Lowenfels: 2 ways to keep things sprouting when weather turns cold

Jeff Lowenfels

This can be a frustrating time for the vegetable gardener who lives in Alaska. Our season is just too darn short. To compensate, folks start looking around for something, anything, that they can grow and eat. (Never mind that some of these are the very same people who never once harvest from their outdoor gardens).

Of course, there are a lot of things that can be grown indoors, just ask any Southcentral gardener who sprouted what was left over from last season's seeds. Broccoli, kale, and pea sprouts are fun, but why not start with a couple of seeds that seem designed for sprouting, something that is fail proof so that you won't be discouraged to try other things. After all, it's just the start of the indoor season and we need something easy and quick lest we lose interest.

For this reason, I suggest starting with some wheat grass, Triticum aestivum. (This is a particularly good choice for those who want to grow a lawn-like plant to remind them of summer). Wheat grass is the stuff you can find being served in juice bars, where it is usually dumped into a smoothie in powder form. The better juice bars grow their own, and so should you. In addition to being a pretty and darn nutritious grass for humans, cats love it too. Be forewarned.

Seeds for Triticum aestivum are available at health food stores and health food sections of conventional grocery stores. They are there. The trick is to look for "wheat berries" or "spring wheat," which are common names. Finding them is probably the most difficult thing about growing them.

Next, find a suitable container. If you plan on simply juicing yours, I suppose anything will do, especially a recycled, clear, clam-shell package, which can serve as a greenhouse during germination. For those who want to actually keep their grass around a bit -- perhaps cut it back and dream of lawns -- a bonsai pot or more attractive container is called for. Whatever you use should have some drainage and hold at least an inch of potting soil or compost, preferably two inches or more.

You can plant directly onto the soil and there is no need to cover the seeds with a bit more, as they need the light to germinate. They also need water. Simply soak the seeds in a jar or cup for 12 hours prior to planting. Just make sure there is enough water in the jar to cover the seeds while soaking. How much seed do you need? You can fill a six-inch pot with plants using about two tablespoons of dry seed.

Thoroughly wet the soil once it is in the container. Then spread the damp seeds on top. If you can create a greenhouse environment with a clear lid, do so. Place your container under lights or at a good window and stand back. Once seeds start to germinate, which they will in about 24 hours, remove the lid and grow your lawn.

The second easiest sprout to grow might just be sunflower, Helianthus annuus. You can find these seeds at the same locations you find wheat grass. I do not advise using the seed reserved for birds, as these are usually a lower grade. Of all the sprouts you can buy, I think none taste better home-grown than sunflowers.

The big difference between growing sunflower sprouts and wheat grasses is that you germinate them in the dark after soaking them, un-hulled, for eight to 12 hours. Once the roots break through the hull, take them out and plant them. They make lousy display plants, getting big and scraggly, so don't worry about growing containers, use pie tins and such.

After a couple days in the dark, the root tips will appear. Bring the seeds out and spread them on dampened soil or compost (I like to make sure mine was not made with manure) and cover. Sunflower seeds will sprout in about four days. They are ready to harvest when they knock off all the husks, which should be about a week after you planted them.

So, there are two easy seeds to grow and eat, indoors. While at the store, why not scout around for other things to grow. Start with these, however, if you want to be really encouraged.

Garden calendar

Fungus gnats: Little flies buzzing around the house? Too much water on those plants.

Sleepy bears: Nov. 1 is the traditional date for bear hibernation hereabouts. Time to put up bird feeders.

Watering houseplants: Adjust your watering as the heat in your house is turned up.

Garden groups: Join one. It’s nearly winter and you want to keep horticulturally smart.

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