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How to grow your own vegetables from scraps

8 June 2020
6 minute read

couple planting

By Niki Botes

In South Africa alone, 10 million tonnes of food is wasted annually, while around one-third of food that’s produced worldwide is either thrown away or lost each year. If you wish to live more consciously, an easy and fun way to do so is by growing your own vegetables from scraps. Those bits that you tend to throw away, such as a celery stalk or a garlic clove that has sprouted, can be used to grow new, fresh vegetables effortlessly and successfully.


Those who don’t have a garden need not worry. Some vegetables can grow in water exclusively, whereas others do very well in pots. You also don’t need any fancy equipment. If you have access to water, a few shallow containers, a wee bit of sun, some pots or a garden bed with well-prepared soil, and a dash of patience, there’s no reason why you cannot successfully grow your own vegetables at home. Although each vegetable variety may have its quirks and preferences, this article outlines a few basics that will give you an idea of what growing your own vegetables from scraps entails.

Leafy VegetablesExamples: Lettuce, spinach, kale, pak choi

What to do: Leafy vegetables are typically easy to propagate. To grow these vegetables from scraps you use the stems, which are normally the bits that are thrown away anyway. If you want to grow new pak choi, for instance, chop off the stem where the leaves start to branch and place it in a container. Fill the container with water so that roughly just over half of the cutting is immersed and then put it on a windowsill that gets some sun. Replace the water every few days when you see that it’s turning cloudy.

In just about two to three days, you’ll notice a few baby leaves emerging and, gradually, the outsides of the cutting will dry out and turn yellow. You can break these bits off as the new green growth in the centre starts to flourish and turns a lush, dark green. After about 10 days, you can transfer the plant to a pot or a garden bed with good drainage. Plant the pak choi quite deeply, so that only the tips of the new green foliage are visible. Try to grow the pak choi in partial shade, as too much sun will cause it to flower prematurely.

Water generously just after planting and, after that, water regularly. You can keep eating from the plant if you cut off the leaves a few centimetres from the ground or, if you wish, you can harvest the whole plant in one go after about 30 days. Ensure that your pak choi doesn’t start to flower, however, as the leaves will turn bitter and inedible.

Bulb VegetablesExamples: Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic, spring onions

What to do: Depending on the plant, you either eat the leaves or the bulbs of bulb vegetables. Whereas the leaves of underdeveloped bulbs like leeks or spring onions are used in salads, soups, and stews, we eat the mature bulbs of plants like onions and garlic. However, the leaves of both onion and garlic plants are also edible and can be used to add a lovely flavour to dishes.

The way you propagate bulb vegetables will vary, depending on whether you’re working with a mature bulb or not. If you’re trying to grow underdeveloped bulbs like spring onions, the process is very similar to propagating leafy vegetables. Simply cut a few centimetres off the ends of the spring onions and place them in water, leaving at least one centimetre of each cutting free to breathe. Set the jar on a sunny windowsill and replace the water regularly. In just a few days, you’ll see regrowth pushing through the old sheaths. You can either keep your spring onions growing in water or replant them in soil.

Growing mature bulbs from scraps requires a different process. If you want to propagate a new onion plant, for instance, cut about 3 centimetres from the root end of an onion with a sharp knife and use the rest of the onion in your cooking. Remove the outer peel of the cutting and place it on a dry surface for about a day so that it can dry out. To get the roots to grow, insert four toothpicks in the cutting and balance these on the rim of a jar or container filled with water so that the bottom of the cutting just touches the water.

Once the cutting has sprouted roots, you can either place it in a well-draining pot or a garden bed in a sunny spot. Ensure that you cover the cutting completely with soil and water regularly, as onions like a lot of water. If you want more than one onion plant, simply divide the onion cutting, ensuring that there are roots on each section. You can harvest when your onions start flowering, which will take around three to four months.

Fruity “Vegetables”Examples: Tomatoes, chillies, pumpkins, cucumbers

What to do: As people tend to use fruits like tomatoes, chillies, pumpkins, and cucumbers in salads and savoury dishes, many mistake them for vegetables. By definition, fruit develops from the flower of a plant, whereas vegetables include other edible parts of plants, such as stems, bulbs, roots, and leaves. Fruits typically contain seeds, and it is from these that new plants are propagated. When growing new plants from seeds, you’ll typically require a pot with soil from the get-go – except when you’re working with large pips like, for instance, an avocado pip, which is initially propagated in water.

A fruit that you can easily propagate from seeds is the tomato. Choose the type of tomato plant you want to grow according to your environment. Those who, say, have to make do with a pot on a balcony, would want to go for a smaller tomato variety like the cherry tomato, as these typically grow on more diminutive plants. Choose only very ripe specimens, regardless of the variety you have opted for, as their seeds are more likely to sprout.

If, for instance, you have decided to go with a larger tomato like the beefsteak variety, you will cut your tomato in slices that are about half a centimetre in thickness. Place the slices on top of well-prepared soil in a pot that drains well, ensuring that the slices are not too close in proximity, and then lightly cover them with soil. If you’ve opted for a smaller variety like cherry tomatoes, cut them in half and place them seed-side up on the soil before covering.

Put the pot in a partially shaded area and water well – tomatoes like water. The tomato seeds should germinate within a few days and after about two to three weeks, you should be able to transplant individual seedlings, whether in their own pots or in a well-draining garden bed. If all goes well, expect your first tomato harvest after about 30 to 40 days.

Although this is only a rough overview of how to go about growing your own vegetables from scraps, you can hopefully gauge that the process is relatively easy and that it will cost you next to nothing. And apart from the fact that you’re saving money and doing your bit to counter food wastage, growing your own vegetables from scraps is also a fun way to while away a few hours of your weekly spare time.

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