A green garden gets a winter start from vegetable 'leftovers'

There is something about the influx of seed catalogs around the first of the year that sets green thumbs to itching. You can soothe the "itch" somewhat by doing some armchair gardening, by most of us can't plant seeds until the season progresses toward spring. If seeds are started too early indoors, they will get much to spindly for outdoor planting later on. So how about a substitute?

An exciting adventure awaits those verdant digits right in your shopping bag -- or at least in your supermarket.

Children especially love shopping-bag gardening, but adults, we find, are just as enthusiastic. The best part of all is that you're going to use "leftovers" that would ordinarily be thrown into the garbage bucket.

Let's start with beets and carrots. When you prepare these vegetables for eating, don't throw away the tops.Cut them off, leaving about half an inch of flesh attached. Place one or more of the tops in a shallow dish (a soup plate is fine), with about one-half inch of pebbles (or sand) holding them in place.

Then keep the sand or pebbles moist at all times.

Soon foliage will start emerging from the tops. Carrots grow a lovely fernlike foliage that will adorn your table with welcome greenery all during the dull winter months.

Beet leaves are a handsome variegated greenish red. Contrasts between the new leaves and the older leaves are striking. For a change, tuck some pompon chrysanthemum blooms in among the leaves, but be sure the stems touch the water in the sand or pebbles.

A few colorful seashells or marbles spread artistically around the vegetable tops will give your miniature garden a whole new dimension.

Grow a "cabbage tree," if you like. Don't throw away that cabbage core.Instead of slicing cabbage in half, cut it so the core remains intact, with about one-quarter inch of the stubs of the leaves left attached.

Place the core in a shallow dish, just as you did the beet and carrot tops. Tiny cabbages will form all along the core.

We have been the recipients of many complimentary "ahs" and "ohs" from guests who view our little cone- shaped cabbage tree, complete with roots -- especially when we have decorated it with tiny bows or strings of colorful beads. Our "cabbage tree" has often been used in the center of a floral arrangement.

Avocado trees grown indoors won't give you avocados for your salad, but you'll enjoy their lush green leaves, nonetheless. Many folks try sprouting avocado pits, some with success, while others give up. The secret is to start with a ripem fruit -- one in which the flesh is soft. The seed will lift out easily.

Often the seed will have already started to sprout, so be careful not to break the seed or the sprout. If no sprout is visible, then begin by identifying the end with the dimple as the bottom. This is the end that should go into the soil or be suspended in water.

If you choose the water method, insert three or four heavy toothpicks or sharpened wooden matchsticks into the seed, just far enough to stabilize it when they are rested on top of the glass.

Insert them so that one-half the pit can be submerged in water. When the roots are well formed, pot in soil.

If you choose the soil method of sprouting, use a loose, well-drained mixture and insert the pit so the top one-third sticks out. Incidentally, a good all-purpose soil mix is one part each of sand, sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and garden loam.

Keep the soil moist but never soggy. If you don't have the loam, substitute an equal part of store-bought soil.

When top growth reaches 10 to 12 inches, pinch out a small portion to the tip so the plant will start to branch. Otherwise, it will grow into one ungainly stem.

Give your avocado tree the brightest window in the house -- with a few hours of sun each day, if possible.

Just about everyone has grown little citrus plants from seeds, whether they're oranges, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, or whatever. The riper the fruit the better the chance the seeds will germinate.

We like to grow a miniature citrus grove. The aluminum pans that store-bought rolls come in are dandy for this purpose. We poke pinholes in the bottom of the pans for drainage, then set them on an old plate or inside another plan lined with perlite (but without holes). Use the same soil mix as for avocados.

Plant the seeds in rows about an inch apart. Soon green shoots will appear if the seeds are really ripe.

We then sow some grass seed over the top. When the seedlings are an inch or so tall, the grass will have sprung up and we "mow" it close with a pair of shears. Then we circle each "tree" with some sand so as to set if off. Seedlings can be transplanted into pots later on, but during the winter months you will have enjoyed a miniature tropical orchard.

For some spectacular rambling greenery during the chlorophyll-lean months, grow sweet potato vines. They'll do you double duty by cheering you up while the snow falls outside. Later on they'll serve as the starter plants for a crop of sweet potatoes in your garden.

Be sure to buy firm tubers with good "eyes." Suspend a tuber or two in jars of water in the same manner as you did the avocado, using toothpicks or matchsticks. Don't be discouraged if the tuber is slow to start. Often the "sweets" have been sprayed with a growth inhibitor so they keep better in the store. It takes a while to break their dormancy.

Once the dormancy is broken, however, the roots form quickly. Soon bronzy shoots appear. The vines can be trained on strings or on a coat hanger. You can cut off the ends and root them for more vines.

By the time the warm weather arrives, you'll have a good supply of sweet potatoes to plant in your garden.

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