During the cold, damp and dreary days of late fall and winter, not much is going on in the garden. While cold-hardy greens can be produced under protection, growth slows with reduced light and cooler temperatures.
One way to satisfy the gardening itch in winter is to grow sprouts. All you need is some simple equipment and a sunny windowsill or kitchen counter. Seeds for sprouting are available in specialty food stores like Earthfare and Three Rivers Market. You can sprout leftover garden seeds, too, but just make sure they have not been treated with pesticide before you begin. Among the best choices for a beginning sprout garden is alfalfa.
While you can purchase a ready-made seed sprouter, all you really need is a wide mouth jar, a piece of cheesecloth, and a rubber band. To grow about two cups of alfalfa sprouts, place one tablespoon of seeds in the empty jar. Cover the mouth with the cheesecloth, securing it with the rubber band. Add enough lukewarm water to cover the seeds by an inch. Leave on the kitchen counter overnight. The next morning, drain, rinse well, and place in a warm, dark place, such as a cupboard. Rinse the seeds with cold tap water two or three times every day, and move the jar into the light when roots have developed and are over 1/4 inch long. Within about five days, you will have a jar of green, delicious sprouts. They will keep another week if placed in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Put a paper towel on the bottom of the storage container to absorb excess moisture, which will shorten storage life.
Many other seeds besides alfalfa can be used to grow sprouts. Radish, broccoli and mung beans are some of the most commonly sprouted seeds, but just about any vegetable seed can be tried. Commercial bean sprouts are grown from mung beans under special conditions. You will not be able to duplicate these conditions in the kitchen, but you nevertheless can produce acceptable bean sprouts.
Radish and other mustard family sprouts have a spicy flavor that perks up a salad. Try using a mixture of sprouts on a sandwich instead of lettuce. I particularly like sprouts with chicken salad and egg salad. Sprouts can also be used to garnish a variety of dishes, adding color, flavor and nutrition.
Sprouts have sometimes been cited as the source of bacterial infections in children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Look for sprouting seeds that have been tested for contamination. This information will appear on the label. Observe proper sanitation in the kitchen when preparing sprouts, and you should not have any problems. It is worth noting that most reported issues have been with commercially mass-produced sprouts. Many producers now test each batch, so look for label assurances when you buy.
Discard the cheesecloth after each batch of sprouts, replacing it with a new one, or purchase perforated plastic lids that will fit a standard Mason jar. You can also purchase a complete sprouting system made from plastic. Either way, growing sprouts is a great way to garden when the weather outside is less than beckoning.