You’ve probably seen the videos where people claim to take kitchen scraps like lettuce, carrots, and potatoes and regrow them. And yet, the videos only seem to show the first stage of putting the scraps in water, not what the scraps actually grow into in order to make free and easy food for you. At best you get stock footage of garden cultivated plants. This begs the question: does regrowing scraps work and is it worth it?
The short answer: yes, it does work but it depends and if it’s worth it to you also depends.
Here’s what works and what doesn’t and why you should definitely regrow some foods and not others.
Here’s my take after experimenting with a few common vegetables I cook with often.
Food Scrap Experimentation
I’m curious by nature and like to know how things work. In the winter I get the gardening bug but the spring planting season is so far away that I indulge my plant craving by taking up indoor gardening hobbies like growing windowsill herb gardens and microgreens. This year, after doing so well with microgreens last winter and knowing I’ll have a full garden come spring, I added a few shop lights to make a small indoor garden in my basement.
I also started experimenting with regrowing kitchen scraps after watching one too many YouTube videos. My favorite regrow food is scallions or spring onions, which I’ve done for a while and confidently know how to nurture. Lately I’ve added lettuce, carrots, and celery to the regrow experimentation list, along with seeing how many store bought foods I can use as seed stock for my garden, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, berries, peppers and nuts.
Some of these experiments are in the early stages and others, like lettuce and scallions, are already producing harvestable results. For me it’s a fun diversion while I wait for the spring planting season. Here are my thoughts after regrowing a few scraps.
Why regrow food scraps? Let’s face it, free food is free food. That’s a plus wallet-wise. When it comes to regrowing common vegetables from their scraps, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. In many cases you just need a shallow dish or cup, water or soil, and counter space with lighting. The main considerations about whether it’s worth it boil down to time, money and quality.
The time it takes to regrow useable food varies greatly.
Not all scraps are created equal! Harvest times vary widely, impacting what you might consider worth your time and effort.
Quick and easy: Spring onions regrow so quickly that you have fresh batches seemingly daily. Lettuce turns around in 2-3 weeks depending on light conditions and how large you want the leaves. Herbs can be harvested continually and most will grow back if kept potted and with decent lighting. Herbs are also fun because you can take a cutting from many of them, replant it or grow out root systems to replant, and grow them forever just from cuttings. I’ve done this with mint and my brother does this with basil and other herbs.
Medium term: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and other vegetables don’t regrow themselves in water unlike what videos would have you believe. Instead, you use them to seed new crops in a garden by developing root systems or seeds you can then transplant to create new plants. Similarly, you can plant parts of ginger or turmeric, which will regrow themselves but they will take months to harvest.
The long haul: It can take years or decades to get harvestable food from avocado pits, lemon seeds, fruit seeds, and many nuts and berries. Viral food videos never mention this part, making it instead seem like you can regrow these foods simply and quickly in a season. This is where you have to research your plants and foods to understand realistic time tables for their maturity.
The cost of food varies
Another key consideration for regrowing your scraps is how cost effective it might be. Scallions are easy to buy once and regrow them in water over and over for 1-3 months. However, they also cost like $1 for a bunch so unless you’re going through them like crazy (like I do), you may find their overcharged daily growth too much to keep up with when you can just spend a $1 now and again.
Lettuce is cheap too, unless you’re buying organic – at which point regrowing $3+ heads of lettuce starts to make economic sense. Organic is where the cost/effort calculus becomes more persuasive in favor of regrowing your food. You get better quality food and can keep harvesting it for free rather than continuously splash down money on it. If you bought a 3-pack of romaine, you could save and regrow them for use again and again, as well as save and regrow any lettuce you buy while the 1st batch is growing to harvestable size.
There are other cost considerations though that going into calculating how much you might save by regrowing your own food. Or if you will even save a penny. Your plant needs light in addition to water. A southern windowsill in the southern US will produce greater growth than a southern window in the Northeast. But even great window light might not be enough. If your plant isn’t growing, it probably needs more light, soil or both. How feasible is that for you to manage?
For instance, my lettuce was growing slowly on the sill but once I put it under my indoor lighting system, its growth took off. I have four 4ft LED shop lights that cost $22 each that I use for starting seedlings for the spring. You may or may not have or want that. If you have to add lighting, soil and your electricity costs into your calculus, your food is no longer free. For me, the lights are an investment in my garden and I’m already recouping their cost in terms of the amount of microgreens I’ve harvested since buying them. Others though may not find extra lighting worth it.
There are several benefits to regrowing your scraps, including the ability to control what goes into your food. When you regrow things like scallions or lettuce, you know whether it’s organic or not and you can see what nutrients are going into it. Likely you aren’t adding pesticides, dodgy fertilizers, picking it before it’s ripe and gassing it so that it looks fresh. These are all pluses. With sometimes pricey organics it’s usually worth it to regrow your food if you have any inclination because you have a quality food to start with and you’ll save more money if you can just use tap water and a windowsill.
That said, if you’re only giving your plant water, over time its nutritional yield will plummet since it’s not getting any new nutrients beyond what’s in the water. This is where repotting a plant helps you nurture your plant by giving it more nutrients and being able to add more fertilizer over time, keeping it healthy – and giving you better nutrients as well. But if you re-pot, you’re upping your costs unless you have the materials laying around.
Claims about having “food security” or being “self-sufficient” by regrowing your own food are, on the whole, overblown and misleading. Unless you have a lot of space and decent lighting, you’re not going to regrow enough food to feed yourself or your family very much, if at all. If you’re only regrowing lettuce, scallions, and celery, your diet hardly achieves “food security” or “sustainability” levels. Basically you need a real garden plot or hefty indoor system to be food secure, not just a windowsill with a few veggies or herbs growing there.
That said, it’s remarkable how easily you can regenerate store bought foods. 4-5 lettuce crown scraps could keep a person in salad for a while if they harvest only a few leaves at a time from each plant as it grows. The plant will continue to produce new growth for later harvesting. Now and again you might have to add new stock but you’ll be surprised by the longevity of your plants before their life cycle comes to an end.
For those with the space and time, you can easily harvest seeds from many fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and dried beans. I’m always running a few experiments and have found germination rates quite high from many grocery store foods. Because of that I’ve harvested seeds from some items just for fun, planted beans with success and harvested their crops, and use the experimentation as learning experience for future seed conservation and garden planting.
Regrowing scraps is a fun, worthwhile endeavor if you enjoy the growing process and have the time and right expectations. It takes nothing to put a lettuce or celery crown in water to regrow them, same for putting scallions in water and harvesting them again and again. The food is free and fresh. What’s not to love about that?
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