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Susquehanna Life

Garden Shed: How Plants Help Us Navigate the Dark Days of Winter

Fresh, green alfalfa sprouts are a healthy superfood

By Erica Shaffer

As winter settles into Central PA, and cabin fever begins to tendril around our green thumbs, we look for ways to dig deeper to sustain our need for plants. 

Many of us lug houseplants and annuals inside to save them from winter frost and create an indoor garden. I brought 72 plants into my house! The kitchen counter, dining room table, bedroom dressers, and floor space are covered with plants. It’s a jungle in here! 

The good news: the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti quickly sprout colorful little buds that open to exotic blooms. The orchids are misted every day, while I whisper lovingly to them, and then I’m delighted when the flower buds show up in February. The Amaryllis begin to peek their noses out of large bulbs, starting their journey to tall and gorgeous. Begonias, ferns, hanging baskets. Tending and observing helps me navigate the darker days of winter.

And yet, I need more. I need to grow something.

The next logical step 

One of the ways I satisfy the need to tend living things is to sprout seeds to eat. An indoor winter vegetable garden! There are several techniques, including glass jars and layered systems. (I use one from the company Botanical Interests.) 

Seed sprouting—anything from bean sprouts and peas to radishes and broccoli—is done without soil. Begin by a soaking a teaspoonful of seeds for a few hours. Then, rinse them with water twice a day until fully harvested. Then begin another batch! They are easy and satisfying to grow on multiple levels. Watching the little seeds start to grow provides so much joy! And sprouts are loaded with easy-to-assimilate, highly-digestible nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, proteins, and enzymes. 

What to grow? 

As usual, homegrown is best. Commercially grown sprouts may not receive the care and attention you provide. Be sure to use fresh seeds, and clean jars/sprouters. Some home growers like to add a little bit of bleach during the initial soaking to kill any possible bacteria that may be hiding on the seed. 

Anything from vegetables to grains can be sprouted. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Alfalfa is very popular, fast sprouting and high in nutrients. Their nutty flavor and crispy texture are fantastic tucked into sandwiches. 

  • Bean sprouts add a pleasant crunch. They are high in fiber, protein, and vitamins. Add to salads, or as a topping to soups or pasta dishes. 

  • Radishes add a delightful spicy flavor, as does broccoli, and both are rich in antioxidants. They taste great on scrambled eggs or any food that needs some pizazz. 

  • Red Clover is crisp, crunchy and nutrient-dense. Pluck them right out of the sprouter for an incredibly healthy snack. Packed with protein and a whole list of vitamins and minerals, this is an excellent choice for health-boosting. 

Another idea

A second way to enjoy winter indoor gardening is to grow microgreens or baby greens. This technique requires soil. Begin with a seed-starting tray, good quality potting soil and a sunny window or grow light. When using this technique, seeds are grown to be harvested and enjoyed while they are still little seedlings. Using scissors, the shoots are trimmed off from the root systems. 

  • Basil freshly harvested in the winter, atop bowls of steaming homemade tomato soup, tops my list. Basil, like most herbs, can be quite challenging to grow in the winter, but as microgreens, they are quick and easy. 

  • Cilantro is also a tasty microgreen herb, and the tender new growth yields intense flavor. Dill and watercress are grown successfully this way, too.      

  • Beet greens add a fantastic color and deep flavor to winter soups and are rich in nutrients. 

  • Sunflowers provide a wonderful crunch and nutty flavor. A great choice for vegans, they are a good source of protein. With a high zinc content, they might also help keep away winter colds!

  • Another favorite is pea shoots. They are enjoyed fresh, or try adding to fresh pasta, quickly sauteed with olive oil and garlic, for a real taste treat. An excellent source of protein and vitamin c. 

As growing sprouts and microgreens have increased in popularity, seed flavor mixes have become available. Salad or sandwich blends, and various delicious combinations, really elevate a winter meal, and a gardener’s heart on a bleak day.    

As your mailbox overflows with garden magazines featuring large glossy pictures of fancy flowers and gorgeous vegetables, settle into your favorite chair. Snip some fresh homegrown sprouts, and nibble and dream of spring while the snowflakes gently flutter by your window. 

Erica Shaffer is a plant geek-tree hugger who has worked at a Camp Hill-based garden center for 30 years.

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