Microgreens have a lot going for them: they’re delicious, they’re loaded with nutrients, they’re pleasing to the eye and they’re incredibly fast and easy to grow.
What are microgreens? In short, microgreens are bigger than sprouts, but smaller than baby greens. Sprouts are generally consumed within 1-3 days after germination; baby greens are usually harvested in the first 2-4 week window.
Microgreens are seedling plants grown as densely as possible and typically harvested after 7-14 days, depending on the variety and the specific qualities desired. In general, microgreens are harvested just before the seedlings begin to grow their first set of true leaves, which follow the original cotyledon (seed) leaves.
Microgreens are packed with nutrients and phytochemicals – a single serving of these greens will contain significantly more vitamins and minerals than an equivalent serving of whatever future vegetable they would’ve otherwise grown up to be.
How to Choose Microgreens Varieties
What can be grown as a microgreen? Good candidates for microgreens include sunflower shoots, pea shoots, radishes, broccoli and other brassicas, and buckwheat. Be aware that the flavor of microgreens can be pretty intense – some varieties of radishes and mustards are especially potent when consumed as seedlings.
I’m not a big fan of growing herbs in microgreen form, because they can often take twice as long to reach the ideal size and are usually best applied sparingly anyway, so I have a hard time making use of even a single tray. If you wanted to grow micros for restaurants then you might consider herbs, but for home use I think you’re better off putting your time and effort into an actual herb garden.
Another thing to consider when choosing plants to grow as microgreens is the price of the seed, by the pound. Growing microgreens requires a lot of seed, as you will soon discover – which is part of why farmers are able to command such a high price for microgreens at farmers markets.
Prices for seeds can vary pretty dramatically, on the scale of $5 for a pound of one thing versus $35 for a pound of something else. Also pay attention to the price differences between varieties of the same plant – you might be able to save quite a bit of money and never notice a difference in flavor.
My personal favorites for home-scale growing are sunflowers (I grow black oil), peas (many varieties to choose from here), and buckwheat. Compared to most other options, these three have the most mild flavor and so it’s easy to eat a lot of ‘em, either by themselves or as a substantial portion of a salad mix.
Many seed companies have recently become hip to the emerging microgreens trend, and so they now offer varieties that are ideally suited to being grown this way. When in doubt, these offerings are a great place to start.
What You Need to Grow Microgreens
Before I can tell you what you need to grow microgreens, you need to answer these questions:
- Are you planning to grow your microgreens outdoors, in a greenhouse, or inside your house?
- Are you going to grow them in the ground, or in flats?
For most of us, the simplest answer is to grow them outdoors, in the ground. To accomplish this, you really just need seeds, the right time of year (65-85 degrees is best) and a good sharp knife for harvesting when the time comes.
If you won’t be growing them outside in the ground, then chances are you’re planning to grow them in trays, either in a greenhouse or in your house. This gives you the freedom to grow them pretty much any time of the year, even in cold climates, and minimizes the chances of pest pressure.
In that case, add soil trays (with no drain holes!) to your shopping list – the standard flat 2” kind (sometimes referred to as "1020s" for their dimensions) are just fine if you already have them, but pros prefer to use more specialized 1” flats.
And don’t forget the potting soil – I really like FoxFarm's organic potting soil mixes. You can usually find them at local (organic) gardening supply stores, so I would check around your area before ordering online.
(If you can’t find the supplies you need where you live, you can use my links here to order some through Amazon. In return they’ll toss me a few coins, at no additional charge to you.)
For a standard household, one or two trays of microgreens per week is probably a good number to start with. You can tweak it from there depending on how much you consume.
In a greenhouse you can work with natural light, but if you’re growing in your home, natural light coming in through even the sunniest of windows won’t really work for this. You will need artificial light, either fluorescent or (I prefer) LED. I use LED shop lights like these, which are readily available at your local big-box home improvement store.
You might devote a corner of your garage or basement to your microgreens growing operation by hanging an LED light or two about a foot above a table or workbench. Or you could do like I did and build yourself a shelving unit for growing microgreens, and also more generally for starting seeds indoors to be transplanted out into the backyard garden.
The whole unit stands about six feet tall and currently has three growing shelves (plus one on top). Each shelf is big enough to hold four standard sized trays, with two lights suspended about a foot above for the top three shelves, and two feet above the bottom shelf – I use this one for plants like peppers and tomatoes that need some significant time and space indoors in early spring.
Depending on where this is located in your house, you will probably also want to pick up a box fan to keep up steady air flow and avoid mold growth. And don’t forget a power strip to get whole thing up and running! You can also get fancy with things like timers, but I never bothered with that.
The whole thing cost me about $300 to build (including 8 lights but not counting the paint). I could’ve saved $75 or more if I had used salvaged wood to construct it.
I’ve also heard there are metal shelving units you can find at places like Wal-Mart with the same dimensions, so if carpentry’s not your thing you might try seeking out one of those.
That might sound like a pretty serious investment just to grow some tiny little plants, but if you’re already a backyard gardener then you will most likely really enjoy having the infrastructure to start other vegetable seeds indoors. Trust me – if you don’t have access to a greenhouse, something like my “germination station” is indispensible.
How to Grow Microgreens
1. Hydrate your potting soil by mixing it with water in a bucket until it’s saturated but not quite dripping wet.
2. Fill your flat evenly with soil mix, and use another flat to gently compress the soil down just below the top of the tray.
3. Seed your flat densely and as evenly as possible. There’s no hard number here and it varies quite a bit between plants, so this will require some experimentation.
Generally speaking, what you’re aiming for is as dense as possible, without any seeds on top of each other, and with all seeds coming directly in contact with the soil mix.
Don’t worry about covering the seeds with soil – there’s no need to when growing this way.
4. Cover your seeded flat with another flat and leave it covered for at least a day or two, until you see signs of growth.
5. Once the seeds have germinated, uncover the flat and place under light. Let it soak up the light for 10-14 hours a day.
If your soil mix was properly hydrated you might never need to water your flat. If you do, try not to overdo it – too wet can be as big of a problem as too dry.
6. Wait about 7-10 days for most varieties, until you start to see signs of the first true leaves emerging. Then harvest with a sharp, preferably serrated knife.
8. If you aren’t planning to eat them all right away, store in a plastic bag with a paper towel in the fridge to help keep excess moisture in check. Many varieties will keep for a week or longer this way.
9. Compost your spent soil mix-plus-seedling roots, or give it to chickens – they’ll love it.
10. Repeat steps 1 through 9!
How to Use Microgreens
Looking for ideas for working with microgreens in the kitchen? In restaurants, chefs love to use intense micros like radishes sparingly as a garnish for a burst of flavor and color. You might add a small handful on top of a nice cut of meat, or top off a stir-fry, or add some zest to a sandwich.
As for the more mild microgreens that I recommend growing, I think those are great to eat by the handful all by themselves, or as a big portion of a mixed salad. If you want to make their flavor more interesting, a little olive oil and salt goes a long way. You might also consider tossing them into a green smoothie, if you’re trying to make a whole tray disappear quickly!