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Gardening to save money

by Lisa Gay

Herbs

This is as easy as it gets, as long as you don’t start by growing herbs from seed (surprisingly difficult!). You can grow herbs practically anywhere that gets sunshine: in your kitchen, on a windowsill, or a balcony. It’s best to use starter plants from the Plant Souq in Abu Hamour (near the Wholesale Market). However, in a pinch, you can use potted supermarket herbs. These tend to have a mass of roots, so you may need to divide them into several plants to ensure optimum growing conditions.

While herbs are cheap, it’s also hard to use them in a timely manner, so growing your own means you have a fresh supply virtually on demand. You can plant several kinds together in one pot, like basil and rosemary, but mint should be grown alone as it spreads like an invasive weed.

If you truly have no space, you can propagate herbs into glass jars. Not only does this brighten up the kitchen, but, if you are lucky, the cut herbs will sprout

roots to give the plants a longer lifespan. Cut your leftover herbs at a leaf node (the point where the leaf meets the stem) and remove leaves from the bottom two-thirds of the plant. Make sure no leaves touch the water and change the water every couple of days to prevent bacterial growth.

Those who have sunny windowsills can always transplant cuttings with roots to the soil for an even more durable plant. They will need to be at least a couple inches to take root (try hardening them first by placing pebbles on the roots just before transplanting them).

Now here’s where you can get creative: old pots, cute ceramics, and leftover tin cans can all be upcycled into planters.

Once successful, you may have more herbs than you know what to do with. Paradoxically, you need to harvest herbs frequently to encourage them to grow, so learn how to make everyday food items from your bounty. Try making pesto, vegetable stock, or infused salad oils. You can also dry herbs like mint to make tea. For the lazy cook, you can simply freeze cut herbs so you can sprinkle them on dishes in a flash.

Microgreens

One step up, but almost as easy, is microgreens. These are readily available in upscale groceries, but you can grow them cheaply at home. Also, microgreens are a great way to teach children how plants grow, as they will typically sprout within a few days and be ready to harvest within a week.

So, what exactly are microgreens? Well, you’ve probably seen them gracing your dinner plate at fine dining establishments as a garnish. They are tender, immature vegetable shoots that are bigger than sprouts (which you eat seed and all) but smaller than baby leaves found in packaged salad mixes.

A surprising variety of vegetables can be grown as microgreens. A few popular options include endive, rocket (arugula), broccoli, chives, swiss chard, mung beans, parsley, and the ever-popular wheatgrass. That said, you should never try this with any plant from the nightshade family, as their stems and leaves are toxic. Nightshade plants include potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, chilli, and bell peppers.

You don’t need special seeds or equipment to grow microgreens; you can just use regular seeds. Use shallow trays with drainage holes and fill with an inch or two of soil. Upcycled plastic takeaway containers work well for this purpose, but again, don’t forget to poke holes at the bottom. Don’t pack the soil as you need to make sure it can breathe. Leave the trays out a few days before planting to allow the microorganisms in the soil to regenerate.

Next, evenly place the seeds on top, then use a spray bottle to mist with water. Keep in mind that, unlike with regular plants, seeds used for microgreens won’t need much space as they won’t grow too large, so sprinkle with abandon. You can cover the tray with plastic until the seeds start to sprout. Place in a sunny area and only water when you see them beginning to wilt. Once you spray with water, they bounce back quickly. Harvest when they are about three inches in height, using scissors to snip just above the soil line.

Vegetables

As we are entering the summer season, it’s worth thinking about what you might want to plant for the growing season (generally between September and April). Buy seeds at the Plant Souq and get them started indoors to transfer when the weather cools. Egg cartons are perfect seed starters, and if they are made of paper, you can even transplant them directly without fuss. Or, if you are keen to start even earlier, good hot-weather vegetables include okra (ladies’ fingers), chilli peppers, aubergines, and even sweet potatoes.

All that said, if growing from seed seems like too much work, you can buy seedlings at the Plant Souq or the Government Nursery near the Old Airport to jump-start your garden. Get gardening supplies like soil and fertiliser at the Plant Souq, or in a pinch, Carrefour or Ikea. It’s also worth noting that Carrefour sells plant seeds, but the variety isn’t all that great.

Pay attention to the sunlight and watering instructions on your seed packet or even those given by the plant vendors. Each plant has its own needs, and you need to know if your home environment can support that. It’s helpful, before you even go to the Plant Souq, to know how much light any potential plant will receive and whether they will be grown on a balcony, in a container, or the ground, as watering instructions will vary depending.

Using scraps

If you really do have a brown thumb, then at the very least, you can try to save a bit on your grocery bill by growing food from leftover scraps. Scallions and their bigger cousin, the leek, can be easily grown from scraps, provided they have roots attached. Just place in a glass of water, set in a sunny location, and watch them regenerate in only a few days. Change the water every few days or so. Fennel follows the same logic; just cover the bulb in water (a plastic container will do), set in a sunny location, and change the water as necessary.

Take this a step further by growing ginger, onion, and garlic scraps in soil. If your ginger has some new buds, you can place in soil with the buds facing up; bear in mind that these grow horizontally. Organic ginger is best for this purpose, and if all goes well, it should start to root into the soil and sprout. Garlic can be grown from a single bulb as well. Stick in soil, root end down, and keep cutting down any green shoots so the plant will concentrate on enlarging the bulb. You can also reuse those onion bottoms (with roots intact) by replanting them in soil, roots down. Cover, and then cut back any green growth to concentrate resources on the bulb.

Understand that working with veggie scraps is hit-and-miss. You won’t always be able to re-grow your kitchen leftovers, but it’s worth a bit of experimentation to see what works. Note that vegetables grown in this manner don’t live very long, but you can usually get a nice crop or two out of scraps that would otherwise be thrown on the compost heap.

Whatever method you choose, it’s helpful to keep a log of your efforts so you can track what works and what doesn’t. You will learn a lot about the plant life cycle … and also have a few failures along the way. But trust us—nothing will taste as good as greens grown by your very own hands.

The author would like to thank Dodie Manuel Gonzales for his assistance on this article. 

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