~ By Val Van Meier

Two gardeners walk into a kitchen….  sounds like the start of a joke.

On a cold November day, with the sun hiding behind gray clouds and the sky sprinkling some of our first snow, I visited Linda Singer’s winter garden. As I was looking out on her spectacular gardens, which have visual interest all season long, I glanced at her kitchen table.

Linda’s microgreens emerging

Why, you might ask, would I look away from that gorgeous view and interesting plantings? I was here to learn about one of Linda’s pandemic projects. As many of you know, she is multi-talented: you may have seen her origami or macro photography at the art show in the old Library building. But that’s not what I was here to see.

Linda will be the first to tell you she “doesn’t grow vegetables.” Early into the Covid-19 pandemic, like many of us, she got to thinking about reducing trips to the grocery store, which led her to think about the produce section and how most produce comes from warmer climates in the winter, transported by boat or plane or truck or possibly all three!

Knowing she could stock up on many groceries, but not fresh greens, she settled on a solution. First she decided to try growing her greens closer to home, and ordered a hydroponic system, which had, in her words “less than spectacular results.” (That system was passed on to someone who is enjoying the learning curve.)

Linda’s thoughts then turned to growing microgreens. To harvest microgreens you cut them above the root and eat the shoot – what a hoot! (sorry, I just had to do that) and the first few leaves. Linda experimented with sprouting peas, growing them on a moist paper towel in a take-out container.  She says she can get at least two cuttings of sweet tender shoots from one planting, enough to add interest to a winter meal.

In addition to peas, Linda purchases packets of pre-seeded mats that she places in a container with water. She started a mat prepared with radish seed on a Friday and on my Tuesday visit the first leaves were open, and she planned to harvest on Thursday. In under a week she had fresh greens to add to a meal, Greg’s cream cheese bagel, or a grilled cheese sandwich!

Curiosity got the better of me and I had to examine these packets! Upon closer inspection, the packets have a wax paper top to keep in moisture, and a woven bamboo fabric base that the seeds are pressed into, creating small “beds.” The “beds” sit on a coir fiber (coconut) mat in a waterproof container. The fiber mat and fabric base wick moisture up to the seeds, keeping them moist for germination. Ingenious. Linda keeps an eye on the water level and will change the water if it starts to have a film develop on the water surface. It’s important not to have bacteria get a foothold, since the “baby greens” are eaten raw.

Linda’s favorite microgreens are radish, mustard, and a salad mix. There is some favorable research showing that microgreens contain more nutrients than their larger, more mature leaves.

Why not try this myself? I got to thinking about the large amount of cilantro seed I harvested this year. It’s good for grinding into coriander, but I hadn’t thought of sprouting the seeds. What about the Swiss chard, mustard, or orach seed I harvested? Or those tiny garlic bulbils from when I missed several garlic scapes and their flowers set seed? The possibilities are endless.

Of course, I could always order seed from a variety of companies. Recently I received an email from High Mowing promoting microgreen seeds! High Mowing is the company that donated seeds this spring to our seed catalog in the library.

If I was going to try growing microgreens, I needed to decide what to use as a base, coir mats like Linda or soil like Gourmet Greens, a business I visited in Vermont years ago when I was thinking of adding a hoop house to extend our growing season. I suppose it’s all about preference and what you have available. I do like the idea of composting the seed-starting mix with the microgreen roots.

Looking at the photos, you’ll see I tried a variety of options. I used a take-out container lined with a damp paper towel for peas, arugula on a damp paper towel on top of cardboard in a salad mix plastic container, and orach (a salad green) on soil in a black planting cell. I covered half of the arugula and all the orach with wax paper to mimic the growing situation that Linda’s microgreens came with.

Notes on the arugula growing on damp paper towel and cardboard:

  • 3 days to germination, remove from a dark space after germination.
  • Place in a sunny room, but not in direct sunlight so they don’t dry out – they are tender babies.
  • The paper towel flattens onto the cardboard and doesn’t seem to give the arugula roots much they can adhere to.
  • Sowing as a thick grouping might be better than rows. Some of the plants pushed their neighbors up and off the paper towel as they grew. I had to push them back down so they wouldn’t die.
  • A firm plastic salad cell (1lb of salad comes in them) is convenient, but it will be hard to cut the arugula. Perhaps cut down the cell to make it shallower. Or use a container that you can remove from the plastic salad cell when you wish to cut the greens.
  • If I do this again, I may use soil or purchase bamboo or jute fabric. I’ve read that jute fabric has an odor when it is first wet but the scent goes away before the greens sprout. I like that both bamboo and jute are compostable.

 Notes on the peas growing on a damp paper towel in a take-out container:

  • This is the easiest microgreen ever!
  • Be sure to make the paper towel wet with no extra water pooling up.
  • Sprouting peas create their own mat with their roots.
  • Day 3 the first roots emerge.
  • Day 5 first stems start to emerge.
  • Day 10 sprouts are 1-1.5” tall, 1st leaves are about to open.
  • Keep a spray bottle filled with water handy, I find I need to spritz the peas daily so their roots don’t dry out.

Notes on the orach growing on soil covered with wax paper:

  • Nothing by day 5 – perhaps I should have tried mustard instead.
  • Maybe I’m just impatient and need to chill – day 7 tiny sprouts!!
  • Day 10 1st leaves have opened!

If you decide to try microgreens, I would love to hear about your successes or challenges!

Two gardeners walk into a kitchen; admire the scent and beauty of babies, baby greens. I’m hooked. Linda’s microgreen gives me hope, there is gardening in winter.

P.S. For anyone still wondering about the swiss chard root mentioned in last month’s article, it was 37 inches long!

How I Got There

Thirteen years ago when I was thinking of extending our growing season with a hoop house, I visited Rich Rommer in Chester, VT, who had a business selling microgreens. He had a hoop house that I wanted to check out. Attached to the hoop house was a building where he sprouted and grew – you guessed it, microgreens! Of course I had to tour his business, Gourmet Greens. There were beautiful green carpets of several different types of microgreens stacked on shelves six feet high. The lush green colors, the smell of dirt, the scent of green things drew me in close.

Sadly Rich died a few years ago, but the Facebook page still contains some instructive images.

There’s also a short YouTube video that Rich made.


Other Resources

Video: Jonathan Ebba with UNH Cooperative Extension,  shows  a really simple micro green setup.

Video: Jonathan Ebba with UNH Extension. How to assemble a simple raft system.

MICROGREEN NUTRITION | Vegetables vs. Microgreens
Blue Marble Space Institute of Science

SPROUTS VS. MICROGREENS
Food Science and Human Nutrition
Colorado State University

MICROGREENS CORNER


Linda’s former Hydroponic system

Linda discussing her microgreen mats, with packages of mats in the background

Close-up inspection of Linda’s mat of seeds

Arugula experimental seeding

Orach on soil slowly sprouting

Pea Sprouts

Sunflower greens at Gourmet Greens

Young arugula