I love gardening. But as I write this, winter has settled into the Wisconsin landscape! The vibrant colors and warm sunny days have finally given way to a pale winter palate and a cold, biting wind. Looking out my window towards the garden, I halfway expect to still see the tall stocks of corn and brilliant, multi-colored blossoms that stood there only a few short weeks ago. But all that is left are a few broken stems poking out from the soggy, half frozen ground.
Winter plays its role in the cycle of life. It is the time for Mother Nature to rest and replenish in preparation for the coming spring. Still, I can’t help but miss the colors, smells and fresh flavors of garden life. Perhaps that is the appeal of indoor gardening. Who among us wouldn’t welcome a bit of color, flavor and life to otherwise dull winter days?
The idea of indoor gardening is nothing new. It has been around for centuries. Engravings on Egyptian tombs indicate that the pharaohs attempted to grow citrus and other fruits in their indoor gardens. The degree of their success is not known, but others took up the effort and established that it could be done. Foremost among these was the Roman emperor Tiberius, who reigned from 14 to 37 A.D. Tiberius had a passion for cucumbers—in and out of season. To satisfy this passion, his gardeners set young cucumber plants in beds of manure covered with sheets of mica cut so thin that sunlight could penetrate. How they solved the problem of pollination at a time when the need for it was not even suspected, I have no idea… but solve it they did, and history tells us Tiberius had his cucumbers throughout the long Roman winters.
Indoor gardening, by definition, refers to any growing of plants indoors. It could be as simple as a jar of sprouts on a window sill, or something a bit more ambitious, such as Tiberius’s cucumbers. I have attempted both and most everything in between. Over the years, I found that growing full-sized vegetables indoors is a complicated prospect. Plants require very specific light, soil, temperature, day-length and pollination conditions to produce blossoms and set fruit. A person can invest weeks into a crop only to have it fail due to what seems like a minor detail. All your effort is wasted and you must start again. If growing full-term crops indoors appeals to you, I encourage you to read the book Successful Indoor Organic Vegetable Gardening Manual by Anthony Higgins. In this book, Mr. Higgins provides step-by-step instructions for setting up, growing and harvesting a full-term indoor crop.
Of all the indoor gardening methods I have tried, I believe that growing microgreens offers by far the best effort-to-reward ratio and that is the method that I use today.
What are microgreens?
Microgreens are basically sprouts that have been allowed to grow longer. Like sprouts, they have very high nutritional content. Typically, sprouts are germinated and after two to three days are consumed whole: root, seed and cotyledons (the kidney shaped leaves that originate from the seed). Microgreens similarly are sprouted but continue to grow for another 10 to 12 days in a growing medium until they develop two to four true leaves (true leaves originate from the stem of the plant). The stems of the plant are then cut and consumed, with the roots discarded. Sprouts tend to be milder in flavor, while microgreens have a more intense flavor of the specific plant type you are growing. What’s great about both sprouts and microgreens is that the germination process unlocks all the energy, vitamins and nutrients stored in the seed. So although young and tender, microgreens pack the nutritional power of a full-size plant. Since you can consume much more of these than their full-grown counterparts, you end up with a very impressive nutritional density, bite for bite. For instance, microgreens can contain 400% more protein than lettuce and over 3,900% more beta-carotene than an adult lettuce plant! Studies have also shown that broccoli and other types of microgreens contain exceptionally high levels of a natural cancer-fighting compound called sulforaphane (20 to 50 times more than mature broccoli), which helps support antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E.
Microgreens are the ultimate in practical indoor gardening for the following reasons:
- They require less than five minutes of attention per day.
- The can be grown hydroponically practically anywhere with virtually no mess. Perfect for countertop gardening.
- They require no expensive equipment or special knowledge
- They pack a nutritional punch. Microgreens are extremely dense in vital enzymes, minerals and vitamins and chlorophyll.
- They are unique. Your friends and family will be amazed at this new and exciting way to eat. Microgreens are perfect as a complete salad, additions to traditional salad, on sandwiches, in soups, as garnishes and much more.
- They’re delicious. The flavors and textures are virtually unlimited. Plants are at their absolute peak of flavor intensity at the microgreens stage of life.
- They’re fun and easy—so foolproof, it is practically impossible to fail! If you do manage to mess it up, you are only days instead of weeks away from a new crop.
Here’s what you will need to get started:
- Organic seeds: Almost any seed you grow in a traditional garden may be grown as a microgreen. It takes about 1 to 1 ? ounce of seed to make one tray of microgreens. I suggest for your first try, you start with broccoli or cabbage seed.
- Growing trays: I use 21” x 10” seed-starting trays, the kind without holes. These are available at most gardening stores or online.
- Growing medium: Most seeds can be grown hydroponically, while a few, such as beet cilantro and sunflower need to be grown in soil. I use Sure-To-Grow Pads™ for the hydroponics and organic potting soil for the rest.
- Litmus or pH paper: We use this to test the pH of our water. Litmus paper uses a broad range indicator to turn a series of colors from pH 1 to 14—the lower the number, the more “acidic” the pH, the higher the number, the more “basic” the pH. 7 indicates a “neutral” pH. PH strips are available at the Co-op in the Wellness department, and litmus paper can be purchased at gardening stores or online.
- Water: pH balanced is best. Instructions below.
- Light source: inexpensive LED lights can be used to provide the proper light spectrum and, at 40 watts, they do not cost much to run. However, in most situations, these are not necessary for success. If you have access to a sunny window, that will work just fine.
- Miscellaneous: The following common household items will complete your microgreen toolbox: spatula, spray bottle, lemon juice, measuring cups, empty gallon jug, sharp knife or scissors.
Step 1: Balance the pH of your water.
Microgreens can be somewhat sensitive to the pH of the water you use, so it is a good idea to check the pH of your water and adjust, if needed. Either too high or too low of a pH can prevent the microgreens from absorbing important nutrients needed to grow healthy and strong. To test and balance the pH of your water, start with a gallon of water from the tap. Dip a piece of the litmus paper into it. Wait 30 seconds to one minute and compare its color to the colors on the chart that comes with the paper. Ideally, we want to use water with a pH between 5.5 to 6.5. Since city tap water has chlorine added to it, which tends to raise the pH, it typically will fall into a neutral range of 6.4 to 7.4. This is a bit too base for our purposes. To adjust, you can add one teaspoon of lemon juice to the gallon of water. This is usually enough to bring the pH into the ideal range for your microgreens. Retest with another strip of pH paper and add another teaspoon of lemon juice if needed, until desired pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is reached. For water that is too acidic (pH less than 5.5), you can add a small amount of baking soda or crumble an antacid into the water.
Step 2: Prepare your trays.
Pour 2 cups of pH balanced water into the tray. Swish it around to make sure water is evenly distributed over the tray. Lay your Sure-To-Grow™ growing pad on top of the water and swish again. Turn pad over placing wet side on top.
Step 3: Sow your seed.
Now that you have a saturated growing medium, you are ready to apply seed. Sprinkle seeds back and forth until you have about a 40% density (Brassica family including turnip, broccoli, cauliflower and rutabaga prefer a bit thicker sprinkling of seed. about a 50% density). A 4-oz. pack of seeds should be enough to make about three or four trays of microgreens. Re-mist seeds making sure every seed is nice and wet (not flooded). Now, flip a second tray over the top to preserve humidity and darkness for first few days. This also serves to keep the sprouts struggling to reach light, making for more vigorous growth.
Step 4: Check your crop.
To keep your seeds moist, mist with pH balanced water twice a day or about every 12 hours. Check to make sure it’s not too humid, no mold growing. If you find mold, the humidity is too high and it needs bit more ventilation. If your seeds are dry, try spraying them more frequently.
Step 5: Green them up.
Once seeds have sprouted for about 4-5 days, uncover and you will see yellow little sprigs. Allow these to continue to grow in a sunny window for another four to six days. After about 10 to 12 days, your greens can be cut and harvested.
Step 6: Harvest time!
To begin enjoying your microgreens, cut the stems with a sharp knife, or a clean pair of scissors, as close to the growing medium as you can. They are best eaten fresh, but will keep well for up to a week if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. I cut only as much as I need and let the rest continue growing. Add them to sandwiches, salads, smoothies, or create your own recipe. Just remember that the flavor is much more intense than in sprouts or mature plants.
Growing Microgreens in Soil
As mentioned before, some seeds don’t work well with hydroponics. Beet, sunflower, parsley, cilantro, fava, chards, peas and buckwheat all need soil to grow well. Additionally, these seeds need to presoaked before planting. As these seeds tend to be a bit larger it takes about 9 ounces of the above seed varieties to make one tray of microgreens.
Step 1: Sprouting.
Soak your seeds in cold pH balanced water for 12 to 24 hours. You don’t want to use warm or hot water because you will get a low germination rate. Transfer sprouts to a colander, keep them moist by soaking and draining two to three times a day and allow them to continue growing for about a day and half.
Step 2: Prepare your trays.
Pour four cups of pH balanced water into base of the 21 x 10” tray. Then take about two quarts of organic potting soil to fill the tray to about one to two inches deep. Gently press the soil down with any flat tool, such as a kitchen spatula or lid. You don’t want it too compacted; just flatten the surface of the soil. Spray-mist the top of soil until damp.
Step 3. Sow your seed.
Sprinkle the sprouted seeds over the top of soil evenly. Compared with growing hydroponically, these sprouted seeds need to be applied much more densely. Generally speaking, the larger the seed, the less soil you should see between seeds. Gently pat down the sprouts into the soil with the spatula so they are in firm contact with soil. Spray mist thoroughly. You may spread a bit more soil on top (especially with beet or cilantro) and press again.
Follow steps 4–6 of growing hydroponically to complete the process.
I recommend starting small—one tray of a single variety. Once you’ve gained a little experience, you can add multiple trays of different varieties, or mix and match varieties in a single tray. Microgreens are all the rage in gourmet restaurants across the country right now and once you try them, I think you’ll know why! A single tray of microgreens would cost about $25–$30 if you bought it in the store. You will grow yours for pennies per tray!
Good luck and have fun!
Recommended Reading: Microgreens, How to Grow Nature’s Own Superfood, by Fionna Hill
Other Resources: Check Willy Street Co-op for pH paper, organic potting soil, organic seeds.
Two very good online sites that offer books, how-to videos, seeds, starter kits, growing supplies and just about anything you might need to grow microgreens are: www.sproutpeople.com and www.growingmicrogreens.com.