The Garden of Rebirth

You can regrow store-bought produce and vegetable waste to create recurring harvests, spurring your garden on with plentiful bounties.

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by William Rubel
Sprouting dried beans.

Regrowing vegetables from kitchen scraps can sound like a gimmick. But I’ve found that the more I look to my kitchen as a seed and plant catalogue, the more varied my vegetable garden becomes. In many cases, harvesting cycles for many of the plants in my garden are now much longer than they were when I was stocking my vegetable garden the usual way — with seedling six-packs and seeds from packets. I think of it as a “garden of rebirth” — a garden based on creating something out of almost nothing. The seeds you scoop out of cantaloupe are viable, as are the seeds in red bell peppers, tomatoes, and dried chili peppers. Basil, rosemary, sage, and other herbs will easily root in water to create young herb plants for transplanting into containers or gardens. Planting sprouted potatoes, rather than throwing them away, will yield you anywhere from 6 to 12 garden-fresh potatoes in a few months. Divert a handful of beans from that bean soup you’re making, and they’ll grow you a row of beans. Celery bottoms regrow celery, and radicchio bottoms regrow radicchio. One of the most significant boosts to my everyday cooking from my garden of rebirth is the fact that scallions, which I love, regrow from their bases throughout the growing season, so I no longer have to buy a bunch of scallions for the 2 tablespoons I like to add to my scrambled eggs.

Getting Scrappy

The nub of this garden of rebirth idea is to use the parts of vegetables we usually throw away as the starts for new plants. If you find a good deal on root vegetables, such as beets, and you enjoy the greens, then buy extra to plant. Or, plant a pinch of dill seeds from the herb shelf, which are so cheap they’re tantamount to free. A garden that’s, at least in part, driven by the inspiration you can find in the grocery store, farmers market, and your kitchen, will soon align with your actual culinary interests in ways that a more traditionally planned vegetable garden may not.

If you use scallions and have some in your refrigerator, then start by cutting off the roots and planting them in soil. Otherwise, buy a bunch and plant them. Look through your cupboard and plant out any stressed potatoes and garlic that are destined for the bin. If you have dry beans in your cupboard, take out a handful and plant them. You have nothing to lose. The next time you buy celery, cut off the stalks an inch or two above the base, and plant the base in your garden. Something magical is going to happen. If you like beet greens, and you have a beet in your kitchen right now, get the beet, trim its leaves, and then go plant it in your garden. The leaves will grow back quickly, and they can be harvested as baby greens for a salad.

I do still buy some starts and vegetable seeds. But a substantial portion of the vegetables I harvest comes from produce I’d first purchased to eat. This includes scallions, basil, tomatoes, squashes, melons, beans, peas, peppers, chiles, herbs, popcorn, garlic, ginger, beet greens, celery, celeriac, leeks, a couple kinds of chicory, dill, savory, and more. Start small, and see where it goes.

Roots and Rhizomes

Ginger (Zingiber officinale). These rhizomes can be planted and harvested indoors as houseplants. Use ginger that’s sprouted or has clear, plump growth nodes. Ginger that’s completely dried out is no longer viable. Plant shallow-rooted ginger just under the soil in a windowsill pot, in a greenhouse, or outdoors if appropriate. Ginger likes warmth, light, and moisture. It’s fast growing, and small amounts of the rhizome will be harvestable within a few months. Once it’s established, you’ll be self-sufficient.

Ginger: sprouted perfect for planting

Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). This underutilized vegetable is also a dramatically productive flowering plant that easily naturalizes. Below ground, each choke develops 3 to 6 pounds’ worth of tubers, and aboveground, 10-foot stalks are topped with striking yellow flowers. If this is a vegetable you use often, then buy three or four extra to plant the next time you buy Jerusalem artichokes for dinner. However, they don’t store well. If you’re purchasing in late fall or winter for spring planting, refrigerate the tubers in a container of damp sand.

Jerusalem Artichokes & Horseradish

Potato (Solanum tuberosum). Any sprouted part of a potato will regrow to produce 6 to 12 new potatoes. I’ve had good results from potatoes that were shriveled, fully sprouted, and totally green! You can stagger your planting of kitchen waste with the wide variety of potatoes available at grocery stores and farmers markets; in this way, you can enjoy an unusually varied selection of homegrown potatoes harvestable over a long season. Plant sprouted potatoes directly into your garden. Alternatively, if it’s too late in the season or you don’t have a garden, plant them in a deep flowerpot. Watch online tutorials if you’re not familiar with growing container potatoes.

Alliums

Garlic (Allium sativum). When a head of garlic begins to sprout, just plant it as is, and harvest the greens as a cut-and-come-again garlic-flavored chive. In autumn, you can break apart grocery-purchased garlic heads to obtain seed garlic for your main garlic crop. Garlic may naturalize if you let it overwinter after flowering.

Scallions or green onions (Allium fistulosum). This vegetable is quick to reroot, fast growing, and often used in small quantities, which is perfect for cut-and-come-again harvesting. If you’re just using a small amount of greens from a just-purchased bunch, then take what you need, remove the rubber band or twist-tie holding the bunch together, and plant them outdoors; if it’s too cold outdoors, plant them in a pot for your kitchen windowsill. If you purchased the scallions to use all the greens in one go, trim them to 2 inches above the base, and then plant out the bases.

Red and yellow onions (Allium cepa). Sprouted and even partially rotted onions will regrow. The first stage of regrowth sees greens that you can harvest on a cut-and-come-again basis. The next stage produces a dramatic composite flower that grows on a long stalk and is attractive to bees. After flowering, the final stage often produces multiple onions (think of dividing flower bulbs). As the green stalks tend to quickly grow thick-skinned, I prefer scallions for onion greens, and growing out onion bulbs for their flowers. Left alone, onions will naturalize in many gardens.

Leeks (Allium porrum). Buy these for leek and potato soup, and then replant the bottom inch of your leeks in a shallow trench, which you’ll fill in as they regrow. Harvest them when they’re large enough to use again, and then repeat. Another approach is to leave leeks undisturbed to flower. They’ll then send up leeklets around their bases, eventually producing a productive perennial leek bed. I recommend working up to a patch of two dozen leeks: one dozen you’ll harvest continually for various dishes, and the other dozen you’ll leave to harvest perennially. One nice aspect of planting a garden from your kitchen is that it’s an iterative process. You can start with three or four leeks, and then, as you make dishes with leeks, you can add to the garden patch until you achieve the level of self-sufficiency you seek.

Leeks, from garden startred from bottoms

Mediterranean Herbs

Herbs are the spark that give so many foods that little extra something. Except for basil, Mediterranean herbs, such as mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, summer and winter savory, and thyme, are perennials. You can’t have too many herbs in your garden. Herbs purchased in bunches can be propagated by rooting cuttings.  Whatever herbs you can’t use for culinary purposes are beautiful in bloom, and, as a bonus, are attractive to bees and butterflies. Root as many herb branches as you can get your hands on! Depending on your climate and Zone, you may find herbs in pots on your kitchen windowsill a useful supplement to outdoor plantings. Rooting herb cuttings in water is the easiest and most reliable system, so that’s the method I recommend.

Here’s how to do it: Working with one stem at a time, trim the tip at a 45-degree angle. Strip leaves from the bottom 2 inches, and then place the stem in a jar with 1 to 2 inches of water, out of direct sunlight. Change the water every couple of days. Harvest leaves from the cuttings as you need them, being sure to leave 4 to 6 leaves to help the cuttings grow. Roots should appear within 2 to 6 weeks. If cuttings don’t root in the water, try again the next time you purchase fresh herbs. Rather than giving up completely, you can always tuck cuttings that didn’t root, but still appear healthy, into a flower pot that you keep moist, and see what happens. Depending on the season, plant rooted cuttings in your garden or in a pot placed in a sunny window. In harsh winter climates, plant potted herbs out in the spring and transplant back into pots at the end of summer.

Seeds from Fresh Vegetables

Eggplant (Solanum melongena). You sometimes come across unusual eggplants in farmers markets. Separate seeds from the seed-filled pulp the same way you would for strawberries. Eggplant seeds germinate best on a heated seed mat, or in a pot covered in plastic near a sunny window.

Ripe peppers (mainly Piper spp. and Capsicum spp.). Most peppers are red when ripe, but some ripen to other colors, such as yellow, orange, and purple. Peppers are originally from the tropics, so you’ll need to germinate seeds with a heated seed mat or in a pot covered with plastic and set in a sunny window. Optimum soil temperature for germination is 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Green bell peppers are unripe fruits, so their seeds may not be viable.

Mature squashes and melons (mainly Cucurbita spp., Citrullus spp., and Cucumis spp.). Think of mature squashes and melons as living seed packets. The seeds you scoop out of them are viable. Build up the variety of squashes you grow by saving half a dozen seeds from the various squashes and melons you eat during the year. Zucchini and other summer squashes are immature squashes. Their seeds aren’t viable.

Squash seeds

Strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa). When you encounter a particularly fabulous strawberry, save its seeds and grow them out the next year. Put one or two strawberries in a blender with 2 cups of water, and blend for 5 to 10 seconds. Pour them into a bowl; the seeds will sink to the bottom, where you can remove, dry, and save them.

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). Depending on climate and time of year, you can either plant tomatoes when they’re fresh, or rinse, dry, and store them for spring planting.

Cherry tomato planting seeds

Note: Some vegetables you purchase, particularly tomatoes and bell peppers, could be F1 hybrids. This means they’re first-generation crosses from two different cultivars of the same plant species. The seeds are viable, but won’t breed perfectly true to the parent. All vegetables grown in your garden and picked at peak ripeness are delicious, so in the spirit of adventure, you can plant out seeds from mature fresh vegetables and enjoy the results. The products of F1 hybrids will be unique, and for all you know, you’ll enjoy the results even better than those of the parent plant.

Dry Seeds

Dry beans and peas (mainly Phaseolus spp. and Pisum spp.). In my experience, all beans and peas are viable. However, before committing to a row of dry pulses from your kitchen, run a germination test by soaking a dozen seeds in water overnight. Then, put them between the layers of a folded kitchen towel. Spray the towel with water to dampen, and put the whole stack inside a plastic bag. Seeds should germinate within a week. Keeping them warm and moist will speed up germination. Green beans are simply immature beans, so any bean can be eaten as a green bean. Smaller beans, such as navy beans, produce green beans that are most like the green beans we grow in our gardens.

Dill, mustard, cumin, coriander, caraway, and other herb seeds. In theory, all herb seeds are viable. The biggest problem with growing herb seeds from our spice shelves is that they’re often years old, so I recommend growing out herb seeds when you’ve just purchased a fresh supply. Plant a pinch of viable dill seeds every 2 to 3 weeks to maintain a constant supply for salads. Fennel is a perennial. One fennel plant will provide enough fennel and fennel seeds for a year. Most of the herbs we use as seeds produce flower heads that are attractive to butterflies.

Basil rooted cuttings

Note: Herb seeds imported to the U.S. are irradiated and thus sterile. Use seeds from a brand that sources locally, such as McCormick.

Root Vegetable Greens

Beets, turnips, rutabagas, and similar vegetables (Beta vulgaris and Brassica spp.). Choose specimens that either have leaves or leaf buds. Plant out whole roots, and harvest them as cut-and-come-again vegetables. At some point, the plants will shift into their blooming cycle. Let them bloom, and enjoy their flowers. Even after blooming, some beets have produced greens in my garden for years.

Beet: showing new roots

Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus). Plant the entire root in part shade, and harvest the tender leaves as cut-and-come again carrot-flavored greens for salads. Carrots in a garden work best as tall blooming plants in a perennial border. Carrots left to seed will germinate in your garden, and if you don’t weed out the seedlings, the plants naturalize, providing carrots for your kitchen the following year.

Carrot flowering from old carrot plant planted into garden

Celeriac (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum). Choose a root that still has leaves, leaf stems, or leaf nodes around the top. Each cutting must include both a piece of the outside edge of celeriac root, little root hairs, and some of the leaves or leaf nodes. Plant them in your garden, or start them in a pot. Each piece will regrow into a complete plant. Harvest the young leaves to enrich your salads, and enjoy the roots when they mature.

Celeriac plant startred from small piece of celeriac

Greens

Bok choy (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis). Trim about an inch or two above the bottom, and plant it in well-drained soil. Keep moist. The plant will quickly sprout new leaves and become a complete plant. Plant bok choy outdoors, in shade if your summers are  extremely hot.

Boc Choy ready for planting

Celery (Apium graveolens). Cut stalks about 2 inches above the base, and plant celery in well-drained soil. Keep moist. Celery bases root easily and quickly regrow into complete plants. If you’re a heavy celery user, then plant out celery bases until your garden is self-sufficient. As you can harvest celery one stalk at a time, it doesn’t take many plants to supply a household. If you let your rebirthed plants bloom, you’ll get lovely flowers and celery seeds you can harvest and use for seasoning. Allow some seeds to fall onto the soil to establish a naturalized celery patch.

Celery: bases beginning to grow in garden

Chicory, including radicchio, Treviso radicchio, and Belgian endive (Cichorium spp.). Chicories are productive perennials, living at least a few years in your garden, as long as you can get them to root. You can regrow the bottom inch or two of radicchio heads and chicory sprouts, called “chicons,” often sold as witloof chicory or Belgian endive; however, chicory bases rot easily, even after they’ve started putting out roots. My success rate growing celery, leeks, bok choy, and scallions is 100 percent, while my success rate growing chicory bottoms into mature plants is 10 to 20 percent. I consider it worthwhile, though, because I can harvest from the plants for years, and the chickens love the greens as much as I do. I recommend experimenting with these three rooting systems: 1. Place the cutting in moist potting soil, and keep it moist while being careful not to overwater; 2. Place cuttings in a shallow dish of water, and plant them out as soon as you see roots, still being careful not to overwater; and 3. Spray cuttings with water and put them into a plastic bag. As soon as you see roots forming, plant them in potting soil and keep them moist. When your plants are well-rooted, transplant them into the garden. The bottoms often put out new leaves long before they root. Be patient!

Wiltoof Chicory/belgian endive showing how the cutting with eam

Lettuce (Lactuca spp.). Set lettuce bottoms in a little water, and they’ll grow leaves from the crown as the plant pushes up a flower stalk. I recommend these as a source of greens for small greens-eating pets. Lettuce bottoms won’t regrow a head of lettuce.

Raddichio: green sprouts
Wiltoof Endive: preparation for rooting

William Rubel lives in Santa Cruz, California. He’s the author of The Magic of Fire and Bread: A Global History, and the founder of Stone Soup magazine.