NOT a Definitive Guide To Growing Microgreens

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Tidying up the seed-starting shelving took longer than I thought it would – it always does, doesn’t it? I had to figure out where to move the microwave which meant moving the cookbooks…and I still haven’t found a good place for the basket of cooking onions and potatoes…or my kitchen scale. And the end result, while tidy, isn’t exactly pretty…

Shelving Winter 2011

The 'before'.

The 'after'.

The 'after'.

…but it gave me some elbow room to plant some microgreens. I first read about the growing of these infant plants in the Fall 2010 issue of Urban Farm magazine and thought that they’d be an encouraging thing to try when the previous growing season was a distant memory and the upcoming season still too far away to be excited about. From some other reading I did on the subject, it seems that it’s also a good way to use up leftover seed – because I garden on a small plot of land, one small seed packet can last me several years and will most likely lose viability long before I use it up, so this seemed an ideal solution for me.*

Since reading the article, I’d been collecting those plastic containers that salad greens come in which, note to self, is not the most economical way to collect containers. At $1.50-$4.00 for a box of leaves, it’s a shocking price to pay initially, so I hope I can get a lot of use out of these things. They’re nice and deep so I can probably grow some good-sized herb plants, like basil and cilantro, in them for cutting in the winter.

I decided to use the lids of the containers as trays (other people used the lids to keep moisture in the soil until the seeds germinated) and just cover the containers with plastic bags if I needed to prevent soil evaporation. I just didn’t have enough plates and such to use as trays if I kept the lids only as lids (and plus, I labelled the containers using popsicle stick markers and the lids wouldn’t fit over top of them).

In case you really needed to see what holes drilled into a plastic container look like.

In case you really needed to see what holes drilled into a plastic container look like.

Of course, the containers needed some drainage holes in the bottom. I found it easiest to use my cordless drill to provide some since the plastic is quite soft (and hammering a nail into it would have meant going outside into the cold winter air to find a block of wood to stabilize the plastic with). I didn’t have a set formula for the holes – just drilled enough so they weren’t more than 5cm apart.

I had some potting soil left over from last year’s container plantings and had brought it inside the day before from the unheated garage to thaw out. Ideally, I would have supplemented the soil with compost but my pile is buried under many feet of snow (and is obviously not working properly since I haven’t seen any steam rising from it). Tip: it’s best if you plant your seeds in fairly-close-to room temperature soil – the seeds will germinate a little quicker and some of them, like basil and cilantro, can’t handle cold soil anyway.

After filling the containers with soil to about 5cm from the top, and misting the soil heavily (if your soil is quite dry, you might want to water it well at this point), I sprinkled my seeds over the top of the container, covered them very thinly with soil, and misted again. I use leftover grocery bags to cover any container I’m starting seeds in so that the moisture doesn’t evaporate too quickly (although, with this movement to use reuseable bags for our groceries and other purchases, my stash is getting really low). Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the bag, and make sure the seedlings have bright light, or put them under a grow light. Mist when the soil dries out and harvest when they develop their first set of true leaves (unless it’s sunflowers and then you harvest before the true leaves).

Cilantro, almost ready to eat.

Cilantro, almost ready to eat.

It seems like you can grow almost anything as a microgreen; the tiny sprouts are reputed to taste like the most intense version of the grownup plant so I kept that in mind when choosing what to grow and went pretty banal for my first attempt – a mix of corn salad (or mache)/red leaf lettuce/oakleaf lettuce/tatsoi, a mix of Genovese and lemon basil, Sugar Snap peas, cilantro, and dill.

The sowing step is where I need to do a little tweaking. It’s obvious to me now that I didn’t sow my seeds dense enough – one grower suggested a sowing density of 60% – but I had trouble gauging how much that was when it came to tiny, dark seeds. It is also obvious to me that I needed to plant the snap peas deeper since they sprouted long stems and seemed to develop mature leaves very quickly. I may have missed the harvesting window on the peas which is disappointing – my local grocery store sells a small bag of pea microgreens for $6(!) and I wanted to see what the exorbitant price was all about.

The (thinly) sown pea seeds.

The (thinly) sown pea seeds.

The overly mature snap peas.

The overly mature snap peas.

I think that’s going to be my stumbling block with microgreens – I’m not used to such instant gratification when it comes to gardening and it’s going to take me a couple of tries before I find the rhythm of it. But I have time…spring is still many months away and this is going to be all the gardening I can do for a while.

* I found these bloggers to be of great help…

Vertical Veg posts about growing food in a small, small space. Ingenious, really!

Otter Farm posts drool-worthy photos.

National Gardening Association post by Maggie Oster on how to grow microgreens.

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Maybe Martha Is Just Bored

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Sometimes I get the urge to participate in some conspicuous consumption – funnily enough, this feeling always occurs when the bank account is at its lowest ebb and it tends to happen more in the winter than in the summer. Maybe it’s because I’m inside most often in the winter and I’m confronted with all the things that I feel are lacking in our interior environment – a proper entertainment unit instead of a cheap coffee table not large enough to accommodate our ancient sound system (we own a turntable that was my gift to my husband for our first anniversary), some modern wood dining chairs instead of the filthy upholstered Queen Anne-s, an amazing light-filled pendant instead of the puny $20 Home Depot special currently burning a hole into the dining table (and a dimmer switch so we can stop eating under interrogation lighting)…well, where do I stop? – So many things I’d love to change if so many other things about my life were different. But I have found a great solution for this insignificant-when-compared-to-having-real-problems crisis though – reorganize!

See, for me, while I may be a traditionalist, I’m not a habituist, and a large part of the craving to buy is to have something new to look at and interact with (part of the joy of buying Ikea furniture is putting it together). But, as I said, financial constraints and, in almost equal amounts, a desire to live within a lighter footprint, has had me trying to deal with my feelings of boredom in a less deleterious way – re-arranging, re-organizing, and re-purposing our things and our space can make me see them in a different way and, at the very least, I get some cleaning done (I’m absolutely shocked by the size dustballs can grow to!).

So today I’m going to tackle the seed starting table which I’d allowed to get in a chaotic mess once I’d finished starting all my plants last spring. I’d had big plans to grow herbs on it this winter and to start some micro-greens but the paraphernalia cluttering the shelves is preventing me from going forward with those grand plans (and when one is a procrastinator, any little obstacle can trip you up).

Shelving Winter 2011

Dealing with the leftover potting soil, pots, baskets, peppermint bunches needing to be stripped and stored, finding a place in the tiny kitchen for the new roasting pan, making a place in the pantry for the new batch of brew (in bottles on the floor), and tidying up all the other odds and ends is going to keep me occupied for the rest of today. Hopefully I’ll have something to show you tomorrow…

Everybody’s Growing It

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
A portion of the zucchini harvest.

A portion of the zucchini harvest.

It seems like everyone grows zucchini! And, why not? It’s easy to grow, it’s prolific (understatement), and its leaves provide a lovely, bold contrast to the smaller foliage of most of the other plants in the kitchen garden. It’s also easy to cook with – it can be used up front and center when stuffed and baked, it plays well with others in dishes like ratatouille, and it can be disguised with sugar and chocolate and baked into a cake. What’s not to love?

Well, for me, I’m discovering 3 plants is more than enough for my husband and I. I’ve missed a couple of days of harvesting and now have a zucchini the size of my thigh! Seriously, I’m not kidding!

Also, it’s been a wet summer and, while I’ve placed the zucchinis in the hottest part of the garden, there’s been a good amount of fruit rot and slug damage, making harvesting a sometimes icky process.

I’m growing two kinds of zucchini this year. Ronde de Nice is a French heirloom whose seeds I purchased from West Coast Seeds. It’s a cute thing – round and stripey – with unusual grey and pale green variegated leaves that really stand out in the garden. To take advantage of the shape of the fruit, in cooking I think it would work well stuffed and baked. It’s supposedly bruises easily which is why it’s not readily available in grocery stores (although you may be able to find it at some farmers’ markets). Portofino hybrid is the other zucchini I’m growing with seeds from William Dam Seeds. An Italian zucchini, it seems to be more prolific than the Ronde de Nice and its taste is usually described as nutty. But, as I mentioned, it’s BIG; if you grow this type, be prepared to get creative in your cooking because one squash is going to provide you with a lot of dishes!

Ronde de Nice zucchini hiding behind its stunning leaves.

Ronde de Nice zucchini hiding behind its stunning leaves.

Ronde de Nice leaves.

Ronde de Nice leaves provide a striking counterpoint in the kitchen garden.

Both are, as I mentioned, easy to grow. Give them a well-draining, compost-rich soil, lots of sun, and, most important, consistent watering. In the south, you might be plagued with squash vine borer – a nasty little bug (it’s actually the larvae that causes the damage) that inhabits the stems of plants and causes the plant to constantly look wilted no matter how often you water. There are a number of recommendations to prevent the squash vine borer – prevention seems to be the key since there don’t appear to be any organic pesticides:

1. Make sure to dispose of any infected plants – and not in the compost, unless you know your compost can really heat up. The larvae inhabits the stem before burrowing into the surrounding soil and you don’t want it to just be kept warm and toasty through the winter – you want it to fry!

2. For those with the room, you can till the soil. I’m not so keen about this method since I think one should disturb the soil as little as possible to allow the micro-organisms and mycorrhizae to do their thing but if you’re desperate and have been battling the squash vine borer for a while, you might want to try it as a last-ditch effort.

3. The adults are considered a moth and, when they emerge from the soil in about June, they lay eggs at the base of the plant. You can put down floating row covers over the plant to prevent the moths from laying eggs but, if you’re worried that pollinators won’t be able to get to the flowers, you can try…

4. …Wrapping the stems in nylon pantyhose to prevent the larvae from chewing its way in.

5. Once you know you have squash vine borer larvae (those wilting leaves), sometimes you can remove them by hand. Make a slit in the stem and, after digging the larva out,  cover the stem with soil to promote root formation.

Here in the north, this summer, the squash vine borer is not my problem – slugs are. I made a tactical error and planted too close together – space the plants about 2 feet apart – and then we had a wet growing season. The big leaves shade the soil and provide a moist environment for the slugs that proceed to chew to their heart’s content. I take great delight in stomping on them, proving yet again that gardening is not a gentle art.

I’ve been really looking forward to the zucchini this year, maybe because I could never grow it very successfully in Texas, and last year, the first year for the northern garden, I didn’t plant it because I didn’t grow my own transplants and had to rely on what was available in the garden centres. They’re an easy thing to start inside and you can find my tutorial series on seed starting here:

on containers http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=500

on shelving http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=511

on lighting http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=575

on hardening off http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=728

I’ve already used the Portofino in a couple of ratatouille dishes and I’m definitely going to make a chocolate cake at some point. But zucchini flowers, in fact, all squash blossoms, can be used in cooking. When you’re in the mood for something different, head on over to my terribly talented friend Lisa’s blog and see what she can do with a squash blossom.

If you’re not growing it already, what are you waiting for? Jump on the zucchini bandwagon.