I am a physician working in the Vail Valley, Colorado with 2 little boys and an ex-ski patroller for a husband. When Spence and I married, we split our time between the mountains and the front range of Denver living in two houses, with two different climates and lifestyles until finally, about 7 years ago we moved from our home in Denver Colorado up to the mountains full time. It was our dream come true. I had grown up skiing and fly-fishing. Now, we were raising our own kids skiing, camping, and fly-fishing – truly all in our own back yard. We bought an ex-bed and breakfast in a cozy, small town right on the Eagle river, between Vail and Beaver Creek ski mountains. Life was good. But….gardening was not.
Here in the valley we live at 7800′ above sea level. The air is thin, and the days are short due to the sunlight getting tucked behind the mountains as early as 3pm in the winter. The snow is several feet deep from November through late May. Excellent ski conditions, but not the best if you want to plant anything! I found that my dahlias (started indoors to cheat the climate) were just getting tall and strong and the buds were just ready to bloom, when – bam! – along came the first and lasting frost and they turned black and boggy and died in a single night. Same thing with the tomatoes. After starting them in the kitchen in January, my boys put up with them taking up almost the entire dining room. They sat by the warm windows clear until march. They were so tall and big the kids could hardly get to their dinner seats. We waited and waited and WAITED till we knew the last frost was past, well into June. Finally, after a quick few months in the ground, growing and storing sunlight, they started making fruits and we were dreaming of BLT sandwiches and giving away bushels to the neighbors but then again – bam! – summer was over in an instant one night in early October. Winter, with black fruits, frozen vines, and swollen stems hit suddenly and unrelentingly. It was too late. Blueberries, peas, carrots, all suffered the same fate. The only thing we could grow were the fast-cycled plants that grew and flowered like lightening. Lettuce, radishes, peonies and roses kept me coming back to work in our backyard garden.
More and more light and resources went into my indoor prepping of seeds and plantlings, trying to find a way around this super-short high-altitude gardening dilemma. The next thing I knew, I had taken over an entire spare bathroom in our multi-bathroomed ex-bed and breakfast. And then I bought a copy of Floret Farm Cut Flower Garden and I became truly obsessed. All I wanted was to grow these amazing cut flowers for my own bouquets. I emailed the founder, Erin Benzakein, after reading the entire book cover-to-cover twice. I was determined to recreate the climate she had in Washington and asked her if she knew if anyone was doing what she was doing – but indoors. Helpfully, Erin emailed me back that she had little experience with it herself but she knew of a lady writing a book in Texas where it was often too hot to garden named Leslie Halleck. Her book was called Gardening Under Lights which would address this whole growing indoors subject and was coming out soon. I eagerly anticipated her book, learning hard lessons on my own while I waited.
Of course, coming from a ski town in Colorado where marijuana is legal, you can imagine there are a lot of recreational pot users growing their own marijuana plants in various tucked away closets and cupboards so our local hardware store was surprisingly well stocked with grow lights, bulbs and fertilizer even during the dead of winter. Helpful!
For the first few years, I grew nothing but flowers. My husband rigged up an ingenious irrigation system pulled off of the toilet plumbing (the clean side). I had nothing but hardware store LED lights and there were cords and tubes everywhere. The whole thing was a bit dirty and gross but endless fun for me. The kids would help me plant seeds, pick flowers, make arrangements, bring flowers to their teachers and even sweep up. We loved our indoor flower farm. A babysitter once remarked, “Where on earth did you get fresh marigolds in winter?” and I was beaming. Nothing ever grew particularly big or particularly well, but some plants really thrived. We had all kinds of problems the first few years and learned a lot. We learned about water (too much and too little), light (red and blue, how long?), pests (indoors!) and mostly about how to make it all more civil. It was after all, an indoor garden. And I wanted it to feel like the great indoors. I wanted it to be just another room that was clean and lovely and a pleasure to be in.
At the same time, as a family we were becoming more aware of our carbon footprint, as everyone else was. We ventured into vegetarianism and we hated that whenever we wanted to buy a head of lettuce or a box of strawberries, we were leaving a pile of plastic boxes and wrappers. We wanted to grow and eat our own food, knowing exactly where it had been, what had been applied to it, and skip the whole packaging process. I thought, let’s not just eat locally, but hyper-locally. Like, food literally grown in our own house. From farm to table? No, we were going to do one better. It was going to be tub to table for my family.
So, we scrapped the whole thing after three years of gardening. I carted it all out, cleaned the entire room, spackled the holes in the walls and even put down a rug. My husband re-addressed the plumbing, made it indoor grade like any sink or tub. We spruced the room up, got rid of the endless cords and tubes and started growing a civilized indoor vegetable garden in earnest. And the results have been spectacular.