Getting a jump on microgreens

"getting a jump on microgreens" title with drawings of little leafs around the words.


or many gardeners, winter brings a well-deserved rest, a chance to fantasize about the upcoming growing season. Winter dreams of walking barefoot in the garden again, picking warm tomatoes off the vine, anticipating the stunning fall-planted heirloom lily blooms and gently brushing the leaves of basil, releasing their heady fragrance, the aroma of summer.

One can only rest so long though, until the urge to plant is overwhelming.

Planting microgreens now can fill a void for gardeners and produces a highly nutritious, fresh harvest, which is unmatched by anything from the grocery store. Microgreens are basically the initial sprouts of the seed, before they get their true leaves. The seed has everything they need to get to that point, and once the plant sends down a root, it begins to feed on the planting mix.

This type of planting is easy and doesn’t require any special equipment or lighting. You just need a container and some good planting mix, available at garden centers and nurseries.

At Jenkins Lawn and Garden Center in Upper St. Clair, co-owner Lisa Jenkins carries lots of different seeds for sprouting. She says the most popular is the sandwich mix, a combination of alfalfa, clover and radish seeds.  

“It’s lighter than lettuce and it has a mix of flavors, like sweet with a little bite with the radish.”

There’s also a salad mix which adds broccoli, “just to give a different flavor, texture and color,” says Jenkins.

Packets of single varieties for sprouting like alfalfa, beans, broccoli and more are also available. One of the more unusual varieties is fenugreek. The sprouts are not usually found in grocery stores. These seeds are filled with nutrients, high in vitamins A, B6 and C, along with iron and potassium. “It’s been used in food since ancient times,” she says. “It’s a common ingredient in Indian foods.”

Another variety is the ‘China Rose’ radish. In the garden, it’s a large heirloom winter radish, but as a sprout, it offers a little spice.

“There’s special sprout growing containers,” Jenkins says. “You can plant them (sprout seeds) in the house and have them year-round, which is nice.”

I discovered the Chef’n Microgreen Growing Kit several years ago, and have two of them. They fit nicely on the windowsill and are shallow, holding less than an inch of soil, they drain well and have a plastic cover for sprouting the seeds. Any type of container with drainage will work, though.

Before adding the planting mix to the pot, mix it with water in a larger container or tub. The perfect consistency is when the mix sticks together when squeezed in hand, but does not drip. Use this technique whenever planting in a good mix, whether it’s filling a pot or starting seeds. It’s a common mistake to fill a container with dry mix, add plants or seeds and then the water.

Microgreens growing out of a small container.
It’s amazing how many microgreens can be harvested from one sowing—flavor enough to last until spring.

This is a great project for kids and grandkids to show them where their food comes from and to teach them about seed germination. You don’t need a lot of mix—all we are doing is getting the seeds to sprout and then grow for a week or so.

When seeds are sprouted in water, they are specially marked as food grade, but when started in soil, any seeds can be used. It’s a great way to use up leftover seeds. Even though they might technically expire, they are fine to sprout on the windowsill.

Not all seeds are appropriate for microgreens. Some favorites include root crops like radishes, beets, carrots, leeks and onions. Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, arugula, mizuna, mustard greens and a mesclun mix are the types of microgreens which can be trimmed with scissors and can return for another harvest.

Herbs like basil, borage and dill make for a great addition to recipes. Those of us who mourn the loss of our basil to frost can enjoy the texture, flavor and aroma when growing indoors this way.

Legumes such as beans and peas make a tasty treat too.

The cole crops, like kale, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and others are high in nutrients and have a unique flavor. Flowers like nasturtiums and sunflowers are also good choices to grow as microgreens.

Radishes are a great seed to start with, as they spout and grow quickly. The entire plant from root, to stem, to leaves are edible and are sweet and tender when this young.

Add the moist mix to the container, then sprinkle some seeds on top. Don’t worry about spacing—we’re making a carpet of greens. Anything that’s thinned early on will add to the harvest.

Lightly cover the seeds with more mix and then gently press down on the soil to assure good contact between soil and seed.

Cover the container with clear plastic. A dry cleaning bag is a cheap and easy solution for that job. This will keep the growing medium moist until sprouting. As soon as the seeds germinate, remove the plastic.

Harvesting can begin right away, but it’s usually a few days later that picking begins. For root crops the entire plant is pulled, rinsed and then stored in the fridge. Remember that many of the leafy greens can be cut and grow again.

Having two or three different planting containers will keep the harvest coming. By planting one every couple of weeks, the kitchen will be filled with fresh produce all winter long.

There are lots of ways to use microgreens.Depending on the variety you can add to sandwiches, salads, snacked on raw, used in soups or incorporated into stir fries. You’re only limited by your imagination.

When the garden season starts up, microgreens can be harvested from tightly sowed seeds of all the above plants. Radishes are one of my favorites as the harvest persists for weeks while thinning the bed. It’s one of the first “real” harvests of the season.

What will become apparent immediately from any microgreen is the wonderful flavor. One of the reasons we grow things at home is to harvest the freshest produce possible. As winter drags on, growing microgreens is fun, easy and can be enjoyed until the ground outside is ready for planting.

Illustrations of different types of plants. Onion, Peas, Dill, Basil, Sunflower, Tatsoi, China rose, spinach, fennel, shiso, cilantro, collard, barley.Try garlic

Another type of microgreen comes from sprouting garlic cloves. The greens emerge from the cloves when planted in the moist planting mix and can be harvested as needed. It only takes a week for the cloves to sprout and they will push out the bright green foliage over and over again.

Garlic lovers like myself eat the greens raw, but they can be sauteed, used is soups or salads.

In a container filled with the mix, sink some cloves down about halfway into the soil. Don’t overwater—just keep the soil barely moist. 

Help out those houseplants

Houseplants are another way gardeners make it through the winter. They are most often killed with kindness, too much water or fertilizer. Test the moisture of the soil by sinking a finger as deep as possible into the pot. If it’s wet, wait to water, if dry add some water, but don’t go overboard.

As far as fertilization is concerned, wait until the days get longer. The plant can’t use the nutrients until there’s more daylight. Mid-February is when a good organic, liquid fertilizer can be added.

This is a good time to clean the foliage of the plants. If they are covered in dust, they aren’t as efficient at cleaning the indoor air or producing oxygen. Sometimes I’ll take them all into the shower and let it run to also flush out the soil.

Ordering seeds for spring

January brings with it lots of seed catalogs and although everything is available online, there’s something about leafing through the hard copies which still makes sense. I like to explore the hard copies then order online.

Before ordering, see what was left over from last season. Seeds that are stored in an airtight glass jar can be viable for many years. A great way to test them is to take about 10 seeds, put them on a wet paper towel and then into a reclosable plastic bag. After seven to 10 days, see what percentage germinated—if it’s higher than 50 percent, it’s OK to plant this year.

We grow from seed to save money, but also to plant varieties which can’t be found anywhere else. The real payoff is the pride of watching a seed reach fruition in just a few months, knowing that you carried it all the way through.

Early on most gardeners will revel in the fact that they didn’t kill a plant. After that it’s about growing unique varieties that the neighbors don’t have.

There are a few “off the beaten path” sources I love.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was founded in 1998 by Jere Gettle, who produced his first catalog as a teenager from his bedroom. The company has gone on to be one of the biggest of the boutique seed suppliers. The catalog also has some of the best photography of the varieties offered. 

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds offers unique vegetables for home gardens. Check out the ‘Shiraz Purple Snow’ pea for springtime planting. The purple flowers are beautiful, as are the peas. 

My favorite off-the-wall catalog is J.L. Hudson Seedsman in California.  Here you’ll find some of the most unusual and wonderful varieties. Brown cucumbers, self-sowing, fragrant flowering tobacco, and indoor winter tomato and much more.