Houseplants from Garbage

by Susan Gately

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Cheerful green indoor foliage plants do wonders to cheer up a dark winter day, and you can enjoy them with virtually no cash expenditure, too. A veritable jungle of exotic inexpensive houseplants awaits if you merely intercept a few scraps on their way to the compost pile.

Recently, I visited friends in the Canadian countryside north of Ottawa. Upon entering their house on a bitter cold January day, I was drawn to a display of lush greenery that included an impressive six-foot tall tree in a fifty-gallon garbage can of dirt in a corner of the kitchen. Admiring the sturdy plant doing its best to raise the roof I asked, "What is it?" "An orange tree grown from a seed," answered my thrifty friend.

Perhaps you will not want a plant as massive as that orange seed or as fast growing as "Claude" the eight-foot avocado that my Aunt Jeanne nourished for years in her Chicago apartment. But you can keep vigorous plants from table scraps under control and still have a lot of fun with little expense by recycling carrot and onion tops, pits, seeds and sweet potatoes.

If you have younger family gardeners, they may enjoy their own indoor garden. One attractive table scrap plant that kids can grow is the carrot. Cut the top inch or so off a carrot. Place it in a dish of pretty pebbles and water with the stones arranged to hold the carrot piece upright. In a few days, the delicate, lacy green shoots delight kids of any age. Or plant the carrot top in a small pot with sand and keep it moist. It will quickly root and produce a spray of feathery foliage as attractive as a store bought plant.

This technique works with onions or garlic cloves, too. Stick toothpicks in the clove or bulb to suspend it in a glass with the bottom quarter inch or so touching the water. They are not real striking visually I will admit, but you can use the bits of green shoots as a flavorful winter garnish.

A number of common fruits have seeds or pits that make attractive houseplants. The avocado is an old standby for garbage gardeners. I've successfully used the toothpicks and water glass method described above for onions to root them. It takes awhile and not all pits grow, but with luck you may see roots emerge in as little as two weeks. You can also start pits directly in soil, which lessens the chance of rot. The only tricks to rooting avocados are patience and starting them with the pointed end up.

You can also try the green house effect, making a little tent over the pot with a clear plastic bag. But keep this rig out of direct sunlight or you'll cook your pit. Once it roots and sends up a sprout, remove the bag and keep the young plant well watered and in as much sunlight as possible. You may need extra light from a table lamp if you live in a gloomy climate like my upstate NY region.

If you want to keep the avocado with its attractive shiny leaves for more than a month or two, you'll need to prune it. Otherwise you'll get a tall skinny tree like my aunt's "Claude" with its two scrawny stems and a few sparse leaves pressed against the ceiling. Brutal as it may seem if you cut off the new sprout's top when it's six or seven inches high you'll get a stronger stem and a better looking plant.

Other sources of easily started seeds are grapefruit and oranges. Sometimes you'll even find a seed already sprouted when you cut one open. The riper the fruit, the quicker its seeds germinate. Citrus seeds won't tolerate drying so plant as soon as you take them from the fruit in already moist soil. They need not be buried very deep. Keep the soil moist and fairly warm. It takes awhile. I was about to toss mine, but after about a month three pretty shiny green grapefruit seedlings had appeared.

As with avocados, the more light the better and fertilizing about once a month during active growth is best. You can also prune these to a better shape as they age.

Depending on your level of commitment, you'll need to periodically re-pot the avocado or orange seed tree. If you elect to let it get as far as garbage can size, you might set the planter on some sort of caster arrangement, as had my Canadian friend so you can turn the tree occasionally. Otherwise it will get lopsided as it leans towards the light.

My first garbage houseplant success was a childhood experience with a sweet potato. The creeping vine is quite attractive, but you may find normal grocery potatoes have been treated with sprout inhibitor. Try washing it off with warm water then place the tuber over water using the tooth pick treatment to hold it up. The water level should just touch the bottom and the water should be changed often. Store in a dark warm place and if it sprouts then move it to sunlight. When the shoots get a couple inches long, thin them so you get two or three strong ones.

If you add fertilizer like Rapid Gro and change the water once a month, you may be able to keep the sweet potato going for several months. I recall training the vine around the window frame to cheer up a bleak winter scene viewed through the green leaves.

You may not win any prizes at the local garden club's flower show with your citrus seed tree or carrot top plant. But, if you live in a monochrome land of black and white for a long winter and like to garden, a bit of budget green in the window is a real lift.

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