March 12, 2011
Dot Zanotti Ingels
Microgreens are houseplants you can eat. These immature vegetables are short on size but large on taste. They have been found in some of the trendiest restaurants and markets, but they are easy to bring into your family's kitchen. It does not take much space or many supplies to grow these tabletop farms. You can harvest your own fresh, nutritious, living greens all year long with a minimal investment of money, time or horticultural knowledge.
Microgreens are larger than sprouts, but smaller than baby salad greens. They are called microgreens when they have produced two true leaves after the first leaves, or cotyledons, appear. Plant flavors are most intense when their first leaves appear. Home growing lets you eat your greens at their freshest and most nutritional peak, plus you can pick just what you need.
Nutritionally, microgreens are loaded with vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients. They can be used to enhance a salad of store-bought greens, served alone, included in sandwiches, put in dips, juiced, topped on a pizza or used anywhere you want to add flavor, texture, color and nutrition. All you need to grow your microgreens are containers, soil, seeds, water and a good location. Buying seeds in bulk can save money.
Containers need drainage
The ideal container to grow your greens has drainage holes to prevent drowning your seeds. Microgreens do not need a lot of soil so having containers that are shallow, lightweight and portable are the easiest to use. I like to use attractive containers or small pots to keep my growing area fun to look at, but containers could be recycled plastic food trays, a wide, shallow flower pot, or plant trays that your local nursery would otherwise toss placed on a cookie sheet.
As with all plants, microgreens draw most of their nutrition from the soil and water. An organic potting mix or seed starting mix are the easiest to find and use. A mix with added compost or ocean ingredients such as kelp will help produce the vibrant, nutrient-loaded plants you are looking for. Fill your container with moistened soil to within an inch of the top and flatten down gently.
Different plants grow at different rates so planting a variety of greens in one container can be a bit tricky. It is easier to start with different varieties of greens in different containers. You can find packages of quality seeds at your local nursery. A fabulous and fun source for seeds is the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Bank in Petaluma. They sell a huge variety of organic seeds and seeds in bulk. There are also some great organic seed catalogs such as Seeds of Change.
How to plant them
Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the surface of your soil. Sow enough seeds so that one-third to one-half of the soil can still be seen beneath the seeds. The goal is to plant seeds densely enough to grow into a thick mass of greens that grow straight with tender stems. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil about one-eighth inch deep. Again gently press your planted tray to settle the seeds in the soil. Water your seeds into the soil gently without moving them around by using a mister, watering can with fine holes, or your kitchen sink spray nozzle. Keep the soil moist like a wrung-out sponge but not soaking wet. It should not be saturated or soggy.
Your containers can be covered to help speed up germination and even growth by holding in heat and moisture. This creates a mini greenhouse. The seeds get a more consistent environment in which to grow, but you need to keep an eye on them to assure that not too much moisture builds up and causes mold. Clear plastic is a good cover. The garden will grow with or without a cover, just not quite as evenly and much slower.
Good light is crucial
Microgreens, like most other plants, need light to grow. A sunny windowsill can work, but all you really need is a place that gets good indirect light. If your plants are in direct sun, watch for too much heat and drying. Try to avoid extremes of heat variation to your seeds and young plants. Electric heat mats are available inexpensively. They gently warm the soil from below and can speed up the germination process.
Once the seeds have germinated, remove the plastic lid if you placed one. The greens need to be in the light for a week to fourteen days depending on the type of plant. They also need to be kept moist.
Generally, the time to harvest the greens is when the first true leaves appear. Snip the greens with sharp kitchen shears at about the level of the container and wash them gently if necessary. Washing may wilt them a bit but a salad spinner can refresh them.
Harvest at soil level
Microgreens are harvested at soil level. Since no leaves remain on the plant, they will not resprout and new seeds need to be planted after each harvest. Toss the soil into the compost pile or green can and start again. They taste best when eaten immediately after harvesting, but they can be refrigerated for about the same amount of time as other salad greens. To keep yourself in a constant supply of greens, start new plants every week.
Have fun with growing your own microgreens. Try rocket (arugula), earthy-flavored beets, peppery but mild cauliflower, spicy and hot radishes, mild-flavored cabbage, Genovese basil, broccoli, chives, cress, kale, parsley, garlic, and peas. Children like growing microgreens because they are fast growing with quick rewards.
To learn much more about growing microgreens and how to use them, I found two great books with detailed information, beautiful pictures and recipes: "Microgreens, A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Foods" by Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson, and "Microgreens, How to Grow Nature's Own Superfood" by Fionna Hill.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.