The Winter Jar Garden

Julie M. Falk
Adams County Master Gardener

To a gardener, winter can seem like a time suspended between growing seasons. Days are short. The ground is hard or frozen. Reading seed catalogs and planning satisfies the mind, but the hands may itch to be digging, planting and harvesting. Let me suggest an activity that addresses at least part of that urge to grow your own food - sprouting seeds. At its simplest, growing seed sprouts requires little effort or equipment, and produces a significant amount of nutritious fresh greens. Here are some of the reasons you might want to try it.

  1. Sprouts are nutritious. A plant seed must contain all the nutrients, vitamins, and proteins to foster the new plant's growth. When the seedling (sprout) emerges, the tender new growth contains much of the nutritional value of the seed, but in a more digestible form. Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, tells us that sprouts have more vitamin C and iron, fewer calories, and more protein than their mature vegetables.
  2. Sprouts are local. Financial and energy resources to bring them to your table are minimal, as you grow and harvest them in your own home.
  3. Sprouts taste good. Many are eaten raw in salads and on sandwiches. The larger sprouts like mung beans are often cooked in soups and stir-fry dishes.
  4. Sprouts are easy. 

Edible sprouts can be grown from a wide variety of seeds. Alfalfa, broccoli, cabbage, lentils, radish, mung beans, barley and red clover are just a few of the potential choices. Your local health food store is a reliable, safe place to get the most commonly grown sprouting seeds. A word of caution: you should use seed that is produced specifically for sprouting, and not agricultural seed. This is to avoid seed that has been chemically treated or exposed to manure or contaminants.

Once your seed is purchased, you're ready to decide what kind of equipment you will use. The most basic is a quart mason jar with mesh or netting over its opening. I have a set of plastic lids that screw onto the top of a mason jar, allowing water to drain out while the seeds remain behind. Stores also sell sprouting apparatuses that involve stacked trays and other gadgets. After you produce your first crop, you can decide how fancy you want to get in the future. Whatever you decide, clean your equipment thoroughly, just as you would your canning supplies.

Each type of seed is slightly different in the amount used, but the commonly grown ones like alfalfa and broccoli require about two tablespoons of seed (which produces about a quart of sprouts). Wash your hands before handling your future food. Then place the seed in the jar, and add a few inches of warm tap water. Remember you must use safe, potable water. The seeds are soaked overnight to soften the hulls, and the water drained off in the morning. Now the seeds are ready for sprouting, and you can place the jar where it gets a few hours of light each day. Lay the jar on its side with the top tilted down so that water drains out. Some people like to prop the jar for good drainage, while others prefer to place it in a bowl. For the next few days, you should rinse and drain the seeds every morning and evening. In three or four days, the veggies in your jar will look like the sprouts you see in restaurants! If the mesh over your jar is not porous enough for seed hulls to wash away, you can remove them with a colander.

Harvested sprouts should be stored in the refrigerator. You can rinse them about every third day to keep them fresh, but they generally will not keep for more than a week. That's okay -- while you're eating one batch, you can be growing another!

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