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The Avocado Chronicles

This not-so-green-thumb tries her hand at growing avocados...and more.
Sunday Jul 02, 2006.     By Julia Steinberger
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

It's not that I'm universally bad at keeping things alive. On the contrary, Mort the Goldfish, who I won in a carnival game in 1997, is still alive and flippering around the salad bowl I put him in nearly a decade ago, when I thought that the lifespan of a carnival fish wouldn't warrant a proper aquarium. Granted, it's my Mom and Dad who've carried on his daily care since I left Ohio, but I kept him hanging in there for a good several years.

But houseplants? For some reason, not even bamboo lasts long when I'm involved. I'm a little sensitive about my inability to make things grow indoors (let's not discuss the name of this column while I'm feeling vulnerable, deal?). Still, inspired by summer, I wanted to give my thumbs another chance to prove their green mettle.

Hoping that extra love would contribute to the success of my sprout, I chose an avocado for my experiment. Of all things herbaceous and edible, these buttery beauties are my uncontested favorite. Plus, they're easy to start: Eat an avocado, remove the pit and suspend half-in, half-out of a glass of water for two to four weeks, until the seed splits open and a white root begins its descent.

To boost my odds, I enlisted some expert tips from garden guru Gayla Trail, whom I met at a planting demo she gave at Old Town's luscious A New Leaf boutique. Founder of (a must-bookmark for any urban gardener) and author of a book by the same name, Gayla is a self-taught master of metropolitan planting, whether working in containers on her fire escape or tending the city plot that she's turned from a garbage dump into a blossoming flowerbed.

It was her idea to coax the seed along by re-potting with a glass on top for a greenhouse effect, keeping the soil and sprout moist and warm. As for my finicky-ness about leaky flowerpots and icky pans on my windowsills: No problem. Instead of the usual flowerpot-with-a-draining-hole, this project was small enough that I filled my planter (an old vase put to new use) a few inches with stones before adding dirt, to allow space for drainage.

When it came to the soil, I pampered my plant. Wanting to keep things organic, I ditched the chemical plant food mixes that I found at the supermarket and headed straight to Whole Foods, where I picked up a bag of worm castings for $5.99. "Castings" is a sweet little word for "poop," but I was amazed at the quality of this stuff. It was the softest, cleanest-smelling, purest-colored soil I've ever seen, and it made a cushy little bed for my beloved baby root.

I'm proud to report that my month-old avocado sprout is doing quite well. And growing something from a seed, particularly from the seed of something that made delicious guacamole, is an absolutely joyful experience. So much so that I'm having a hard time quitting while I'm ahead. A new basil and strawberry plant are growing like mad, and my collection has expanded to include a Wandering Jew that hangs above my couch. I have no idea how, but its violet-and-green leaves literally glitter. Still, edibles are my favorite: There's no better-tasting caprese salad than one sporting leaves that you watched unfold.

Get growing! Here are some startup suggestions from Gayla, who says she fell in love with gardening after sprouting some seeds from a tangerine in a pot on her deck.

If you have a shady windowsill: Mint is hardy, easy to care for, and can tolerate a lack of light.

If you have a sunny windowsill: Try thyme and oregano. Most people want to go for basil, but that tends to need more sun and be more difficult in the wintertime. Lemongrass is also super easy to grow: All you have to do is go to an Asian foods store and get a couple of stalks. Put them in water and they'll start to sprout.

If you plant on a fire escape: Fire escapes tend to get incredibly hot, so go for a succulent.

Flowers you can use: There are a lot of flowers that are edible, like colangela and pansies and violas. You can put them in salads, or sugar them and use them in desserts. They all have different flavors, so every year I try a different color. Nisturtium is another pretty plant that has tasty, peppery flowers.

About drainage: You can use a layer of rocks, but the very best way is to make a drainage hole if you can handle it. That way, you'll never over-water. Herbs in particular tend to like faster-draining soil that is more on the dry side.

If bugs get inside: The easiest way to get rid of them is just to wash them off. Run the plant in the shower or under a tap. You can also make a spray out of citrus peels and garlic and other strong things, which kills them on contact. Even those homemade concoctions, though, can be a little tough on the leaves of the plant.

Check her site for more, where experienced and novice gardeners post tips ranging from how to make creative recycled planters to how to get started, to what to do with your herbs and flowers once they're harvested.

After four greener-than-average college years as a co-op dweller-turned-aspiring-permaculturist, Julia Steinberger finds it hard not to feel guilty about her one-bedroom apartment, daily commute and indulgence in the occasional dollar burger. She'd like to dream that she could live in a tent/treehouse/rabbit hole, but the truth is, she'd rather stay in the city while doing her best to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. You can contact her here.


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