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For The Garden

Micro But Mighty

Author: Cathy Babcock
Issue: August, 2017, Page 106

Tiny in stature, these seedlings pack a powerful nutritional punch

Go to any farmer’s market and there will undoubtedly be at least one booth selling microgreens. Not to be confused with sprouts (which germinate by being soaked in water), microgreens are edible, immature greens started in soil and harvested with scissors a few weeks after germination, when the plants are about 2 inches tall and have produced the first pair of true leaves.

Microgreens initially appeared on menus in San Francisco in the early ’80s and have since spread eastward. They are packed with vitamins and nutrients and are commonly used in recipes to enhance flavor, add texture and create visual interest. Often they are used simply as a garnish in soups and sandwiches.

What kind of microgreens can be grown? The list is endless, but some favorites include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard, sunflower, buckwheat, basil, beets, chard, cilantro, kale, parsley, peas, radish, spinach and sorrel.

Microgreens are a quick food crop as they are ready to harvest within weeks of sowing. These tiny plants are also great if you have limited growing space, or don’t have a green thumb. Although almost anything can be grown hydroponically, microgreen seeds generally must be germinated in a growing medium. If you use organic potting soil, fertilizer is unnecessary. Whether growing indoors or out, choose only seeds that are certified organic or untreated, as many are fumigated with fungicide.

To start your microgreen garden, line a shallow tray with a moist paper towel and fill it with about 1 inch of organic soil mix that you have sieved to remove large pieces of pumice or other material. Plastic fruit or veggie containers with lids make excellent miniature greenhouses. You can help larger seeds germinate more quickly by soaking them in water overnight. Sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil mix and press in lightly. Cover evenly with a thin layer of soil mix and water with a spray bottle to avoid dislodging the seeds. Keep the soil evenly moist, watering regularly as needed. The seeds should be kept moist, but not overwatered. Cover the container with a lid or a plastic bag and place it in a warm spot. Ensure that both the tray and the lid have holes for drainage and airflow.

Upon germination, move the trays to a light-filled windowsill or porch. Don’t have a sunny window? Try installing an inexpensive grow light. If the container is placed outdoors in the garden, give it some shade, providing protection from wind and critters.

 If your greens are pale and leggy, they are not receiving enough light. Once the seedlings produce their true leaves, usually 1-3 inches tall depending on the variety, use scissors to cut stems just above the soil line immediately before serving. Wash your tiny harvest with water and dry on a paper towel.

Consider sowing seeds in succession by planting fewer seeds more frequently, approximately every seven days or so. Because of the rapidity from seed to table, several crops can be sown throughout the year. Seasonality shouldn’t matter; microgreens can be grown indoors or outdoors depending on the season.

As previously mentioned, microgreens are nutrient-dense with concentrated values far superior to mature plants. Right after germination, all the nutrients they need to sustain their growth to maturity are packed into these tiny little seedlings. Flavors can also be more intense at this time for the same reason, and a little goes a long way. This will vary, of course, depending on the plant. Microgreens are best enjoyed fresh, not cooked—simply add them to your dishes and enjoy.

Cathy Babcock is the director of horticulture for Boyce Thompson Arboretum, located
in Superior.
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