Move over basil: Baby citrus and bananas want space in the windowsill garden

Winter is a cold, dark time in Grand Rapids, Mich. But inside Scott Zomerlei's house there's always a hint of spring.

The downstairs hallway of his two-story home has a modest lettuce garden growing under a light. In the upstairs hall, strawberries thrive.

"I can have a fresh salad any time I want for pretty much no money and I know it's totally organic because I grew it myself," said the 24-year-old, who works at a hydroponic equipment store. He says he enjoys living with the glow of growing lights and the lush smell of plants.

He's hardly alone. Exotic or extensive windowsill gardens have become a big business. And this is way beyond pots of basil or chives.

As the American palate has diversified, many home cooks want more than old standbys such as thyme or oregano. And increasingly, they are getting it. Even high-rise apartment dwellers are finding they can grow exotic produce.

Living room-friendly dwarf citrus trees can be found on eBay, online gardening sellers, even in the pages of upscale food catalogs. With the right conditions and care, lemons, limes and miniature oranges can be an arm's length from your couch or kitchen.

There also are mail-order dwarf banana trees guaranteed to thrive in any climate - as long as it's indoors. And Springville, Utah-based Herbkits.com sells kits for growing medicinal herbs, as well as herbal teas, such as chamomile.

The appeal is part novelty, but also part offshoot of the local and organic foods movement. People want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. It's hard to be better acquainted with one's food than this.

"It's just crazy popular right now," said Jay Lawrence, owner of Growco Indoor Gardening, the Grand Rapids hydroponics equipment store where Zomerlei works. In hydroponic gardening, plants are rooted in a non-soil substance and fed liquid nutrients.

Of course, indoor edibles come at a price. While a clay pot of oregano might cost a few dollars, dwarf citrus plants run $50 or more. And once you get into more serious growing systems, the cost of powering them has to be factored in, too.

Wattage determines the size of the area you can garden, said Lawrence. His store sells all-in-one hydroponic growing systems, including a 3-by-3-foot enclosure, for $1,547. Smaller all-inclusive systems, suitable for a tabletop, start at around $199.

Christopher Casacci, who sells hydroponic equipment in his Niagara Falls, N.Y.-based Sunlight Solutions, is trying to take advantage of the efficiency of hydroponics to grow truffles on the roots of indoor hydroponic hazelnut trees.

His customers tend to grow more conventional indoor foods, such as strawberries, which are popular because they grow well hydroponically and produce plenty of fruit. Others grow wheatgrass, which is popular for smoothies with the natural foods set.

Of course Casacci sometimes wonders whether his equipment is being used for illegal, rather than culinary, purposes.

"I can't make assumptions," Casacci said. "I've seen people come into my store and I had kind of wondered, and then I found out later that they're growing kosher food and they're Jewish."

Recently, Aerogrow, a Boulder, Colo., company, introduced AeroGarden, a product intended to take the effort out of hydroponics, and make it countertop friendly. The company dubbed the device the "world's first kitchen garden appliance."

The self-contained lighted unit - which comes with plants or seeds - even alerts you when the plants need water or nutrients.

The company is planning a number of exotic seed kits, including a Japanese collection that will include mitsuba, nira chives, red shiso, cress and shungiku, said Sylvia Bernstein, director of plant products for Aerogrow.

Future kits also will include strawberries, miniature raspberries, dwarf eggplants and tiny broccoli, as well as lavender and herbs from Mexico and South America, India, and Southeast Asia.

But for some, the humble lemon tree is enough. Katherine Berg, of Boise, Idaho, has one from Florida in her home, and she works hard to make sure it gets enough sun through the window to sustain it.

She said she watches the tree closely for aphids and other pests, and even helps out when the tree needs to be pollinated, because there are no bees in the house to do the job.

"You have to be a bee," said Berg, who works at Far West Landscape & Garden in Boise. "You rub the inside of the flower with a Q-tip, and rub the inside of the next flower. Otherwise they won't set fruit."

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