If you enjoy indoor gardening and want living proof that good things truly do come in small packages, try growing microgreens.
Microgreens are seedlings of most standard vegetables and herbs. Think turnips, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, chard, lettuce, spinach, arugula, amaranth, cabbage, beets, parsley and basil, to name a few. Because the plants must be harvested when they are small — usually when they are only about 3-4 inches tall or less and have developed their first two "true" leaves — they grow better indoors than in an outdoor garden. That means anyone can grow them either on a windowsill, under a kitchen counter light or with a grow light in the garage.
These tasty morsels are packed with nutrition, and the intense flavor of their tiny leaves often mimics the flavor of the mature plant. With basil microgreens, for example, you get the flavor of basil without having to grow the plant to maturity. Served as a garnish, they dress up a dinner plate and are a fun way to enjoy healthy eating and impress family and friends at the same time.
Greg Pryor, a professor of biology at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, discovered the joy of growing and eating microgreens when he became frustrated trying to find bean sprouts in grocery stores. That led him to try sprouting his own, which led him to microgreens.
"At first I sprouted mung beans, and then I found that I could sprout broccoli," he said. "I tried that and discovered they sprouted really fast. When I cooked with the little broccoli plants, I realized they had the same flavor as the broccoli heads. I do a lot of Asian cooking like Thai, Vietnamese pho and stuff like that. A lot of Italian cooking. A lot of French cooking. I cook at home all the time, and I love bringing in the colors and the flavors of different vegetables by using microgreens as a garnish."
Pryor has a 130-acre farm in Florence and has always been an outdoors person who loves to plant gardens, keep animals and live off the land as much as possible. But he grows microgreens under grow lights in his garage. He thinks anyone can do the same thing with a simple light setup in a house, apartment or condo.
How to grow microgreens
The method Pryor recommends for growing microgreens is the same regardless of the location you use in your home.
To start, you will need a shallow, small container such as a leftover plastic take-out food box or an aluminum pie plate. He uses the five-inch diameter clear plastic saucers that go under plant pots. You can use whatever is handy, but whatever you choose be sure that it either has drainage holes or that you can add them.
Pryor recommends buying plain, inexpensive potting soil. There’s no need to buy an expensive potting soil because the plants will be ready for harvest in 10-14 days, which isn’t long enough to take advantage of fertilizers or other additives that can drive up the price of store-bought soil. Only add a half inch of soil to the container.
The seeds you use are a personal choice based on your tastes. A few simple rules that Pryor suggests following are to buy seeds in bulk because that's far more cost-effective, choose fast-growing seeds and sow them thickly in the container so they cover the surface of the soils. For a reference point, the microgreens he grows include turnips, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, arugula, amaranth, cabbage, beets, parsley and basil.
Thoroughly mist the seeds and the soil using a spray bottle. Don't try to water the soil with even a small watering can as this will dislodge and redistribute the seeds, possibly even washing them out of the container. "When I first started growing microgreens, I tried using one of those cute little watering cans," Pryor said. "Even the little ones give too much of a water stream, and that displaces the seeds or washes them away. All you need is a spray bottle set on a gentle mist and plain tap water." After spraying the seeds and soil, gently tamp the seeds against the soil. Pryor likes to use a saucer of the same size as the planting saucer, but says you can use whatever is handy.
To complete the planting process, cover the container with a lid such as a saucer turned upside down or aluminum foil. The goal is to prevent light from reaching the seeds. "This stimulates seed germination, as if the seeds were buried, and stem elongation," Pryor said.
Keep the lid on the saucer until the seeds have germinated and grown an inch or two, which will usually take 3-5 days depending on the seed type and the temperature in the growing area. Only remove the lid to mist the soil several times a day to keep it moist, which will encourage the seeds to germinate.
Once the bleached-out seedlings reach an inch or so in height, remove the lid and leave it off. When they're exposed to light, the microgreens will turn from a light or dark green or red to a darker color, begin growing quickly, plump up and form a thick mat. Once they have two leaves at the top of their little stems, they are ready to harvest.
To harvest, take a small container and kitchen scissors to your growing area. Take one hand and clump a group of plants together and use the other hand and scissors to cut off the plants just above the soil line. It’s best to do this just before you're ready to serve the plates. You can try to store them in the refrigerator, but bear in mind these little plants have a short shelf life, which is why to enjoy them you need to grow them at home. (They're not available in grocery stores for a reason!)
Once you’ve harvested the entire saucer, toss the soil in the compost pile rather than trying to re-use it. This is why Pryor recommends inexpensive potting soil. Clean the saucer and begin another crop!
Bonus tips for growing microgreens
Should you soak the seeds? In Pryor’s experience, this doesn't make a difference. Besides that, he said, it’s often not practical because seeds of some plants are like tiny little pinheads. He thinks it might be worth the extra step on large seeds such as sunflowers. Like many things in gardening, it can be fun to give that a try if sunflower microgreens or other large-seed microgreens appeal to you.
Windowsills or under lights? Pryor’s experience with growing on a windowsill has not produced good results. There are several problems with windowsills. The biggest is that the light comes at the plants from an angle. As a result, the plants will bend towards the light instead of growing straight up. Consequently, they tend to be spindly because of the indirect light. You could perhaps compensate for this by rotating the growing tray to try to create uniform vertical growth. Another problem is that windowsills tend to be narrower than the growing containers, creating an awkward sort of balancing act. If you’re a cat lover whose pet likes to sit in the window, you may have an additional problem!
Can you grow them in the garden? Pryor said he has never tried to grow them this way. He thinks insects would be one problem and rain that would beat down the tiny and delicate plants would be another.
What about a greenhouse? If you have one, great. But don’t build a greenhouse for microgreens!
Should you use plant grow lights? You can, but the extra expense isn’t necessary. Pryor said they will grow just fine under a fluorescent bulb.
Finding a place with enough light around your home can be tricky, but a simple fluorescent light can work wonders. Here, some microgreens almost ready for harvest sit next to some still-covered newly planted seeds. (Photo: Greg Pryor)
Will the garage get too cold in the winter? That depends on where you live. If you are in a northern climate, you could place heating mats under the saucers or add a heat source. But before going to that expense, you could also bring the growing trays indoors during especially cold spells.
Should you buy seeds in bulk? Do the math, Pryor advises. He said he has found 160,000 microgreen seeds for $16. Compare that, he said, to going to a local store and buying a pack of seeds for $2-$3. He recently found a pound of broccoli, kale, cabbage and arugula seeds for $16. Start your internet search with key words such as bulk/seeds/microgreens.
How wild and crazy can you get? If you want to experiment with seeds other than those typically grown for microgreens, just be sure the leaves of those plants are edible. Pryor had never considered growing carrots as microgreens, for example, until he found out from a friend that they would work just fine. Tomato seeds, on the other hand, would probably not be a good choice.
Two common mistakes to avoid
1. Make sure the soil has enough water but not too much. The idea is to moisten the soil well with your mister but not to saturate it. Making sure your saucer has drainage holes will keep the soil from getting too wet. If you're using a saucer such as one made of clay, make sure it isn’t sitting in water. Clay saucers will wick water up into the soil.
2. Not putting down enough seed. Completely cover the surface of the soil. The goal is to get a nice dense mat of sprouts. "That’s why you want to buy the seeds in bulk!" Pryor said.
Inset photo of Greg Pryor courtesy Francis Marion University