This clementines crate holds week-old microgreens grown from a seed mix that was grouped with a mild flavor profile.
Photo by Amy L. Dabbs
Microgreens are among the trendiest vegetables to emerge from the farm-to-table movement. Called “vegetable confetti,” microgreens often garnish plates at upscale restaurants that feature local ingredients. Since microgreens are easy to grow, home gourmands can save money and impress dinner guests by growing their own.
The word “microgreen” is a marketing term for small, leafy vegetables harvested just as true leaves begin to form. Typically, this is while they are 1 to 3 inches tall, often within 14 days of germination. Virtually any edible crop can be grown as a microgreen, including cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, carrots, basil, chives, peas, popcorn, broccoli, onions, buckwheat, lemongrass, watercress and nasturtiums.
With higher levels of vitamins C and E and carotenoids than their full-grown counterparts, tender microgreens boost nutrition and flavor in everyday meals. They add color, texture and flavor to salads. Spicy arugula or nasturtium greens liven up sandwiches and wraps. Sweet pea tendrils and shoots, like their pods, are delicious fresh, steamed or stir-fried. Kale and spinach sprouts swirled into smoothies provide an extra serving of vegetables.
You can buy prepackaged microgreen seed mixes with combinations that have similar germination rates, so your greens can be harvested at the same time. Often, they’re grouped by flavor profile, such as spicy, mild or colorful.
I tried a mix of beets, red cabbage, Asian cabbage, kohlrabi and Swiss chard. Lettuces are not typically included, since they tend to wilt quickly.
To start growing your own microgreens, fill shallow seed-starting trays with moistened, soilless seed-starting mix or commercially available potting soil. Any container with drainage holes that is at least 1½ to 2 inches deep will work for growing microgreens. For the safest edible greens, avoid garden soil, manure or compost, which may harbor bacteria.
When sowing crops with small seeds, such as cabbage, kale and carrots, spread them densely over the surface of the soil. Lightly press seeds into the soil, but do not cover them. Large seeds with hard seed coats, such as peas, popcorn and nasturtiums, germinate best when soaked for about eight hours in warm water. Spread thickly over the soil, and add just enough soil to cover the large pea and nasturtium seeds.
After sowing seeds, cover trays with clear, plastic mini-greenhouse covers or plastic wrap to create a warm, moist environment. A spray bottle or mister comes in handy to keep sprouting greens well watered. Place the trays under a grow light or adjustable light source. A simple fluorescent light will suffice, but keep the light around four inches above the new sprouts to guard against leggy seedlings.
To harvest, snip plants just above the soil line with scissors when greens reach the desired size. Store in a clean, plastic bag in the refrigerator, but don’t wash them until you are ready to use them.
The most interesting microgreens I’ve grown are popcorn shoots. They’re popular in upscale restaurants, prized for their sweet flavor. Popcorn shoots are produced using a horticultural technique called blanching—the same technique used to produce endive and white asparagus. Basically, it means growing vegetables without light, causing them to cease chlorophyll production and turn white or very pale green.
I tried popcorn cultivars (Zea mays) Dakota Black and Robust Pop 400MR. After sowing them, I covered the entire tray with another inverted black plastic tray to blanch them. Nearly a week later, thin, pale shoots emerged. Describing them as sweet is almost an understatement! Try these sprouts to accent flavor in foods like corn chowder and corn soup.
AMY L. DABBS is an area horticulture agent for Clemson Extension based in Charleston County. Contact her at email@example.com.