Baby grow – go gaga for micro greens
by Mark Ridsdill Smith
Photo: Micro-Leaf Mustard Red Frills seeds from Marshalls, www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Talking about food growing tends to conjure up images of allotments and vegetable patches – not small indoor spaces. But one productive and rewarding crop that you can grow inside is micro greens.
‘Micro greens’ is simply a trendy name for seedlings. Almost any leafy vegetable, salad or herb crop can be eaten as a micro green. Even the seedlings of some root and legume vegetables, such as broad beans, peas and radish, are edible. Many are also extremely tasty.
Popular with famous chefs like Raymond Blanc, Michael Caines and Heston Blumenthal, micro greens feature regularly in many top restaurants. They are used to add visual appeal, flavour and texture to a wide variety of dishes. Raymond Blanc garnishes tomato soup with basil seedlings, and complements salmon with sorrel micro greens. Michael Caines uses them extensively, often repeating the main vegetable with a micro green – for example, garnishing a kale-based dish with micro kale.
Micro greens are still difficult to find in the shops and even if you do track them down, they are usually expensive and don’t stay fresh for long. But micro greens are easy and quick to grow yourself. They can be sown at any time of year and need very little space. Plus, they only take one to three weeks to grow– and you can harvest them just before you eat (you can’t get food fresher than that!).
For all of these reasons, more and more seed companies are launching micro green selections and kits and the trend for this miniature scale ‘grow your own’ is catching on.
What To Grow
Your choice of what to grow is vast – your imagination is almost your only limit. Just check anything unconventional on the web first: a few vegetable seedlings – like parsnip – may be harmful.
My personal favourites include coriander for its vibrant taste and zing, pea shoots for their sweetness and attractive tendrils, broad bean shoots as a succulent addition to winter salads and stir frys, and sunflower shoots for their sweet and nutty flavour in salads. Other popular micro leaves include red cabbage, basil, mizuna, mustard frills, kale, radish, broccoli, amaranth, chard, dill and red perilla.
Where To Buy Seeds
Buttervilla Funky Leaves supply micro greens to many top chefs and their specially selected seeds are also available online (http://www.buttervilla.com/funky/seeds.html). Marshalls do a range of seeds for micro greens including a collection of radish, mustard red frills, basil, celery and broccoli (http://www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk/). For an all-in-one option, Suttons do a Windowsill Seed Kit, that comes with seeds, tray and compost (www.suttons.co.uk).
Alternatively, most seed you buy to eat in health food shops will grow fine, for a fraction of the cost. Try coriander, dill, or fennel seeds or dried peas or broad beans. I’ve experimented successfully with all of these – just check a small sample first. Or use up any leftover seed packets you have lurking, such as peas, herbs or Asian greens.
What To Do
All you need is a seedling tray, a good quality, fine multipurpose compost and your chosen seeds.
- Fill a seed tray with 1 – 1 ½ inches of compost and water it to make it moist.
- Scatter the seeds on top, sowing the seeds closer than normal: as a rule of thumb leave a space about the width of two seeds between each seed. Experiment with different spacings to find out what works best.
- Put a thin layer of compost over the seeds – just enough to cover them. Use a sieve or tea strainer if your compost has lumps in it.
- Place somewhere warm with plenty of light, like a windowsill.
- Check daily and water as needed to keep the compost moist but not soggy.
In a warm room, most seeds will germinate in just a few days, and be ready to eat in five days to three weeks. The exact time depends on the type of seed and the time of year. In winter, seeds will germinate and grow a little slower.
You’ll know your seedlings are ready for harvesting when their first set of true leaves appear (these follow a pair of baby leaves). Simply snip the seedling off close to the soil with scissors. Exceptions are pea and broad bean shoots that can be left to grow four to six inches tall before cutting, and sunflower seedlings, which need to be harvested before their first true leaves appear, as they get unpleasantly bitter at this stage.
- Easy micro greens to grow if you are starting out include: radish, sunflower, pea, broad bean, rocket, red cabbage, mustard, and pak choi.
- Micro greens that are a little more difficult include basil (needs a steady warm temperature), coriander, shiso, chard, beat and amaranth.
- Peas, beans, chard and coriander seeds will germinate better if soaked for 24 hours before sowing.
- After sowing small seeds like rocket or basil, it is easier to cover them with a paper kitchen towel instead of a fine layer of soil. Simply lay the towel on top of the seeds and keep it moist. Lift the towel daily to check progress and remove it completely once the seeds have germinated.
- After growing, the used compost will still have some nutrients. You can use it again outside in a container or add it to your compost
How To Use Microgreens
You can use micro greens to transform the presentation of a dish, to add sparks of flavour, or even as the starring ingredient. Place them with precision to add a finishing flourish to a plate of food or simply throw them into a salad, risotto or stir fry to inject some extra colour or flavour. Micro leaves require little or no cooking so they’re best added at the end or as you serve the dish.
- Use pea shoots as the perfect finish to a spring risotto.
- Sprinkle coriander or shiso micro leaves over a rice or noodle dish or use them to add an oriental note to a salad.
- Use dill micro leaves to decorate and lift a smoked salmon starter.
- Add mixed micro leaves to spice up a salad.
Mark Ridsdill Smith is founder of Vertical Veg, a social enterprise that inspires and supports people to grow food in small urban spaces. As well as growing over £800 of food on his balcony and window sill last year, Mark runs container growing workshops, and gives talks. You can read more about Vertical Veg and his latest vegetable exploits at www.verticalveg.org.uk.