Life is a very complex concept. We are not sure how it began, but we know that plant life has been around for hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of years. Homo sapiens—modern humans in evolutionary terms—have only been around for roughly two million years.

With all this time to evolve and adapt it is no wonder that plant life has become so complex and varied. For instance, there are well over 20,000 accepted species of orchids, each requiring a specific insect to pollinate them.

The number of hybrid orchid varieties is over 100,000 and always climbing. There are trees over a thousand years old and flowers that only bloom every decade or so. We even have plants like Venus flytraps and pitcher plants that are carnivorous.

Plant life is almost always at the bottom of the food chain, but when you see plant life you know it is supporting all kinds of other living beings. From the great plains of the Serengeti to your backyard or indoor garden, plants allow other creatures of every shape and size to flourish.

Planting Seeds and Clones

The life of most plants begins as a seed. These small capsules contain all the genetic information that plants need to form and grow. Many seeds are found in the food we (and many other animals) eat and are spread over wide distances after passing through the digestive track unharmed.

Seeds can be small or fuzzy so that they can travel on the wind, or large like those of a coconut, with a nearly impenetrable outer layer to protect the seed within. Whatever shape the seed happens to be, its purpose is the same—to sow life.

Seeds germinate at different rates. Some are quick while others are slow. There are some tricks you can use to ensure that your seeds have the best chance for success, though—most fruit, vegetable, herb, salad green and other seeds that might be grown indoors will sprout fastest under certain specific conditions.

For instance, seeds will germinate and sprout most successfully when the air temperature is between 70 and 85°F. The root zone temperature should also be kept five degrees warmer than the air temperature, which can be accomplished with a heating mat placed beneath the tray containing your seedlings. Seedlings also do best when their environment is kept at a humidity level of around 90 to 95 per cent.

Seedlings are delicate and do not yet have an elaborate root structure so they can easily dry out, but a humidity dome can help keep in the essential moisture. Fluorescent light bulbs are ideal for seedlings, which do not need a lot of light to thrive. Seedlings require a photoperiod of 18 hours of light followed by six hours of darkness. Once there are some visible roots you can begin feeding the seedlings small amount of ‘grow’ nutrients.

Clones are exact genetic replicas of the mother plants they were taken from. They should be taken using a sterile cutting tool, after which the cut end should be dipped in rooting hormone and then placed into the growing medium to root. After this step you can follow the same protocol you used for seedlings to ensure the best rooting success rate. Once seedlings or clones have established roots they can then be transplanted into larger containers to begin their next stage of growth.

Vegetative Growth

The next phase of plant development is the vegetative growth phase, where plants are more mature and generally require more intense levels of light. Switching to a 6,500 Kelvin HID bulb should do the trick, as it will tend to promote leafy growth while encouraging the plant to stay squat and bushy.

Plants grown indoors will need a photoperiod of 18 hours of light followed by six hours of darkness during their vegetative growth phase, which will keep them from flowering prematurely.

During the vegetative stage plants also require larger amounts of nutrients to thrive. Using a high quality ‘grow’ nutrient is the best way to ensure a healthy plant with vigorous leafy growth.

This stage of plant development is also a good opportunity to transplant your plant into a final, larger container. Root space is one of the factors that determines the amount of fruit that a plant can produce and since transplanting can be very stressful for plants it should be done no later than a couple of weeks before the flowering stage begins.

The vegetative stage of plant growth is also the best time to do any pruning. Pruning can be stressful to the plant as well and should be done at least a couple weeks prior to flowering. Some gardeners prefer to prune the bottom third of their plants as these lower branches are older and receive less light than those above—since they photosynthesize less efficiently than the newer top branches, this can focus energy on the healthiest branches that will produce the best fruit.

Many edibles that are grown indoors will not flower. Plants such as basil and salad greens can be harvested gradually during the grow phase—leaves can be taken a few at a time and the plant will continue to grow and will replenish the leaves that are picked.

Fruiting and Flowering

The final phase of plant growth is the fruiting and flowering phase, which is the reproductive phase of plant life. Most plants reproduce by pollen transfer from the male organ to the female organ—some plants have both male and female organs, while other plants are either male or female.

Pollen is spread by the wind or by pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds. When gardening indoors, however, pollination must be achieved manually. You can pollinate indoor plants effectively by transferring pollen from the male flower to the female by using a soft-tipped paintbrush—just collect the pollen and then dab the paintbrush into the pollen and then into the female flower.

Once pollination has occurred the plant will produce seeds to continue its life cycle. For the indoor gardener this will allow plants to produce fruit or vegetables. You could look at this as being an ingenious evolutionary method in which plants are essentially using humans to further their existence.

Fruiting and flowering plants need lots of light and nutrients to produce fruit and vegetables—a 3,000 Kelvin HID light bulb should be ideal for this stage of growth. A photoperiod of 12 hours of light followed by 12 hours of darkness is also required for plants to flower indoors. These plants will also need large amounts of a high quality ‘bloom’ nutrient formula, high in phosphorous and low in nitrogen—a formulation ideal for promoting the growth of fruit and vegetables.

Harvest

Harvest time is what we all look forward to as gardeners—the time we get to reap the rewards of all our hard work. Harvest times vary greatly for different plants; some plants are determinate and produce all their fruit or vegetables at once, while others are indeterminate, producing their fruit gradually over a period of time, allowing you to harvest the fruit as it becomes ripe.

Once harvested the fruit can be eaten fresh, frozen, dried or preserved in mason jars.

Buying and Selling

After a good harvest you have some decisions to make—mainly, what to do with your crop. Flowers might end up in a vase, but they could also make their way to the local florist or be dried as an ingredient for potpourri. Herbs could be eaten fresh, processed into a salad dressing or pasta sauce, sold fresh to local restaurants or dried and packaged.

Peppers can be dried and made into something like an olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette bread dipper, or saved for heirloom seeds that could be distributed through one of the many seed-saving sites online. Heirloom tomatoes are extremely popular and the right variety might be really popular at your local farmer’s market. Alternatively, you could join an indoor gardener’s co-op (or start your own) where members meet monthly to share the rewards of their stellar harvests.

Most people think we use and control plants—and that is certainly true, as most edible plants have been modified by agriculture over centuries, becoming more delicious and nutritious by our continued selection of the best seeds to be used to grow the next crop. However, plants that produce the food we eat are actually using us for their own ends as well—by producing the food we need to survive they have also ensured their own survival.