Microgreens have been a popular foodstuff for some years. They brighten up a plate of food and add flavour to salads and a variety of cooked dishes. However, research coming out of the ARC Plant Health & Protection Unit shows that the nutritional value of microgreens is remarkable. Not only do they offer substantial readily available sources of essential minerals, vitamins and proteins, but they also have an antioxidant effect that contributes to the body’s growth and maintenance.
Plant scientists believe that consumption of microgreens leads to reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. This is because their disease-preventive properties are usually even higher than their mature counterparts. So one should consider microgreens not only for health conscious, trendy foodies, but also to meet the challenges of people who do not have sufficient access to enough affordable nutritious food. In other words, they could play a strong part in the battle for food security.
Anybody can grow microgreens, no matter where they live. However smallholders should consider growing them for profit. Microgreens are young seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs. Unlike larger herbs and vegetables that take many weeks to grow, microgreens can be harvested and eaten in seven to 14 days at the four to six leaf stage.
The advantages to smallholders growing them lie in their high market value, popularity, and short production cycles. Microgreens are not to be confused with sprouts. Sprouts grow really quickly and one eats the seed and stem of sprouts within four to six days. Sprouts grow in water, whereas microgreens grow in soil or a growing medium and one eats only the stems and leaves.
Possible species to cultivate as microgreens include radish, basil, peas, rocket, green and red amaranth, cress, beetroot, kale, red cabbage, coriander, kohlrabi, parsley, spinach and red mustard. Different species can be planted together to provide a colourful mixture of flavours and textures. Microgreens can be grown outdoors, as long as there is sufficient bright light. They need four to six hours of direct light a day. People also grow microgreens indoors under artificial light. This is obviously more expensive and is challenging at the moment with Eskom’s erratic electricity supply, unless you have backup power.
Temperatures should vary between 18°C and 27°C, which means indoor cultivation in some parts of the country if you want to grow microgreens throughout the year. The seeds can be sown in shallow trays in potting soil, peat moss or seed starting mix. If you are planting in a garden bed prepare a mixture of three parts coco-coir or peat moss to one part each of sand, perlite and compost. Rake the surface smooth. It is best to soak the seeds for two to four hours. Wet the soil thoroughly and generously sprinkle the seeds. Cover lightly and water every day with a fine spray. Depending on the species germination takes three to six days.
Harvesting can start when the first true leaf is about 1cm in length and the plant has more than four true leaves. Cut them with clean scissors when they are less than 6cm tall. Succession planting, where you sow seeds in the next batch of seedling trays after a few days will ensure that you have continued supply of greens to harvest.
There are various microgreen growing kits available, ranging from a simple set of trays, growing medium and seeds, to more elaborate, fully automated indoor farms, capable of growing a wide variety of up to 48 edible crop plants at a time.