Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Urban Gardening Part II: From Grocery to Garden

A beautiful herb garden can be grown from grocery store produce.
The serious problem for the true urban gardener is the total lack of nearby seedling farms or greenhouses. Even if one was perfectly set up to rooftop or balcony garden, where would one get those healthy garden-ready seedlings? What is available however is high quality, gourmet or organic small grocery marts that tend to cater to the upper-middle class busy career-person who grabs dinner ingredients on the way home. Produce at those stores is often fresh and presented in a way that reminds the consumer of the natural environment, lulling (and selling) them into believing they’ve plucked it right off the farm.

Take advantage. Much of this produce still has roots. Most fresh herbs, like basil, cilantro, oregano, or chives can be potted and placed in a sunny spot for much more than one dinner’s worth of seasoning. The same can be done with leeks and spring onions; fennel, kohlrabi, and dill can also be bought with roots.  Anything looking young and fresh and still retains roots could be viable… try it out.  (I would, however, let anything that looks a little wilty rest in a glass of water for twenty-four hours before planting, and always make sure to drench the plant after potting—that’s how the roots get settled. Afterward, water normally.)

Paradoxically, old plants can be equally valuable. If those potatoes you bought for a dinner party a month ago are sprouting eyes, or if you see some for sale on the cheap, cube them—making sure each cube has at least one growing sprout—and leaving enough potato meat (remember that is the sprout’s food)—and plant them. If you left the garlic on top of the fridge and completely forgot about it, only to rediscover it with a green shoot, plant it (making sure to separate cloves and planting each one individually) and see what happens. Again, urban gardeners have the advantage of climate control: when planting garlic outside, one must be careful to plant softneck or hardneck garlic appropriately (softneck garlic doesn’t do well in northern climates)—however if planting indoors, all sprouting garlic bulbs are fair game.

And don’t forget that every vegetable you buy has a seed that can be planted. If you find a particular variety of vegetable delicious, save the seed and plant it. (Especially rare ones!) This is elementarily easy with squash, cucumber, and pumpkin, but tomatoes, okra and peppers can also be successful with a little care. I would wash the individual seeds carefully, then dry them out in a paper towel sandwich for a few weeks. Store them in a cool, dry, dark place for the winter months, and then plant them in potting soil as soon as your USDA zone dictates.  (Don’t know your zone? See my post on growing steady in moody weather for the link.)
Pits can also be fun. Don’t forget that within every avocado, fresh fig, date, peach, and mango is a glorious potential tree. These take tons and tons of patience, but are a point of pride if you can pull it off. For these, bore three holes in the pit with toothpicks at a forty-five degree angle. Leave the toothpicks in, and use them to suspend the pit over the lip of a glass (I use a mason jar). Fill the glass with water until the bottom half of the pit is covered. Make sure that the level of water in the glass in maintained. Set it aside and prepare to be very, very patient. Once it sprouts roots, bury it in potting soil.

Attempted avocado cultivation from pits: month four. 

For best results with all plants, adhere to seasonal rules. Plant garlic in the fall for next summer’s bounty.  Store dried seeds and plant them in pots in the spring, then make sure they get plenty of water and sunlight.  The most important virtue in gardening, urban or rural, is patience: Mother Earth marches to her own beat. 

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