Sheltered from the cold inside a greenhouse, aromatic mizuna herbs sprout a few meters from a row of sweet pea tendrils.
Here at The Field’s Edge Research Farm, Alex Wenger harvests some crops like these when they are small enough to be called micro: basil, carrots, fennel, coriander and more.
“Call him,” he says. “If it’s a seed and sprout, it can be a microgreen.”
Microgreens bring flavor, texture and delight to a meal, especially during times when fresh produce is out of season. They grow fast with some ready in just a week. A beginner can start growing seeds without special equipment. While microgreens are simple, there’s also the potential for these tiny plants to do great things like deliver nutritious food quickly in disaster and help people with special dietary needs.
Tasty and tiny
At The Field’s Edge Research Farm in Warwick Township, Wenger is exploring crops that thrive locally, taste good, and contribute to a healthy food system. What started as a home-school project in 2010 is now a produce-growing operation for customers, including restaurants in the region, such as Bistro Barberet in Lancaster, Gypsy Kitchen in Columbia, and others in Philadelphia and New York City.
While Wenger continues to explore viable crops for a wide range of cultures and cuisines, he has been growing microgreens since the very beginning. They’re tasty, high-value, and small enough to grow a variety of plants in a small space.
A friend, Everett Fasnacht, started growing microgreens about a year ago in a guest bedroom at his Lititz home. Through his business, Everett’s Greens, he sells microgreens to friends, family and colleagues during his welding job and hopes to expand.
“They are a great source of nutrients and are easy to grow,” says Fasnacht. “You can grow them indoors all year round.”
Fasnacht and Wenger grow microgreens, not sprouts.
The sprouts are seeds soaked in water and grown without land. The entire seedling, including what remains of the seed, is usually harvested in 7-10 days.
Microgreens are seeds grown in soil or in a soil-free medium such as a fiber mat. To harvest (in 7-21 days) the stem of the seedling together with the first leaves of the plant is cut above the ground.
Microgreens are sweet and crunchy, says Wenger, a good way for kids to eat their veggies and adults too.
“Every now and then when I deliver to the restaurant, you’ll see the salad pushed aside,” he says. “But everyone eats microgreens.”
Dense with nutrients
One of their strengths as a crop is the opportunity to be an agricultural educational tool, says Francesco Di Gioia, assistant professor of horticultural science at Penn State University. When kids grow micro-greens in school, they’re more likely to try them, he says.
Di Gioia has been studying microgreens for more than a decade in Italy and Florida, exploring the nutrition of different species and the business of growing microgreens.
“There is a lot of interest because they are beautiful to look at, pleasant to grow in no time,” he says. “The other thing is that they have really good levels of micronutrients.”
He and his research partners are publishing their work exploring minerals and phytonutrients from different microgreens. Depending on the species and environment, microgreens have two to seven times the nutrients of adult crops.
Microgreens are nutrient-rich foods, but Di Gioia doesn’t crown one as the best because there is so much variability in species and environmental factors like fertilizers and light.
Living in Florida during Hurricane Maria, Di Gioia saw the potential to deliver seed kits to Puerto Rico to quickly provide people with essential nutrients.
Their research also explores bio-fortifying microgreens: increasing iron or zinc, for example, or lowering potassium to help those with special dietary needs.
So while these sprouts are tiny, they carry a lot of flavor, nutrients, and potential.
How to grow your own microgreens
When to grow: Microgreens can be grown indoors all year round. The seeds are densely planted, which can lead to more diseases, such as moistening, during the warmer season. Outdoor crops should also be protected from animals.
What to grow:
- Peas are great microgreens for starters, says Everett Fasnacht. They are easy, fast growing and produce a high yield.
- Radish and corn microgreens are also fast, says Alex Wenger.
- “Sunflower is another good one. This gives a really big sprout. It’s a quick and easy micro and we often produce buckwheat because we planted it as a cover crop, ”he says. “And they look very much like a sunflower with red veins, which is really nice. The way I like to think about it is that anything that is as colorful as an adult plant could probably be as beautiful as a microgreen. “
- Dark-grown popcorn tastes like licorice, says Francesco Di Gioia. Exposure to light brings out a bitter taste.
- More challenging are carrots, which are one of the slowest growing microgreens. Coriander has a large seed and a small sprout, which makes it difficult to harvest an even crop. When wet, basil seeds can develop a gelatinous coating (similar to chia seeds).
- Some seeds shouldn’t be grown as microgreens, such as tomato, pepper, and eggplant because they have alkaloids that can be toxic to humans at high levels, Di Gioia says.
Supplies: While microgreens are often grown in plastic trays or fiber mats, reusable containers such as cups or the bottom of a milk jug work.
How to grow:
- Fill the container with potting soil or a soil-free medium such as coir. Compress it to create an even planting layer.
- Microgreen seeds are densely planted. Seed density calculators (such as the one at lanc.news/MicroCalc) can help calculate how much seed to use. Different plants grow at different rates, so harvesting will be easier if a container has only one type of seed.
- Once you have the right amount of seeds, sprinkle them evenly in the container, and water (preferably from below to prevent the pockets from drying out).
- Place the container in a warm place (at least 70 F). Fasnacht likes to stack trays of freshly planted seeds for about three days to produce taller microgreens.
- After a three-day blackout or when the seeds begin to sprout, move to a well-lit location. Grow lights are best, but a sunny bay window works.
- When it’s time to harvest, start at a corner and cut the microgreens with a sharp knife, high enough to avoid any terrain.
- Once the microgreens are harvested, most varieties will not continue growing.
Sources: Francesco Di Gioia, Alex Wenger and Everett Fasnacht