The robins are hopping around the back yard, scratching at dead grass and shrinking patches of snow. There are some signs of things emerging from winter’s icy grip–the crocuses have popped up in the last couple of days, and the twiggy fingers of the blueberry bushes are reddening–but the raised beds in the vegetable garden are still frozen solid, and the rhubarb is buried under a four inch layer of ice. Right now, I wouldn’t put a bet on being able to plant my peas by Patriots Day on the 19th, which is the unofficial start of the gardening season around here. Happily, however, I am already harvesting my first crop of the year, a microgreen mix of broccoli, broccoli raab, radish, mustard, and arugula. Last night, I used this bounty in an egg white omelet with mushrooms, dried tomatoes, onions, and orange bell pepper. That’s some seriously healthy yum right there.
In addition to making a very eye-pleasing addition to a salad or sandwich, microgreens are a real powerhouse nutritionally, which is why they interest me as an inexpensive winter crop to add to my kitchen garden. These tiny seedlings, harvested and eaten when they are just a few inches tall, are packed with antioxidants and other healthy nutrients, scientists have found. Major studies have revealed that microgreen cotyledon leaves (the embryonic first leaves of a seedling) have much higher nutritional values than do the mature leaves of the same plant. For instance, red cabbage microgreens had 147 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 gram portion, which is about 245% of the daily value of this vital antioxident. Mature raw red cabbage leaves, by contrast, offered only 57 milligrams of vitamin C for a similar portion. Other test results are equally impressive. Many microgreens are loaded with beta-carotene, which may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and eye disease. In fact, some microgreens beat out carrots in this nutrient, and the seedlings are also rich in vitamins E and K. It isn’t just hype that those pea shoots and amaranth leaves on your salad are good for you.
I know that some people may have reservations about microgreens, having heard there is a risk of sickness from eating sprouts. To clarify, microgreens and sprouts are two different things. Sprouts, like the popular mung bean sprouts used in Asian dishes, are seeds that have been sprouted in water, and the entire sprout, roots and all, is consumed. The danger stems from molds and other organisms colonizing sprouts in the wet environment of a sprouting jar at home or the industrial sized trays of commercial operations. By contrast, microgreens are grown in soil, and only the part of the seedling above the soil line is harvested, reducing the danger of contamination.
If you aren’t already growing your own microgreens and would like to give it a try, it’s fairly easy to get started. You’ll need some containers for planting. This is a good place to repurpose those plastic clamshell containers in which salad mixes are sometimes sold, for instance. When I plant my next round of seeds, I’m going to use the thin wooden boxes in which I’ve been buying clementines through the winter. With a liner of paper towel so the potting mix doesn’t fall out, they should be perfect for growing microgreens.
You may be able to find microgreen seed mixes for sale at your local hardware store or garden center, but if they don’t have anything speicifically labeled ‘microgreen mix,’ try looking for a mesclun mix. Those are usually racked with the lettuce varieties, and they’ll yield good results. Alternatively, you could buy individual packets of kale, spinach, radish, beets, broccoli, cabbage, mustard, arugula, oats or wheat, and either plant separate containers of the different varieties to mix at harvest, or make your own mixture of seeds. You’d be able to control exactly what you want to eat, but it’s a pricier option than a mesclun or commercial microgreen mix.
When you’re ready to plant, be sure to poke some holes in the bottom of your container if it doesn’t already have drainage. Then spread 1-2″ of potting mix in the container and water until the mix is moist, but not soggy, leaving it to drain for a few minutes if needed. Sprinkle seeds fairly thickly, more so than you would when growing seedlings to transplant out in the garden. (These plants will be harvested when they’re only 2-3″ high, so it’s fine to crowd them a little). Add 1/8″ or so of potting soil, just enough to cover the seeds. Mist the dry potting mix with warm water to settle it over the seeds and cover the container with plastic or something else that will prevent the seeds from drying out. Then put your container on the windowsill or under the lights. Be a little careful about allowing the containers to get too hot, though. I found that covering the plastic dome on my planting tray with a kitchen towel allowed enough light to reach the seeds through the sides of the dome while reducing the build-up of heat from the florescent lights. Once your seeds sprout, which will take 1-3 days, the plastic dome should be removed, and the seedlings can be placed in stronger light so their leaves green up. When the seedlings have their first leaves, they are ready for harvesting. With a pair of kitchen scissors, snip the microgreens just above the potting mix and enjoy! You can harvest the entire container at the same time and store the harvested greens in the fridge, but it’s better to harvest only as much as you need for immediate use and leave the rest to grow, since the nutrient value declines sharply in the days after harvest. Once you’ve harvested everything from the container, compost the potting soil and start your next crop.
I could kick myself for not thinking of growing microgreens before now. With my homemade light stand in the kitchen, I could have experimented this winter with all kinds of nutritious seedlings and saved the money I spent on organic bagged salad mixes. Now that I know how quickly and easily I can have miniature greens ready for harvest, I’ll certainly depend on this method to supply my craving for fresh veggies in the winter.