Microgreens are tiny, tasty and packed with nutrients; How to grow them indoors, year-round [video] | Home & Garden

Sheltered from the cold inside a greenhouse, spicy mizuna greens sprout a few feet from a row of sweet pea tendrils.

Here at The Field’s Edge Research Farm, Alex Wenger’ harvests some crops like these when they’re small enough to be called micro: basil, carrots, fennel, cilantro and more.

“You name it,” he says. “If it’s a seed and sprouts, it can be a microgreen.”

Microgreens bring flavor, texture and delight to a meal, especially in times when fresh produce isn’t in season. They grow fast with some ready in as quick as a week. A beginner can start growing seeds with no special equipment. While microgreens are simple, there’s also potential for these tiny plants to do big things like provide nutritious food fast in a disaster and help people with special dietary needs.

Tasty and tiny

At The Field’s Edge Research Farm in Warwick Township, Wenger’s exploring crops that thrive locally, taste good and contribute to a healthy food system. What started as a home-school project in 2010 is now an operation growing produce for customers including restaurants in the region , like Bistro Barberet in Lancaster, Gypsy Kitchen in Columbia and more in Philadelphia and New York City.

While Wenger’s continuing to explore crops vital to a wide range of cultures and cuisines, he’s grown microgreens since the beginning. They’re tasty, high value and small enough to grow a diversity of plants in a small space.

A friend, Everett Fasnacht, started growing microgreens about a year ago in a spare bedroom at his Lititz home. Through his business, Everett’s Greens, he sells microgreens to friends, family and co-workers at his welding job and hopes to expand.

“They’re a really good resource for nutrients, and they’re easy to grow,” Fasnacht says. “You can grow them inside all year round.”

Fasnacht and Wenger grow microgreens, not sprouts.

Sprouts are seeds soaked in water and grown without soil. The entire seedling, including what’s left of the seed, is harvested usually in 7-10 days.

Microgreens are seeds grown in soil or a soil-free medium like a fiber grow mat. To harvest (in 7 to 21 days) the stem of the seedling along with the plant’s first leaves is cut above the soil.

Microgreens are sweet and crunchy, Wenger says, a good way for kids to eat their greens and grown-ups too.

“Every once in a while when I deliver in the restaurant, you’ll see the salad pushed to the side,” he says. “But everybody eats the microgreens.”


Nutrient dense

One of their strengths as a crop is the opportunity of being an agricultural educational tool, says Francesco Di Gioia, assistant professor of vegetable crop science at Penn State University. When children grow microgreens in school, they’re more likely to try them, he says.

Di Gioia’s studied microgreens for more than a decade in Italy and Florida, exploring the nutrition of different species and the business of growing microgreens.

“There’s a lot of interest because they are nice to see, nice to grow in a very short time,” he says. “The other aspect is that they have really good levels of micronutrients.”

He and his research partners are in the process of publishing their work exploring mineral and phytonutrients of different microgreens. Depending on the species and the environment, microgreens have two to seven times the nutrients of the adult crops.

Microgreens are nutrient-dense foods but Di Gioia won’t crown one as the best because there is so much variability in species and environmental factors like fertilizer and light.

Living in Florida during Hurricane Maria, Di Gioia saw the potential to deliver kits with seeds to Puerto Rico to quickly give people essential nutrients.

Their research also explores biofortifying microgreens: increasing iron or zinc, for example, or lowering potassium to help those with special dietary needs.

So while these shoots are tiny, they carry a lot of flavor, nutrients and potential.

How to grow your own microgreens

When to grow: Microgreens can be grown year-round indoors. The seeds are densely planted, which can lead to more diseases, such as dampening off, during warmer weather. Outdoor crops should also be protected from animals.

What to grow:

  • Peas are great microgreens for beginners, Everett Fasnacht says. They’re easy, fast-growing and produce a high yield.
  • Radish microgreens and corn are quick as well, Alex Wenger says.
  • “Sunflower is another good one. That gives a really big sprout. That’s a quick and easy micro and we do buckwheat often because we planted as a cover crop,” he says. “And they have a very sunflower-like appearance with red veins, which is really pretty. The way I like to think about it is anything that’s colorful as an adult plant could probably be really nice as a microgreen.”
  • Popcorn grown in the dark tastes like licorice, says Francesco Di Gioia. Exposing it to light brings out a bitter taste.
  • More challenging are carrots, which are one of the slowest-growing microgreens. Cilantro has a big seed and a small sprout, making it difficult to harvest a uniform crop. When wet, basil seeds can develop a jelly coating (similar to chia seeds).
  • Some seeds should not be grown as microgreens, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant because they have alkaloids which can be toxic to humans at high levels, Di Gioia says.

Supply: While microgreens are often grown in plastic trays or fiber mats, reusable containers like cups or the bottom of a milk jug work.

How to grow:

  • Fill the container with potting soil or a soil-free medium like coconut coir. Tamp it down to create an even planting layer.
  • Microgreen seeds are densely planted. Seed density calculators (like the one at lanc.news/MicroCalc) can help in figuring how much seed to use. Different plants grow at different rates, so harvesting will be easier if a container has only one type of seed.
  • Once you have the right amount of seeds, sprinkle them evenly in the container, and water (preferably from the bottom to avoid dry pockets).
  • Place the container in a warm spot (at least 70 F). Fasnacht likes to stack trays of newly planted seeds for about three days to produce taller microgreens.
  • After three days of blackout or once the seeds start to sprout, move to a well-lit place. Grow lights are best but a sunny bay window works.
  • When it’s time to harvest, start at one corner and cut the microgreens with a sharp produce knife, high enough to avoid any soil.
  • Once microgreens are harvested, most varieties will not keep growing.

Sources: Francesco Di Gioia, Alex Wenger and Everett Fasnacht


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