Microgreens 101: How to grow microgreens at home

Microgreens have been a staple of the culinary world for the last decade, showing up to add dazzling color and a punch of bright flavor to dishes. Growing microgreens at home might sound like a fun project, a way to supplement a healthy diet, or even a potential business opportunity. One thing is certain: starting a miniature indoor garden is an excellent way to develop and cultivate a green thumb.

What are microgreens?

Everyone knows what sprouts are, right? Microgreens are basically sprout’s sophisticated older cousins. While sprouts are grown without growing medium and are eaten roots and all, microgreens are cultivated in a growing medium and are trimmed at the base and eaten.

Microgreens are harvested when they’re a couple of weeks old and have developed their first set of true leaves. Sprouts, on the other hand, are eaten just as their cotyledons– the first set of leaves that emerge from the seed– become green. Microgreens take a little longer to grow than sprouts but are actually lower-maintenance. 

Considered a superfood, these baby greens radically outperform their mature counterparts in antioxidants (1). A University of Maryland study clocked the nutritional value of microgreens at four to forty times their mature versions (2). Due to their delicate structures and short shelf life, these tasty treats are typically reserved as garnishes in high-end restaurants. However, because they are easy to grow and require little space, they are a perfect crop to grow year-round at home

Why grow your own microgreens?

There are so many reasons to grow microgreens at home, but the primary reasons are:

  • Easy to grow in a limited amount of space
  • Quick turnaround– even if a crop is unsuccessful, little time and resource will have been lost, and starting over is straightforward
  • An inexpensive way to have a continuous supply of fresh, high-density nutrient greens at home
  • A great introduction to gardening for beginners
  • No climate restrictions, due to a controlled, indoor environment
  • Incredibly healthy, living food to supplement a healthy diet

You can add microgreens to almost any dish. Try adding them on top of your next meal for a fresh crunch of flavor! Image: @alliwandersaur

What can be grown as a microgreen?

While the microgreen varieties seen in grocery stores are fairly limited to those with a longer shelf life, the range of plants that can be grown as microgreens is surprisingly vast. Commonly grown microgreens include salad greens, leafy vegetables, edible flowers, herbs, and even some root vegetables.

The easiest microgreens to grow have large seeds and the trickier type is those with smaller seeds. For that reason, this list will be organized by type of seeds, from large to small, with a little description of what flavors to expect from each one.

Large microgreen seeds

These varieties tend to be very easy to grow, but plant density will be a bit lower due to the larger seed size. However, the plants themselves tend to be somewhat larger, stouter microgreen yields are produced from these large seeds. Most of these can do with a presoak before sowing. 

  • Adzuki- nutty, sweet flavor
  • Barley- mildly grassy, earthy flavor
  • Beets- sweet, earthy taste
  • Buckwheat- fresh, slightly tangy flavor
  • Chard- sweet, earthy, mild flavor
  • Chickpea- nutty, crunchy and sweet
  • Cilantro- pungent celery-citrus flavor
  • Collard Greens- strong, kale-like taste
  • Dill- mildly dilly flavor
  • Endive- slightly bitter, sharp and bright flavor
  • Fava Bean- crunchy, rich, sweet and nutty
  • Fennel- sweet, licorice-like flavor
  • Kale- sweet, somewhat broccoli-like flavor
  • Kohlrabi- mild, sweet subtle taste
  • Lentils- slightly bitter, subtle pea flavor
  • Lovage- sharp, similar to celery taste
  • Mung Beans- rich, sweet, bean-like flavor
  • Parsley- refreshing, light taste
  • Pea- pea shoots offer sweet, crunchy, delicate pea flavor
  • Sunflower- sweet and nutty
  • Wheatgrass- complex, bittersweet taste

Medium microgreen seeds

These varieties will be simple to grow and many of them benefit from a presoak, although it isn’t necessary unless specified. These will have a higher plant density per tray than larger seeds. 

  • Arugula-Spicy, peppery and sharp flavor
  • Basil- light, mild basil flavor
  • Broccoli- mild, crunchy texture and slightly bitter 
  • Brussels Sprouts- low-key brussels sprout flavor
  • Pak Choi- sweet, earthy, tender spinach-like taste
  • Cabbage (red cabbage or green)- mild cabbage flavor
  • Cauliflower- slightly peppery, mild taste
  • Chia- unmistakable minty tang
  • Chives- mildly garlicky, spicy flavor
  • Fenugreek- slightly spicy, bitter, and rich taste
  • Flax- low-key spicy with a nutty flavor
  • Leek- light, sweet oniony flavor
  • Lettuce- mild, rich, sweet taste
  • Mache- mild, sweet, juicy 
  • Mustard- peppery, delicately spicy flavor
  • Orach- spinach-like, mild taste
  • Parsley- fresh, mild juicy parsley flavor
  • Radish- spicy, delicate peppery taste
  • Sesame- mild, sweet flavor
  • Shiso- strong, licorice-like taste
  • Sorrel- bright, lemony flavor
  • Spinach- like a toned-down spinach
  • Turnip- sweet, broccoli-like flavor

Hamama microgreen tray is a great alternative to traditional seed and soil growing methods. More this later. @hamama_greens

Small microgreen seeds

These tiny seeds, many of them from herbs, are a little more challenging to grow because of the difficulty in sowing them evenly across the planting medium. Nonetheless, they will form a very dense mat of plants if sown heavily and with the exception of alfalfa are packed with intense flavors. 

  • Alfalfa- Mild, sweet flavor similar to peas
  • Amaranth-Beet-like, earthy flavor
  • Celery- unmistakably celery-like flavor
  • Lemon Balm- bright, citrus/lemon tangy taste
  • Marjoram- strong, oregano-like flavor
  • Mint- sweet, unmistakably minty taste
  • Oregano- pungent, intense flavor
  • Purslane- tangy, citrusy spinach flavor
  • Sage- mild, earthy sagey taste
  • Tarragon- sweet, mildly licorice-like flavor
  • Thyme- earthy, herbaceous taste

Sourcing seeds for microgreens

When it comes to growing microgreens, not all seeds are created equal. Many commercially-produced seeds are treated with fungicides or pesticides, making them entirely unsuitable for microgreen production.

The ideal seed for microgreens come from organic seed producers, some of whom sell microgreen mixes of plant varieties that complement one another grown in tandem. The volume of seeds needed for continuous microgreen production is quite a bit greater than for gardeners growing just a few plants to full size, so always look into seeds sold by the ounce, which are far less expensive and will go a lot farther when you are planting crops every few weeks. 

How to grow microgreens at home

There are a few critical components required to grow microgreens: growing medium, growing trays, and a grow light. These are the variables in a set up that can be experimented with and improved over time. Read on for an at-length explanation of each item needed for microgreen cultivation. 

Supplies Needed:

  • Growing Trays - There is no hard and fast rule for what microgreens can be grown in. There are specially-designed trays for microgreens with clear lids for retaining moisture, but plenty of hobbyists have started out using the plastic clamshells that produce or takeout food come in. For long term growing sturdy plastic trays with drainage holes are optimal. An inch deep tray is plenty deep to grow microgreens. 
  • Growing Medium - One of the most important decisions to make when growing microgreens is what type of growing medium to use. Some growers swear by potting soil, others prefer soilless medium, like coconut coir. It is also possible to make a customized potting mix at home. Experimenting to find what works best for you is always a good policy, and learning about what makes a good growing medium never hurts either. 
  • Certified Organic Seeds - As discussed above, using certified organic seeds is going to be the safest and best option. Buying in bulk will keep costs down, but a good policy is to test a few varieties before going all-in on a large volume of seed. 
  • Grow Light - There are many affordable and effective lighting options out there. A good 30 watt LED setup will provide enough light to support a fully indoor microgreen crop. Studies have shown that moderate light will grow exceptional microgreens (3). Bear in mind that a sunny, south-facing window is often a good place to start experimenting with growing microgreens. 4-8 hours of direct light per day is necessary for healthy growth. 
  • Spray Bottle or Watering Can - Believe it or not, this one is a little controversial. Spritzing emerging seedlings is encouraged by some growers and discouraged by others who prefer using a watering can to water from below (more on that in the next section). Every set up is a little different and will take trial and error to get right.  
  • Labeling Materials and Notebook - While not necessary in the very beginning, the benefits of record keeping are vast. Knowing what worked and understanding germination rates are extremely helpful tools if this becomes a long term endeavor.

Step-By-Step Instructions

Once you’ve collected supplies, getting started should be easy. Following these simple steps will help to ensure success:

1. Secure a Location

Clear the area where microgreens will be grown and make sure that the surface is protected from overspray from misting or overflow from drain holes. 

2. Prepare Growing Trays

If re-using a container, make sure it is disinfected and dry. Fill trays with an inch or so of moist (but not wet) growing medium and make the soil level by dragging or pressing a piece of cardboard across the soil surface. 

3. Prepare and Sow Seeds

Seeds that benefit from soaking (usually larger seeds or seeds or seeds with a very hard hull) should be soaked overnight or for a few hours prior to sowing. Spread seeds evenly over the entire surface of the soil, and sprinkle a little bit of soil/growing medium over them. 

4. Press Seeds into Soil

Pressing seeds into the soil helps them establish good soil contact, which allows them to absorb more moisture and encourages germination and growth. If using trays that are the same size, it is possible to stack them on top of one another to apply uniform pressure across the entire soil surface. 

5. Cover and Wait

Trays that come with moisture domes should be covered at this point, while stackable trays can be stacked to create a moisture-dome effect. Many seeds require no light at all to germinate–what they need is moisture–so stacking trays isn’t a problem at all. Some growers will cover trays with a plastic bag or plastic wrap to encourage germination in the beginning.

6. Water as Needed

Trays that are in a windowsill or open air will need to be misted at least once a day with a spray bottle. Remember, the important thing is to keep the seeds moist, but not wet, until they germinate. Once the seeds have sprouted, spraying once or twice a day is recommended. 

7. Harvest and Enjoy

Once the microgreens are a few inches high and have developed a set of true leaves, they are ready to harvest. Using sharp scissors, cut the stems just above the soil line. If it is necessary to rinse them, then gently do so and dry them in a salad spinner or on a paper towel. 

Alternative: Hamama microgreen kit

If you’re having trouble starting your own microgreen garden, then Hamama microgreen trays are a great option. They come with a “seed quilt” pre-packed with the green variety of your choice and you simply add water to the tray. Then sit back and watch your greens grow. You can learn more about Hamama and purchase a kit here.

Growing Tips

The most common problem faced by microgreen growers is fungus. Spraying water excessively onto the growing surface can encourage mold growth, which will ruin a crop. For this reason, some growers prefer bottom watering– using a growing tray with drainage holes and letting water infiltrate up from a solid tray below that has been filled with water.

Washing microgreens shortens their already brief shelf life, so the best policy is to cut only what you need and cut high enough above the soil line that no rinsing is required. This is one of the most beautiful things about growing microgreens at home– never having to worry about what nasty chemicals or fertilizers have been applied to your food. 

When microgreens need to be stored, the best technique treats them like cut flowers. Place the cut ends of the stems into a shallow container of water and place it in the fridge for later. Microgreens stored in this way can last up to a week. 

Have fun, take your time, and experiment. Growing microgreens should be an enjoyable experience.

References:

  1. http://www.sunshinecovefarm.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/2012-Xiao-Assessment-of-Vitamin-and-Carotenoid-Concentrations-of-Emerging-Food-Products-Edible-Microgreens.pdf
  2. https://nfsc.umd.edu/news/mighty-microgreen
  3. https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/biol.2013.8.issue-12/s11535-013-0246-1/s11535-013-0246-1.pdf

Image: @taylorosullivan