Since being stuck at home in this pandemic, a lot of people have been discovering new hobbies. Many have been baking up a storm of sourdough bread, developing healthy habits, and upping their fitness game with apartment-friendly HIIT workouts.
Or maybe you are like most of us who are collecting more and more indoor plants as an effort to bring more of the outdoors in.
Maybe you want to pick up a gardening hobby! How about growing an herb garden? Or do you want to grow microgreens at home?
In this article, we discuss what microgreens are and how they can contribute to our overall health and nutrition. Lastly, we share tips on how to grow your own microgreens and more.
What exactly are microgreens?
Technically speaking, microgreens are young green leafy vegetables and herbs that grow approximately 1-3 inches tall. Microgreens are ready to harvest in one to two weeks for most, and three weeks for some species.
They are not restricted to just green vegetables but can also come in various colors, crisp textures, and fresh flavor. People nickname them as baby plants because they fall between a sprout and baby green.
Microgreens VS sprouts
To be specific, sprouts are the premature growth of a plant from a germinated seed. They germinate in water for 48 hours to grow roots, a stem, and young leaves. We are familiar with sprouts like alfalfa, broccoli, mung bean, and radish sprouts.
On the other hand, microgreens need soil and sunlight to grow before harvest, unlike sprouts. Differentiating sprouts from microgreens is important for food safety after several accounts of sprouts being involved in foodborne illness outbreaks in the past.
A case in Europe accounted for 50 deaths and many more got sick after eating fenugreek sprouts contaminated with E. Coli. Sprouts are often served fresh and raw on a sandwich and a salad, therefore require better health and safety measures.
Microgreens VS baby greens
On the other hand, baby greens are literally baby greens. Technically microgreens are just younger baby greens because they are harvested when they’re 15 to 40 days old. When it’s more than 45 days, they are more of an immature leaf. They are valued because of their tenderness and bite-size cuteness.
Microgreens gained popularity as a new culinary trend in the past years being served in top restaurants. Chefs have been calling them “vegetable confetti” or microherbs for the aromatic herbs. But why are they so popular?
Health benefits of microgreens
Its popularity might be related to its mighty nutritional content.
Microgreens may contain more nutrients than their mature and grown counterparts. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry determined the nutritional content of microgreens.
They found out that 25 different microgreens contain varying but increased levels of nutrients including a range of vitamins and carotenoids.
The high amounts of nutrients and health-promoting compounds in a microgreen like antioxidants, phenols, vitamins, and minerals classifies them as “functional food” or “superfood”.
They compared the nutrients in microgreens with the nutrients found in fully grown mature plants and found out that the microgreens had up to 10 times higher nutritional densities.
This makes microgreens a good addition to promote a healthy diet.
A professor in horticulture and director of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center in Texas, Bhimu Patil, claims that there can be a lot of variation in the nutrition in microgreens and mature vegetables depending on where you grow it, when you harvest, and the soil medium.
In response to this, there have been a lot of new studies exploring the specific effects of incorporating microgreens in a diet.
What plants can be grown as microgreens?
Here are the plant families of the most commonly grown microgreens:
- Brassicaceae: cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage microgreens, Chinese cabbage, kale, Savoy cabbage, rappini, watercress, mizuna, radish, arugula, mustard, and tatsoi
- Asteraceae: lettuce, endive, escarole, chicory, and radicchio
- Apiaceae: dill, carrot, fennel, and celery
- Amarillydaceae: garlic, onion, and leek
- Amaranthaceae: amaranth, red orach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach
- Cucurbitaceae: melon, cucumber, and squash
- Leguminous: chickpea, alfalfa, bean, green bean, fenugreek, fava bean, lentil, pea shoots, clover
These are species that are considered edible at the seedling stage.
In contrast, some plants like tomato, pepper, and eggplant are not edible at the seedling stage. They contain anti-nutrients which are natural compounds in the plant that interferes with the absorption of other nutrients making them inedible.
Species that may be used to produce a microgreen then have to be both edible and appetizing.
Microgreen Nutrient Profile
There is a hierarchy between different microgreens in terms of nutrition according to the results of a 2018 study published in the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Three species were tested for their nutritional content represented by broccoli, chicory, and lettuce. Results presented that the broccoli microgreen has high amounts of antioxidants and the highest amounts of vitamin E. On the other hand, the lettuce microgreen had the highest amount of carotenoids.
Overall, all microgreens are a good nutrient source of tocopherol and carotenoids as compared to their mature counterpart.
Living Fresh Food came up with a list of the top 6 healthiest microgreens based on available data from studies.
Growing microgreens at home
Microgreens are grown in major greenhouses across the United States and sold as living plantlets in a growing tray from local farmers’ markets. They are kept fresh until they are incorporated into dishes. But they’re not exactly affordable.
Good thing growing microgreens is easy and convenient at home!
They can grow just about anywhere – outdoors in your garden or even on your windowsill. You can plant them on trays or any small container if space is an issue.
The best part is, you can enjoy them all year round! As long you have a proper source of light that is.
For materials, you will need:
- Seeds of your choosing
- Growing medium or potting soil that can be a mixture of peat, perlite, and vermiculite
- a plastic tray or any container at least 2 inches deep with holes for proper drainage
- Proper light source: ideally sunlight or ultraviolet lighting available for 12-16 hours per day
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need special seeds to grow microgreens. They can be produced from standard seeds. But some are more recommended than others for producing quality products.
It is better to look for untreated seeds from fungicides and insecticides, with organic certification, and complete catalog pages offered by transparent companies.
The growing medium is crucial to make sure the seeds grow well and produce a good quality microgreen. It needs to be porous, can hold water well, and well aerated for the roots. Soil with organic materials should be checked if it does not contain harmful microorganisms.
Here are the steps to plant and produce your own microgreen vegetables adapted from the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology:
- Fill the plastic tray or container with soil
- Plant 3 seeds for every square centimeter
- Keep the temperature ideally at 22 degrees celsius in relatively high humidity (~85%)
- Keep the trays covered and germinate the seeds in the dark for 2 days
- After 2 days, expose the germinated seeds to your light source
- Water the germinated seeds daily. Keep the soil moist at all times.
Once the seeds have germinated, the first leaves to come out are the seed leaves (cotyledon). The first true leaves develop by the 10-day mark. Microgreens grow up to 2 to 3 inches tall and are ready to harvest by day 8 to 14 or later, depending on the species. They are only harvested once by cutting just above the soil.
Wash the greens thoroughly under cold water and drain well before eating. They can be immediately added to your favorite dish or you can store them.
They have a generally short shelf-life of about 10 days at 5 degrees Celcius because of their delicate tissues.
What are microgreens used for?
There are many ways to incorporate microgreens into your diet.
Although they are usually served raw as garnishing greens, microgreens may be used in alternative ways in sweet and savory recipes.
Chefs love to incorporate them to most dishes they serve because of the many possibilities to use the different leaf varieties in terms of shape, color, texture, and taste in particular.
Spinach has a neutral pleasant flavor, while beet has a slightly sour taste. You can use watercress, arugula, and radish microgreens for adding a slight spiciness.
Even though microgreens are indeed micro in size, the flavor they bring to food is strong and concentrated. You can get inspired and add your fresh and nutrient-rich microgreens as a salad topper, in sandwiches, or stir-fry dishes.
Each has its own distinct flavor so mix and match and level up your diet!
Sustainability with microgreens
Microgreens are easy to grow from anywhere. Since they require so little time, space, and resource to produce, it is possible to have a constant high-nutrient supply of food to incorporate into a diet.
Some would argue that microgreens are more sustainable than large industrial farms producing mature vegetables. They use pesticides and other chemicals to produce good enough quality products to sell in the market. They also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from food transport.
There is also a misconception that microgreens are expensive and are just luxury goods served over salad in high-rating restaurants. But they require very little resource (mostly water and light energy) apart from the seeds which can just be what is available in the market.
This is another argument against microgreens in terms of sustainability. It feels wasteful to use a big amount of seeds to grow a plant up to that stage to sprinkle over a dish. But we do consume a ton of seeds in our standard diet like nuts and rice.
This would require a better understanding of the principles of sourcing for seeds, resource allocation, and sustainable cultivation from renewable resources.
Microgreens are young green leafy vegetables and herbs that are harvested in one to two weeks. They are a rich source of nutrients like vitamin C, A, and E as well as antioxidants. Studies show that they are more nutrient-packed than mature vegetables. Each has its own distinct flavor and texture to spice up your favorite dishes.
They require very little resources, are very easy to grow, and can be produced year-round. This makes microgreens a good addition to any healthy diet to promote overall health and well-being.