Whenever I find myself craving fresh greens and nutrient-dense foods, I turn to sprouts, baby-leaf salad greens and microgreens to supply my family with abundant, perpetual crops of nutritious, homegrown food. These micro crops can be grown in a matter of days and weeks, and are easy to grow. Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started.
Technically speaking, every plant has the potential to produce a sprout crop, but certain beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and other legumes have become popular sprouting crops. Most sprouts are grown hydroponically in glass mason jars or similar vessels. The goal is to germinate the seed until it produces a young, meristematic root tip. At this point, these seeds, which would otherwise go on to vegetate into full-grown plants, are eaten raw in a variety of dishes. One popular sprouting crop is mung beans.
Microgreens are sprouts that are harvested when plants produce one set of true leaves. Microgreen sprouts are often cultivated in soilless growing media or fibrous sprouting mats. Because you’re producing green, chlorophyll-rich, young shoots, many people believe the sprouts are tastier when you allow the root system to establish itself in a proper growing medium as opposed to the jar only. Pea sprouts are one popular example.
In a different category all on their own compared to traditional head lettuces, baby-leaf salad greens are easy and rewarding to grow. Many different lettuce varieties and a huge scope of other greens will perpetually produce new leaves if clipped in the right fashion and at the right time of growth. Micro salad greens are usually planted in nutrient-rich soil or a soilless grow medium amended with a water-soluble vegetative fertilizer for vibrant, leafy growth. The greens are usually spaced close together in a trough, tray or hydroponic system.
Health Benefits of Microgreens
Dormant seeds contain phytic acid and other chemicals that deter proper nutrient absorption and optimal digestion of food, but by soaking and sprouting seeds, you are unlocking all the nutrients contained within. Most sprouts, microgreens and baby-leaf greens are stacked with an impressive array of micro- and macronutrients and vitamins. Sunflower and pea sprouts both contain nearly perfect amino acid profiles, as well as vitamins C and E, selenium, folate, zinc and alkalizing chlorophyll pigment. Sprouts, whether in the true sprout or microgreen stage, contain more nutrition pound per pound when compared to fully grown plants. This rings especially true in the case of broccoli sprouts, pea sprouts and radish sprouts.
All seeds are programmed to germinate in different conditions, but they all have one thing in common: a nutrient reserve from the parent plant to allow the transition from dormancy to growth to occur. The young, embryonic tissue within the seed is a nutrient powerhouse. Couple the nutrient reserve with an additional 3-7 days of photosynthesis, and eating microgreens is like taking a high-quality multivitamin pill, only in food form.
Growing Micro Crops
Sprouts— The easiest and best introduction into the world of microgreen cultivation, young jar sprouts are incredibly fast and rewarding. Mung bean sprouts are a good crop to start with.
- Place beans into a quarter of the volume of a mason jar (size should depend on your desired yield). Cover the top of the jar with mesh, cheesecloth or a similar draining material. Fully rinse the seeds with cold water. After rinsing, fill the remaining volume of the jar with cold water.
- Place the jar in a dark room with a temperature between 73 and 82˚F. After 12 hours, dump the water and rinse the seeds at least twice.
- Put the jar back into the dark. In another 6-12 hours, rinse the jar again. At this point, you should see a root tail emerge. Continue the process of rinsing seeds until the desired length of both root tail and cotyledon are present. Mung beans and other jar sprouts are good in sandwiches and mixed salads, on top of stir fries or in any other dish you can think of.
Microgreens— Most microgreen sprouts are grown in trays or troughs for about 7-12 days before harvest. You can amend the growing medium with a mild organic fertilizer or compost for increased nutrient uptake. Speckled pea sprouts are a good crop to start with.
- Place pea seeds into a quarter of the volume of a mason jar. I find about 150-200 g of seeds covers a standard propagation tray. Cover the top of the jar with mesh, cheesecloth or another straining material. Fully rinse the seeds with cold water. After rinsing, fill the remaining volume of the jar with cold water.
- Repeat step two from the sprout example. Within 12 hours, you will find the root tail protruding. You can opt to plant now or continue the 12-hour rinse cycle until the desired length of root tip is achieved.
- Place a pre-moistened grow medium into a 1.5-in.-deep tray. Loosely firm up the medium. Pour the rooted seeds over the medium, ensuring they are evenly spread out.
- Put the tray into a dark room, or put black and white plastic sheeting over the tray to black out the light. The sprouts will form much faster and yields will be considerably better if the room is kept slightly warm—about 77-84˚F.
- Leave the tray in the dark for no more than 24 hours. After this time, your sprouts may need a little misting or light watering depending on the environmental conditions of your room. You will also notice the sprouts starting to stretch and turn light green and yellow. By leaving the sprouts in the dark and forcing them to stretch, you are speeding the buildup of biomass.
- Continue checking every 12 hours until the plants have stretched about 3 in. or more. At this point, expose the tray to light. Sunlight or grow lights can be used. Within two days, the sprouts will undergo rapid photosynthesis, while still retaining much of the seeds’ nutrient reserves. Harvest before four true nodes have developed by clasping many sprouts together and cutting with sharp scissors.
Micro Salad Greens— Baby-leaf salad greens are usually sold in mixed-seed packs filled with different flavors, colors, textures and botanical varieties. I usually grow a spring mix that contains three types of baby romaine, some deer tail lettuce, mustard and some other Asian greens. You can customize your blend by adding many other seeds to existing mixes. A good combination is kale, chard and spinach.
- Fill a standard propagation tray, repurposed NFT trough or hardware trough with a grow medium that’s amended with an organic, slow-release nitrogen fertilizer. You can also add beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi to increase plant vigor.
- Plant seeds no more than 1-in. apart. Loosely cover with grow medium or extra vermiculite. It is crucial that the seeds are not left to fry out.
- Ensure the seeds are kept moist until they are fully established and ensure seedlings are exposed to light. Provide some light air movement and constant moisture. Most lettuce mixes thrive in temperatures around 59-68˚F.
- Start clipping leaves after 20-30 days, depending on your environmental conditions and subsequent plant vigor.
- Allow at least 10 days in between harvest cycles. Many salad mixes can be harvested for more than three months before you need to start new crops.
Microgreens are fast, nutrient-dense and require little effort with maximum returns. They are a perfect crop for the newbie, advanced gardener or those wishing to improve their quality of life. Start digging around the growroom, grab some old jars and trays, and get sprouting.