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What is sprouting?
Sprouting is the practice of soaking, draining, and then rinsing seeds at regular intervals until they germinate or sprout. The key is to maintain more or less constant conditions of moisture/humidity, temperature, and cleanliness.
Many different kinds of containers can be used for sprouting, as long as they can drain easily. You can sprout seeds in:
· Mason jars with lids made of mesh, screen, or cloth
· Cloth bags
· Foam sprouting mats
· Sieves or colanders (for larger seeds)
· Specially designed sprouting tiered trays (like the Biosta sprouter)
· Automated sprouters (like the Fresh Life or Easy Green systems)
We’ll discuss each type of sprouting system in more detail in a moment. Once again, the key is to be able to wet the seeds and then allow all the water to drain off. Sprouts that sit in water will probably spoil.
Sprouting does not require high tech equipment, and it allows you to produce small-scale batches of fresh greens all year round. Sprouting seeds are available in a wide variety of flavours and textures, and are thought to be especially rich in nutrients that are lost as plants mature. So while your vegetable garden is dormant over winter, you can still produce tasty, nutritious sprouts right on your kitchen counter.
Sprouting is extremely economical. Only a teaspoon full of small seeds, or a tablespoon full of larger seeds is needed to produce a substantial sprout crop. The seeds themselves keep very well without losing their high germination rate, so a $5.00 bag of sprouting seeds can produce many pounds of sprouts as you need them. Store-bought sprouts would be significantly more expensive. By staggering sowing times, a constant supply of fresh sprouts can be maintained all year long.
All plant seeds are packed with enough nutrition for the young plants to take on some growth before they can begin drawing energy from the sun, and minerals from the soil. This “food” is packed into each seed in the form of starches, proteins, and lipids (essentially plant “fat”). When plant seeds come in contact with moisture, they begin to swell, and their dormancy is broken. Inside each tiny seed, a series of complex biochemical changes begins to take place during hydration. The proteins, starches, and lipids are broken down by enzymes into simpler forms that are more easily digestible.
Germinating seeds are rich in vitamins A, E, C, and B complex, as well as minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, proteins, and phytochemicals – all in forms that are easily digestible by our bodies. Sprouts from the Brassica family of vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, and radish) are also thought to contain significantly high levels of antioxidants, which protect our cells, and appear to play a role in preventing some types of cancer.
Some people like to add a tiny amount of kelp powder to their sprouts, which acts as a plant food, and is thought to actually increase the overall nutrition. Kelp powder is not essential to good sprout production, though.
In the few short days it takes for your sprouting seeds to hydrate and germinate, they produce a profusion of very healthy nutrients. Some people, particularly in the raw food community, hold that sprouts are actually the most nutritious of all foods.
Interestingly, sprouting of cereal crop seeds such as barley is part of the malting process, and is conducted on a massive industrial scale for the beer making industry.
How to Get Started
The first thing you need to consider is what kind of seeds to sprout with. The easiest, and most common sprouts are:
Alfalfa & clover
Alfalfa sprouts are maybe the most familiar type, with a fine texture, thin stems, and mild taste – these are the kinds most commonly used in sandwiches. Alfalfa and clover sprouts are exposed to indirect sunshine at the final stage, so their tiny leaves take on some green colour.
Mung beans produce the familiar white bean sprout that is so common in Chinese cuisine. These are the sprouts that you get when you order a bowl of Vietnamese “pho” soup. Once you become a sprout connoisseur, you may choose to sprout your mung beans in a dark cupboard. These will be whiter, and will have a crisper texture – and this is how the bean sprout suppliers produce their crops.
Adzuki beans are similar in size and texture to mung beans, but have a richer beany flavour.
Radish sprouts have all the flavour of mature radish roots, with a nice, crunchy texture, and a tiny bit of peppery heat.
These are all good sprouts to start with, but nearly any food crop seed can be sprouted:
Broccoli, wheat, sunflowers, mustard, fenugreek, lentils, peanuts, soya beans, and so on. Specific instructions for the different types of sprouts can be found at the end of this document.
Perhaps the most basic sprouting system is the simple mason jar with a mesh lid attached. This allows you to easily add your seeds, fill the jar with water, and then place it on an incline so the water can freely drain out. Some moisture remains for the seeds through capillary action, because the seeds will be stuck together. Mason jars also allow for easy rinsing of your seeds.
Cloth bags are available for sprouting, and these usually have a drawstring at the top. You can run water right into the bag, and then hang it over the sink to drain off.
Foam sprouting mats are good if you’re looking to produce large crops of sprouts, and they’re great for wheat grass that can be grown for juicing. These are soaked with water and laid down in nursery flats. The seeds are sprinkled on top, and then a plastic dome is placed over the whole thing to maintain good humidity. When the sprouts are at the desired height, they can just be pulled off the mat in clumps.
Sieves can be used for sprouting small and tiny seeds like alfalfa, but you’ll need a bowl that is large enough so that the sieve can drain freely without its bottom sitting in water. For larger seeds like mung beans, colanders are well suited. In both cases, you’ll want to cover the seeds with a damp towel in between rinsing times to maintain humidity. The trick is to maintain moisture and cleanliness without the seeds actually being constantly wet.
Tiered trays (like the Biosta) are specially designed for sprouting, and are very easy to use. They also allow you to grow three or more different sprout varieties at once. A spoonful of seeds is added to each tray, then they are stacked, and the top tray is slowly filled with fresh water. This slowly drains down over the seeds in the trays below, and finally into a reservoir at the bottom. The finished water should be discarded before you add more rinsing water to the top tray – and it is great for watering houseplants, as it’s full of chemicals from the germinating seeds.
Automated sprouters reduce demands on the grower, because they do the rinsing for you, keeping the seeds clean and constantly moist. The Easy Green kit is ideal for small restaurants or cafes that need to produce sprouts in large batches.
Rinsing and Cleanliness
Rinsing your sprouting seeds (and sprouts) is absolutely essential to good success. The very process of wetting a batch of seeds and leaving them to stand at room temperature produces an ideal growing environment for bacteria and mould. All sprouts require rinsing a minimum of twice a day, but some growers prefer to do this three or four times a day, particularly in warmer weather or in a hot kitchen. To rinse sprouting seeds in a system that is not automated, simply run cold, clean tap water over the sprouts, and then allow them to drain thoroughly.
Finished sprouts can be kept fresh in the refrigerator for several days, but it’s worth rinsing them again under cold water before eating them. Not only does this wash away any bacteria, but it freshens them up a bit.
All sprouting equipment should be washed carefully, dried, and kept clean between batches. Like any food production, it’s easy to inadvertently introduce bacteria or other unwanted elements into the cycle. Like everything else in your kitchen, cleanliness is important to healthy sprouting.
Common causes for sprouts to become inedible:
In the typical kitchen, air flow around your sprouting unit should be sufficient to prevent moulds from growing. Don’t mistake the tiny roots of sprouts for mould – as soon as each seed germinates, it will begin to grow both a stem and a root. The root will be covered with a mass of tiny filament hairs for drawing up water and nutrients. These filaments may give a full tray of sprouted seeds a fuzzy, silvery appearance, but don’t be alarmed. Just keep the seeds well rinsed and clean, and mould should not be an issue.
Over the past few years, microgreens have grown in popularity. They’re now almost de rigueur in some fancy restaurants. These are baby plants that have been sprouted and harvested as soon as their first leaves have appeared, but they are sprouted in soil rather than in a humid atmosphere like regular sprouts. Nursery trays are perfect for growing microgreens. Just fill the trays with a thin layer of sterile soil, and sprinkle on your seeds. Keep this uniformly moist and relatively warm, and the seedlings will appear in just a few days. Again, kelp powder or other organic fertilizer can be mixed into the soil to improve flavour and nutrition, but none is actually needed.
Sprouting seeds are chosen for their even, uniform, high rate of germination. In regular sprouting, you need pretty much all of the seeds to germinate in order to minimize the amount of material sitting in the water. Dead seeds are just going to create more of an environment for mould to grow. With microgreens, this very high level of germination is less important, because you will be pulling the sprouted seeds from the soil. This means that you can create microgreens out of a much wider variety of seeds - including some with relatively low rates of germination.
The microgreen sprouts are then pulled from the soil, roots and all, and carefully rinsed so that no particles of soil remain. They make for a very interesting salad on their own, as garnishes, or in any way you would use conventional sprouts. The interesting thing about microgreens is that the soil allows you to sprout a wider variety of seeds, and the microgreens themselves will be full of the flavour of the adult plants – so you can mix basil sprouts in with your mustards, for instance, to create interesting flavour combinations.