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Garden Detective: Growing food from kitchen scraps

After your new celery has grown 3 inches

After your new celery has grown 3 inches tall, it can be transplanted into the garden or a container. Credit: Jessica Damiano

If you’re like most gardeners this year, you’ve had difficulty finding at least one sought-out variety of vegetable or herb seed or starter plant. For me, the great quest of 2020 was for zucchini plants.

After growing tomato, cucumber, Long Island cheese pumpkin, dragon tongue bean, carrot and onion from seed this spring, I set out to buy zucchini and rosemary starter plants. Rosemary wasn’t easy, but I managed to score the last plant at a my local garden center on the third attempt. Repeated phone calls to several nurseries over the course of two weeks, however, left me empty-handed of zucchini. Fortunately, a friend had sown extra and offered to give me some (I gratefully repaid her with a Cuore di Bue tomato seedling).

The experience reminded me of a method for growing food that requires neither plant nor seed — just kitchen scraps that usually end up in the trash or compost bin. While the method won’t work for zucchini, it will yield harvests of several vegetables and herbs you can enjoy year-round.

Celery

Cut the bottom 3 inches off a head of celery, trim a paper-thin slice from the bottom and sit it in a shallow bowl filled with a couple of inches of lukewarm water. Place it in a warm, sunny spot, like a windowsill, change the water every couple of days, and within a week, you'll notice new growth emerging from the center of the cut stalk. When the new growth reaches 3 inches tall, plant the whole thing in the garden (or in a container), covering the original stump with 1 inch of soil, leaving the sprout exposed above the soil. Water regularly, and within a month you’ll be able to cut ribs as needed.

Scallions and leeks

Cut the white portion off the bottom of a scallion or leek stalk and place root-side-down in a glass holding an inch of tepid water. Place in a warm, sunny spot, and new growth will sprout within days. Change the water every couple of days, moving to a larger glass or jar if needed; within a week or two, they’ll be large enough to harvest. No soil is required, but if you’d like to transplant leeks to the garden, wait until new growth has reached 3 inches tall. Poke a deep but narrow hole in the soil that’s slightly larger than the leek bottom, and place your cutting deeply into it, root-side down. It’s OK for a small part of the green portion to be underground. Fill holes with water, but don’t pack the soil around leeks; allow nature to do that for you. For multiple plants, space 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart.

Onions

Cut 2 inches off the bottom (flat side) of an onion and allow it to sit out until the cut portion dries and begins to shrivel. This could take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days, depending on the climate in your home and the freshness of the onion. Plant directly into a sunny spot in the garden — or in a container two-thirds full of well-draining potting mix — twisting the root side of the onion into the soil and packing the soil firmly around the bulb, leaving the cut end only slightly covered. Keep the soil moist, and watch for new growth. Cut shoots (or scapes) to use in place of scallions or chives or wait 90 to 120 days to dig up full-size onion. To divide shoots into separate plants so you can harvest several onions at season’s end, carefully dig up and separate the shoots, each with its own underground bulblet, and replant separately.

Romaine lettuce

Remove the outer leaves from a head of romaine lettuce and cut the bottom 3 inches off the heart. Place it in a shallow bowl or jar with one-half inch of water and set it on a sunny windowsill. Change the water every day or two, and it will sprout in a couple of days (remove the original outer leaves if they turn brown). Transplant into the soil by burying the original nub, leaving new growth exposed above ground, or continue to grow in water, harvesting leaves when they are large enough for your salad or sandwich. More will grow in no time. 

Basil, parsley, mint and cilantro

Snip a 4-inch piece from the top of a stem and remove leaves from the bottom half, leaving four sets of leaves at the top. Place the cut ends into a clear glass filled halfway with water (no leaves should be submerged) and place on a sunny windowsill, changing the water every couple of days. Transplant into a sunny spot in the garden (except mint, which is invasive and should only be grown in a pot) when roots are 2 inches long, and pesto! (Um, presto!)

Find a gardening tip or chore for every day in June.

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