Don’t throw out your kitchen scraps — grow them! Discover how you can transform leftover pomegranate seeds, mango pits, and dried bits of gingerroot into thriving plants. From the common carrot to the exotic cherimoya, you’ll be amazed at the gardening possibilities hidden in the foods you eat.
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About the Author
Deborah Peterson, a founder of the Rare Pit & Plant Council and the editor of their newsletter The Pits for 25 years, has contributed to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbooks and lectured extensively on gardening with pits, among other gardening topics. Deborah is the proprietor of Landmark Landscaping and has landscaped and designed many gardens and private parks in NYC and Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
NITTY GRITTY GROWING TECHNIQUES
Join me on a journey both horticultural and gastronomic. This book will show you how to grow plants from the seeds, pits, and roots that you might otherwise discard. I also hope that the book will inspire you to seek out the more unusual fruits and vegetables for planting. Explore local markets, as well as whatever ethnic markets are available to you. I give some direction as to where and when to find some of these unusual plants. If I haven't mentioned availability, you can find the herb, fruit, or vegetable year-round in most supermarkets.
Almost every unprocessed fruit or vegetable can be grown into a decorative houseplant. Some are perennials (those that repeat their growth cycle year after year); others are annuals (plants that complete their growth cycle in one season) or biennials (those that complete the cycle in two years). You will be amazed as you discover how these beautiful plants develop.
WHAT PLANTS NEED TO GROW
There is no such thing as a "green thumb." Plants will grow well if you learn the conditions they require and if you provide the correct light, water, fertilizer, and containers filled with a growing medium, such as water, soil, or peat. The secret to successful gardening is mimicking the natural growing conditions of your plant's native habitat.
Some plants, such as mango and almond, will germinate and flourish only under a particular set of environmental conditions. When the mango seed drops to the ground, it lands on warm, moist soil. As soon as the flesh around it rots away, it germinates. The mango plant needs a warm, humid, sunny environment and lots of water year-round to grow. An almond tree drops its leaves in the fall, signaling a period of dormancy, and needs three to four months of temperatures 42°F and below. The almond nut also falls to the ground in autumn, just before a harsh, cold winter. It must stay in its protective shell until spring, when growing conditions are favorable. To successfully grow your mango and almond plants, you must be aware of their natural environment and what that tells you about their requirements.
If you've never grown plants before or need to catch up on some basics, here are some fundamental facts about their growth requirements.
getting the light right
Plants have an incredible ability to manufacture their own food. They do this through a process called photosynthesis, whereby the plant cells combine the energy of sunlight, naturally occurring carbon dioxide from the air, and water to form sugars and starches. Consider the beet root. It is full of starch, water, and sugar — all of the food necessary for its growth. With the help of sunlight and air, the plant uses these sugars and starches to grow. It is quite miraculous.
Plants differ in their light requirements. If your plant turns pale green and its stems become very long, giving the plant a leggy appearance, it needs more light. If your plant is getting too much light, the leaves may become scorched or pale yellow in color, even though the plant's food is adequate. For most plants, too much light indoors is rare. Assess your home's sun exposures. Eastern light begins with sunrise and is cool. A southern exposure offers the most hours of sun but it can get too hot. Western light has the slanted sun of the late afternoon and is not as intense. Northern light, so treasured by artists for its steadiness, is the lowest light intensity of the exposures. Each of these exposures is just right for one or more kinds of plants.
In cities, many windows are obstructed by tall buildings that block some or all of the sunlight. Milly and I both lived in New York City when we first met, and we grew plants indoors under lights. Many garden centers and magazines advertise commercial light units. These comprise two to four fluorescent tubes that mimic the ultraviolet rays found in sunlight. These commercial lights can be expensive, but you can build your own light units from fluorescent tubes and fixtures available in any hardware store. Use a combination of cool and warm white lights. We've installed these light units in empty shelves in bookcases and cupboards and found them to be just as effective as the commercial units.
Without water, a plant becomes limp and wilts. With too much water, the roots are deprived of the air that they need to keep from rotting. The trick is to keep the soil moist but not too wet. It is impossible to give general rules for all plants, but you can start by watering your plants when the surface of the soil feels dry or the surface of the soil has changed color from dark and moist to a lighter color, indicating dryness. Do not sprinkle a little water on top and leave it at that. Water thoroughly: add water until it seeps out through the hole in the bottom of the pot or container. Then don't water until the surface of the soil feels dry again. It is best to use water that is slightly warm.
Water enters the roots and goes up through the stems into leaves; then, it evaporates through pores in the leaves. It is this transpiration that causes the plant to pull more water up from the roots. The amount of water a plant transpires depends on the thickness of its leaves. Plants with feathery, thin leaves, such as tamarind, lose water rapidly; their soil should be carefully monitored. Plants with thicker leaves, such as avocados, lose much less water through transpiration.
A couple of basics: Plants kept in a cool, moist place dry out more slowly than plants kept in a warm, dry place. Plants in small pots dry out faster than those in large containers.
To combat dry inside air, you can do several things. You can mist the leaves of your plants with a spray bottle, or you can also group your plants on shallow trays filled with pebbles. Add water up to the top layer of pebbles and keep the water at that level at all times. The evaporation of the water in the tray will add moisture to the air because of the extent of the tray's surface area.
Notice your plant's stage of growth. If a plant is actively growing and putting out new leaves and stems or flowers, it needs more water than a plant that appears to have stopped growing. Many plants go through a rest period in winter, at which time they need much less water than they do in the spring, when active growth begins. Of course, checking the soil moisture on a regular basis is one of the secrets to success.
potting up plants
Garden centers and supermarkets offer a wide variety of potting mixes to suit the growing requirements of particular plants. For the plants featured in this book, however, you should simply select a high-quality, all-purpose potting mix. Most bagged mixes are sterile, that is, free of weed seeds and disease organisms.
When plants are growing in the ground, in rich soil that's full of organic matter, they are able to make their own food from carbon dioxide, water, sunlight, and certain chemical elements that naturally occur in soil. The most important of these elements are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen makes leaves and stems grow and stay green. Phosphorus encourages the growth of flowers, fruits, and seeds. Potassium stiffens stems and promotes sturdy, compact growth.
Plants grown in containers, however, need help acquiring these elements. Peat-and-perlite mixes have a very low nutrient content, so you'll need to fertilize your plants in order to supply them with the nutrients they need to grow. You may select a potting mix with a slow-release fertilizer or one that is enriched with compost and organic amendments. In both of these cases, the plant will eventually deplete the supply of nutrients and need to be repotted with fresh mix. A third option is to fertilize regularly with a liquid fertilizer, following the directions on the label.
If you choose a liquid fertilizer, don't get carried away! You can easily burn both the roots and leaves, and kill a plant by overfertilizing. This is especially true in winter, when many plants are not in active growth and do not need to be fertilized. In these cases, it's best to hold the fertilizer until you see signs of new growth in spring. For plants that are actively growing, it's best to fertilize only lightly at first, then increase the amount as necessary.
GETTING PLANTS STARTED
You can start new plants by using various different parts of a parent plant, such as roots, tubers, bulbs, seeds, or cuttings. Different parts of the plant require different growing methods. Start large tubers or seeds and bulbs in water, over pebbles, in soil, or in a sphagnum bag. Small seeds require just one method: soil or peat. In many cases, after you have started your plants, you will transfer the sprouted plants to containers with soil. Some plants, however, are best left in pebbles with water.
In the "How to Grow It" section of each plant entry, you may be referred back to instructions in this section.
starting plants in water
Large tubers, pits, or roots, such as sweet potatoes, daikon, arrowhead, and water chestnuts, can be started in water. Suspend the tuber, pit, or root in water by piercing the flesh or pit with bamboo skewers. (Toothpicks are too weak to hold these plants as they start to grow.) Plants started in water should be transplanted to soil when they have 4 inches of roots. The roots are quite brittle and should be handled with care.
Arrowhead and water chestnuts can be floated in bowls of water until they develop roots that are 4 inches long. Be sure to add charcoal to their water. Use one part "activated charcoal" to four parts water. This helps to keep the water sweet. The charcoal can be purchased in garden or pet centers.
starting plants in pebbles
Use this easy method for growing root vegetables such as carrots, tubers such as arrowhead, or bulbs such as garlic. Select a water-tight container large enough to hold the vegetable or group of vegetables you wish to plant. Fill two-thirds of the container with rinsed, white pebbles (these are available in garden centers). Place the roots on top of the pebbles and fill in around them with more pebbles. Allow one-third of the plant part to show above the pebbles. Add water to the level of the pebbles and maintain this level at all times.
starting plants in soil
Most root vegetables can be started in potting soil. Buy firm, fresh vegetables and remove all of the leaves from the root, taking care not to nick the flesh. Find a container that is large enough to hold the root (or roots) you are starting and fill it two-thirds full of moist potting soil. Place the roots on top and fill in around them with more potting soil. Allow one-third of the root to show above the soil. Water thoroughly when the surface of the soil feels dry (see Watering Wisdom).
starting plants from seed
To plant small seeds, fill a container (see Containers) to within an inch of the top with moist potting soil. Then scatter seeds on the surface and cover with more potting soil. Usually, you should cover the seed with twice as much soil as the seed is thick: A 1/4-inch seed should be covered with a 1/2 inch of soil. Press tiny, dustlike seeds into the soil with your fingers. Slip a plastic bag over the seed container and put it in a warm place until the seeds germinate. (Most seeds do not need light to germinate.)
Containers. Delicatessens are my favorite "pot shops." They have containers of all sizes for soups, sandwiches, salads, and in our case, sphagnum bags and seed flats. My favorite flat is the clear plastic container with a snap lid. The lid ensures humidity for seedlings and can be slowly lifted to harden them off (see Easing New Plants into the Wider World) as they grow.
Peat pellets. You can also start small seeds in round disks called peat pellets. Available at most garden centers, peat pellets are flat, 2-inch round disks filled with compressed peat and surrounded by netting. They combine the function of a pot and potting soil. When the pellets are dry they look like cookies, but if you wet them, they expand into 2-inch-tall pots. Place each pellet in 1/4 cup of water and wait five minutes for it to expand. Peat pellets are especially useful for growing plants with tender tap roots, such as papayas and dates.
To sow seeds in the pellets, remove a small amount of peat from the top, insert the seed or seeds, and cover with the peat you removed. Put the sown pellets in a flat or tray that is just big enough to hold several of them. Add water when they seem dry. Cover the flat or tray with a plastic bag to insure humidity and place it in bright light, but not direct sun.
CARING FOR NEW PLANTS
You must know how best to care for your plants, so that they will flourish. You should know how to provide your tropical plants with heat from the bottom, harden off all of your plants to ease their transition into the outside environment, and transplant to pots once your plants are established.
Many seeds, tubers, and roots, such as dates, papaya, and pomegranate, come from tropical countries. They will sprout faster if they are supplied with bottom heat. Garden centers sell heating mats that can be placed on a surface, such as a tray or water-tight pan to aid germination, as well as mini-greenhouses that come with a heated base. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for using these. You want the soil to be 70°F–80°F. You can also use a food warming tray set on low, but be careful as these can get too hot. The top of a grow light unit gives off just the right amount of heat.
easing new plants into the wider world
As seedlings grow in their container or flat, you will have to remove the plastic bag covering them, but you must do it slowly. This process is called hardening off. The air inside the bag is much more humid than the desertlike conditions in most homes, so to ease the transition, punch holes in the bag and leave it on for about a week before taking it off.
Once your seedlings have two sets of leaves, they are ready to be transplanted to individual small pots or containers. You can use short plastic cups for containers, but before you plant, you must make drainage holes in these cups. To do this, heat a small skewer in a gas flame or on the heating coil of an electric stove until it is hot, then carefully push it through the bottom of the cup. Make several holes in each cup.
Transplanting small seedlings from a flat is a delicate task. Fill your container to within an inch of the top with moist potting soil. Make a hole in the soil that will be deep enough to contain the roots of your plant. Gently loosen the soil around the seedling and move it out with a spoon. Hold the seedling by a leaf (should you break the stem, the plant will die, but it can always grow another leaf) and gently drop it into the hole. Gently fill in around roots, being careful not to cover the stem with soil.
time to repot?
Keep plants in pots just big enough to let them grow until the roots fill the container. A simple rule of thumb is to use a pot that is 1 inch wider than the width of the crown of the plant, or if it is a tuber, 1 inch wider than the tuber. If pots are too big, the young plant's roots will be surrounded by excess soil and will become waterlogged, which in turn can encourage root diseases. Not all plants are affected by this type of root environment, but to be on the safe side, it's best to gradually increase the plant's soil volume. Plants can stay in small pots for a long time before their growth and size become restricted.
When a plant grows too big for its pot, however, it has to be repotted. When the roots have no place to expand, they go around and around the inside of the pot, virtually strangling the plant. If you find yourself having to water every day, this can be a sign that the plant has outgrown its container.
To see if a plant needs repotting, water it first, then, holding the stem between your fingers, turn the pot upside down. Rap the rim against a hard surface. The whole ball of earth in the pot will slide forward. If the roots completely fill the ball of earth so that no soil can be removed from the surface, it is time to repot.
Use a pot that is roughly an inch larger in diameter than the old one. Place a piece of nylon screening or some porous netting in the bottom of the pot. This will hold the soil in the pot but allow water to run off. Pour an inch of soil mix into the pot and place the plant on top. Fill the area around the plant with fresh soil, then tap the side of the pot to settle the soil around the roots. Press down on the soil around the stem with your fingers. Add more soil, if needed, to bring the soil level to within an inch of the rim of the pot — this leaves plenty of room for watering.
The best thing you can do for your plants is to put them outdoors for the summer. It is as close as you can come to providing their natural environment — fresh air, gentle breezes, warm sun, and clean rain water.
Some people fear plants will pick up bugs — quite the contrary. One summer night Milly and I put out a sickly bay plant that was covered with mealy bugs; the next morning it was clean and two very fat ladybugs were lolling on its leaves.
Excerpted from "Don't Throw It, Grow It!"
Copyright © 2008 Deborah Peterson and Millicent Selsam.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1:Nitty-Gritty Growing Techniques
What Plants Need to Grow * Getting Plants Started * Caring for New Plants * Dealing with Pests
Chapter 2:Plants from Common Vegetables
Bean * Beet * Carrot* Chickpea * Jerusalem Artichoke * Lentil * Onion, Garlic, and Shallot * Pea * Potato * Radish * Summer Squash * Sweet Potato * Turnip
Chapter 3:Plants from Fruits and Nuts
Almond * Avocado * Carob * Chinese Star Apple * Citrus * Date * Feijoa * Fig * Kiwi * Mango * Papaya * Peanut * Pineapple * Pomegranate * Sapodilla
Chapter 4:Plants from Herbs and Spices
Anise * Caraway * Celery * Coriander * Dill * Fennel * Fenugreek * Mustard * Sesame
Chapter 5:Plants from Latin America
Black Sapote * Chayote * Cherimoya * Genip * Jicama * Malanga * Prickly Pear *Tamarillo * Tomatillo * Tropical Guava
Chapter 6:Plants from Asia
Arrowhead * Bitter Melon * Daikon * Ginger * Jujube * Lemongrass * Litchi * Loquat * Name * Persimmon * Sugar Cane * Tamarind * Taro * Water Chestnut
What People are Saying About This
“Deborah Peterson…stops at nothing to grab some strange piece of produce, seed or pit to start a plant….Lots of fun here with figs, feijoa, fruiting citrus and more for the whole family.”
Orange County Register
“I found Don't Throw It, Grow It! to be an absolutely delightful little book. I can't wait to start using as many of the suggestions as I possibly can. There were even ethnic fruits and vegetables I had never heard of - genip, anyone? Children will enjoy the magic of watching a new plant grow. This will help you brighten your living space while recycling at the same time. This is one of my favorite new books, and I just can't highly recommend it enough.”
“This clever little book from Storey priced right at 11 bucks in paperback offers up suggestions for sprouting not just avocados, but also carrot tops, garbanzo beans, peanuts, jicama, lemongrass, ginger, and just about any other kind of grocery store produce… There's something so thrifty and retro about sprouting food from kitchen scraps that makes it seem just right for the times.”
“Here’s another way to be creative with plants: Read Don’t Throw It, Grow It! …Peterson and Selsam go way beyond the avocados and potatoes we used to root in water glasses. Besides fruits and vegetables, they include nuts, herbs, spices, and more international foods like chayote and litchi.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Before I got this book, produce seeds ended up in trash... Now I am inspired to plant the seeds... The plants that sprout are very unique in house plants... Recommend to everyone..
if you are even just a starter like my self this is perfect for simple kitchen money saving tips. learning how to extend what you already have in your cupboard or fridge. must read adn remember..."BUY TWO"!!