by Maria Reidelbach
Well, here we are again, the coldest, darkest part of the year, with nothing to look forward to but February. I think it’s my eyes that are the most deprived, starved to see something verdant. But I’d also love to eat something green, ideally homegrown. In past winters I’ve grown and munched on sprouts. They’re okay, but somehow not super exciting. And sprouts are not really green.
I’m excited that there’s an intriguing new winter crop: microgreens. These tasty morsels are grown from seeds planted in soil and cultivated for a week or two until they’re a couple of inches tall, then clipped and devoured. They are so beautiful and delicious that chefs will pay a premium for them and use them just for a garnish. Microgreens can be grown from a wide variety of seeds, each with its own unique flavor profile. True to their name, microgreens are mostly vivid green, though some are bright pink, red or purple. And they are nutritional powerhouses—truly a superfood. They’ve got all the phytonutrients stored in the seed, plus more generated from the sun and minerals from rich soil. Studies show that microgreens have from four to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts!
I’m lucky to have a microgreen connection—my boyfriend, Michael McDonough, is a microgreen farmer, and I’ve been a very willing taste-testing Guinea pig while he has experimented with all kinds. Microgreens are the perfect antidote to the winter blues! I’ve convinced him to share some cultivation secrets with us. While Michael grows in an innovative four-season greenhouse that he designed for Tongore Brook Farm, the following methods are adapted to household conditions like yours and mine, so we can grow enough micros to consume with abandon!
There are just four elements necessary to grow beautiful microgreens: seed, soil, sun and water. Plenty of special microgreen seed varieties are available by mail. Michael recommends getting certified organic or untreated seed. Pea micros are delectable—sweet and tender with a subtle pea flavor yet hearty enough to fold into an omelet. The brassica (cabbage) family includes plenty of microgreen possibilities: spicy radish micros, kale, pac choy, daikon, colorful mustards, arugula and mizuna all grow well. Sunflower shoots are one of my favorites—robust and nutty, fabulous stirred into hot pasta with garlic olive oil. Mixed salad microgreen seeds are fun for variety. Many aromatic herbs are also sold as microgreen seeds but be aware that many take much longer to germinate (sprout) and grow than other choices.
For your growing medium, choose a good potting soil. “I prefer organic soil with compost,” advises Michael, “because the soil food web includes organisms that interact with the plant and help them uptake minerals. These reinforce the cell structure, making micros crunchy and robust.” Because the size of growing containers can be measured in inches rather than acres, they’re easier to manage than a normal garden. And there’s no weeding at all!
Choose a low container with drainage holes—plastic clamshells that salad greens are packed in are great. You’ll be watering your tiny farm from both the top and the bottom, so get a spray bottle and a tray that your planter can fit in.
For your first crop, Michael suggests one of the tastiest and easiest to grow micros, Red Rambo radish. Soaking seed hydrates them quickly and speeds up germination by a day or more. Soak enough seed to sow 1/4” apart in your planters in a bowl of room temperature water for 12 to 24 hours, no longer. Drain through a sieve until dry enough to handle. “You may see a little root,” Michael advises, “Water and warmth make them sprout.”
Prepare your planter by evenly adding between 1.5 and two inches of soil. Tamp it lightly, just enough to create a nice flat surface. Spray with water until it’s damp throughout and you see a fine film on the surface.
Distribute the seed as evenly as possible, spacing 1/4” for radish micros (others will vary). Sprinkle dry soil through a sieve to cover evenly to between 1/8” and 1/4” deep. Spray again until nice and moist. At this point your little babies don’t need light, just a warmish place to sprout. Check them every eight to twelve hours and spray them when they’re beginning to dry.
Within a couple of days, the radishes will have broken through the surface and they will be ravenous for light. Put them in your sunniest window. The more light a plant gets the faster it grows. You can augment the sun with florescent or LED grow lights, but plants need darkness at night, so just use them during the day.
Now you’ll switch to bottom watering to feed and encourage roots. Pour a little water in the tray holding your planter and the soil will absorb it—keep it just moist. Sun and winter air will dry soil out quickly, so check often. If you accidentally let your soil dry out and your plants flop, don’t despair, watering will usually pop them right back up again.
Watching all those tiny radish plants grow is fun. The first leaves to appear are the cotyledon, or seed leaves, and on most plants these are little round jobs. Start tasting the micros now, paying attention to flavor and texture, to see what size you prefer to harvest. Smaller micros are pretty as garnishes (be lavish!), larger ones are great for salads. The next leaves to appear will look like baby radish leaves and as they get larger the plant will begin to get bitter and less tender.
To harvest, wash your hands thoroughly, and spread flat a paper towel next to your seed bed. Holding your scissors in one hand, gently hold the tops of a small patch of micros with the other. Snip the greens about 1/8” above the soil line and drop them onto the paper towel so that you can see whether you’ve accidentally gotten any soil along with your greens. Unless you’re eating them immediately, store them in the fridge right away; a rigid container (like a plastic clamshell) will protect them from getting crushed, and they’ll keep for five days to up to two weeks. If desired, rinse and gently spin or pat dry right before eating.
These general steps will work for most microgreens, adjusted for the type of seed. There’s lots of online information about microgreens and many different ways to grow them. “The most important thing to realize is that the relationship of soil, sun and water is an intricate dance where things can change quickly,” says Michael, “and it’s crucial to check your plants three times a day and tend to their needs.”
High Mowing Seeds and Johnny’s Seeds both have great selections of microgreen seeds, and growing specifications. You can sample microgreens from an increasing number of Mid-Hudson Valley Farms, including Fiddlehead Farm at the Rosendale Farmers Market, Long Season Farm and Solid Ground Farm at the Kingston Farmers Market, Indoor Organic Gardens at the Poughkeepsie Waterfront Market, and Tongore Brook Farm at selected Hannaford’s, Mother Earth and other local supermarkets.
Maria Reidelbach is an artist, author, and local food activist, living, working and eating in Accord, NY. Reach her at email@example.com.