Make way for microgreens
After happily residing in our one-hectare bubble for a few years now, I came to the sudden realisation that not everyone in New Zealand has a garden. If that makes me sound incredibly gardenist and naive, then I apologise wholeheartedly. After all, I believe that it is my life's mission to coerce as many unsuspecting people as I can into the green and holier-than-thou realms of edible gardening. There are thousands of them out there, too - would-be Percy Throwers, Lynda Hallinans and Xanthe Whites. They just don't know it yet.
Where better to start this transformation from total consumer heathenism to green, eco-warrior god or goddess than with a pot of tasty, glorious goodness on your kitchen bench? No garden required. They don't even need to be kept outdoors. If microgreens were to be compared to a brand of car, they'd be a Toyota - really low maintenance, easy to drive, fuel efficient and no fuss. They also happen to be uber-trendy, just like sun-drying your own tomatoes were in the early 2000s.
In reality, microgreens are simply the leaves of infant vegetables or salad greens. Do not get them confused with baby vegetables, which are most certainly not uber-trendy any more. In the wise words of a friend's teenage son, they're "so 2009". Baby vegetables are just that.
Microgreens are the first, second and sometimes third sets of leaves of our favourite edibles, such as rocket, radish, peas, spinach, mizuna, lettuce, mesclun mix and many more. Furthermore, they should not be compared to sprouts. Sprouts are a partially or completed germinated seed consumed whole, which includes its root, stem and leaves. Sprouts, unfortunately, have received a bad rap over the past few years with some commercially packaged brands being found to contain lethal quantities of e. coli. This hasn't been the fault of the sprout: it's the way the finished product has been handled, washed and packaged. Good news, then, that there have been no reported cases of home-sprouters poisoning themselves.
Microgreens are packed with flavour and the first report from American researcher for the US Department of Agriculture Gene Lester confirms thoughts that they have a higher nutritional density than when they are mature. His findings suggested that most microgreens held between four and six times the amount of those in the mature plants, including vitamins E, C and beta-carotene.
Microgreens can be added to salads, stir-fries, sandwich fillings, used as a garnish - the opportunities to bung a handful of freshly picked infant greens into your meals are endless.
They are easy and fun to grow, especially with children. Involving them in healthy food production can only be a positive thing to get them eating more greens every day. You can start with a ready-made kit or collate what's needed yourself.
The first thing you need is a suitable tray that has the ability to drain or soak up excess water. We use large peat punnets - they're fully biodegradable and once spent can be chucked on the compost. If you plan to use a lot, then invest in a proper seed-raising tray, available from good garden centres.
Next, you need seed-raising mix - avoid using potting mix or compost, as the soil medium is too large. Seed-raising mix is a blend of fine soil particles that are small enough for the delicate seeds to push through as they germinate. Also, it's sterile - so no nasty bugs to kill off your tender shoots. We use Daltons Bio-Gro certified Organic Seed Mix, but there's a non-organic product called Daltons Premium Seed Mix that comes in five-litre bags (daltons.co.nz).
As for the seeds - there are many microgreen seeds to choose from and Kings Seeds even has a whole section in its catalogue dedicated to microgreens (kingsseeds.co.nz).
Make sure you invest in a mist sprayer bottle - it's safer to water your seeds with a mist sprayer until they germinate to a decent size, rather than drowning them with a watering-can-type head. Don't forget labels - remember what you've sown. Infant greens look a lot like each other.
HOW TO GROW MICROGREENS
1. Spread some seed-raising mix into the tray to about 1-inch from the top.
2. Water lightly with the mist sprayer.
3. Sprinkle seeds gently over the top.
4. Put some more seed-raising mix into a sieve and shake over a very fine layer to just cover them.
5. Water lightly again with a mist sprayer.
6. Put in a sunny place (not direct sun) and keep moist.
7. Seeds should begin to sprout within three days and be ready to eat within 14.
My top tip for harvesting microgreens is not to snip them with scissors. Pinch the leaves off just above the lowest set of leaves with your fingers. This allows the tiny plant to heal faster as the break happens along natural vein lines. Depending on the type of plant you are growing, you can get up to three flushes of growth.
Being of the organic persuasion, I do recommend using organic seed-raising mix and organic seeds where you can because the plants are so young and small when consumed that they will not have had the chance to expel any undesirable synthetics or chemicals they may have been exposed to.
Now for the matronly rant: A lack of garden is no excuse for not growing edible plants. Best you get a move on before growing microgreens becomes so 2012.