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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: What’s the deal with microgreens?

You can find microgreen seed mixes in the seed racks. You can find “baby” greens mixed in with salad mixes at the supermarket. Why are these tiny greens becoming more and more popular?

The term microgreen is fairly self-explanatory. Microgreens are lettuces, spinach and other green vegetables that are harvested when they are about two weeks old and hardly more than an inch or two tall. This makes them ideal for winter growing in the house.

But the appeal goes beyond the pleasure of multiple harvests over the course of the winter season. Recent research shows that microgreens are amazingly nutritious. Qin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and graduate student Zhenlei Xiao of the college’s Department of Nutrition and Food Science participated in a study “which looked at nutrients like Vitamin C, E, K and beta carotene found in 25 different types of microgreens, including cilantro, celery, red cabbage, green basil and arugula ...Their research ultimately discovered that the microgreens contained four to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts.”

That is a lot of nutrition for a tiny plant! Microgreens have been used as garnishes in upscale restaurants for some years, but all of us can enjoy them for mere pennies.

It takes very little to set up a microgreens project and would certainly be fun if you have children in the house. I bought all my equipment at the Greenfield Farmer’s Cooperative Exchange and, aside from seeds, I spent about $10. I bought two 10-by-21 inch black plastic trays, six 5-by-7 plastic planting boxes with drainage holes and a bag of soilless seed starting mix. You can lower your cost if you have any plastic salad containers from the supermarket. These will need to have drainage holes punched in the bottom.

Put at least 2 inches of dampened seed starting mix in your planting box. Tamp it down so the surface is fairly flat. Then sprinkle with seeds. You do not need to plant in rows and since these seedlings will be harvested when they are tiny, they can be planted thickly. Someone made the analogy that because these germinating seeds don’t need nutrition from the soil, they are just like day-old chicks that are still getting all their nutrition from the egg yolk that is absorbed before they hatch.

Then, sprinkle a bit of seed-starting mix over the seeds and tamp down lightly again. I prefer not to water from above. I put the planting trays in the larger trays and pour water into the larger tray so that it covers the bottom. The water is then absorbed gently into the planting trays by osmosis. I’ve put my trays on a card table by a big south window in my cold guest room. I used a heat mat below the trays, but this is not necessary, although germination will be slightly slower.

I planted my first three little trays on Feb. 2. Two were planted with a savory mix (beets, swiss chard, radishes, mustard, cress, cabbage, mustard, pak choi and kohlrabi) of microgreen seeds from Botanical Interests and one was planted only with pea seeds. I took my first harvest of microgreens on Feb. 14, cutting all the microgreens in one box into a Valentines’s Day salad. On Feb. 17, I harvested the single box of pea shoots and added them to another salad. There has been a new harvest every night since then. My only tool was a scissors to cut the seedlings down.

Because the microgreens aren’t getting any nutrition from the soilless mix, you can replant right in the same planting box, by sprinkling more seed and then covering them with a bit more of the seed-starting mix. This is the way you can keep the microgreens growing and being harvested until you are ready to start planting vegetables outside.

This is a great way to use up leftover seeds. My collection of leftovers includes lettuces, radishes, beets, cilantro, basil, cabbage and spinach. Even if they are not as viable as they were, you have nothing to lose.

You can continue to plant and harvest microgreens outdoors when the weather warms up. You just need to remember to keep them watered.

This is a great gardening project for children. It does not require a lot of skill. Set up mess can be contained on a few sheets of newspaper. Numerous lessons can be found in seed starting. You can begin with vocabulary. As children notice that the seedlings are always trying to lean toward the sun, you can teach them about heliotropism, which is the growth of a plant towards the sun. Anyone who has grown plants on the windowsill has noticed that the plant leaves will always come to lean toward the sun and need to be turned regularly to have an even appearance. This is particularly noticeable and rapid in seedlings, which makes them a good example.

Then you can talk about the first part of that word helio or Helios, which is the name of the Greek sun god. I hope you have a nice picture book of Greek myths in the house because so many of our words have an origin and history in those ancient stories — narcissus, echo, cereal, crocus, daphne and iris. Children love stories of gods, goddesses and magical creatures. So do I!

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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