If you've ever seen or ordered a salad with microgreens from an upscale restaurant with a famed chef and figured these tender vegetable shoots came from a farmer somewhere, they might have.
But gardening expert and master gardener Beth McGuire said it's easy enough for anyone to grow microgreens -- small versions of mature plants that are picked before they're fully grown -- on their own windowsills.
"They're sort of half way between the (alfalfa) sprouts we grew in the '70s and baby greens," McGuire said. To sum up the difference: Microgreens have a longer growth cycle than sprouts and a shorter growth cycle than baby greens.
Microgreens are usually harvested just before "the true leaf stage," McGuire said, at about 1 inch tall, and look more generic than when the plant becomes distinguishable as baby lettuce, radish or sunflowers. Part of your harvest, McGuire said, is the stem. She encourages gardeners to pinch off the stem and taste it.
"If you like it, go ahead and harvest. If not, let them grow a bit more to develop flavor (bitter notes, refreshing sweetness) and pick again," she said. "Grow it. Test it along the way. You'll know when it's right for you."
McGuire, who teaches beginners how to grow microgreens, often uses organic mustard or fenugreek (also known as methi) in her classes. The seeds, which can be found at Indian or East Asian grocery stores, reliably germinate, she said.
Mustard, she said, gives a wasabi-like "nose kick." The fenugreek is slightly bitter.
Black oil sunflower seeds (found at pet stores in the bird feed section) work great as well, she said, as long as you don't get the striped ones.
The seeds can be planted in whatever kind of tray you want, even a shallow, clear takeout food container with an attached lid, she said.
McGuire has big 10-by-20-inch trays she gets from nurseries, and also 4-inch pots with holes in the bottom.
"It's a fun indoor thing," she said, especially for the gardener itching to get outside when everything is wilted and dormant in winter.
Some people build elaborate shelving, or buy LED lights not needed, McGuire said.
A mister or spray bottle and a sunny windowsill is all you need. And of course, some potting soil.
Pour between one-half inch to 1 inch of potting soil in a tray, sprinkle with water, scatter seeds with a plastic spoon, and mist again. Make sure the water doesn't create channels in the soil, she advised. The seeds can just sit visibly above the soil.
Cover with a lid, or dampen a layer of newspaper, and put that over the top of the tray.
"What you want is something to create a greenhouse effect for the first three days," she said.
Uncover the tray after that and most of the seeds should have germinated. Mist every day so the soil stays moist (not wet) until the seeds are ready to harvest typically between six and 12 days.
When harvesting, use kitchen scissors to cut at the soil line.
"The stems are as much a part of your crop as the leaves," McGuire said.
McGuire washes her microgreens in a salad spinner, draining and soaking them twice. The idea is to remove any seed coats or soil still clinging to the stems. She keeps the microgreens in a lidded plastic container with a paper towel on the bottom to absorb moisture.
"They are delicious. When they're that small the flavor is concentrated," McGuire said.
Some of her favorite plants to grow as microgreens include cilantro (chop it into salsa), daikon radish (for tacos), basil (which is usually a summer plant), and red cabbage or lettuce. Generally anything that has edible leaves will work as microgreens, she said.
She does not recommend peppers or tomatoes.
The process enables gardeners to watch the germination process up close, McGuire said, especially if you place the tray near a breakfast table or an area where you're walking by or plugging in your cell phone.