Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
One of the best parts of working for University of Illinois Extension is being able to learn something new literally every day. A few weeks ago, one of our Master Gardeners brought in a tray of seedlings that were planted extremely thick, way too close together for typical garden use. What were they?
They were microgreens, a close cousin of sprouts. Microgreens are seedlings grown to fully expanded cotyledons or one true leaf. Unlike sprouts, which are typically grown in the dark without soil, microgreens are grown with light in a soil mix. Sprouts are consumed entirely-- leaves, stem, and roots; only the stems and leaves of microgreens are eaten.
Microgreens have been used by gourmet chefs for over 10 years. They are used in salads, as salads, or as garnishes on various meat and vegetable dishes. Microgreens have become popular with home chefs and gardeners over the last four years or so.
It is definitely more budget friendly to grow your own microgreens rather than purchase them in the store. The process of growing microgreens is very hand labor-intensive, which drives up the cost. Although they may be shipped to market, they are extremely perishable and so their shelf life is very limited.
There are many crops that can be grown as microgreens. Leafy greens such as lettuce, chard, spinach, kale, and arugula are great harvested as microgreens. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage are also good choices. Beets, radishes, celery, basil and dill are also tasty as microgreens. There is a carrot cultivar called 'Rumba' that is said to have a distinct carrot flavor in its tops, rather than bitter like most other carrots, making it a great candidate to be served as microgreens.
Microgreens can be grown at home without a lot of investment in special equipment. All that is needed is a shallow tray, soil mix, your favorite seeds, water, and a sunny window.
Start with a shallow tray. You probably have something perfectly appropriate to use at home right now. The Master Gardener that introduced me to microgreens used a tray that used to contain cut-up fruit in individual sections. She planted a different microgreen in each section of the tray. The tray chosen may or may not have drainage holes.
Some sources instruct you to use a soil mix containing garden soil, but my opinion is this will probably be too heavy and may introduce disease. To be on the safe side, use a standard soilless potting mix, such as what you would use in containers outdoors or houseplants. You may also choose a seed starting mix. If you wish to lighten the mix further, mix half and half with perlite. Moisten slightly before planting. The mix should be damp, not sopping wet!
Fill your chosen tray with ¾ to one inch of soil mix. Some directions advise sprouting the seeds before planting, others say to just plant the seeds directly into the soil mix. Personally, I would just plant the seeds directly. Transferring seeds with tiny sprouts protruding are likely to be broken in the process. Plant the seeds in a single layer very close together but not touching. An eighth of an inch for tiny seeds to a quarter of an inch apart for larger seeds is a good distance.
Water the seeds, being careful not to wash them away. A spray bottle may be a good tool to prevent washing the seeds out of place. If your tray does not have drainage holes, be very careful not to overwater.
Place your planted tray in a sunny spot and water as needed. You may cover the tray with a plastic cover to conserve moisture, but be cautious as direct sun through a cover may trap enough heat to kill the emerging seedlings.
Within about five days the first microgreens should be ready to harvest. Sample your microgreens at various maturities to decide what you like, as their flavor may change with age. Cut them off either individually or in clumps at the base of the plant without including any of the soil mix. Harvest daily until no new seedlings emerge. Rinse well in cool water before eating.
Use your microgreens in salads or use them as the salad itself. You may also use them as a garnish on other dishes. Each plant will have a distinctive flavor. I really enjoy the spicy flavor of radish microgreens.
I am experimenting with my own selection of microgreens. For $15 I purchased nine different crops to grow for my microgreens experiment: arugula, broccoli, swiss chard, endive, spinach, radish, kale, beet and cabbage. I'll be able to grow several plantings of microgreens with these seeds, compared with microgreens purchased at a store which may cost that much just for a single six inch container. Plus there's no better therapy this time of year like planting seeds. You can't put a price on that.