The most useful thing I ever read on Buzzfeed was a post on growing vegetables from scraps. While most of the photos and instructions were filched from gardening websites, the post did introduce me to this amusing subset of gardening.
I once had a beautiful little garden in Manila. Since the Philippines is volcanic in origin, the soil there is rich with nutrients. Making something sprout is as easy as throwing some seeds on the ground. My pocket garden, however, was initially a struggle to create, as our townhouse had drainage issues and too much shade. It took research and a lot of trial and error before I found the right water-loving plants best for the space. I enjoyed that garden with a fierce love, and I said good-bye to it reluctantly.
Nowadays, vegetable recycling and container gardening brings me the same satisfaction, albeit on a smaller scale. Unlike my old garden, which was planned solely for adornment, vegetable gardening is utilitarian. It’s always amazing to see a new stalk shoot up. But most of these plants aren’t pretty and I derive more satisfaction from seeing my experiments end up on my kitchen table.
Celery, Bok Choy, and Lettuce
Leafy greens like celery, bok choy, and lettuce have identical instructions for reuse.
- Chop off the butt end of your vegetable. Give it around one to two inches of stalk. Don’t worry if the vegetable butt doesn’t seem to have any roots.
- Find a nice shallow bowl and fill it halfway with fresh water. Plop your vegetable butt into the container. Place the bowl in a nice, sunny part of your kitchen where you can see it, but keep it out of reach of pets and children.
- Check on your vegetable butt everyday (or every other day), making sure to change the water if it gets slimy or gross. New leaves should sprout from the center of the vegetable butt and slowly grow as the days pass. Growth is affected by the time of year and the warmth of the room, so have patience. Sometimes it takes a week before new leaves begin to show.
- Once the new leaves begin to sprout around a sturdy new stalk, it’s time to plant the vegetable in some soil. I usually plant vegetables that have gained two or three inches in height from the vegetable butt.
- As the plant gets bigger and more robust, it’s possible to harvest some leaves without uprooting the entire plant. With a pair of scissors, just cut off the leaves you need for cooking or for garnishes. The biggest leaves usually droop away from the center and I use those leaves first.
- Once you have done this too many times, however, the vegetable will lose some of its flavor. Often it will taste more bitter. When this happens, it’s time to “retire” the vegetable from active kitchen duty and just let it live peacefully in a corner of your garden.
With my own experiments, I found that while celery, bok choy, and lettuce are the easiest to grow. Among the vegetables that grow back in this manner, they also tend to be temperamental with sudden changes in the weather. Try to soak two or three vegetable butts at a time, so if only one plant survives to harvest, you won’t be disappointed.
Garlic sprouts fast but re-growing an entire garlic bulb takes a long time.
While cooking, go through your garlic bulbs and identify the cloves that are already spouting. Separate cloves into two piles—cloves that can be cooked and cloves that should be recycled. Any garlic glove that has random root growth or any tiny green bits peeking out from the top shouldn’t be cooked (the green bits are very bitter). Set these sprouting ones aside for soaking and planting.
- Find a nice, shallow bowl. A ramekin can be used, too. Fill the container with your peeled garlic pieces. With the root ends of the garlic facing down, fill the container with a small quantity of water—try not to drown the garlic. Set this aside on a window sill or counter top, again out of reach of pets and children.
- Check on your garlic occasionally for growth. The roots tend to grow very fast. A stalk of green should appear on the top of the garlic glove in a few days’ time. If the water runs low, don’t forget to add more.
- When the garlic sprout has reached six inches or more, and the roots are perhaps half an inch long, it’s time to plant the individual garlic cloves in separate pots. This may seem like overkill but they grow very fast. I first tried planting garlic with a ratio of four cloves to a big pot. A few months later it was a repotting nightmare—all the roots got tangled with each other and I spent half an hour combing through all the roots gently! Not fun. Save yourself the trouble and plant each little garlic sprout in a medium-sized pot (anything from six or ten inches in diameter would do.)
After a couple of months of regular watering and care, your garlic plant will suddenly dry up and look like it’s dying. It’s not dying, really, it’s just time to harvest! This is the moment you have waited for. Carefully shift through the soil to expose the top of the plant. When uprooting the garlic, take care not to rip out the roots.
- Brush off the excess dirt and hang to dry. When the papery skins of your garlic cloves are dry and slightly crumbly, your garlic is now ready to use.
I just harvested my first crop of garlic last weekend and I’m astonished at how small and fragrant the bulbs are. I had recycled ordinary garlic scraps and they came out great. My garlic is half the size and is twice as pungent than grocery store garlic!
Some More Gardening Tips
It’s good to use a mix of soil for your pot—I usually mix backyard soil with some organic soil purchased at my local hardware store. I buy the stuff that’s recommended for vegetable or container gardening. Sometimes I throw in a few pinches of nitrogen pellets (usually labeled as slow release fertilizer) into the mix, too.
- Make sure your pot has good drainage before putting your new plants in them. I usually use plastic pots that come with pre-cut drainage holes; if the ones you buy don’t have any holes, you must find a way to puncture them or you will risk drowning your plant’s roots with too much water. For this reason, I prefer plastic pots over clay—it’s easier to make holes in plastic. Also, when the plant needs repotting, I find it easier to pull out a plant from a plastic pot than a clay one.
- Once potted, don’t overwater your plants. Sometimes the soil can seem bone-dry on top but the soil at the bottom of the pot is wetter than mud. If you feel uncertain about how much water your vegetable needs, look up each plant individually on professional gardening sites. My tomato plant, for instance, liked watering only once a week; it died when it got more, even when the weather got warm. My lettuce, bok choy, and garlic, however, are always thirsty and love a bit of water every other day in the summer.
- Repotting is a good habit. I usually repot all my plants every three to four months, to loosen the soil and to make sure the roots have more space to grow. Some vegetables, like bok choy, however, don’t like being repotted, and usually “bolt” or start growing flowers out of stress. Bok choy flowers are supposed to be edible but I like their leaves better. Despite their similarity to bok choy, my lettuce and celery didn’t mind being transferred to larger containers. Plants can be moody, too.
Since this post is incredibly long, I will save my potato and apricot stories for next time. I know this DIY project is not unique or ground-breaking but I still enjoyed discovering the quirks of each plant. I hope this inspires you to do the same.