Sprouts and microgreens: edible houseplants

Tasty salad fixings can be grown in the tiniest apartment.

The Cook's Garden

Microgreens and sprouts, those immature vegetables short on size but large on taste, are making their way from trendy restaurants and stylish markets into family kitchens.

The assorted seedlings add flavor, color, and crunch when included with sandwich and salad toppings, used as a garnish, or mixed into soups, dressings, casseroles, dips, sautes, pizzas, and breads, among other things.

Sprouts and microgreens are similar, yet different.

Sprouts are harvested younger than microgreens and can be grown without soil in closed surroundings such as bags or jars under sprays of lukewarm water. They should be harvested before their secondary leaves emerge.

Alfalfa, sunflower, cress, lentil, and buckwheat seeds grow quickly into sprouts and can be served up roots and all.

Microgreens are the adolescent versions of the leafy greens, edible flowers, and herbs that are popular salad fixings. They are at their nutritional and flavorful best when they begin to display adult-size leaves.

Seeds can be planted in potting soils, sprinkled onto sponges or fine-textured fabrics, and then misted, sprayed, or watered as necessary.

Among the most popular microgreens are cauliflower, peas, cabbage, arugula, radishes, beets, clover, mustard, and alfalfa.

"Basically, the difference between the two is the size of the root and the time to (reach) harvest," says Steve Meyerowitz, a lecturer and author from Great Barrington, Mass., who has written several books on the subject. "You can grow sprouts in one to two weeks. But it takes about 30 days to maturity for microgreens."

Microgreen farming is a little messier than dealing with sprouts — a little harder on the kitchen because of the soils involved, Mr. Meyerowitz says. "But you can do it wherever you have houseplants. Microgreens are houseplants you can eat."

Microgreens and sprouts are easy to raise, quick to evolve, pack a nutritional wallop, and convey an intense taste — especially when eaten fresh. "They lose some of that (flavor) concentration when cooked," Meyerowitz says.

When the first leaf appears, these plants are at the peak of their nutritional concentration.

They also are economical to grow because they deliver large yields."One pound of alfalfa seed, for example, produces 10, 14 pounds of fresh 'mini-salad' greens," Meyerowitz says.

It doesn't take much space to grow microgreens and sprouts. They can be cultivated in the smallest of apartments, and in the densest of cities.

"Because they're not going to be grown to flowers or fruiting, they don't need as much light," says Robert Hochmuth, an Extension agent with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"You're only germinating them to the first leaf. That can be done in a windowsill, a porch or anywhere you can grab a little indirect sunlight."

If you're trying to grow a blend of microgreens or sprouts, remember that different plants grow at different rates.

"Carrots grow slowly; radishes grow quickly," Mr. Hochmuth said. "You have to gain some experience in how fast these crops go from seed to harvest. Some are ready in eight to 10 days but others may take as long as three weeks."

Individual tastes vary, of course, but then so do the flavors in the many kinds of mini salad greens cultivated in kitchen gardens.

Beet tops often are described as having an earthy flavor, while emerging radish leaves are spicy. Microcress has an aftertaste ranging from pleasant to pungent. Microcabbage is mild, while sunflowers are nutty. Clover shoots vary from spicy to sweet, while cauliflower is peppery. Baby basil is lemony while sprouting chard tastes like spinach. Miniature kale is subtly sweet.

"Take something like a carrot. The first leaf comes open and you put that in your mouth and it tastes exactly like a carrot. There are some surprises out there in how distinct these flavors are even at the leaf stage," says Hochmuth.

Flavors also change as the plant grows, he says. "As the leaves open, they begin to manufacture energy from the sun. That gives them a change in flavor. The most intense flavor comes when that first leaf opens. It's up to the person doing the eating, of course, to determine whether that's good or bad, too sharp or too mild."

There are kitchen gardens — the French potager model, for instance, with its many decorative vegetables — and then there are gardens in the kitchen.

"I don't have the kind of garden I used to, or as much space, but I can do micro greens," says Susan Jellinek, horticulturist for Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen, in Jackson, N.J.

"If I go away for the weekend, I just put a lid over them and they don't dry out. They're small scale and make sense for a single person or a couple. They're immediate and practical. Most are ready in a week or so and you can grow them in winter."

On the Net:
For more about microgreens, see this University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences release.

How to grow
For more information on growing microgreens and sprouts, see this related article.

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