Cheap winter gardening is possible even in Alberta — these residents are doing it

Not ready for the fancy hydroponics? These Calgary residents present their DIY takes on winter gardening to get fresh herbs and veggies throughout the cold months.

'It's just simple, you don't need a lot of fanciness,' says one gardener

Shannon Keepch started her herb garden using just $4 pink grow lights from Dollarama. It doesn't have to be complicated, she says. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

This story was originally published on Nov. 20 and is being resurfaced through the holidays as part of our series on the high cost of food . 

Forget the fancy hydroponics. Shannon Keepch started her winter herb garden with just a $4 grow bulb from Dollarama.

Well, it took two bulbs, plus a $2 splitter, a reused lamp stand and a bit of aluminum foil to reflect the light exactly where needed.

The rosemary, sage and mint came from her summer garden.

"It's just simple; you don't need a lot of fanciness," said Keepch, a social worker, currently on leave and like many Calgarians watching food costs closely.

"People should not be intimidated by growing stuff inside," she said. "It has been so great. And when you're living on a tight budget you say, 'well, how do I make this work for me?'"

When CBC Calgary asked how people are coping with increasing food costs, several people pointed to their indoor gardens. Others shared tips on growing sprouts and storing root vegetables.

It's a myth that these techniques take complicated technology and a big upfront investment. 

Starting an herb garden can be as simple as buying $4 grow bulbs at the dollar store, one community member told CBC Calgary. (Submitted by Shannon Keepch)

Community member Emerson Dunlop grew hot peppers indoors last winter as a hobby. Rather than buying the branded equipment at a specialty store, he bought a $25 fluorescent shop light fixture from Home Depot and full-spectrum light bulbs. It came with chains to hang it at just the right height. 

"Just a cheap shop light. It's pennies a day for the bulb," he said. "Don't tell me you can't grow peppers in Calgary."

Even in the winter, small starter plants are still available from some indoor gardening supply centres, such as NuLeaf Farms, for as little as $2 each.

CBC's The Homestretch called their gardening expert Friday to see what else we could learn. 

Joanna Tschudy, community gardening co-ordinator for the Calgary Horticultural Society, said she has seen many people take up indoor gardening recently.

Community member Emerson Dunlop says he starting growing indoors with just these $25-per-fixture lights from Home Depot and full spectrum bulbs. (Submitted by Emerson Dunlop)

"You're not going to crush food insecurity here by gardening in the winter unless you've got a greenhouse," she said. "But it's supplemental. It keeps the green vibe going and it's fun to be able to pinch off some herbs or leafy greens."

She says many people buy specialized setups but it's easy to rig a system on your own. Use any full spectrum light bulb for growing herbs and lettuce, and get a grow light that focuses on the red part of the spectrum for plants setting fruit, such as tomatoes.

Low cost sprouts 

As for sprouts, many people buy specialized seeds and containers to water them, but community members told CBC Calgary it's possible to start with the seeds already in your cupboard and an empty glass spaghetti sauce jar.

Our team tested this out. It's true. Our green lentils, rinsed with water twice a day, sprouted and grew large enough for a salad in roughly a week. We covered the end of a jar with a piece of old nylon stocking, but community member Connie Seidle said pounding drainage holes in a metal lid with a nail works, too, depending on the size of the seeds.

Basic green lentils sprouted and filled this bottle in roughly a week when we rinsed them twice a day. They were stored in a dark cupboard until the first leaves appeared. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

You can also regrow plants such as celery, lettuce and green onion by putting the root end in water beside a window. One community member told CBC Calgary she harvests green onions that way all winter long.

"Give it a little bit of sunlight and just wait," commented Tschudy. "After about a week, two weeks, you'll start to see some new growth."

But this technique doesn't grow a lot.

"The celery will probably grow back three or four inches … and probably about enough lettuce to put in a sandwich."

Storing root vegetables 

Potatoes, carrots and beets are often cheaper in the fall in bulk. But, we wondered, how can you store root vegetables without a root cellar?

Calgary resident Mary Miller shared her solution. The horticulturist says that when she was living in an apartment, she simply put a box next to a window, insulated on the inside and on top.

"It was an older house and it had these wide window sills," she said. "You just make a little area that can hold the cold in."

How do you store root vegetables? Connie Seidle sent in this photo of carrots buried in peat moss, which keeps them from drying out. (Submitted by Connie Seidle)

An old cooler also works, says Tschudy. She puts vegetables in one and sets it just outside her kitchen door in the spring and fall.

"But we do get into deep winter and you don't want your produce to freeze," she said. "So you can bring your cooler inside and find a cool spot by a drafty window or often in the basement."

Other people who texted CBC Calgary said they store their root vegetables buried in sand or peat moss, sometimes in a cold room or insulated in a garden shed next to the house. The peat moss seems to hold the humidity well. Then they dig them out bit by bit as they're needed.

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Elise Stolte


Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary last year. You can reach her at