As I write this text, everything outdoors is white, the trees are bare of leaves and no outdoor plants show any sign of life, yet, my indoor vegetable garden is working at full speed. How can that possibly be? You see, indoors, the only vegetables I grow are sprouts.
It’s been a long time since I gave up any efforts to try to raise full-grown vegetable and herbs on my windowsills. It was always an exercise in frustration! No growth, pale and etiolated leaves, insects, diseases, etc.: there was just no way of pleasing them. It’s pretty clear that the interior of our homes is not designed for growing vegetables and herbs, at least not during the winter. On the other hand, I have been growing sprouts (sprouted seeds) of vegetables and herbs for almost 40 years. It’s easy … and, as you will see, they are very nutritious.
Why Grow Sprouts?
A little miracle occurs when a seed germinates. The transition from a dry, hard and often indigestible seed to a seedling causes multiple chemical reactions. Levels of vitamins A, B, C and E and antioxidants may quadruple or more. Some vitamins that were entirely absent from the seed are suddenly synthesized in the sprouts as if by magic. Protein, dietary fibers and minerals also increase and, moreover, the resulting sprout is now easy to digest.
Later, if sprouts are allowed ripen more and become true vegetables, the vitamin level actually drops, at least a little. So, it’s really at the sprout stage that average vegetable is at its most nutritious. In spite of that, the sprouts are very low in calories: about 16 calories per cup. They are therefore doubly interesting for a low-calorie diet.
On the taste side, the sprouts are delicious too. Cooked or raw, they can be mild or strong, sweet, sour or bitter, crunchy or melt in your mouth: it all depends on the variety you choose. If sprouts seem like a new idea to you, think of Asian food where they are used extensively. What is chop suey if not sprouted mung beans? But sprouts can also be incorporated into soups, salads, sandwiches and main dishes, not to mention used as a garnish.
Also, you’ll save money: the cost of a cup of homemade sprouts varies (some seeds are more expensive than others), but rarely exceeds $0.25 (€0.16/£0.18), several times cheaper than vegetables you buy at the supermarket.
Finally, growing sprouts can be a family activity and is a great way to introduce kids to gardening … and healthy foods!
So Easy to Grow
In the gardening world, nothing is simpler than starting sprouts. It’s easy peasy! Just soak a seed in the water for a few hours, then rinse it regularly for three to five days and presto! You’ll have a sprout to eat!
Seed sprouters, often with multiply trays, are widely available in garden centers and health food stores … but you don’t really need them. In fact, I find cultivating three or four different sprouts in the same container, which is what most sprouters propose, often complicates the process, because the seeds of the lower tray don’t always get all the ventilation they would need, plus certain seeds inevitably sprout more quickly than others.
Seeds germinate just as readily in any fairly wide-mouthed recipient: a yogurt pot, a Tupperware container or simply a Mason jar.
In fact, the traditional home sprouter is simply a Mason jar. It already has everything you need except a filter (a square of fabric, screening or muslin a few inches wider than the jar’s opening) and seeds. Place the filter over the opening and screw the ring on (you won’t need the lid). Or use, if you prefer, an elastic to hold the filter in place.
There you go! A superb and efficient home-made seed sprouter. And since it will hold only one type of seed at time*, you’ll be better able to follow the progress of your seed’s germination than in a multi-level sprouter where each variety ripens at its own speed.
*You can mix different seeds together, but it’s best to choose varieties that mature at the same rate.
Growing Sprouts Step by Step
Here’s how to grow your own sprouts:
Pour a thin layer of seeds into the bottom of the container (avoid adding too many seeds, because the seeds will expand to many times their original size and may overflow the container) and install the filter and ring (or elastic). Fill with clean water (yes, you can use tap water!), shake moderately and turn upside down to drain. The only point of this first step is to clean the seeds of any dust or particles that shouldn’t be there.
Note that you can use the drainage water at any stage of sprouting to water your houseplants if you want.
Now fill the container two-thirds full with warm tepid water and place it in a relatively warm place. The goal is to soak the seeds, letting their hard coat soften. Let them soak about 8 hours if you can maintain a temperature of 80 ° F (27 ° C) or more. At 72 ° F (21 ° C), calculate 12 hours instead. Traditionally, you carry out step 2 in the evening and simply let the seeds soak overnight. They’ll then be ready for the next step the following morning. As they soak, the seeds will swell in size, most at least doubling in diameter.
After 8 to 12 hours of soaking, drain the water by inverting the jar. The filter will keep the seeds from flowing out.
Rinse the sprouting seeds by filling the pot with lukewarm water and inverting it again to drain the water. This rinses the seeds of any products that can inhibit germination. Then return the pot to a relatively warm spot.
Sep 5 involves simply repeating step 4 (rinsing) morning and evening for next two to five days (up to eight days for carrots and fennel seeds). How long it takes will vary not only according to the type of seed, but the room’s temperature. Little by little or very quickly, small shoots will to pierce the seed coat: the sprouts. The sprouts can be thick or thin, long or short: it all depends on the type of seed chosen.
If your seeds germinate in a rather dark place, like the back of the kitchen, far from any window, the sprouts will be very pale: white, yellow or light green. If you want greener sprouts, as soon as the sprouts first start to appear, place the pot near a window. This will give sprouts with a stronger taste (which may or may not be desirable, depending on the variety!) Sunlight, however, does increase the vitamin level.
When sprouts reach a size that you feel is appropriate (there is no strict rule in this regard), rinse and drain them one last time. You can either consume them immediately or keep them in the fridge for at least a week (up to 70 days for some sprouts!).
Shoots: One Step Beyond Sprouts
You’ve probably seen the term microgreens. This is a new marketing term for what generations of gardeners have simply called shoots. They’re much like sprouts, but further along in their development. And they aren’t grown in sprouters, but instead are sown on top of potting soil, in a tray or pot. They’re harvested several days further along than sprouts, in about 2 weeks, when the cotyledons (the seed leaves) are fully developed. Also, more intense lighting is needed: a sunny windowsill or a spot under a grow light, for example.
Commercially, shoots are often grown in multilevel, climate-controlled, artificially lighted seed germinators that look a lot like a refrigerator with lots of closely set trays. Wonderful, but I can’t imagine any home gardener needing enough shoots for such a device to be worthwhile. For most of us, growing sprouts in trays or pots near a window or under a simple plant light will suffice.
You can either harvest shoots (microgreens) with scissors or pull them free of the soil, then rinse the soil mix off their roots: you choose.
Personally, I stick to sprouts: with no soil involved, growing them is simply less complicated.
Keep Your Garden Growing
Any sprout enthusiast will tell you that once you start growing sprouts, you quickly become hooked. You’ll use your sprouters again and again and will always have something on the way.
Which Seeds to Use?
Almost any vegetable, cereal or herb seed can be used as a sprout or shoot, except those whose foliage is not edible, such as tomatoes, potatoes and rhubarb. Everyone has their preferences.
Here are some suggestions:
Grains: amaranth, buckwheat, chia, flax, kamut, maize, millet, oats, rice, rye, sesame, spelt, wheat.
Herbs: basil, caraway, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, fenugreek, horseradish, nigella, parsley.
Legumes*: adzuki beans, alfalfa, chickpeas, clover, lentils, mung beans, peas, quinoa, soybeans.
* You can also sprout red and white beans, but it’s best to cook them for at least 10 minutes to destroy phytohemagglutinin, a toxin they contain and that is only partially destroyed during germination.
Vegetables: arugula, beet, bok choy, broccoli, carrot, celery, cress, chicory, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, hemp, kale, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce, mustard, onion, purslane, radish, spinach, sunflower, Swiss chard, turnip.
Where to Find Seeds for Sprouting?
It is important to use only seeds packaged for use as sprouting seed, or at least seed that is certified organic, because sometimes the seeds sold in commercial packets for use in the garden are treated with fungicides. Fortunately, it has become very easy to find packs of sprouting seeds in garden centers and health food stores.
If you’re looking for something rarer, you can try mail order. In Canada, Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds, Raw Nutrition and W. H. Perron are good choices. In the United States, try Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seed Company and West Coast Seeds. In Europe, consider Sky Sprouts and TheGoodLife.co.uk.
Good indoor gardening … and Bon appétit!