Sprouting seeds for food

For an all-purpose garden tool, you can’t beat a full set of molars. Andrew Montain, a 28-year-old urban farmer, presented this theory the other day in my kitchen as he rolled a nutmeg seed in his hand like a gobstopper.

“I want to crunch into this with my teeth and see what happens,” he said. Maybe it was a shell. Maybe it was a whole seed. He was eager to find out, but first he had a question: “How’s your liability insurance?”

I had invited Andrew to my home in St. Paul not to test his dentition, but to conduct a botanical experiment: If we plopped this nugget in a tray of dirt, would it grow into a nutmeg tree?

What I was imagining was a kitchen garden in the most literal sense: a crop borne of the pantry instead of the usual seed catalogue.

I, for one, had never seen a lentil plant. As I learned from the Internet (and how, pray tell, does that work?) a lentil is a grain legume, or “pulse,” that will grow to a quarter meter or half meter in height. The plant self-pollinates and blossoms from the bottom up. The flowers are white, lilac or pale blue.

As it happened, I had picked up a bag of French lentils to make dal. What colour would these seeds bloom? I scooped up a spoonful and added them to the kitchen seed bank.

By the time Andrew arrived, the table was cluttered with bottled herbs and drybeans and oddments that I had collected from the bulk bins at the grocery store. For the name alone, I had even picked up a stash of something labelled “sprouting alfalfa seed.”

A large seed, like the nutmeg, could soak overnight, imbibing water to soften the outer coat. A smaller seed might be ready in an hour. Inside, the fertilized embryo of a plant would swell and then germinate.

Next, Andrew turned to the beans. We could pierce these seeds just about anywhere, he said. But we would want to avoid the divot in the red bean that ran along the inside seam. This is where the root tip would emerge.

The star anise seeds bobbed to the surface of the bath. Andrew took this to be a bad sign. “If it floats, it has a lot of air in it,” he said. “It should be full.”

Andrew and I dutifully wetted our pots and trays of seed-starting mix, a clean, fluffy medium for seedlings. We sprinkled the smallest seeds – poppy, caraway, cardamom, fig and mustard – over the surface. A dusting of soil went on top.

The figs were a lost cause.

“Most of the figs that we buy are from asexual varieties,” Silvertown said. “They do have seeds, but they’re nonviable.”

Only a specialized breed of wasp can pollinate a fig. Last I checked, I didn’t have any fig wasps lying around the kitchen.

The sprouting alfalfa, however, lived up to its name. This crop would come in handy if I ever bought a pony.

And the mustard seed and poppies sprouted as soft and thick as a flokati rug.

This bounty didn’t surprise Silvertown. “You will get poppy plants coming up in fields that haven’t been propagated for decades,” he said.

My dried beans – the lentils, red beans and chick peas – shot out of the ground as if they had been fired from a silo.

“Seeds with a hard seed coat, like many in the pea family, tend to be the longest living ones,” Silvertown said.