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GARDENING : Produce Will Produce--Houseplants

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The grocery store offers many more houseplants than you might imagine. Look beyond pots of African violets, jade plants and spider plants. Look to the food itself.

Steer your grocery cart over to the produce section. Here is where you will find foods that will sprout roots and shoots, usually with no more coaxing than a little warmth and water.

Besides furnishing houseplants, such “produce-section gardens” are instructive to children, reminding them of the variety of plants that provide food.

Also, these gardens provide an appreciation for the fact that such foods as carrots, onions and potatoes are living foods. (Try planting a potato chip!)

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Look first for foods that are fleshy storage roots--carrots, for example. Lop off and save a quarter- or half-inch of the tops of the roots. Set the tops, bottom ends down, in a shallow pan of water or press them into moist soil in a pot.

In a few days, the tops will sprout and then grow to become small jungles of ferny foliage. If you bought carrots with their leafy tops attached, cut the leaves off before you plant, or they will wilt. New tops will grow together with new roots.

Another storage root worth planting is the onion. Watch what happens when you plant it.

Either bury the bulb to half its depth in potting soil, or perch it with three toothpicks stuck in its side on a glass of water, with the bottom of the bulb just below the water line. A thick green stalk, capped by a starburst of white flowers, will rise from the center of the bulb.

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If it is spring by the time these carrot and onion “houseplants” have overstayed their welcome, toss them into the compost pile. Don’t plant them in the garden, expecting to harvest carrots and onions for the table.

These plants are biennials that grew their edible roots last summer; this summer they will “eat” their own roots to get energy to flower, then die.

A vegetable that makes a nice houseplant and could be moved to the garden in the spring is the sweet potato.

A twining vine will emerge from the fat root if it is planted in either moist soil or water (again, perched partially out of the water with toothpicks).

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This plant likes warmth, and if kept happy, will send out many feet of purplish-green stems with smooth, dark-green leaves.

Eventually, mauve or white flowers shaped just like those of the sweet potato’s relative, the morning glory, may form along the vine.

No need to try to gather the whole length of vine together when it’s time to plant sweet potatoes outside.

Instead, cut the stem into six-inch pieces when the weather starts to warm. Strip the bottom leaves from each piece and plant them in pots.

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By the time warm weather has thoroughly settled in for the season, each piece will be well-rooted and ready for transplanting to the garden.

How about watercress, a small plant with forest-green leaves? When you get it home, put the bottoms of the stems in water and roots will form. For longer-term growth, stick stems in a pot of soil to root. Watercress needs lots of water, and it will wilt as soon as the soil dries.

If you plant watercress at the base of another houseplant, wilting watercress will indicate to you when the soil needs watering. Come spring, plant the watercress outdoors in a wet area. An ideal spot is under a dripping faucet.

Let’s see, still moving up the produce aisle, what else we can plant? Aha, a pineapple!

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Take it home and, just before you eat it, grasp the fruit firmly with one hand and, with your other hand, twist off the clump of leaves that crowns the fruit.

Let the clump dry out for a couple of days, then plant it in water or soil.

How about another tropical plant: sugar cane?

Plant sugar cane in the house just like it is planted commercially. Set a piece of the stem horizontally in the soil, half-buried.

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Long sprouts of grassy foliage and stems will grow. It is the sugary sap within these stems from which cane sugar is extracted.


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