On grocery-store gardening

Peruano beans hogging the corner of a trellis bed

I probably should have posted this months ago, before you guys all had your gardens started. Forgive me. I didn’t think about it until I raided the pantry for some seeds a couple of weeks ago.

Your grocery store or, even better, your farmers’ market, are great places to get seeds and tubers for your garden. The raid of the pantry? I had only a few Peruano beans left in a jar: far too few for a decent meal. I got these in the Hispanic section of a local chain store: they were packaged by Melissa’s, which is a reputable national company. Knowing how I hate to waste things, I planted what I had remaining.

Most dried beans are great candidates. Lentils and garbanzos are a bit too fussy to my liking, but black beans and pintos work just great if they’re not too old. I have also mentioned that most of my shallots are, indeed, grocery-store shallots that I plunked in the ground. This works fairly well for garlic greens too, but do not expect huge heads of garlic from the silverneck (softneck) garlic commonly available. Potatoes are also likely candidates, but be aware that organic potatoes are much better to use than a big bag of Idaho russets: most likely the latter have been treated not to sprout and have been grown in pretty awful pesticide-laden soil.

Did you find an heirloom (open-pollinated) tomato at your farmers’ market that you adore? How about an heirloom pepper? My rule for farmers’ markets: if they grow for them, they’ll grow for me. You can save the seed of both fairly easily. For peppers, ensure the fruit is fully ripe, then slit it open and scrape out the seeds. Wash the seeds in a mesh (screen) strainer, then place on a cookie sheet to dry, away from direct sunlight. They should keep for a couple of years if you keep them dry and cool. Tomatoes require a couple more steps, but keep that mesh strainer handy. Get a couple plastic tubs (half pint is perfect), one for each variety of tomato. Get a couple tomatoes of one variety, let ripen fully, then squeeze into a tub, seeds, pulp, skin and all. What you are going to do is rot off the gel sack that encloses each little seed: this sack contains something that prohibits germination. Add a tiny bit of water into the tub, stir, and let sit outside for one to three days. It will ferment and smell pretty bad, and a fungus will grow to cover the tub and the gel sack will have rotted off. Take a hose and your strainer, and you can separate the pulp, skin, etc. from the seed. Dry on a cookie sheet indoors, label your seed, and it too will keep for 2-3 years if kept dry and cool.

Root crops obviously won’t work, and nor will melons/squash/cucumbers. The former aren’t fruits (so no seed) but the latter obviously are, with their seed-filled bodies. Don’t bother. Most likely these fruits were grown for fruit production and not seed production. The flowers of the cucurbitae family are…promiscuous, let’s just say. The little Don Juans/trollops are easily crossed with other squashes and melons by action of both wind and pollinators. So I suppose that shouldn’t stop you from trying to save the seed: it doesn’t stop ME. Just know the chances of its coming true and not some weird barely edible mutt are fairly small.

Anyway. This should give you license to experiment, at least! I do, all the time.

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17 responses to “On grocery-store gardening

  1. Great picture and philosophy. If I’m not mistaken, tomatoes and peppers are fairly promiscuous as well. They’ll cross pollinate very readily and may not breed true. So the tomato you love may not yield seeds that produce the same type of tomato. I’m going to try this with any shallots that start sprouting on me though. Thanks for the tip.

    cheers,

    Kate

  2. Hi Kate. Well, technically you are quite right, solanaceae can cross, but it’s not as common a thing as with the cucurbits. With tomatoes, it has to do with the fact that bugs don’t particularly like their flowers, that they’re perfect (self-pollinating) and that the shape of the sexy part of most modern tomato flowers is retracted, thus limiting crossing. I’m on Year 10 of my Brandywine plants from seed I have never caged. Peppers can cross, but farmers’ market peppers are usually grown in rows by themselves. My 3rd year Hungarian and Jimmy Nardello’s peppers are showing true to form from home-grown seed. I’m just saying wing it! It’s fun to at least try.

  3. Speaking of tomatoes, why are my tomato fruits just inches off the ground this year? I’ve never seen such a thing. The plants are normal-sized and of several varieties, some of which I’ve grown before.

    I Will Be Better About Saving Seeds And Getting Them from Weird Places Like the Grocery Store. Thank you for reminding me! πŸ™‚

  4. Anne, what do you mean? That they’re blossoming right next to the ground? I guess mine are too. It seems to be a good year for tomatoes in MI, don’t you think? I am now swimming in the things. Sigh. Time to start canning!

  5. I love this topic and practice. I planted some shallots from the farmer’s market and nothing came up, which disappointed me terribly. But I’ve done well with peppers and tomatillos, plus one cantaloupe and one butternut squash (I imagine they were growing in huge fields of their respective variety), and some lentils at least came up, though they didn’t flower.

  6. Hi Jenny. With the shallots, how deeply did you plant them? They’re surface plants, so they should only be planted halfway into the dirt, just enough for their roots to take hold. Then, they divide and multiply. My best cantaloupes have come from the compost pile! Even cheaper and less work πŸ˜‰ Sounds like you are well on your way in the practice, though. Yay.

  7. With tomatoes and peppers I would worry about them being F1 hybrids and thus the offspring could be pretty much anything (and totally differnet from one seed to the next).

  8. Don’t forget to plant the white portion of scallions and leeks for recurring plants. I keep myself in scallions all year long and no worry about icky things like salmonella or e.coli to worry about. I know that the cookbooks say to USE the white portion of the leeks; I would rather plant them and use the green parts for my stockpot. I of course do the same things you do with the other stuff too.
    Oh, and I hand pollinate all my cucubitae as we don’t have bees anyway, and I leave the male portion sticking out of the top of the female flower to show me that I did pollinate it and to prevent any additonal beastie coming by like ants to pollinate it. I like my heirloom squashes.

  9. oops, I typed in my webpage wrong in case you wanted to trackback.

  10. Eva, good point. I guess I should’ve been clearer and said “heirloom” tomatoes at the farmers’ market, so I will correct my text!

    Thanks Bobbi. I thought about doing that with my 2nd year leeks: they send up side shoots along with the seedhead. I usually just eat them πŸ™‚ Great point though about the scallions: you can even grow them indoors then! No bees? Wow. I will have to go to your site to figure out where you live. Glad to know you also are a big fan of squash cultivation. I am always so jealous of the space they take up. This year I have Hubbard, butternut AND pumpkin coming up from the old compost pile. Yeah they do look a little weird and not 100% pure but…hey. Easy gardening.

  11. Thanks for the lesson in seed finding and saving. That’s one area I haven’t yet ventured, but you make it sound so simple.

  12. Jessica, it can be. You gotta kind of lift the blinders from your eyes to think that only seed from the seed companies is the only seed you can use. There’s a lot of choice out there and then there are a lot of other cool tips like what Bobbi suggests for shallots and leeks. And plus it’s fun to see what comes up!

  13. Root crops won’t work to make more roots, but they will make more seeds! I planted some turnips from the grocery store and they put up new greens, thinking it was their second year. They should go to seed any day now. Should work with carrots or beets, too.

  14. Tomatoes growing low (comment 3): They blossomed and set fruit on branches less than a foot off the ground. I’m used to tomatoes setting more towards the middle and top of the plant. But hey, as long as I get tomatoes? I’m happy. πŸ™‚

  15. Anne: Absolutely! Yeah, some years I have noticed the plants do different things. I thought it was just me (sniggers) but nope little mini climate changes and seed differences sometimes mean surprises on the way. Roll with it, I guess!

  16. I just came across your blog last week thanks to a prematurely sprouting Costco shallot. I’ve been perusing the newer articles as well as the archives, and am enjoying them very much. I wanted to drop you a line and tell you so in the thread that brought me here in the first place.
    I’m reading this as a new transplant to Coastal North Carolina (from Manhattan, and before that Central New York farm country). My new planting zones and space availability differ quite dramatically from yours, but your blog has inspired me to do what I can where I can. For me that means container gardening on an apartment balcony, and it also means learning what the heck grows in North Carolina…and in pots.
    This past summer was my first real foray into home-grown vegetables. We had cherry tomatoes at a rate of one or two every few days, a mountain of basil, spindly dill, and leaf lettuce enough for a half a salad one night. Hardly subsistence gardening, but I plan to do better this year now that I have time to do proper research.
    I’m studying for LEED accreditation, and in that spirit I’m envisioning a recycled-container garden with a small vermicompost tower for composting kitchen scraps and shredded junk mail, and soaker hoses connected to a small rain barrel, or at the very least a watering timer. I make no great claims for it being organic (my fiance is in grad school and we can’t afford the organic produce to feed the verms that would make organic compost) but at least it will be local and conservative of potable water.
    To that end, I loved this article on growing grocery store produce, because I am cheap and because shallots are not. I have no idea if my little hairy shallot will do anything but rot in its container without a good winter dormancy, but no harm in trying when you buy them by the sack at Costco.
    If you have any suggestions about container gardening or about plants that will grow in North Carolina, preferably from grocery store produce that we often buy in bulk anyway, I’m all ears.

    • Hi Jess! Welcome, I am glad you’ve found the blog. Yeah, I am a bit of a tightwad too, that, and a bit of a mad experimenter, so I have tried all kinds of things to both stretch the budget and to avoid waste. I haven’t that much experience with container gardening except as my years of Chicago apartment living allowed me to be…allowed me to be the purveyor of spindly tomato plants and minuscule peppers, that is. So I would look to see if your town has a community garden where you might be able to rent a plot. That’s frankly how I started. Just drive around and see if you can find some, then, if you ever see someone in the garden, ask if you can join. But yeah, keeping a little kitchen stash on your balcony works too; that’s the best way to keep fresh herbs handy. I love vermicomposting but don’t rely it on it to completely recycle our kitchen scraps as there’d just be too many of them despite my trying to reduce waste. But the rainwater recapture idea sounds wonderful!! And yeah: organic. Do as you can. Those shallots should turn out fine. Mine are always smaller but they’re more plentiful…and nearly free.

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