The isolation imposed by the coronavirus has awakened a latent homesteading spirit within many of us. The proliferation of sourdough was an early indication that people were seeking, even in small ways, self-sustainability, as grocery-store shelves were often frustratingly bare.
Now, there’s a wave of people attempting farming on a (very) small scale. The latest trend to sprout up on social media: images of green onions, presumably purchased at the store, their roots submerged in water glasses and tucked onto sunny windowsills, where their owners hope they will grow.
This trend has many roots, some practical — perhaps it’s a way to entertain cooped-up children, or maybe to ensure a supply of some fresh vegetable. Others are more abstract. Participating in coronavirus-era mini trends, whether it’s goofy TikTok dances or re-creating classical works of art with pets, can be fun. And a green thing, sprouting in the sun, feels hopeful, something we all could use now.
For Christopher Koentz, a pharmacist and a brewer in Illinois, the motivation was a little of both. A friend had given his family a bundle of scallions from a restaurant that was closing because of the virus. He and his wife had used them in ramen and risottos, but they still had plenty left over. So when his wife saw a photo someone posted of their own propagation efforts, they threw some in a glass and waited.
It began as an effort to give their four young children something to do, but as he saw more people sharing photos of their own little crops, it also created a feeling of community. “It’s a way to connect with people doing other interesting stay-at-home things,” Koentz says.
Growing such a connection is easier than mastering the “Savage” choreography. Of all the foods you can grow from kitchen scraps — and there are lots, including onions, garlic, shallots, carrots, beets, ginger and avocados — green onions are by far the simplest, experts say. The instructions are straightforward, says gardening author Niki Jabbour: Cut them down to the whites and a little bit of green, plop them in a glass with a little bit of water (top up and change every few days), and you’ll see new growth in about a week.
For those looking to expand beyond the scallion, bear in mind that propagating might not yield what you’re hoping for — at least not right away, notes Kevin Espiritu, the founder of Epic Gardening, an organization aimed at educating people around the globe about plants. Full-size onions are biennials, he says, meaning that if you root them, they won’t make another onion right away. People propagating carrot tops aren’t going to get another carrot; they’ll get carrot greens, he says. “They might be disappointed with some things, but green onions are going to give you the thing you’re looking for,” he says.
Jabbour notes that such vegetables still can be fun to try growing, just don’t expect them to save you a trip to the grocery store. “This is not going to be part of the food supply system,” she says. “You’re going to get maybe enough to flavor a meal.”
The greens from carrots, beets and other root vegetables can be used in a pesto or thrown into a green juice, even if they won’t satisfy your fantasy of snacking like Bugs Bunny on a bounty of homegrown vegetables. If you plant onions or garlic cloves in a small amount of soil in a sunny spot, they will send up green shoots that you can use like chives or scallions, Jabbour notes.
For another easy-growing vegetable, she suggests taking the bottom of a celery bunch and placing it in a shallow bowl of water. Again, you won’t get full stalks of celery, but the greens that will spring up (yup, change the water frequently) are good for flavoring.
Espiritu says anyone looking for a “201 level” windowsill project might consider rooting basil, a process that will yield a tiny basil plant that can be potted in soil. For that, he suggests taking a 4- or 5-inch length of stem from the bunch you got at the grocery store, preferably one cut from a main stem below a spot where a set of leaves has sprouted. Remove those leaves and place the stem in a few inches of water. Once it puts out fine roots from the base, it can be planted, he says.
Jabbour recommends that no matter what kind of vegetable you are trying to grow, you should read up on it a bit first. Not all herbs, for example, root in water the way basil or mint does, she notes. “Just do a little research so you don’t spend two weeks waiting for the parsley to put out roots,” she says. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.)
Other projects might be longer-term. An avocado pit, for example, might take 15 years to give you something to spread on your toast. “It’s better to think of those as science experiments,” Espiritu says.
Both Jabbour and Espiritu said they’ve seen a massive uptick in interest in home gardening, particularly from beginners, since the coronavirus began spreading. But will the sudden rush of attention outlast the stay-at-home orders that have boosted it?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Espiritu says. In his experience, about 40% of people who try gardening don’t stick with it. To get people hooked, he says, he encourages them to start small and easy, just like with a green onion on a windowsill. “I try to give people an early win,” he says. “Whatever happens, it’s good for people to get back to nature even if it’s in a small way.”
And Jabbour says that even if the coronavirus doesn’t produce a generation of gardeners, something as simple as watching a little onion grow might be the balm we need. “It’s wonderful, mentally,” she says, “just to see something green.”