Sprouting indoors

Outside, buds are beginning to swell with new life, and grass is growing greener by the day. But if you’re growing weary of waiting on Mother Nature, take matters into your own hands and create a green oasis in your home. It’s easy to grow grass for indoor decor or even for your cooped-up cats to nibble. And if you crave the taste of the freshest leafy greens, sprout some without soil in just a week. It’s not magic. It’s simply indoor gardening. And, it’s easy, inexpensive, and fun.

Growing grass

There are all kinds of grasses: the varieties that grow in your lawn, the grains used in cereal, and the fancy-plumed ornamentals and natives. Bringing them indoors adds a breath of fresh air to your home.

At the recent Antiques and Garden show in Nashville, one interior decorator placed a low, rectangular glass container of grass on a table. The lush green was eye-catching. Passers-by impulsively brushed their hands across the buzz-cut grass, some bending down to catch its scent. There is something captivating about finding the natural world indoors.

That inspired me to grow grass for baskets to use as the base of a table centerpiece. I commandeered a bit of quick-growing fescue seed from my outdoor lawn renovation project, and I grew it in shallow plastic saucer liners, chosen to fit perfectly into baskets.

Using fresh, sterile seed-starting soil mixed with organic mulch, I top-seeded the little trays pretty thickly, keeping them covered with damp coffee filters, moist but well drained.

When you’re doing this, it’s important to use sterile soil to avoid pathogens that could infect your tiny sprouts. With a little faith, patience and occasional watering, they germinated in about five days. I uncovered them, set them near a bright window and watched them grow.

When the blades were up about three inches, I trimmed them evenly with scissors to about two inches and dropped them into the baskets. I’ll plant them outside later to fill in empty lawn patches. For my next project, I’ll grow grass in little 2-inch pots to hold place cards for a spring brunch.

It’s also fun to plant wheat and oats, marketed as “cat grass.” Generally a lighter green and more coarse than lawn grasses, they grow quickly, from seed to finish in about 10 days. You can use them not only as indoor ornamentals, but as food. Cats find them amusing and delicious; people extract nutritious juice from the tender young blades.

Grains can be grown using the same process as I did with the fescue, but I’d recommend planting them in a deeper pot. Look for packets of seed marked as “cat grass.”

As I seeded the grasses, I also experimented with lettuce. Using the same shallow-tray method, I planted a packet of Burpee’s mesclun salad mix in a plastic saucer liner filled with organic seed-starter mix, following the package directions. This mesclun is an assortment of lettuces: black seeded Simpson, arugula rocket and radicchio red Verona.

They were up in about a week, and I’ve been snipping the micro-greens to sprinkle on salads, at the same time thinning the growing lettuce. I keep wondering how such minuscule leaves can pack such a flavor wallop. By the time the weather warms up a bit, I’ll be able to grow the survivors (if there are any) outside as full-fledged leaf lettuce.

No muss, no fuss, no soil

It takes less than a week for most sprouts to grow indoors from seed to table-ready, no soil required. Although you can produce them year-round, spring is perfect weather for sprouts, because natural light is increasing daily and the moderate temperatures encourage plant growth.

Sprouts are inexpensive, and sprouting requires daily monitoring but not a lot of fuss. Watching the seeds germinate and advance through growth stages is a great project to do with children.

What’s your favorite vegetable? The classic alfalfa sprouts have been joined by zingy-hot radishes, spectacularly crimson beets and even flavorful herbs as toppings for salads and hors d’oeuvre embellishments; for stir-fry, try mung and adzuki beans.

Keep in mind that the following sprout-growing directions are meant as guidelines. You’ll probably get great sprouts by following them as best you can.

Starting with clean equipment is a must. You’ll need a clear glass or a plastic jar or tumbler for a container, with a lid that allows air to circulate and water to drain without letting the seeds escape. I used large plastic glasses topped by coffee filters, fastening them with elastic bands, but flexible screening or nylon pieces would work well, too.

Seeds can be found in local garden and food stores as well as online specialty shops. Look for organically grown seeds that haven’t been treated with chemicals, and that have a germination rate above 90 percent.

First, soak the seeds in water for a few hours or overnight.

Walt Precourt, who supplies sprouts to restaurants, says that adding about an ounce of non-stabilized 3 percent hydrogen peroxide per pint of water helps with germination and kills mold. After soaking, rinse the seeds a few times, then drain well and let them sit somewhere at a temperature of 70 to 80 degrees.

Then you wait. Keep rinsing and draining two or three times a day, and soon sprouts will appear. They’re ready to eat when you see the first little leaflets pop up and develop a touch of green. The seed coats will drop off and can be removed. I found that the alfalfa sprouts were the easiest and earliest to grow, and they produced an enormous quantity; the radishes also were speedy sprouters, and they packed a spicy-hot surprise punch.

Gourmet alert: the beets, whose seeds are like hard little cinders, took almost two weeks until the seed coats fell off and could be rinsed away, but they were a rare treat worth trying for their unusual glowing-red color. The mung beans took about 10 days to mature, the adzuki a bit longer. The time from harvest to stir-fry was a matter of seconds, though, a welcome freshness factor. Next time, I’m going to try sprouting some fennel and some sunflowers.

Chia: more than a pet

If the idea of chia brings to mind late-night television commercials featuring oddly shaped clay pets and funny faces sprouting green hair, think again. The idea for those funky Chia Pets evolved from the traditional chia, Salvia hispanica, which originated in Mexico’s Central Valley, and was grown by the Aztecs centuries ago.

Because the seeds form a gooey, mucilaginous coating when they get wet, you can sprout them by sticking them onto damp, porous surfaces like clay pots and sprouting mats.

In their book “Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs,” agriculturalists Ricardo Ayerza and Wayne Coates write that chia offers the highest omega-3 fatty acid content available in food today. Renewed interest in the seed as a nutritional source has brought it to the dining table.

I grew some by first soaking the seed in water overnight, then plastering it on to the bottom of a clean clay pot that I inverted in a large saucer. I kept it moist by spraying it a few times a day and allowing water from the saucer below to seep in. I covered it loosely with a plastic bag until the sprouts began to emerge about four days later, then I put it in a bright window to green up. Check out chia.html for more information.