To be completely honest, I’m not usually that high on house plants. It’s for simple reasons really. I’ve done my share of babysitting them, and they tend to be high maintenance, requiring regular watering regardless of the weather, prime positioning around the windows, and a periodic supply of imported fertility. I like to maintain that, for those of us not living in urban settings, there is plenty of room outside to grow stuff in the earth, where these plants are part of—even when cultivated—thriving ecosystems.
However, as I settle into life in North Carolina, USDA Zone 7, and in particular with autumn fully upon us, I can feel myself rethinking things a little. Earlier this week, with the first frost forecasted, I found myself out in the garden digging up two habanero pepper plants to pot and put inside. They’ve been fruiting beautifully for the last month or two, and it just feels wrong to see them perish in lieu of such production, with so much life on the horizon. They still have half a dozen peppers growing on them. So far, the transplant seems successful.
With that in mind, I decided to revisit ideas on plants I’d like to, at the very least, grow indoors during the winter. Unlike growing a typical garden of greens, green beans, and so on inside, these are perennial plants that can’t survive the winter here, so our house would then become a greenhouse for them. In turn, we’d get to enjoy, even if minimally, some crops we might not otherwise have the capacity to grow here. In other words, the trade-off feels justified and in the summer, we could stick them outside and treat them like the other plants: special but not better than the apple trees or tomatoes.
Herbs and salad greens are the go-to suggestions for indoor gardens. They can usually be fit obligingly on kitchen windowsills and are something we harvest from often. For us, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and mint all survive outside, so there’s no reason to cultivate them in pots. But, there are a few herbs that might make the list:
- Basil: is grown in bulk during the summer, and we have a freezer full of pesto cubes for use during the winter. However, the thought of a perennial basil plant is tempting. Winter usually puts me in the mood for rosemary and sage, those holiday favourites, as opposed to basil, which feels unsurprisingly like a summer flavour.
- Cuban oregano, aka Spanish thyme, is a herb we became accustomed to when living in Central America. While not actually oregano or thyme, it yields a similar flavour. It’s also an attractive plant that, other than its weakness to cold, is hardy and easily maintained. We brought one inside last year, largely ignored it, and it’s still kicking in its pot today.
- Stevia has proven to be a bit temperamental to start, but we have one plant that has been supplying enough leaves to sweeten our tea for the year. Similarly to the Cuban oregano, we mistreated it last winter, and to our surprise, it bushed out again this spring and has done well in a pot on our porch, getting an occasional douse of greywater.
I’m a hot sauce fiend, (as you may already know) and I’m well on the way to having converted Emma into one too. She doesn’t quite go the habanero route yet, but she rarely has a savoury meal without a spoonful of homemade hot sauce on it. Spicy peppers, many considered ornamental and all edible, will happily grow in pots inside. As I said, we began a trial with this when we couldn’t say goodbye to those productive habaneros. I can see tabasco peppers in the future as well.
When we lived in Central America, ginger was always a favourite crop to include in designs. Not only is it highly medicinal, it’s easy to grow, prefers the shade, and likes humidity. In other words, it was well-suited for the climate and filled a niche not many plants were likely to. While that’s not the case in North Carolina, some of those unique characteristics do make it a notable houseplant. Plus, it can be started from the ginger that comes from a grocery store. It’s not too far a stretch to think we could grow enough ginger to supply our current use: tea. When in the tropics, I would use it to make ginger beer a couple of times a week, but we wouldn’t be able to keep up with that demand growing ginger in the bathroom, which is where I’ve deemed the perfect houseplant climate for this plant.
Dwarf Citrus Trees
A couple of citrus trees were always going to be an exception to the houseplant rule for me. We can’t quite grow citrus outside. But, lemons are too useful in the kitchen to ignore when there is a chance to grow them, and I love to eat mandarins and the other smaller orange-like citrus fruits. These do well in pots and inside, which is a plus in North Carolina both because of the winter and the heavy rains (about 130cm annually where we are). Plus, many citrus trees have parthenocarpy, the ability to produce fruit without pollination, so they can handle life indoors and still be productive.
A native Louisianan, I’m prone to cooking low and slow with a particularly affinity for stewed beans or peas over rice. In every pot of beans I cook, there is a bay leaf. Though some people doubt the efficacy of this herb, rest assured it makes all the difference. Unfortunately, we are right on the cusp of where bay trees (Laurus nobilis) can grow, so while we’ll try one outside, if that doesn’t work, we’ll do one in a container. Though outside they can grow to be 15 meters tall, bay leaf trees indoors can be pruned into shrubs, and fresh leaves can be plucked for immediate use.
At the moment, that’s where the serious list ends. There are a few other plants on the back burner, stuff that might show up if the list above goes well. Some of these would be more for nostalgia (of life in the tropics) than necessity, but some could serve real purpose in a move towards more self-reliance.
Black pepper plants, Piper nigrum, are vines that are native to India. They do not tolerate the cold at all, which would be cause for pause for us. However, they tolerate a little shade and can be grown in a hanging basket, both pluses for growing indoors. It would be a real triumph to be able to grow our own peppercorns.
While this is a great plant and easy to grow, it’s somewhat superfluous in our climate. We can grow greens outside year-round, so why go to the trouble of growing them indoors? However, we grew this in abundance in the tropics, so if space allowed it, we might play with it for a short time. It’s a quick grower and a nice addition to cooked dishes because it thickens sauces.
Pitaya (Dragon Fruit)
Growing pitaya in North Carolina feels a bit like a pipe-dream to me, but it is listed as an indoor possibility, though one in which plenty of space is required. Pitaya is vining cactus, and it can actually be planted from seed to provide the same delicious fruit from whence the seed came. For that reason, curiosity may get the better of me. Plus, it has nice, fragrant flowers. The cactus we are more likely to attempt is prickly pear, which might actually withstand winters outside and has edible pads to boot.
In Central America, we became big fans of a couple of different hibiscus plants: rosa de Jamaica and cranberry hibiscus. We couldn’t grow many common salad greens there due to the heat, so we learned to make salads from other leaves, including leaves from these two plants, okra plants (also a type of hibiscus), and the aforementioned Malabar spinach. I really developed a taste for cranberry hibiscus leaves, and Emma loves rosa de Jamaica tea (from the flowers). Plus, these shrubs are notably attractive. Come to think of it, okra—grown as an annual here—might actually make it into the house because I love it and the season is a bit short here.
Well, those are some thoughts twirling around my head at the moment. Winter is growing nigh, and the forest is shedding leaves like mad these days. The thought of a few houseplants doesn’t seem all that horrible in the depths of winter, and the opportunity to grow some things we might not otherwise get to, makes it all the more enticing.