Everything you need to know about microgreens . . . and a little more
Microgreens have been around since the 1980s but recently, these tender leaves exploded in popularity.
Today you can find microgreens everywhere from supermarkets to restaurant menus, and usually amongst the salads.
This got me wondering if the Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health see microgreens as ‘superfood’ then how hard is it to grow your own.
Despite being relatively new on the culinary scene compared to other garnishes like parsley, you probably had your first encounter with microgreens 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 microgreen seeds then spritzed with water until your ‘pet’ became a tiny sculpture garden. The seeds used back then were easy-to-grow, chia.
Today chia, a relative of the mint family, is labelled as a superfood because we then discovered each seed was loaded with antioxidants, omega 3-fatty acids, and other essential nutrients, making the perfect addition to a salad, pasta, or smoothie.
Back to basics on the difference between a sprout and microgreen
I used to think we had three, maybe four steps to a vegetable – seeds, sprouts, plants, and composting.
So when someone mentioned eating microgreens, I did a serious, ‘huh?’
Not until microgreens became trendy, intertwined with another name-dropper they called, superfoods, did I became both curious and hooked.
I mean, really . . . when and how does a sprout become a microgreen? And what is all the fuss about?
It turns out, microgreens are the step in between. They are the tweens of plants, that awkward, gangly, perfect stage between plump baby sprouted seeds and grownup plants, and I think of them as sproutlings, (is that not just the cutest word!) of common herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers.
Typically harvested within 14 days, unlike sprouts, which are eaten once they have burst out from their seed husk, these superfoods must grow 1-1.5 inches tall and develop their first “true” set of leaves to qualify as a microgreen.
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.
Imagine eating a broccoli microgreen with 10x the flavour of a regular piece of broccoli
What you are in fact eating is the same essential vitamins and minerals each sproutling needed to help them grow and mature into an adult herb, veggie, or flower.
There are many other varieties as well, but the ones you will most likely encounter at a grocery store, farmer’s market, or restaurant, are Arugula, Beets, Basil, Celery, Chard, Chervil, Cilantro, Fennel, Kale, Parsley, Radish, Red Cabbage, Sorrel, and Spinach.
Health Benefits of Microgreens
Don’t let the petite size of microgreens 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 microgreens 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 microgreens 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.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common varieties of microgreens and the health benefits each one offers:
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 microgreens 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 little of everything.
How to kick-start your own microgreen sproutlings
Microgreens 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, microgreens grow in a small container, indoors, and with minimal maintenance.
How to Grow Microgreens
Although ready-to-eat microgreens can be purchased at many grocery stores, they are pricey at $30 for one pound.
Growing microgreens from scratch is a budget-friendly alternative that gives you fresh greens for any meal time.
All you need is a tiny green thumb, seeds, and a few simple items to get started.
And if you don’t have a green thumb, don’t worry, microgreens are very forgiving . . . as long as you can keep them alive for about two weeks.
I chose my seeds from Harley Seeds and here’s why: one packet contains over 40 seed varieties, seeds grow better when mixed with others, all seeds are an heirloom, non-GMO, and reasonably priced for what you get.
AND the owner, Victoria, will answer any questions you may have.
Here are a few popular, beginner-friendly seeds if you decide to go solo:
Chia (of Chia Pet fame!)
Steps to help you get started
Once you have selected your seeds, you need three more things: a container, growing medium and a spritzer.
You should also have two areas in your home– one dark place (which I didn’t have, so I placed a table placemat over my seeds and that worked) and a bright, sunny area to encourage vigorous plant photosynthesis and growth (which I did have).
If you do not have an area with sufficient warmth and light, then a grow light is critical for strong, healthy plants.
Your light does not need to be expensive but should have a full spectrum light, from cool to warm, that mimics nature’s daily changes and is easy to use and store away.
For the first time, you may want to use disposable pie containers or plastic take-out trays, especially if you are curious but on the fence about DIY microgreen growing.
Just remember to poke a few holes in the bottom of your container for drainage, to ensure your seedling roots do not rot.
If you discover microgreen farming is your new found passion, then look for industrial strength, reuseable propagation trays, also known as 1020 seed trays.
As you will be moving your mini seed farm from a dark area to sunlight, these trays can handle the weight of damp soil without buckling or twisting and honestly, this is not the sort of accident you want to have to clean up in your home!
Your growing medium: soil, potting mix, or single-use grow mats
Next, you have some choices to help grow your microgreens – soil, potting mix or grow mats.
We’ll dive in and weigh the pros and cons of each one.
Your soil or potting mix
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, because you will more than likely eat your microgreens 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 is much easier to grab a bag of commercial potting mix. Already sterilized, you have everything your sproutlings 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 sproutlings they will 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.
Ideally, you want 1-2 inches of soil or potting mix, enough depth for your seeds to take root in and become established. Although they won’t be in there for very long, the added nutrients help them grow faster and healthier.
Single-use grow mats
From coconut husks to felt, hemp and jute, grow mats are used instead of soil. You may prefer this method, but also consider you also need some form of nutrients.
Also, none of these is 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.
In the name of research, I decided to skip the whole potting mix and mats section and go ‘rustic,’ with 10 layers of paper towels, something we did as kids.
From a personal standpoint, I don’t recommend paper towels . . . unless you have absolutely nothing else.
My plant roots did not get a chance to explore and soak up nutrients and, although they grew and were still super tasty, in the end, they became flimsy and refused to stand up against a gentle drizzle of olive oil in a salad.
Now, once your container is filled with soil, lightly sprinkle your seeds on top and try to avoid overcrowding.
Do NOT cover your microgreen seeds with soil!
Seeds take much longer to germinate and you must rinse off the soil before eating them.
Simply give your soil a good, healthy spritz until very damp. Do not be shy, if the soil is not moist enough your seeds will not germinate.
Tip: If you use mixed seedlings they will mature at different rates.
I sort of knew this – but had also forgotten, so my mind played out this scene: armed with kitchen scissors I’m snipping a complete 1/8 of my lush green field of seedlings for our microgreen 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.
I then covered my container with plastic to help speed up the germination process and 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.
Next, I placed a table placemat on top to create darkness for the first 3-4 days, or until my sproutlings were between 1/2 – 1″ long. Yes, the instructions called for a dark place . . . but our pantry and cupboards are F.U.L.L.
The best thing was – when I lifted up the table placemat each day and saw just how much each seed changed every 24 hours – I was hooked!
Soon I had removed the table placemat and plastic and moved my sprouts close to the window for filtered light. This is a good time to introduce a grow light if you need to. Within a few hours, the sproutlings had taken on a green hue and their growth pace quickened. Very soon I moved them closer to our condo’s brighter sunnier spot by the sliding door.
They easily adjusted to the light, temperature, and humidity overnight, but right now, the winter light and heat are not strong and the air is dryer.
Depending on where you live or the season you are in right now, you might want to wean yours 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 sproutlings take on a tall, spindly look.
The next important step is to keep your sproutlings from withering and dying, especially in their early growth stages. Do not forget to mist them with water from a spray bottle.
Tip: 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 created a self-watering system.
If all of this sounds like more work than you imagined, consider picking up a pre-assembled microgreen kit to get your windowsill garden up and running.
If this is you, then I really like this kit from Nature’s Blossom for their wide (and interesting) variety of organic seeds because you get, arugula, basil, beets, and chards.
Then, if you love container gardening, or know someone else who does, they have a huge variety of other kits to choose, from herbs to vegetables, herbal teas to a crazy garden! And trust me, that title is the perfect fit because . . . imagine, PURPLE Carrots, BLACK Corn, RAINBOW Swiss Chards, YELLOW cucumbers, and ROMANESCO Broccoli.
But I digress, back to your microgreens. 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 microgreens 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 Are Microgreens Used For?
Microgreens 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.
Microgreens 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, microgreens are your dream vegetable because they do not need peeling or cooking!
Instead, gently wash and drain to remove any dirt or bacteria, then mix with other ingredients or sprinkle on your food or even simply decorate your plate!
Since microgreens 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.
Can’t take one more salad?
No problem, recipe books that use microgreens, such as this one by London’s chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, will inspire every level of cook.
If you’re feeling adventurous, add microgreens as a unique garnish to mixed drinks. Since many microgreens 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, microgreens 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!
So, what do you think . . . would you try growing your own microgreens? Please comment below…