous and a little relieved that basement gardens aren't really needed here.

It all looks so green and healthy, and such a fantastic way of meeting your fressh food needs over the cold months. I've read about it in my gardening books,but of course not really seen it before!

randi said...

well, at least I managed the parsley and some celery..never thought to try the chard,(just mulched around the plants with hay to see if they might survive and now they're buried under snow, never occurred to me to pot some up. As usual you give me ideas. My few pots in the basement are under a rather weak grow light. I guess I think of it more as a way station where they might barely survive until I can get them to a better locale, (sunny window)
But next year endive for sure!

Heiko said...

Like others, I'm amazed you can keep plants in the dark for so long. How did you come up with such a whacky idea, surely it goes against every instinct? Do you still need to water them down there?

Diane@Peaceful Acres said...

Wow, I'm totally impressed. That looks like a ton of work hauling all those pots in and upstairs. My hats off to you! I've never seen this done and I'm really impressed with the fact that everything continues to grow. I kill anything that comes indoors. Well done!

Leigh said...

Fabulous forcing, Mr. H.!
What's your temperature range for these guys in your basement, and do you have to provide for extra humidity?
We used to do this (on a much smaller scale than you!) with chicories, turnips and celery when we had an actual root cellar. But once we installed a larger wood furnace in the basement, the root cellar was no longer staying cool, tho we are a lot more comfy. We're now using a cold room that has a good temperature range for food storage, but it's pretty dry and has windows, so the "lifted" stuff doesn't last very long (I'm a bit absent minded about watering and misting). You're making me want to renovate the old root cellar...

Mr. H. said...

Silke - Planning, always planning...especially for the winter garden rows as many of those plants have to be planted at different times so that they will not bolt to seed in the summer heat. We do have more than enough space in the cellar and that is a blessing.

Jo - We keep it dark down there and do rely on the plants pretty much staying dormant, although they do grow a little bit but don't really take off until we bring them upstairs. Certainly not all plants can adapt to these conditions. It seems to help if they have a decent root system and we are still experimenting with what will and wont work in such an environment.

Emma - A basement or root cellar is definitely and advantage when it comes to such things. Although Rhubarb and possibly Belgian endive could be forced in the garden if covered and mulched properly. I have never tried this as we normally have too much snow but I have noticed that any endive left behind in the fall often begin to grow in the early spring.

KitsapFG - It does make a big difference to us as we would otherwise struggle to grow anything indoors unless it was under a fluorescent light. But plants with and established root system seem to be much more inclined to put out new growth. It also helps take away the winter blues to see something green and alive.:)

Mavis - I think perhaps my wife would like to have me committed upon occasion as there is always some weird experiment going on around here. Most of them involve dirt falling on her clean floors as well...although, considering what she has been up to lately I expect the complaints will diminish for the time being. Look for more on that in my next post.:)

Stefaneener - I dislike seasonal eating and will do anything to prolong our summer fare. The good news is that I don't have any weeding to do with this type of garden...no oxalis at all.:)

ThyHandHathProvided - It really is an excellent alternative means to grow a few greens in the winter months. The average temperature of our basement is 35-40°in the winter and never really exceeds 55°as it is underground and built out of concrete.

El - I do like the smell of damp earth. We ordered some Par-cel from Fedco and should receive it in the next week or so, but thanks for the offer. I am glad to hear that you grow it in the greenhouse as that tells me it must be fairly cold hearty. I can't wait to try it. I never thought about keeping it under the row covers perhaps I should try it and see...maybe if I mulched it with straw.

Mr. H. said...

Katrien - We keep all of the lights off and the basement very cool so that the plants will remain dormant (as much as possible) until we are ready to bring them upstairs. Long rooted veggies like endive, dandelion, or something like a less than palatable beet are very easy to do this with. Even if they do start to grow in the basement it is no big deal as there is enough energy stored in the roots to keep them going for quite some time.

In old Victorian gardens the pale forced growth was preferred, we like to green everything up with a little sunshine so as to make them more nutritious.

CG - Thanks, one does have to be somewhat creative when faced with a short growing season.

Sylvie - Our biggest issue is keeping the basement warm enough when the outside temperatures drop below 10° for extended periods of time.

I had to use an oil heater set on low for a couple weeks this year but hope to get away from that in the future by insulating our basement door better. It is normally too cold in our basement for whiteflies and aphids but we have had issues with them in the early spring before and one year they posed a problem once the plants were brought upstairs.

I am looking forward to trying Par-cel...never had it before.

Naomi - It is interesting how that works, so very hot for you and very cold for us both of which pose unique food growing challenges. I almost think it would be more difficult to deal with the extreme heat though.

Randi - One of my goals for this next season is to do a better job of mulching things with straw in the garden so they will over winter better.

A way station is a great way to put it. We are trying to over winter a few pepper plants again this year but have had very limited success in the past and may give up on that if these ones do not survive. You will like the endive.:)

Heiko - One warmer than usual winter I noticed how easily our beets would sprout new growth so rather than nipping this growth back I potted a few of them up and brought them upstairs and they really put out some nice foliage. After that we learned about Belgian endive and have been experimenting with various plants ever since.

Some things work and others not at all, like a couple of my lettuces that I just noticed are beginning to bolt in the basement.

Diane - It is not too bad as we only haul a few up every week to replace those that have been used up. We have no luck with any other indoor plants either. I think the only reason these ones work out for us is that they already have a big root system to live off of.

Leigh - Thanks, our average temperature is right around 35-40°in the winter. I do have to water the plants every couple of weeks or so. Our humidity levels are a little dry in the winter but I find that is easier to control than if they were too high.

We do have an old (unused) well in the basement that used to help with the humidity but I boarded it up to keep the grandson from falling in and that has changed the levels quite a bit.

granny said...

Hi Mr H.
I love all the goodies in your basement,but I am so glad we dont have the extreme cold to deal with here..just the heat :0)
You left a comment about the sbs program on my blog,Maybe if you try,
You might be able to watch it on line.Let me know if this works.
So nice to have an Aussie program,although Tasmania's climate is very different to mine here in Queensland :0)

Mr. H. said...

Granny - Thanks, unfortunatly we are blocked from watching that show in the U.S. but thanks to your link I can read his blog.:) It looks like a great show.

WeekendFarmer said...


Doyu Shonin said...

Well, you did better downstairs than I did upstairs in the grow tunnel -- and by quite a margin!

This was perfect documentation, thanks!

Hopewell said...

What an amazing and informative blog to find! I will definitely be back!

Mr. H. said...

WeekendFarmer - A little strange but effective nonetheless.:)

Risa - Thanks, winters are normally a bit ruff for gardening around here (not so bad this year) so we do what ever we can to keep things green.

Hopewell - I'm glad you found it interesting and look forward to hearing from you again...Mike

Jennifer Jo said...

Very impressive. But I keep thinking, "How much food do you two eat?!" You have so much squirreled away---doesn't it overwhelm you that you have to eat it all?

Mr. H. said...

Mama JJ,

It does seem like a lot for only 2.5 people and a flock of ornery chickens to consume but we are lucky if we have anything left over by the time the next gardening season roles around. As pretty much everything we eat we grow ourselves we do indeed have to grow a lot.

MikeH said...

Are you harvesting vegetable seeds for next year?

Mr. H. said...

Hi Mike.

I have certain squash and zuchini that are marked for seed saving and have set aside various carrots, beets, celery (my biennials) and such that I will replant in the early spring so they can produce seed. So yes we do try to save the seed off most every plant that we grow...try being the key word:)

Unknown said...

Wow this is great! Seems so difficult to find information on basement indoor gardens!

I have a 180 square foot empty room in my basement that I'm starting a year round garden in. I've got 4x 1000w HPS + 2X 1000W Metal Halide and another 6X 600W Metal Halide plus all the equipment needed. I won't use all of it but probably around 6000 watts.

I plan on growing Deep Water Culture in homemade rubbermaid bubbler buckets. I will be growing vine vegetable and fruits on all walls and grape on the ceiling, making use of all available space. So far I've got about 20 different varieties of fruits and veggies, including a japanese kiwi tree!

Keep it up, more food needs to be grown on unused space, it tastes better, has more nutrients, less chemicals, supports the local economy and removes the problem of ever increasing prices of fossil fuel prices which the farming industry heavily relies on for transport!

Mr. H. said...

Pimpin80 - Excellent, I like your ideas on growing food in the basement and would love to hear more about how well the plants grow for you under these conditions...very interesting.

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