Written by: Hayley Swinson
Remember the bean experiment in grade school? Where your teacher wrapped a dried bean in a wet paper towel and left it by a window and a few days later it sprouted. Remember the excitement surrounding that little green sprout, the days of fascination—of watching something grow before your eyes? That’s about all it takes to grow microgreens at home.
But what are microgreens? Why would we want to grow them in the first place?
“For a plant to be considered a microgreen, it must still have its nutrient-rich cotyledon leaves,” says Michael Torbett of Terra Vita Microgreens. Unlike sprouts, which are grown in water, microgreens are grown in soil and therefore have fewer instances of bacterial growth and foodborne illnesses. Studies have shown that the cotyledon leaves are 40-60% more nutrient-dense than their full-grown counterparts and are more easily absorbed by our bodies. If you eat out locally at restaurants such as PinPoint or True Blue Butcher & Table, chances are you’ve already experienced microgreens. Because of their size, though, microgreens are often mistaken for a garnish and avoided.
Nicholl Gleason of Wholesome Greens says she started eating and growing microgreens out of desperation. For three years she suffered from an illness that stumped doctors as her health continued to decline and she struggled to maintain a healthy weight. Fed up with the lack of results, Nicholl decided to go off the medicines prescribed to her and alter her diet instead. She and her partner Joe Choi got involved in farm trips and permaculture to help Nicholl’s search for an effective dietary solution. It was on these trips that she discovered microgreens. Every day for ninety days, she ate a microgreen salad, and over time, the change in her diet miraculously healed the thirty-seven ulcers in her stomach. As she journeyed towards better health, she and Joe began selling the microgreens from their greenhouse. “This is a lifestyle, this isn’t just a business. It’s something the public needs,” Nicholl says. She’s now the healthiest she’s ever been, and she says it’s all thanks to the microgreens.
Though both Terra Vita Microgreens and Wholesome Greens cater primarily to the wholesale restaurant market, more and more individuals are seeking microgreens for their personal use. “Some of my most loyal customers are working professionals, retirees, and even parents providing their kids with healthy snack alternatives,” Larson of Sunshine Cove Farm says. Despite their size, microgreens pack a flavorful punch: from the earthy flavor of protein-rich amaranth to the strong spiciness of radish to the lemon drop taste of lemon basil. All three providers offer two dozen or more varieties of microgreens, an important point to note, according to Larson. That’s because some microgreens—such as sunflower, radish, and peas—are easy to grow while others are more complicated. Variety beyond the basics may indicate a more dedicated and specialized farmer.
The growing cycles are typically very short (between one and eight weeks), and while some crops such as cilantro, dill, and fennel can be temperamental in the North Carolina heat, most plants can be grown year round in a climate-controlled environment. For Nicholl of Wholesome Greens, sustainability is a significant part of her company’s mission. They reuse plant trays and use compostable materials wherever possible. She says that labels like “Organic” and “Natural” that many food providers use to indicate a healthier growing process may be misleading. “Organic has really lost its meaning,” Nicholl says. She explains that the label has many exceptions and can be expensive to acquire. In her opinion, it’s more important to maintain ethical practices—customers will recognize your efforts with or without a label.
Both Nicholl (Wholesome Greens) and Michael (Terra Vita Microgreens) were surprised at first by the readily available market for their microgreens here in Wilmington. Each business operates out of a small space—Wholesome Greens in a rented office off of Blue Clay Road and Terra Vita Microgreens out of Michael’s townhouse. He has dedicated the second floor of his home to shelves of greens. Demand for microgreens continues to increase as more people learn about them. Sunshine Cove Farm, for instance, has begun delivering to restaurants and individuals all over North Carolina and even across state borders. They accept orders primarily through their website, sunshinecovefarm.com.
Terra Vita can be reached on Facebook at facebook.com/terravitamicro, and you can spot Michael or one of his assistants at the Wrightsville Beach Farmers Market on Mondays and the Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek. Nicholl and Joe with Wholesome Greens also sell at the Wilmington Farmers Market as well as the ILM Local Makers + Growers Market. You can contact them on their website wholesomegreens.farm.
But if you remember that grade school experiment—if you found particular joy in watching that bean shoot into a green sprout—if you have soil and seeds and a sunny window, maybe you should try growing microgreens at home. While there are growing kits available, Nicholl advises against buying them. They are often overpriced and don’t always ethically source their materials. She suggests buying seeds from a local farmer’s supply or online from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (JohnnySeeds.com).
Start with two to four varieties of microgreens, two 10 x 10 inch slotted seed trays and one 10 x 20 solid tray to act as a drain for the two smaller trays. Sunflower, radish, and peas are typically the most forgiving seeds to start with—and they have great flavor. Growing microgreens can be an excellent project to get kids involved in, too. It helps them learn about caring for plants and eating healthy simultaneously—not to mention the simple joy of watching a green sprout shoot up and up and up from a tiny dry seed.