Small and Mighty Microgreens: Packed Nutrition in Every Bite

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We are in the middle of winter, and while you can find cool season crops like salad greens, kale, potatoes, radishes, and carrots, there are less locally-grown fruits and vegetables available this time of year. But did you know that you can easily and quickly grow plant seedlings indoors to add flavor and nutrition to your winter meals? We are talking about microgreens! Trending for several years now on the nutrition and culinary scenes, microgreens are young vegetable plants that can be grown year-round with little space, are packed with nutrients, and come in a variety of colors and flavors. Today we’ll touch on what microgreens are, the health benefits they provide when added regularly to our diets, and how you can grow them at home.

Microgreens 101

So what are microgreens, versus sprouts or baby greens? Microgreens are defined as young, vegetable plants which have developed their first true leaves (the cotyledon, the first type of leaf a plant grows, looks different from the rest). They can grow very quickly, typically 1-3 weeks depending on the type, and we eat the top or shoot of the plant (harvested by cutting at the base). Sprouts, on the other hand, are younger seedlings (1-7 days old) that have just germinated and are consumed whole (roots, seeds, and shoots). Baby greens are older than microgreens but are still harvested before they are fully mature, typically between 20-40 days. While microgreens, sprouts, and baby greens are all harvested as young plants, they differ in growth requirements, harvesting time, and nutritional value. However, they all provide essential nutrition, texture, and flavor to our foods and thus are great to add to our diets. There are also many different types of plants that you can grow as microgreens, with some of the most common being peas, sunflowers, broccoli, cabbage, mustard, lettuce, radishes, kale, swiss chard, beets, and arugula to name a few.

Nutrient-Dense for Healthy Body Defense

While microgreens are tiny, they are packed with great nutrients to help our bodies stay healthy and fight off diseases. While nutritional content can vary depending on the species, growing conditions, and time they are harvested, microgreens are consistently more nutrient-dense than their adult plant counterparts, sometimes up to 40 times higher for certain essential nutrients. Microgreens are full of vitamins A, C, and K and contain minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium as well as fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain high amounts of antioxidants such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and phenolic acids, which help deter development of heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders. Consuming a mixture of microgreens on a regular basis can help provide nutrition to meet requirements for a weekly healthy diet as recommended by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

How to Grow Microgreens at Home

Growing microgreens at home can be a fun family activity and a great way to test if your older garden seeds are still able to germinate! You can also grow plants outside of their normal growing season, like broccoli and leafy greens during the hot summer or sunflowers and basil in the winter. You can use old food containers and poke some holes at the bottom for water to flow through, and you’re ready to go! Fill your containers with a growing media, such as a seed starting mix, and add enough seeds to cover the top. Seed spacing is not as much of an issue for microgreens, since they are growing for such a short period of time. Follow the sowing instructions on your seed packets, as different plants need to be sown at different depths or might need a pre-soak (ex. peas and sunflowers). Plants also differ in their light requirements to germinate; for example, broccoli and kale need light to germinate, but peas do not. Once you’ve sown your seeds and labeled your containers, wet your media so it is moist (but not soaked, a spray bottle is great for this!) and set your containers in a window sill. Keep the media moist by spritzing water once or twice a day as needed, and within a couple of days, seedlings will start to sprout! After only a week or two, your microgreens should have grown 1-3 inches and have their first true leaves, which means that they are ready to harvest. Cut them at the bottom using clean scissors and enjoy! You can eat microgreens on their own as a snack or in dishes like salads, sandwiches, and even on pizza!

For more information on microgreens, contact North Carolina Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.