By Donna Balzer
Peggy really wanted to grow food but she wasn’t sure if she had the time or the place. We were meeting over Skype for a coaching session and I was trying to inspire her to just get growing.
“Grow a sprout overnight, a micro-green in a week or a radish in a month,” I said with a grin. “It’s so simple!”
Peggy was ready to give greens a try in her small apartment because she wanted home-grown edibles ASAP. Sprouts are the speediest but micro-greens take less than a week from seeding to eating and they look more like real food. And if she had more time? I suggested she grow radish – it only takes a month.
A garden in the traditional sense is too far off for Peggy, especially in Canada in February when we are months away from outdoor gardening. With fingers twitching and green thumbs fading, Peggy wanted to get growing. So I prescribed micro-green pea shoots. All she needed was a few seeds, an open plastic tray, potting mix, and a heat mat.
Seed left over from last year’s garden is good enough. You can also buy special seed at Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds. The plastic plant tray is probably in your shed or garage, left over from last year’s bedding plant season. Whatever you use, make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom.
I recommend filling the tray with moistened, sterile potting mix such as Pro-Mix instead of real soil. I’ve seen seeds rot and mildew when grown in compost or garden soil. In fact to prevent disease it is best to use clean, sterile soil for each batch planted. All the energy needed for greens is in the seed, but disease can cling to the flats or soil. I fill the flat with 3 cm. (about an inch and a half) of new potting mix and generously sprinkle the seed in a fairly thick single layer. Then I spread additional soil to cover the seed and water well so the soil is completely saturated.
I use a “diaper” under the soil-filled tray so the water doesn’t pour out as soon as it is added to the standard 28 by 44 cm. (11 by 17 inches) plastic tray. A layer of felt or section of newspaper makes a great diaper and stops the flooding.
Once excess water is drained away, I place the flat on a heating mat such as the Jump Start heating seed mat. If you have a grow light or an in-floor heating system (as is common in Canadian homes) you can start seeds on top of the lights or warm floor instead of on the special mat. Seeds will sprout in a day or two like regular sprouts. In six days micro-greens are tall, tasty, and edible.
For traditional seed starting I generally use a four-foot bank of lights. The stacked lighting is a fabulous luxury, if you can afford it, but only if you are going to get serious about growing salads. If you just want a few micro-greens to add to store-bought salad mix, you can do without lights.
The mistake I first made growing micro-greens was to put them under grow lights. This kept them short and stocky. This is fine if you’re starting full-sized plants for the garden but they were so short they were hard to cut as greens. As soon as I balanced the trays on top of my bank of lights instead of under them, my luck and my crop changed. The roots were warmed by the lights below them while the stems were forced to reach for the light. With this change the micro-greens looked just like the sprouts I saw for sale at the market – tall, delicate, and thin. Who doesn’t want to grow something that looks as good as store-bought?
Not long ago I wrote about this on my website. When I was getting photographs taken for my page I forced Dan, my photographer, to try a bite of some pea greens I had grown for the photo shoot. He winced. Pulled away a bit. But I pushed them up to his mouth. He was forced to take a bite.
“Mmm, that is good. It tastes like green peas.” Not surprisingly, onion microgreens also taste like onions and kale greens taste like kale.
As you dream of spring, you can enjoy the taste of summer if you start growing micro-greens on a regular basis. Depending on the size of your family a tray of greens might be enough for a week’s worth of salads. My coaching student Peggy decided to start with half a tray because she lives alone.
It is great to keep the rotation going by starting new seeds again in a second tray the day you start harvesting the first batch. Then, like Peggy, you can grow food even when the outdoor temperatures are frigid and nothing inspires you to step outside.
Meet the Author
Garden expert, speaker and author, Donna Balzer is also a regular guest on CBC radio in Alberta, Canada and host of internationally aired Bugs & Blooms on HGTV. She helps gardeners grow and beginners blossom so they can have lots of fun growing great gardens using simple practical tips. Get connected with her at http://www.donnabalzer.com/.