What's better than spinach, lettuce, squash and carrots? Many foodies say smaller sized versions of those healthy foods. Baby spinach, baby lettuce, baby squash, and baby carrots are praised for their taste and tenderness. Some of us go even smaller and enjoy microgreens for a tasty nutritional punch. Learn how to grow microgreens at home so you can enjoy them anytime.
If you haven't met microgreens, allow me to introduce you...
Microgreens are young plants (a.k.a. seedlings). As they are harvested a week or two after planting, they only grow to 1-3 inches tall. Popular microgreen varieties are lettuce, kale, beet, mustard, cabbage, and broccoli, although there are numerous other choices.
What they are NOT:
Microgreens are not sprouts. The distinction comes from both how they are grown and the part of the plant you eat. Microgreens are grown in soil whereas sprouts are grown in water. You eat the whole plant (root, stem, leaves) when you eat a sprout but only what is growing above ground for microgreens.
I'm a fan of sprouts, but I'm also aware of their risk of food borne pathogens. Although not immune to food borne illness (nothing is risk free), microgreens run less of a risk than sprouts.
Alternet spoke with Zhenlei Xiao, a post-doc research associate at the University of Maryland, about her research on the nutrition of microgreens. According to Alternet, "The microgreens contained four to six times the vitamin concentration of their mature plants. Xiao compared the same weighted amount of microgreens to their adult counterparts and found several cases where the microgreens were packed with vitamins, often beating their mature-plant self."
So why are microgreens so packed with nutrients? According to Xiao, "The reasons are still unclear and more research needs to be done...One (theory) is that during the germination stage the cell division is much greater, thus increasing the amount of nutrients in one leaf. It's almost as if the microgreens are a concentrated version of their adult selves. Another idea is that during the germination stage nutrients are just beginning to be activated and released."
National Public Radio spoke with Gene Lester, a USDA researcher. The USDA's findings were similar to Xiao's: "The researchers looked at four groups of vitamins and other phytochemicals – including vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene — in 25 varieties of microgreens. They found that leaves from almost all of the microgreens had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. But there was variation among them – red cabbage was highest in vitamin C, for instance, while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E."
The richer the color of the microgreens, the richer they are in vitamins so choose deep greens and purples versus pale yellows.
How to grow microgreens at home in 3 easy steps:
1. Purchase good quality--non-GMO, organic--seeds from a reputable grower. (I like Johnny's and High Mowing, but there are many other good suppliers.) Growing microgreens requires more seeds than other vegetables because they grow closer together. So, sow seeds liberally in the growing tray.
2. Sow seeds in a rich potting soil that's amended with compost. You can grow them in seed trays, decorative ceramic pots, or recycled plastic containers. Keep the soil moist to the touch but not overly wet. Locate the trays (or pots) in a sunny location such as indoors near a south facing window, cold frame, or greenhouse.
3. One of the rewards of growing microgreens is how quickly they go from seed to table. Harvest when the microgreens' "true leaves" appear (those are the second set of leaves). Most growers harvest any time between 7-14 days. Because the microgreens loose nutrition once they are harvested, stagger your harvest so that you don't harvest them all at once and then have to store them. Fresh is (always!) best.
Note: Some growers grow microgreens hydroponically (without soil). Although I've never tried it myself, it seems like a great idea. If you're interested in growing them this way, check out this website.
If you're someone who is thinking about gardening but has not yet jumped in with both feet, growing microgreens may help your interest to blossom. Microgreens are relatively easy to grow and can be grown entirely indoors, which is good news for apartment dwellers who don't have access to outdoor space.
How to enjoy microgreens:
You're limiting taste and nutrition if you only use microgreens as a garnish. Although they're great as a garnish for soup, put them center stage (or plate, as the case may be) in salads, stir-fry, sandwiches, rice bowls, and even smoothies.
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photo of microgreens via Shutterstock