Gardening in a Jar

When the cold winter wind howls outside and our gardens are fast asleep, gardeners may still crave crisp, fresh greens. Satisfy those cravings by learning to grow sprouts. All you need for this easy project is a wide-mouth glass jar, a small piece of screen or cheesecloth and some seeds, and you can be putting fresh homegrown greens on your table all year round.

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Sprouts are very nutritious, inexpensive and surprisingly easy to grow. If you grow sprouts yourself, you can control the freshness of the sprouts in your salads and sandwiches, and you can add interest to your meals by growing a wider variety of sprouts than you can find in most supermarkets.

To grow sprouts at home, first start with good quality seeds. Always purchase untreated seeds for sprouting. Do not buy the little packets of seeds sold in racks at the hardware store as these have often been treated with chemicals to prevent fungus. Instead, look for untreated or organic seeds that are offered by many seed catalogs these days, or buy organic beans and seeds at the local health food store. If you're lucky, you'll find seeds sold especially for sprouting.

If you want to grow sprouts, you're not limited to growing only alfalfa sprouts or mung bean sprouts. Those may be the only sprouts found at many supermarkets, but many other sprouts can be grown at home. If you like the mild flavor of alfalfa sprouts, you might also enjoy red clover sprouts, broccoli sprouts, or sprouts of flax oil seeds, quinoa or sunflower seeds.

To add a little spice to your salads and sandwiches, grow sprouts from mustard seeds along with radish or onion seeds. For more crunch, grow sprouts of green lentils, soybeans, sugar peas or garbanzos. No matter which seeds you are sprouting, the same growing instructions will apply for all but mung and soybean sprouts.

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Start by sprouting just a small amount of seeds until you determine how much of the sprouts you will eat in a week. A quarter cup of seeds generally yields about two cups of sprouts.

When you're ready to grow sprouts, place your seeds in a wide-mouth glass jar. A quart jar is large enough for a quarter cup of seeds. Next, cover the seeds with water and allow them to soak overnight, about eight hours. This will begin to soften the seeds and help them to germinate. Once they are soaked, skim off any seeds that are floating. Floating seeds generally don't sprout.

After the soaking period, cover the jar with a fine mesh screen or several layers of cheesecloth and strain off as much of the soaking water as you can. You may wish to collect this water and use it for watering your houseplants. They'll appreciate the extra bit of nutritional boost. Once the water is drained off the seeds, give the jar a shake to distribute the seeds fairly evenly within it.

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Be careful to not pack too many seeds into one jar. As they grow the sprouts will need some space, and if packed too tightly they may sprout poorly or rot. If you need to grow sprouts in large batches, use multiple jars or shop for an extra-large wide-mouth jar.

Keeping the mesh or cheesecloth over the mouth of the jar, place the jar on its side within a bowl or on a plate, with the jar tipped at a slight angle so any excess water can safely drip out. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight but in a place where it will receive bright light, unless you are sprouting mung beans. Mung bean sprouts need to be kept completely in the dark or they will become bitter. Mung bean sprouts also need some extra rinsing, up to four times a day, to keep them from fermenting.

Rinse other sprouting seeds twice a day by filling the jar with water, swirling it around a bit, and draining off the water. Keeping the seeds moist but well drained is the key to successfully grow sprouts. Within four to six days, the sprouts will have grown enough and will be ready to eat. Mung bean and soy bean sprouts are ready to eat when their tails are about two inches long. Soy bean sprouts should always be lightly steamed or saut'ed before eating.

Store the sprouts in the refrigerator within their sprouting jar. Replace the mesh screen or cheesecloth with the jar's metal or plastic airtight lid. Your homegrown sprouts can remain fresh for a week if stored properly in the refrigerator.

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