Written onDecember 01 , 2009
In the dead of winter—when fresh salad greens are scarce, expensive, and probably not local—I grow shoots (the stem and first leaves of a plant grown in soil) and have fresh, colorful, crispy, and delicious greens that are ready to use every day. Pea shoots, sunflower greens, buckwheat lettuce, radish greens, and broccoli greens are my favorites—they offer a fantastic mix of flavors and make a great-looking tossed salad. Shoots are also inexpensive and easy to grow, benefit your compost pile, and provide colorful trays of growing plants that can make the dark days of winter a little brighter. Good-bye cabin fever!
You can grow 12 to 16 ounces of salad greens with nothing more than five small trays, a kitchen cupboard, and a windowsill. No lights or fancy equipment are needed. Any window, even a dimly lit northern window, will work perfectly. And you can expect a harvest in just 7 to 10 days. There is no garden produce that comes close to being so plentiful in such a short time.
Ready, Set, Shoot…
To get started you will need small trays, soil, and seeds. For trays, start with aluminum foil half-loaf bread pans measuring 3” x 6” and about 2” deep. These are available at most markets in packages of three or five trays, at a cost of about $3 a package—or sometimes a dollar store will have them. (There are lots of other options for trays, like wood or ceramic, so once you nail down the basic techniques you can shop around for trays.)
The soil I use is a standard germination mix available at every garden shop in bags or bales. Germination mix consists of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite, and is completely dry. I buy the germination mix in the 3.8 cubic-foot bale for $20 to $30 and use it for housetplants, my garden sets, and indoor gardening in the winter. Do not buy mixes that have chemical fertilizers or anything meant to hold water (sometimes called a Hydro-Gel.) Lambert and Pro-Mix are a couple of brand names to look for that are just plain germination mix. You may also want to pick up some compost and dry or liquid sea kelp to ensure vigorous growth.
Seeds are available at most co-ops and from seed catalogs, online stores, and my website, www.thedailygardener.com. What I look for in seeds is that they are untreated, non-GMO, and organically grown, with a high germination rate—at least 90 percent. Having seeds that are untreated is the most important thing because you don’t want them treated with fungicides. If the seeds have a glow-in-the-dark color, they are treated—don’t use them.
To grow pea shoots, you will need to find a few tablespoons of pea seeds (the dry ones, not the fresh). I prefer snow pea seeds but virtually any variety that you have will work. If you have a packet or bag of seeds left over from this year’s garden, they will work fine. Pea shoots can be used both in a fresh salad or cooked in a stir-fry dish. They are very productive and their sweet flavor makes them fun to nibble right from the tray. I recommend them as the best seed to start with.
1. To start, place a tablespoon of dry pea seeds in a cup and cover with plenty of water. Soak the seeds from a minimum of 6 hours up to a maximum of 24 hours. The soaked seeds will almost double in size and you will see the outline of a root start to form on the pea in that short time. While the seeds are soaking, measure into a sealable plastic bag a gallon of the dry soil (the germination mix) and add 3 1/2 cups of water, then seal and set the bag aside. In the bottom of the foil tray place a tablespoon of compost and a half-teaspoon of dry or liquid sea kelp to fertilize the fast growing shoots. Fill the tray with 1 1/4 cup of the moistened germination mix from the bag and level it off, but don’t pack the soil down—it should be about 1/2" from the top of the tray. Now the tray is ready to plant.
2. Fold a single sheet of newspaper so it is slightly larger than the tray; it will end up as about eight layers of paper. Soak the folded newspaper in water for a few minutes just before you are going to plant so it has time to get really wet and soggy. Strain the water off the seeds and dump them out on top of the soil in the tray that you just prepared. Spread the seeds around so the seeds touch but do not overlap each other. The seeds do not get buried like in the garden but remain on the surface of the soil. Cover the seeds with the soggy newspaper and tuck the paper in around the edges of the tray.
3. Place the tray in a dark, warm spot, like inside a cupboard over the refrigerator, and keep it there for the next four days. The seeds germinate rapidly in the warmth, and the darkness forces the stems to shoot up in search of light. During this incubation period there is nothing to do, just watch and wait. Plant another tray each day and add it to the cupboard—this way you will have a tray ready for harvest every day.
4. After four days the paper cover will be pushed up and sitting on top of the yellow shoots that are about an inch tall and ready to put on a windowsill. Water the tray and put it in any window around your house; it does not need to be a bright sunlit window. Continue to water the tray with one to two tablespoons of water every day. I know it doesn’t sound like much water but we just want to keep the soil moist and avoid getting it soggy. After another three to five days the tray will be ready to harvest. The pea shoots should be 8 to 10 inches long, tender and sweet. You can let them grow a little taller, to about 14 inches high.
5. To harvest, cut the stems about a quarter of an inch above the soil line with a pair of scissors. Rinse them with fresh water and chop into 1/2" lengths to add to your salads or cooked dishes. If you are not going to use the greens right away, leave them whole and bag them in plastic. They will store in the refrigerator for about a week. Do not reuse the soil—place it, along with the roots, in your compost bin.
Use the same directions and proportions for sunflower, radish, and buckwheat seeds. With broccoli and other plants that have very small seeds, you only need one teaspoon of seeds to plant the half-loaf bread pan. They also require a few more days on the windowsill to make a full “head” of greens.