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April 11, 2017 > Microgreens: packing a lot into a little

Microgreens: packing a lot into a little

Submitted By Daniel OÕDonnell

Bigger does not necessarily mean better. Technology companies are the perfect example. Many strive to make their products smaller, faster, and cheaper. The word ÒmicroÓ is embraced and attached to so many tech company names because of these goals, and the fact that it sounds advanced. Tell anyone who grows their own vegetables in the year 2017 that bigger is not better and most will disagree. Clearly, they have never heard of microgreens.

Microgreens are not futuristic, technologically enhanced, bio-lab genetically altered plants. They are the same leafy herbs and vegetables that have been grown for centuries. The only difference is their immature leaves are harvested two or three weeks after germination, depending upon the type of plant. Any plant that has edible leaves can be grown and harvested as a microgreen. Lettuce, kale, broccoli, sunflower, arugula, radish, basil, cilantro, beet, mustard, fennel, and cabbage are some of the different types of seeds that can be harvested as a microgreen.

Microgreens have various culinary functions. They can be used to enhance the flavor of a salad or sandwich, or can be spread on top of pizzas and casseroles to add texture and color. They can be used as a garnish to elevate the status of a soup or dessert or used to increase the nutritional value of a meal.

After a seed germinates it sends up a stalk with usually two new leaves called cotyledons. The next leaves to develop will be the plantÕs true leaves. Very young leaves can have five times more nutritional value than the plantÕs mature leaves. These two- to three-week-old leaves along with their newly formed stems are what are harvested and referred to as microgreens. They differ from baby greens that are young tender leaves, which are harvested after a couple of months. They differ from a sprout where the entire plant, including the roots is eaten.

Microgreens are not only fast to grow but inexpensive. They only require a couple of weeks of watering and can be grown in a small container or nursery flat. Many of the plants will re-sprout each time after being harvested, keeping seed costs down. Seeds are generally inexpensive and the potting soil used to grow them can be used for multiple harvests even if the plant does not re-sprout. Planting a few of the microgreen seedlings instead of harvesting them and letting them go to seed is also a great way to keep the costs low.

Microgreens can be grown inside or outside. They require a minimum of four hours of sunlight and protection from frost. Spring is the ideal time to grow most microgreens but many can be grown all year long if the conditions the individual plant seeds need to germinate are met. All seed packets provide the optimal growing times for that particular vegetable or herb. JohnnyÕs Selected Seeds ( has developed a line of microgreen seeds and combination packages based on colors, textures, and tastes.

Microgreens offer a convenient way to grow food. Root vegetables grown as microgreens require two inches of soil to thrive, whereas leafy vegetables and herbs only require about an inch depth. Plastic to go boxes, shallow salad containers, an old baking pan, or nursery plant flats all make ideal planters. Start by poking a few drainage holes in the bottom, then fill the planter with an inch or two of a moist potting soil and generously spread the seeds evenly over the entire surface. Gently press them into the soil and then cover with a thin moist layer of soil and place them on a well-lit windowsill or in a sunny part of the garden. Keep the soil about as moist as a wrung out sponge by misting as needed. Direct watering can break newly forming stems. Overwatering can promote the Òdamping offÓ of seedlings by creating the unhealthy conditions that allow pathogens to attack and kill the vulnerable young stems.

Microgreen leaves grow in a variety of shapes and sizes but are much smaller than their mature sizes. Harvesting should be done just after the first set of true leaves take shape. This will be between two and four weeks for most microgreens. A seedling heat mat will help keep the rapid schedule for warmer temperature germinating seeds even in cooler temperatures. Cut the stems just above the soil line to harvest. Wash, pat dry, and serve immediately for the freshest flavor and texture. Unused microgreens should be stored in the refrigerator.

Plant one container each week for three weeks for a continuous supply. After the first harvest, plant another or try to re-sprout the harvested tray. The size of the container or the duration between plantings can be adjusted to fill any microgreen demand or even out any oversupply. A limited selection of microgreens can also be purchased from Trader JoeÕs or Whole Foods.

There is a large effort to use scientific and technological advances to help feed the world. Technology will never replace nature. The answers to smaller, faster, and cheaper are concepts that nature has always known. Microgreens are one way technology could learn from nature.

Daniel OÕDonnell is the co-owner and operator of an organic landscape design/build company in Fremont.

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