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In Quarantine, the Budding of a Pastime: Growing Vegetable Scraps on Windowsills

For reasons both practical and emotional, people are regrowing scallions and more in jars of water

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Bunches of green onions in a glass full of water.
Alliums like green onions and leeks are prime candidates for windowsill gardening.
Photo: Chayapak Jansavang/Shutterstock

In 1917, as the United States deployed troops to a Europe battered by warfare and food shortages, victory gardens sprang up across the U.S. Planted by civilians with urging by the government, these small gardens were made to feed American infantry and help “win the war.” Now, more than a century later, victory gardens are once again in fashion amid fears of shortages during the coronavirus pandemic, with seed companies seeing a surge in demand.

But for many people sheltering at home without access to outdoor space, their version of victory gardens look a little less like dedicated plots of earth, and more like scallions growing in glasses of water on the windowsill. Like quarantine baking, dalgona coffee, and virtual parties, this form of low-key gardening — hereby dubbed “victory sills,” trademark not pending — has emerged as one of the pandemic’s at-home micro-trends, adopted and adapted by those who are fortunate enough to be able to stay indoors and tinker with some light horticulture.

There’s an obvious practicality to the notion of victory sills during this time of social distancing, when even a simple grocery run should be carefully considered to avoid the risk of coronavirus transmission. For writer Kat Thompson, growing her own leeks and scallions — or her “plant children” — from the leftover root ends just made sense, both in terms of money and time, once the virus outbreak intensified in New York and grocery shopping became more fraught.

“Since we’ve been in quarantine, we’ve been cooking a lot more,” says Thompson, who already had some experience tending to plants, like the lemongrass and holy basil that she grew up watching her Thai mother cultivate in their garden. “I just knew that it’s a thing you can do: you cut off a certain amount, you put it in water, the roots will pop out in a couple of days, and you can regrow them.”

A diptych of leeks, green onions, and scallions growing over time.
On the left, Kat Thompson’s leek on March 19. On the right, the leek, joined by green onions and scallions, on April 7.
Photos: Kat Thompson/@katthompsonn

The simplicity of this kind of hydroponics-lite gardening is also a reason why many people, including first-time vegetable growers, are tempted to try it out. “I always tell people: if you’re going to start something, whether that’s cooking or even gardening, start with something you know is going to build confidence,” says cookbook author Nik Sharma, who recently published a guide to making the best use of pantry essentials and kitchen scraps. Scallions in jars of water, the odd leftover bean in a pot of soil, even cherry tomatoes, which are easier and more encouraging to tackle than touchier heirloom varieties — “These are all little things people can do without having to put that much effort in,” according to Sharma.

For the online generation, there’s also a social aspect to the trend, the feeling of being able to participate in a collective hobby that several of your friends are doing. Noah Cho, a writer and teacher in the Bay Area, was partly inspired by watching the updates that Thompson, a friend of his, posted on Instagram Stories.

“I have done everything else that’s basic quarantine stuff,” Cho says, listing off activities like making sourdough, whipping dalgona coffee, and playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons (a game, he points out, in which he also spends his time planting trees and flowers). “I’ve just been doing everything that everybody else is doing because I feel like it’s my one way of staying connected to the world … I can’t go outside, but at least I can send friends my allium progress.”

There are also small, private joys that some find in tending to their victory sills. Aaron Hutcherson, a chef, recipe developer, and writer in New York, describes the simple pleasure of seeing how his scallions — which he put in a stemless champagne flute filled with water, not long after the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect — grew practically overnight. “Having something to look after right now just feels nice,” he says. “A little bit of joy amid the darkness.”

Not everyone who is currently attempting to grow new life on their windowsills will continue after the pandemic has ended (although the people I talked to for this story says they will try). But still, the experience of having done so during this particular moment in time, when so much is uncertain, may stay with them. Food waste, scarcity, labor — these larger issues are all inextricable from the story of a scallion, from start to finish, as it makes the journey from field to grocery store to your kitchen.

“Green onions are something we take for granted, and I think in a time when we’re looking at food waste more closely, and thinking about who grows our food and the sacrifices they have to make to do it, this might make a good starting point for a lot of people to really understand what it takes,” says Cho. Keeping a green onion alive may be as simple as giving it sunlight and changing its water every day, but it still requires attention, consistency, care; produce doesn’t just magically materialize for our consumption. For individuals like Cho, that reminder is small, but significant: “There’s a different appreciation I have for something as simple as a green onion, because of this.”