How to grow delicious salads on your kitchen bench…

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While doing some research in my local library for an article on growing your own sprouts, I happened to stumble upon a book by Peter Burke with the title ‘Year-round indoor salad gardening’. The book describes Burke’s technique for growing, as the title suggests, year-round salad leaves on your kitchen bench, in a simple and easy way, without the need for any specialised equipment. I immediately thought that this technique is a great solution for people who want to have the benefits of eating nutritious home-grown salads, but either don’t have space for a vegetable garden, don’t have the time to tend a vegetable garden or have physical limitations due to health issues. So before writing about Burke’s technique and putting my article on sprouting seeds on the back burner, the scientist in me thought it best to try it for myself first, just to check it really was that easy. Here’s how it went…

Burke’s technique combines part sprouting in jars and part soil sprouting, to produce edible salad leaves in the form of microgreens. Microgreens are vegetables or herbs that are eaten at a seedling stage, at which point they taste like the mature vegetable but contain a much higher concentration of nutrients. Using conventional methods to produce microgreens can take 2-4 weeks but by using this technique you can harvest in only 7-10 days.

The equipment that you will need for this indoor salad garden includes; glass jars, organic seeds, aluminium foil trays (about 15cmx22cmx5cm in size), newspaper or paper towel, a small strainer, water in a small spray bottle, seed raising mix and a little compost, worm castings or some organic fertiliser.

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Step 1 Soak the seeds in a jar of warm water for 6 hours (or overnight). You can use any organic vegetable or herb seed which has edible leaves, but seeds in the Brassica family (kale, broccoli, cabbage, canola, kohlrabi) are particularly nutritious and beetroot, red amaranth, buckwheat and purple basil add great colour to your salad. I used adzuki beans, snow peas, mung beans, fenugreek and lentils for my experiment as I already had these seeds available. For the smaller seeds you need to soak about a heaped tablespoon per tray and for the larger seeds, such as the peas, you need about 80 seeds.

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Step 2 Using one foil tray per seed variety, add a 1 cm layer of seed raising mix, with a couple of tablespoons of compost/worm casting or a small sprinkle of organic fertiliser spread over the top. Fill the rest of the trays with more seed raising mix until they are filled about 1/2 cm from the top of the tray. Level the mix but don’t pat it down. If your mix feels dry, squirt it with some water from a spray bottle (your mix should be moist but not wet as there are no drainage holes in your tray).

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Step 3 Fold a sheet of newspaper or paper towel to fit the top of your tray (a few layers thick) and soak the folded paper in a shallow tray of warm water. In the meantime strain the water off the seeds by pouring them into a small strainer and rinse them with some fresh water. Spread the seeds evenly on top of the seed raising mix, then cover with the folded newspaper/paper towel and gently press the paper down to ensure that the seeds underneath make good contact with the soil.

Step 4 Place the trays in a warm (18-21ºC), dark cupboard for 4 days, keeping the newspapers wet if they dry by squirting with some water. The sprouts should be 2-3cm high and have pushed the newspaper up by the end of this time. If temperatures were a bit too cold this step may take an extra day or two. I found this to be the case with the larger seeds of my snow peas, mung beans and adzuki beans which I left in the cupboard for an extra day.

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Step 5 You now need to green your sprouts by taking off the newspaper covers and placing the trays on a sunny bench near a window, they don’t need direct sunlight. I placed mine on a workbench in my garden shed which is under a north facing window, but a kitchen bench would work well too and you don’t necessarily need a window that faces north. Over the next three days water the soil in the trays everyday with about 2-4 tablespoons of water and rotate the trays each day so that the sprouts grow straight and not towards the light.

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Step 6 After only 7-10 days from when you first soaked your seeds, your salad is ready to harvest. It really is that quick and easy! To harvest simply cut your greens about half a centimetre above the soil level with a pair of scissors. Give them a very gentle rinse under some cold water to remove any soil particles and seed husks and they are ready to eat.

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You may want to grate some carrot or beetroot through your sprouts, or add a handful of chickpeas or finely chopped tomatoes. Your sprouts are also great as a garnish on top of a lentil Dahl or in rice paper rolls. If you sow a new couple of trays every few days you could have a continuous supply of sprouted salad greens.

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This indoor salad only took 8 days to grow!

Enjoy!

How to sow seeds

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When you’re new to vegetable gardening the easiest way to get started is to buy some seedlings from a garden centre and plant them out. However the range of things to plant and the varieties available are very limiting, so sowing from seed is the way to go. There are many organic seed companies that you can order from online, or you may have a gardening friend who saves their own seed and is happy to share some with you. Beware though, looking through seed catalogues is addictive and often results in you buying more seeds than you have space for in the garden!

Here is my guide for some common vegetables and how best to sow them:

Seeds that should be sown directly into a garden bed:

Parsnip
Swede
Beetroot
Carrot
Radish
Beans
Peas
Turnip

Seeds that are best sown into seedling punnets and planted out as seedlings:

Tomato
Capsicum
Eggplant
Broccoli
Cabbage
Brussel sprouts
Kale
Cauliflower
Celery
Onion

Seeds that can either be sown direct or into seedling punnets first:

Rocket
Pumpkin*
Corn
Zucchini*
Squash*
Cucumber*
Leek
Spring onion
Spinach
Lettuce

*Careful not to disturb the roots of these seedlings when planting out

It’s also important to plant seeds at the correct depth, generally 2 to 3 times their width. Keep soil moist after planting but not soggy; if you let the soil dry out after the seed germinates it will die, if the soil is too wet the seed may rot before it even starts to grow. And remember to sow your seeds in their correct season!

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Sowing peas directly in the ground

A seedy business

Seeds

To start with a seed…that you plant into the soil and nurture as you watch it grow into a plant…then to harvest from this plant food to feed yourself and your family and friends… then to save some of the seed to start the cycle again the following season…this would have to be one of the most satisfying, rewarding and empowering experiences you can have.

There is so much to write about seeds so in this post I’m concentrating on highlighting some of the different types of seed you may come across and what some of the terminology on your purchased seed packet means. I’ll follow on from this with a post at a future date which will cover: how to sow seeds successfully and another on how to save your own seed.

Seeds can be classified into Open-pollinated, Heirloom, Hybrid and Genetically Modified.

Open-pollinated seeds are from plants in which pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms. This means that if you want to save your own seed, these seeds will be true to type (produce very similar characteristics as their parent plants), as long as they are not crossed with other similar varieties of the same species. They also produce exceptionally tasty crops that have a staggered maturing time (great for successive harvest in a home vegetable garden). The only down side is that some varieties produce less bountiful crops. However if you save your seed from your strongest plants from each crop, over time you’ll start to get seed that is adapted to your local soil and climate and produce better plants each season.

Heirloom seeds are all open-pollinated but are also seeds that have a history of being passed down within a family or by a community.

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A bright selection of heirloom tomatoes bursting with flavour.

Hybrid seeds are seed that have resulted from cross-pollinating plants. This can happen naturally in nature, but has been taken to the next level in modern agriculture where plants with specific desirable characteristics are cross-pollinated over many generations to produce highly inbred new hybrids. These hybrid seeds are specifically favoured in modern agriculture, mainly for their high and often earlier yield times, disease resistance and general uniformity in harvesting times. The down side is you can’t save seeds from hybrids as the seeds you save will generally not breed true and revert to the parents’ traits. The popularity of hybrids has also meant the loss of many heirloom varieties and a loss in the diversity of food crops for future generations.

Genetically Modified seeds are produced in laboratories by combining the genes from one species with that of another (think chicken genes in wheat and rat genes in soybeans!) to produce seed with herbicide resistance or other desirable traits. These genetically modified seeds would never naturally occur in nature and the health and environmental impacts these seeds pose are enormous. Most GM crops also contain terminator genes which means seeds are sterile and farmers are required to purchase new seed each year from the companies that own the patent rights for them. Luckily GM seeds are not (yet) available to home food growers but their use in major agricultural crops such as wheat, corn, canola, cotton and soybeans and the inconsistency in labelling on food products means we may all have consumed GMO’s at some time without realising it.

Treated seed has to be labelled as such on the packet you buy it in and is usually covered in a bright pink or blue fungicide or pesticide dust or coating. These coatings are restricted to those seeds which are particularly susceptible to attack by soil borne fungus or insect damage in the pre-germination stage. Vegetables that often have treated seeds include corn, beans, peas, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. Some seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals which can be absorbed by the whole plant and are potentially carcinogenic and can make the pollen from the plant toxic to bees who forage on the flowers. When the seed packet warns ‘not to eat the seed or feed to animals’, would you even want to plant them in your garden and eat the vegetables grown from them?

corn seed treated with fungicide

Treated corn seeds

Certified Organic seed is produced using organic farming practices and standards allowable by an organic certifying regulator. These seeds are always non GM and untreated. They are the best seeds to buy to ensure you minimise your exposure to harmful chemicals while also supporting farming practises which minimise harm to our natural environment.