What are micro-greens?
Micro-greens have been around since the 1980s but only when we discovered their nutritional value and labeled them ‘superfood,’ did these young, tender plants become popular.
Suddenly everyone wanted a healthy boost from micro-greens and they were added to salads, smoothies, and garnishes.
Today micro-greens are easily found everywhere from supermarkets to outdoor markets to restaurant menus.
Once seeds have sprouted they begin to grow a root then stem and leaves.
When the sprout grows to a certain height it officially becomes a micro-green or small plant.
Now loaded with superfood nutrients, if left to grow they would mature into a vegetable, flower, or herb.
This got me wondering if the Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health sees micro-greens as ‘superfood’ then how hard is it to grow your own.
Do you remember caring for a chia pet?
Despite being relatively new on the culinary scene compared to other garnishes like parsley, you probably had your first encounter with micro-greens during your childhood without even realizing it.
Do you remember caring for your Chia pet?
Small terracotta figurines of dogs and cats were sprinkled with micro-green seeds then spritzed with water until your ‘pet’ became a tiny sculpture garden.
It turns out that the easy-to-grow seeds used back then were chia.
Why are chia seeds a superfood?
Today chia, a relative of the mint family, is labelled as a superfood.
Each seed is loaded with antioxidants, omega 3-fatty acids, and other essential nutrients and is the perfect healthy addition for baking recipes, in salads and smoothies.
I include whole (not sprouted) chia seeds whenever possible in recipes that make a healthy snack.
Can all seeds be micro-greens?
You can use seeds from broccoli, onions, and even chives, as basically, micro-greens are the tweens of plants.
They’re that awkward, gangly, perfect stage between plump sprouted seeds and the grownup plants of herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers.
Imagine eating a broccoli micro-green with 10x the flavour of a regular piece of broccoli.
You’re eating the same essential vitamins and minerals each sprout needed to help them grow and mature into a plant!
When does a seed become a micro-green?
There is a difference between seeds, sprouts, and micro-greens.
A seed becomes a sprout once the tough outer shell has cracked and the first long root appears. This occurs approximately within the first 24 hours.
A sprout becomes a micro-green once they have grown 1 – 1.5 inches tall and developed their first ‘true’ set of leaves.
This takes approximately 14 days.
Then, in a rainbow of different colours, and textures, these tender baby plants pack a serious pop of flavours from mild and sweet to spicy . . . not to mention all the health benefits.
How do you remember what you planted?
Health benefits of micro-greens
Don’t let the petite size of micro-greens fool you because they are packed to their leaf-tops with health benefits.
When eaten, their essential vitamins and nutrients boost your immune system, heart health, bone and joint health, while lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes.
They are also filled with nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, vitamin K, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, and antioxidants.
If that doesn’t convince you to give micro-greens a try, a recent scientific study was done by the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They both concluded that micro-greens contained up to forty times the nutritional content of adult plants of the same species.
That means, nutrient for nutrient, you could either eat 40 cabbages or . . . one cabbage sprout!
I know which I’d rather munch on.
Which seeds should I get?
To help you choose, here are some of the most common varieties of micro-greens and their health benefits:
- Arugula, also known as ‘Rocket’: Antioxidants to boost your immune system
- Beets: High in iron and vitamin K
- Chia: Loaded with antioxidants, fibre, and omega-3 fatty acids for heart health along with the muscle-building block, protein
- Cilantro: High in beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin for eye health
- Fennel: Amino acids for muscle and brain health
- Kale: Immune-system boosting vitamin C and cancer-fighting antioxidants
- Lettuce: High in antioxidants to help your body fight sickness
- Red cabbage: Saturated with vitamins C, E, and K, and also thought to lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
- Sunflowers: High protein content which is perfect for vegetarians, vegans, athletes, and bodybuilders
As you can see, the benefits of including micro-greens in your diet stack up.
And since each green has its own unique nutritional values, it is better to grow a variety and get a big boost of good health.
How to kick-start growing your own micro-greens
Micro-greens became popular from their health benefits, but today they remain a favourite because they are so quick and easy to grow.
Unlike full-sized vegetables and herbs, which need a large garden or outdoor container garden, micro-greens grow in a small container, indoors, and with minimal maintenance.
Choosing the right seeds for you
Growing micro-greens from scratch is a budget-friendly alternative that gives you fresh greens for any meal time.
To get yourself started all you need is,
- a tiny green thumb
- and a few simple items you may already have to get started (container with a lid or plastic, soil, and a spritzer)
And if you don’t have even a tiny green thumb, don’t worry because micro-greens are very forgiving . . . as long as you can keep them alive for about two weeks.
Kits will often have everything you need
What you need to grow your own micro-greens
I love seeds from companies who grow and sell heirloom, non-GMO, organic seeds.
And here’s why.
- They’ll often have a wide variety – GardenEazy company has over 60 seed varieties to choose from.
- For some reason, seeds grow better when mixed with others! (Who knew!!)
- GardenEazy seeds are heirloom, non-GMO, organic and reasonably priced for what you get.
What are the best seeds for a beginner?
- Chia (of Chia Pet fame!)
- Wheatgrass if you have a pet
What else do you need?
Once you have selected your seeds, you need 4-5 more items:
- a container
- a growing medium
- a spritzer to moisten seeds without drowning them
- a cover for your seeds to start them growing in the dark.
You could use a table place mat, newspaper, a book, or tea-towel.
- Optional but highly recommended, liquid plant food
You also need a bright, sunny area to encourage vigorous plant photosynthesis and growth.
If this isn’t possible, you may want to consider investing in a grow light for strong, healthy plants.
Get a light that’s easy to use and store away so then you’ll use it!
If this is your first time, you may want to use what’s already around the home.
Perfect items are disposable pie containers, plastic take-out trays, or a glass container, especially if you are on the fence about DIY micro-green growing.
Other container ideas
If you discover micro-green farming is your new-found passion on a grand scale, then look for industrial-strength, re-useable growing ideas.
I like this one as you have the option to allow some micro-greens to grow into plants before transferring to your garden.
Once they go to seed, you’ll have your very own seed supply.
Here's what you get when you sign up:
A one-page cheat sheet listing what you need to get started on micro-greens
Your growing medium: soil, potting mix, or single-use mats
If dirt and you don’t have anything in common, I have a solution.
Your micro-greens need something to anchor their roots into.
As well, these small plants need extra nutrition to help them thrive and grow strong.
This is where soil, potting mix or grow mats come into the gardening equation.
Let’s dive in and weigh the pros and cons of each one.
If you are already a resourceful gardener, then no doubt, your soil is jam-packed with nutrients – perfect for all seedlings to thrive in.
Just remember though, because you are more likely to eat your micro-greens uncooked, you should sterilize your soil first.
To destroy any living bacteria and fungi, bake your soil in the oven at 150 degrees F (65 C) for 30 minutes.
Then add a handful of perlite and vermiculite which not only stops soil compacting but holds moisture, giving tender roots a better chance to grow.
Some gardeners also add peat moss for extra moisture control, except sphagnum peat moss is a non—renewable resource that does not bode well long-term for our environment.
I’ll leave that ethical decision with you.
If you live in a condo it’s much easier to grab a bag of commercial potting mix.
Already sterilized, you have everything your sprouts need for survival.
Just remove the sticks and any stones.
And if you work long hours, have a busy schedule, or worry you might forget to water your sprouts, they’ll happily grow on your tough love, if you have the right type of soil.
Look for a moisture control label which also has perlite and vermiculite.
Although they won’t be in there for very long, these will help them grow faster and healthier.
How much soil or potting mix do I need?
Ideally, you want 1-2 inches of soil or potting mix, in your container.
This should be enough depth for your seeds to take root in and become established.
Single-use grow mats
If you are looking for nutrients, make sure the product is designed for indoor plants.
I prefer a powder form like this one and make my own liquid from the directions.
I have a couple of reasons why:
- it’s much more economical
- and for some weird reason, I can easily find a bag over a bottle in my cupboard.
One last comment on the single use growing mats – you should be aware, they are not reusable.
The roots are impossible to remove from the mats which can lead to cross-contamination for your next batch – definitely not worth the risk.
What else can I use?
In the name of research for this post, I decided to skip the whole potting mix and mats concept and grow micro-greens just like we used to as kids.
I used 10-12 layers of paper towels.
Lessons I learned
From a personal standpoint, I don’t recommend paper towels . . . unless of course you have absolutely no soil.
My plant roots did not get a chance to explore and soak up enough nutrients and, although they grew and were still super tasty, in the end they were on the scrawny side of flimsy.
Would I use paper towel again?
Absolutely if the other choice meant having no micro greens at all.
Once your container is filled to 3/4 with soil, lightly sprinkle your seeds on top and try to avoid overcrowding.
Do NOT cover your seeds with soil!
Your seeds will take much, much longer to germinate and you must also rinse off the soil before eating them.
Simply give your soil a good, healthy spritz until very damp.
Do not be shy.
If your soil is not moist enough, your seeds will not germinate.
If you use mixed seedlings they will mature at different rates.
I sort of knew this – but had also forgotten, so I imagined snipping large patches of micro-greens for a meal.
Instead, I had six seedlings here, a few more over there.
So, be prepared to either wait until you can harvest a patch at a time, or do what I did and trim out the mature ones.
How to help seed germination
I then covered my container with plastic. The warmth and moisture helps speed up the germination process.
Next, I added a few holes with a skewer to increase air circulation and reduce the likelihood of any mould or fungus growth.
Too much moisture will rot your little one’s roots.
Then I placed a table placemat on top to create a dark environment for the first 2-3 days, or until my sproutlings were between 1/2 – 1″ long.
I’ve also wrapped them a tea-towel.
The instructions called for a dark place and this worked well.
Once they were all over 1/2″ long I removed the protective table placemat and plastic and moved my sprouts close to the window for filtered light.
If you don’t have a window, this is when you’d introduce a grow light.
Within a few hours, my sprouts had taken on a green hue and their growth pace quickened. The green is photosynthesis!
Very soon I moved them closer to a brighter, sunnier spot right beside the sliding door.
It is honestly this easy to grow micro-greens – even on damp paper towel.
Figuring out the heat, light, and moisture
My sprouts easily adjusted to the light, temperature, and humidity changes over 24 hours.
Depending on where you live or the season you’re in right now, you might want to wean your seedlings into light and heat a little slower.
By that I mean, cover them or move them overnight when the temperature drops, or keep them under grow lights.
Tip: you will know if you need more light when your seedlings take on a tall, spindly look.
The next important step is to keep your plants from withering and dying, especially in their early growth stages.
Don’t forget to mist them with water from a spray bottle.
I didn’t have a misting bottle but by keeping my mini greenhouse concept with the sealed plastic wrap cover on a little longer, I had a self-contained watering system.
Is there a quicker, easier way to start?
When do I harvest my micro-greens?
Whatever you decide to grow your sprouts in, they are ready to harvest around 10-15 days, or when they have grown their first set of “true” leaves.
To harvest, simply take a clean pair of kitchen scissors and snip the stems just above the dirt line or mat.
For maximum freshness, use your micro-greens right away. Once harvested, they will last up to 7 days if stored in a sealed bag inside your refrigerator.
If they turn limp or discolour, recycle them back into your compost and harvest from your new batch!
Now, let’s talk about the best part: eating them!
What do I do with micro-greens now they've grown?
Micro-greens are used as both an ingredient and a garnish. Although small in size, they are kitchen giants!
As I mentioned earlier, they add nutrition, colour, flavour, and texture to meals.
Those tiny leaves and stems spice up salads, deli sandwiches, soups, and pasta.
But the truth is, you can throw them in, or on top of, just about anything.
I add mine to omelettes and love them as a unique garnish!
Easy to prepare, micro-greens are your dream vegetable because they do not need peeling or cooking!
Instead, gently wash to remove any dirt, drain well, then mix with other ingredients or sprinkle on your food.
You can also simply decorate your plate!
Since micro-greens became popular, there are a lot of recipes out there for all different flavour palettes and experience levels.
Dishes range from gourmet to down-to-earth.
Want to try more indoor gardening?
No - not another salad!
Can I add micro-greens to my drinks?
If you’re feeling adventurous, add micro-greens as a unique garnish to mixed drinks.
Since many micro-greens are just younger versions of traditional cocktail mixers like celery, mint, and basil, this idea is not as strange as it sounds.
You could also blend them into your smoothies and have all the health benefits of a veggie salad while sipping on a cool, refreshing beverage.
In a nutshell, micro-greens are easy to use and good for us.
Since they are derived from common vegetables and herbs, this makes them quick and easy to incorporate into recipes you already know and love!
Looking for similar family projects?
Here are two fun ideas for you.
1. Slice the tops of fresh carrots and/ or parsnips and see which one grows the fastest.
Simply sit the tops in a shallow dish of fresh water.
Replace water daily.
2. Make a simple salad of sliced apple or carrots.
Add a squeeze of lemon juice and serve with a sprinkle of micro-greens or chopped tops.