Saturday, February 20, 2010

Supermarket gardening

Is there a bigger racket in supermarkets than the herb section? Tiny little plastic boxes filled with a few wilted sprigs go for two or three dollars, sometimes more. With large herbs like sage or basil, that price can break down to over 10 cents a leaf. For anyone who gardens, even on a windowsill, it is shocking to do the math on the retail value of your herb plants. I look at my ratty, overgrown thyme patch and realize I've got close to a hundred dollars of culinary gold!

I carefully save my summer herb harvest in the freezer. I do like the look and smell of drying herbs. If fresh herbs aren't available, however, I prefer to cook with frozen. For tougher plants -- sage and thyme - I just freeze them in ziplocs with as much air pressed out as possible. The more tender leaves -- basil and parsley -- I freeze in oil as pesto. There is one herb, rosemary, that I can always use fresh, since it is growing away happily in my guest bedroom. I plan to try more of this windowsill culture next winter.

Sadly, I miscalculated with my sage this year. I ran out of frozen leaves a few weeks back, thanks to several dishes of chicken saltimbocca. I have some dried crumbly sage in a jar, which would probably do okay in a poultry stuffing. The recipe I planned to make this weekend is a parsnip risotto and, for taste and aesthetics, fresh or frozen leaves would be best. I guess I could cook something else, but I have a big stash of parsnips, so I really want to make the recipe. And, yes, I can be a resourceful cook and substitute ingredients. But on the first go at a recipe, I like to follow the prescribed method. Finally, sage is sage. If I use rosemary, it's not like I'm substituting yogurt for buttermilk.

I stood at the grocery store this morning, a sorry little box of sage leaves in my hand, eying the $2.99 price tag. I weighed my interest in the parsnip recipe against the shame of paying that much for something I grow for pennies in the summer. My son, always observant, remarked to me that he had found a "match" for my box. I expected this to mean he'd found other boxes of sage, but actually he had found a nearby shelf with organic herb plants on it, including sage. They are the earliest "gardener trap" plants that I have seen set out this year, luring the rookies (or the experienced but desperate) into buying plants way too early in the season. Many looked leggy and root-bound, but the pot of sage didn't look half bad -- a salvageable salvia, if I repotted right away. There were at least double the leaves on the plant as there were in the box. Price? $2.99. Even if I stripped all the leaves off the plant and killed it, I would break even. I only need a few leaves, though. So the rest of the plant can be nursed on the sunny windowsill alongside my rosemary. Score one for the supermarket: their gardener's impulse purchase trap worked. Is it just coincidence the plants are priced the same as all the herb boxes? How many other shoppers have done the same mental calculation this weekend?

My son must have really caught the supermarket gardening spirit, since after his apple at lunch he carefully presented me with 5 seeds that he wanted to plant. He insisted he had to grow a tree. They must have been talking about Johnny Appleseed at daycare this week. Now, apple seeds are tricky. I know they can be home sprouted, but, from what I've read, they won't grow out to be like the actual apple from whence they came. And, it will take a very long time to discover this -- years and years, in fact. Not the ideal toddler project, but my son was insistent. I surfed the Internet and came upon some charming stories -- a family who has an apple tree they rescued after it sprouted in their compost pile, a 30 year old whose grandma still has a tree he planted from a seed as a little boy. It couldn't hurt to try. I tried to convince him we should cold stratify and sprout them in a wet paper towel like many sites instructed, but he wanted a cup of soil, just like the other seeds we are starting. So now he has a little pot of apple seeds on his windowsill.

I suspect he may kill the seeds with the ferocity of his love....if they ever even sprout, given no stratification. He has already asked to water them three times, insisting they are "thirsty to grow". If this project doesn't work, I know there are other supermarket garden activities we can try, well beyond the standard 1970's avocado pit. In fact, we bought a pineapple this morning, and I had an inkling of a memory that the top could be rooted. I found many websites with instructions and several referenced the book Don't Throw It, Grow It! The Chicago Public Library system will have it in my hot little hands in a fortnight, so stay tuned. This is likely the beginning of a long gardening relationship with my supermarket.

1 comment:

  1. The prices of herbs at the supermarket are crazy. Even crazier is the prices are farmers markets. I mean, it stands to reason that people shopping them would be inclined to try to grow some of their own, but most seem to never think about it.

    The other crazy priced herbs? The tree-shaped rosemary "shrubs" at Christmas and the topiary-shaped ones at the garden centers in the spring and summer. Whenever I see people buying them I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and tell them to buy the $2-3 dollar seedlings and grow them out.

    btw, I see you linked my "Chicago Garden" blog and wanted to let you know I added yours to the blogroll there. Thanks.