Magnificent Microgreens

It sounds like one of those hard-hitting commercials with the speed-talking guy hammering out questions against a visual of a terrorized human who just wishes Scotty would beam them someplace else…anyplace else…

Are you tired of COVID? Sick of worrying about being sick? Sick of grey, sunless days? Wishing you could amuse the kids/grandkids better? Sick of bad news? Sick of boring dinners you didn’t want to fix in the first place?

You need a new hobby! A new hobby that will bring new life to boring dinners! A new hobby that will provide nutritional benefits, so you feel better! A new hobby so easy a kid could do it! Yes, it’s sure to amuse the kids/grandkids! It will bring out the kid in you!!!! And even please your doctor! In only a few minutes of your time, you’ll have fresh, tasty greens that even those who never met a veggie they like will happily eat! No fancy lights! No fancy trays! Just a windowsill, and you’ll have fresh, nutritious greens all year long.

It does have the ring of too-good-to-be true, but I surely hope you didn’t bet the farm this just a silly COVID dream. My (possibly soon, your) new hobby is called Microgreens. And every word that speed talking salesman spouted is truth.

You really don’t need fancy trays. You really don’t need fancy lights. You don’t need to adjust the pH of the water and you don’t have to harden up the seedlings. You just eat them.

Just ask Oxford’s Terry Holman, who discovered Microgreens when she researched something else entirely. “It just sounded interesting, particularly the claims that Microgreens are more nutritious than full grown veggies,” Terry says. “Of course, I had to research that, too. It’s true, it’s been well tested.” Terry is a chemist, and very sensitive to research protocols. “It’s just so hard to believe, it’s so easy to grow them, and these delicious little leafy things have up to 400% more vitamins than they would fully grown.”

Place a half inch layer of microgreen seeds to cover the substrate.

You can grow Microgreens in plastic trays you’d otherwise recycle. They’ll grow happily on a windowsill or table near a window. You will need a medium of some sort for them to grow in – unlike sprouts, which are grown by simply rinsing seeds daily with water. Sprouts are eaten as soon as they, well, sprout; Microgreens are grown until they get their second set of leaves – also known as “true leaves.”

Very quickly the seeds will begin sprouting.

You can give your kids/grandkids a little lesson in plant biology while allowing them to complete the whole project for you. “This is a great project for kids,” said Terry. “They can learn all sorts of things, obviously about plants, but it can also help with counting skills, they can learn about measuring spoons, you name it.”

Seeds, you can knowledgeably tell them, are little, tiny packages with all the things the plant will need as it grows up. Inside this little, tiny seed is a baby root, and baby leaves, and the teeniest, tiniest, little stem part. Lima beans show this particularly well, being large seeds. Ease back the coat on the seed and you’ll see the leaves, right there, and poke about, you’ll find the little root. If you want to be fancy, the first root is called the radicle.

The root grows first, you can tell the kids. It’s so that when the stem pushes up the heavy leaves (for a teeny, tiny plant, those teeny, tiny leaves are very heavy) it won’t topple over. The root gives it balance.

Once there’s a little root growing, the teeny, tiny stem unfurls and pushes upward, holding the first teeny, tiny leaves like a little flag. This likely will be the first thing you and the kids can see after you’ve planted your Microgreens. Wait a little while, perhaps another day, and you’ll see the first little leaves open out. They generally look quite different from the adult, or “true” leaves. (The first leaves are known as “cotyledons.” If you’re really dedicated to the fancy names, the first stem is called the hypocotyl.) This is quite exciting!

Once there are leaves, however tiny, place the seedlings in or near a sunny window. Very shortly, another day, perhaps two, you’ll see the first “true” leaves. The moment we’ve been waiting for! Now we get to eat the little greens! These are Microgreens!

As the seeds grow, you’ll notice that they are quite dense.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

First, buy some good seed. There are some great sources, Terry likes “Johnny’s Selected Seeds” and “True Leaf Market.” Both have good Microgreen seeds available by weight, not just in a tiny packet. “Or particularly if you’re doing this with kids, try popcorn. You can buy popcorn seeds from another source, but you can try growing the popcorn you find in a grocery store,” Terry notes, “the popcorn seedlings are very sweet, which will always appeal to a kid. And, unlike most Microgreens, if you trim off the tops and eat them, they’ll send up more shoots for you.”

It’s a good idea to look specifically for Microgreen seed, because you’ll need a lot of it. You’re only growing seedlings. Buy at least an ounce so you can completely cover your growing medium with seed. Do-it-with-the-grandkids fan Terry Holman loves letting the kids spread the seeds. “It’s just like letting a two-year-old put the sprinkles on a cupcake,” she laughs, “that way-too-many sprinkles bit is actually what you want to see when you ‘plant’ the Microgreens.”

Next, find a container and make sure there are drainage holes. These are easily available and come in many sizes, even small enough to fit on a large windowsill. Containers from fast food take outs can work very well. There’s a local Chinese food establishment that provides wonderful black containers with a closefitting lid – a lid can work perfectly to catch little drips that escape through the drain holes.

You’re almost there…now we need a tiny bit of a growing medium. Coir works well, but you can also use sterile soil-less seed growing mediums of any type. Coir is generally sold in dehydrated blocks that will magically expand when water is added; there are many seed starting cubes, sponges and discs that are equally entertaining. The mats used for hydroponics work brilliantly as well (it’s generally more expensive than other soil-less approaches). Google “seed starting medium” and you’ll find an amazing array. There are also good growing mediums available for “regular” seed growing, but they’re messy.

A small, clean, sprayer – the type you’d use to spritz a houseplant – may be useful as well.

Now…let’s check our list…Got the container and a drip catcher for under it. Got the soil-less seed mixture. Got the seeds. All set.

Re-hydrate your soil-less medium if necessary (much fun for kids). Making sure the soil-less medium is moist (not wet) place roughly 1/2 inch of soil-less medium in the container with slots. Heavily cover the entire top of the soil-less mixture with seeds (much fun for kids or even the kid in you). Gently tamp the seeds to ensure good contact with the moist growing medium.

Place the container on the drip catcher and cover the container. Many seeds prefer darkness to sprout, so a lightweight cover to block light can be good. Terry uses aluminum foil. Some seeds like some light to sprout – you can experiment with using a clear cover if you’re into scientific enquiry. One way or the other, the cover helps conserve moisture, which absolutely helps the seeds to sprout.

All systems go!

Check your container daily to see when the little stems and leaves appear. Once they do, remove the cover and place the container, still on top of the drip catcher, in sunlight. If you happen to have seed lights, by all means, use them if you’d like. But a window is fine. Some seeds are slow to germinate, so check frequently that the growing medium is still moist. If it’s not, “water” them with a spray mister or by carefully watering the “drip catcher” – this will allow the medium to soak up the water from below. Never water Microgreens from above – the tiny stems are likely to collapse.

After a few days you’ll notice more leaves – “true” leaves – on your little plants. I hope you’re hungry. Now you eat them. Yum! Crunchy, fresh greens, any time of year. You can eat them before their true leaves, but the true leaves give better nutrition.

To harvest your microgreens, simply snip them off at the bottom of the stem. Never eat the roots. Photographs courtesy of Terry Holman.

Microgreens are great in salads, sandwiches, tacos, pizza and you can toss them on top of just about any entree. Sprinkle some on your eggs at breakfast and get a great nutritional boost in the morning. Put them in a smoothie if you’re into smoothies.

When you’re hungry for a fresh treat, take out scissors or a knife and cut them off at the bottom of the stem. You NEVER eat the roots. Wash the little crop and dry on a clean towel or paper towel. Eat immediately (yummy, yummy) or place in a Ziplock bag in the refrigerator for up to a week.

When you’ve enjoyed the last, yummy morsel, dump the soil-less mixture into the compost or in your garden. It will enrich its landing pad.

Some more advice from Terry Holman, our Microgreen Master:

• Black trays enhance germination (germination – the process of the seed’s first growth).

• Look up Microgreen seeds online. “Brassicas” germinate quickly and please kids.

• Always buy at least an ounce of seed. A packet is unlikely to provide enough seed to cover the top of the soil-less medium well.

• Using a fertilized soil-less medium like Miracle Gro or Espoma can help with slower growing Microgreens.

• Charts showing how much seed per square inch can generally be found where you buy your seeds. You don’t have to follow “the rules.” For the Brassicas – cabbage, turnip, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, cauliflower, Kale, and mustard – 1 Tablespoon seed equals and ounce. Larger seeds obviously require different amounts, but either way cover the soil-less medium.

• Basil, Dill, Mints, Parsley, Thyme, Rosemary, Cilantro, and Oregano are great to flavor your foods. Microgreens have a milder flavor than adult plants.

Terry’s fab places to shop online: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, True Leaf Market Seed Company, Urban Leaf

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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