We grow several varieties of microgreens indoors during our long winters. Fenugreek, mustard, chia, amaranth, onion, cilantro, arugula and kale are some of the best-loved ones in our home.
What are microgreens
They are regular vegetable plants that are harvested very young. Most of them can be picked within two to three weeks of sowing the seeds. They are highly nutritious and flavorful too.
Growing microgreens is an excellent way to produce one’s own healthy food cheaply. It can be done throughout the year, and since it’s done indoors in a controlled environment, can give consistently good results with little effort.
Here in Wisconsin, we get four months for growing vegetables outdoors. The rest of the year is too cold for most plants to survive. For the fresh produce needs during that time, we rely on microgreen growing.
How we grow them
There are many ways to grow them. One can buy specialized containers and growing media that are marketed for microgreen growers. As we try to avoid using plastics in and around our gardens and home, we prefer to grow them in glass or ceramic containers. We use an organic seed starting mix to plant the seeds in.
To soak or not to soak the seeds
Most seeds germinate quicker if soaked for a couple of hours. However, some seeds are difficult to sow evenly when wet. Seeds like chia that get gelatinous, or tiny seeds like cabbage and broccoli, are easier to sow dry. Larger seeds like fenugreek, wheat and beans are soaked for 8 to 12 hours.
To plant the seeds, the growing medium is spread in the container, and is gently pressed flat. A thin layer is sufficient. Our homemade wooden tamping tool works perfectly for this. Seeds are then spread over the soil* evenly. Seeds need good soil contact. So, they are tamped down again, this time somewhat firmly. We don’t spread any soil over the seeds. If soil is spread over them, the germinating seedlings will lift up some of that as they emerge, and that may stay on their leaves.
Seeds do not need any light to germinate, but warm soil speeds up germination. As we grow them in our cold basement, some additional heat gives better results. So we keep the containers on seed starting heating mats until they start to sprout. A fine mist of water is sprayed on them three or four times a day. A small pressurized pump sprayer is well worth buying, for this purpose. Though a spray bottle can be used instead, a pump sprayer allows spraying at any angle, even upside down. They generally have a finer and more consistent spray too.
Once they germinate, we move them to a sunny area or under grow lights. Heating mats are not needed once the seeds germinate. They grow faster if they get plenty of light and regular watering. They can be picked and eaten at any stage, though it’s better to let them produce a set of true leaves before harvesting.
How we avoid mold
Years ago when we started growing wheatgrass, we had to discard a batch every now and then because of mold forming on it. What we noticed was, mold grows if the soil and the seeds are too wet and/or do not have enough air circulation.
To prevent mold and weed growth, we use soilless media. Most organic seed starting mixes available here in the USA are soilless.
We do not soak the soil before sowing. Some of the seeds are soaked, but never the soil. That way, when misting the seeds, the extra moisture is absorbed by the soil. The seeds only need to be damp, not soaking wet, for germinating.
We then either do not cover the containers at all or cover them with a cheese cloth. That will let air circulate by the seeds. Good air circulation also is helpful in preventing mold.
What seeds to buy
Seeds that are meant for farming or outdoor gardening may be treated with chemicals. So, organic seeds that are marketed as microgreen or sprouting seeds are the best. However, they are often much more expensive. We try to germinate the organic spices, grains and legumes that we buy for cooking. Some of them do not germinate at all. Perhaps because they are irradiated?
*We use soil-less growing media for all indoor seed starting. These days it’s ‘Organic Seed Starting Mix’ from Burpee or Pro-Mix. Burpee’s is much easier to work with, as it absorbs water much easier, and has evenly-sized particles. We think it’s better not to use soil from the garden for seed starting. Garden soil can get compacted easily and can contain disease causing organisms and weed seeds. Microgreens need only a small amount of growing media, and the media can be re-used too. So, for us, it makes sense to use a seed starting mix.