The Secret Salad Garden – Part 1, by D.G.

Introduction

In the spring of 2020, it became apparent that the coronavirus posed a potential threat to public safety. The severity of the threat was unclear, so my wife and I, being reasonably well-prepared, decided that our family would ‘batten down the hatches’ until we could better assess the situation. Like many people, we learned a lot. We learned how prepared we were, and we learned how prepared we were not. We had never made a trial assessment of our ability to adapt to a situation like this, so it was an eye-opening opportunity to learn and improve. One of the biggest challenges for us was no longer regularly bringing home fresh produce. That lack prompted me to take the steps to learn how to grow microgreens, the immature seedlings of herbs and vegetables, and I’m writing this to share with you what I’ve learned.

If you frequent this web site, you will likely already have mentally played through a variety of scenarios wherein you might be unable or unwilling to leave your home. Or you might be unable to get anything from grocery stores or restaurants. Or you might have to wait months before you can start a garden, and then months more while you wait until harvest. But if you learn the techniques I describe below, you would be able to keep putting fresh produce on your table under such circumstances. Mere minutes after harvest, you can have some of the freshest, most visually appealing and nutritious produce you’ve ever had. The flavors of radish, mustard, sunflower, arugula, basil, all these and more may be easily had with only a little preparation and practice.

From seed to table in as little as a week, and all possible without setting foot outside your home. Learning to grow microgreens indoors may be one of the simplest and most enjoyable of the many things you do to provide for yourself and your family. The abundance of information about microgreens online was daunting but, once I had it pared down to the essentials, I was floored by how simple it was. My first crop was a hands-down success, and little has gone awry in the many times since that I have repeated the process. And the sheer quantity of produce we harvest for so little effort and expense is striking, particularly given the fact that microgreens originated in the realm of high-end restaurant cuisine.

Read on, and by the end of this article you’ll know everything you need to know in order to easily and regularly deck your table with salads like the one shown in Figure 1.

Background

Figure 1

I enjoy instructional videos and am often adding to a lengthy mental list of projects I’d like to try. Microgreens made it to that list, and I must have talked about it quite a bit because a couple years before the coronavirus my wife gave me a half pound bag of mustard seed. But I never found the time to make a go of it. Then the coronavirus came, and there was not only time, but also necessity. We started a traditional garden in March. It was the right time of year but our seedlings did poorly, and it became evident that we would not be getting much out of our garden. We’d grown vegetables successfully in the past, but never from seed, and, before the coronavirus, with too many other commitments, regular gardening wasn’t a part of our lifestyle. We were rusty. We faced the fact that we would have to try again in the fall. But in the meantime, we made microgreens our plan B.

The Plan B Scramble

I went through a feverish week or two watching videos, reading blogs, making notes to determine what all I would need. I scrambled to get supplies, not knowing how long they would be available.   Thirty or forty pounds of seeds, grow lights, potting soil, trays, fans, and more. Then, only after ordering all the materials, I came across the book Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening: How to Grow Nutrient-Dense, Soil-Sprouted Greens in Less Than 10 Days by Peter Burke. If only I had read Burke’s book sooner, I would have realized that I could have done without the lights, fans, and trays. Burke’s book shows the technique in its bare-bones simplicity, and I highly recommend it. Much of the information I encountered online was tailored for high-volume commercial growers who place a premium on maximizing yield. Still, I kept the lights and trays and fans and have not regretted them.

Among the materials for my indoor agricultural project that I was able to unpack the soonest were the grow trays and a five-pound bag of speckled peas, and so that’s where I started, and I’ve been growing indoors ever since.

The Speckled Peas

I stuck pretty closely to Burke’s instructions for this first crop, measuring the appropriate quantity of seed, rinsing them and soaking them for about 8 hours. The potting soil I’d ordered, Miracle Grow Potting Mix, hadn’t arrived, so I just scraped together a tub of dirt from the back yard. I gradually added water to the tub and mixed it as I went along, as per Burke’s instructions, until it was wet and coherent but nowhere near soggy, not dripping. The trays I’d purchased are called 1020 trays (their dimensions are 10 by 20 inches) and I had opted for the shallow variety (about 1.25 inches deep) without drainage holes. The moist soil was spread into the tray to a depth of about ¾ inch.

Figure 2

After soaking, the peas were drained and spread across the soil reasonably evenly. Burke at this point would wet newspaper and lay it across the top of the tray but, not having any newspaper, I scavenged some old linen dishcloths my wife had given me to use as shop rags. Got them thoroughly wet, like the soil, but not sopping wet, and spread them across the seeded tray. Over this went another 1020 tray, this one inverted, and then the whole thing went into the closet for three or four days.

Figure 3

On inspection the next day many of the seeds had already opened (see Figure 2). Pale, waxy appendages were apparent; some burrowed down while others stood upright. The next day those standing upright had developed a little shepherd’s crook at their tips where the leaves would later come in (see Figure 3). This went on another couple days until they had grown so tall that they were pushing the inverted 1020 tray off of themselves, and this was when I took them out and laid them on a bench by a window and gave them their first watering (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Figure 5

Within a matter of hours, a very subtle luminous green color began to replace the waxy paleness, and not long after, the shepherd’s crooks began to arc upward and unfold their leaves in much the same way as a butterfly unfolds from its chrysalis (see Figure 5). A few days later we had pea shoots six inches tall, and that one 1020 tray fed our family of four each one large salad, the first fresh greens we’d had in weeks (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

I was amazed at how simple it had been and at how little effort and maintenance it had required. And when you lay something fresh like that alongside practically anything else you have on your plate it’s transformative. When times are tough and the world is rocky, there are a few very simple things in life which can be profoundly comforting, and this is one of them.

The Process, Step-by-Step

Since then I’ve grown arugula, basil, beet, buckwheat, kale, kohlrabi, lentil, Pak Choy, radish, Romaine, a ‘salad mix,’ and sunflower. With minor variation, the following steps apply to them all:

  1. Preparation
  2. Germination
  3. Blackout
  4. Normal Growth
  5. Harvest

Preparation: Spread dry soil evenly across the tray to a depth of about ¾ inch. I use an old 20 oz. can and fill it twice for a single 1020 tray. I’ve found it easier and less messy to water the soil after it’s spread in the tray. Seed is measured and then spread evenly across the soil, and thereafter misted with a sprayer bottle. No need to cover the seed with soil. Then newspaper, cloth, or plastic are laid over the seed to hold in moisture. A problem I had with the cloth I used initially was that many seeds would germinate and cling to it. I tried using plastic cut from 13-gallon trash bags and it has nearly eliminated the problem.

A single bag gives me about four sheets for the 1020 trays, and I have been washing and re-using these. A cover tray is then laid over this sheeting, and the whole thing is stuck in a dark cupboard or closet. The cover tray keeps the seeds in darkness and also helps retain the moisture. If you have nowhere dark to stow your trays, the inverted tray keeps it dark enough, although you may find that a little light comes in through the gap and the plants strain towards it.

Germination: For most of the species I’ve grown, germination occurs within a couple days. The seed needs only moisture and sufficient warmth. For larger seeds like pea and sunflower, pre-soaking reduces germination time.

Blackout: I encountered this term researching the process online; it’s simply the interval when the tray is kept in darkness. This is done to lengthen the stems. Technically blackout includes germination time. So, for example, if your information specifies that germination for a particular seed type is two to three days, with a blackout period of four to five days, then that’s a five-day period at most. After the seeds germinate, I remove the cloth or plastic sheeting but keep the plants in in the dark for, generally, a couple more days. Throughout germination and blackout, I might check on them once a day at most. The soil is moist enough to sustain them all the way through the blackout phase, and mold has rarely been a problem.

Normal Growth: When the shoots have been in the dark long enough to become reasonably tall (an inch or two), I’ll take the lid off. The more vigorous types, like radish, pea, or sunflower, will begin to move the lid themselves. When the lid comes off, I give them their first watering, gently, with the spray bottle. I try to make room for them at the window so that their first light is sunlight; later they’ll spend more time on the rack under grow lights.

During this last stage they’re watered once or twice a day, in the morning or evening or both, and kept in the light. The bigger the plants are, the more water they need. There have been a few times when I have been neglectful and have found that many of the microgreens have flopped over, limp, particularly along the edges of the tray; dehydration of the soil works inwards from the edges. You can compensate for this fact by watering more along the tray’s edges than in its interior. Eventually, you will have a sense of the need for water based on the weight of the try when you pick it up.

Harvest: Sometimes I harvest because the plants are looking too big and beginning to fall over, even with regular waterings; they’ve outgrown the tray. Sometimes the decision is a matter of taste; flavors change across the developmental spectrum, textures, too. When it’s time, I take a handful of the foliage and shear closely with kitchen scissors, paying attention that when I toss them into the waiting bowl or colander, I’m not including chunks of soil. As long as there’s no soil, washing the greens is limited to rinsing.

There are invariably still some seed hulls attached; many will rinse away. It’s only the larger ones, such as sunflower and buckwheat, that are unpalatable. The little ones go mostly unnoticed, and when I reflect that psyllium husk is sold as a supplement, I lessen my efforts to remove them.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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