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Keeping with the spirit of inside gardening, growing microgreens can be just as tasty as herbs but can be even easier to grow, with added benefits. Microgreens (micro-vegetables or micro-herbs or tiny greens) refers to the stage of growth between baby greens and sprouts. These tiny greens are normally harvested 10-14 days after planting and have fully spread leaves ready to add color, crunch and nutrients to your winter meals. The most popular varieties used by cooks add a sweet or spicy crunch include vegetable like cabbage, radish, beet, kale, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, popcorn, carrot, pea, broccoli, onion, arugula, celery, and, of course, herbs.

Microgreens are safer to grow than infamous sprouts. Starting in the 2000s, all raw sprouts became infamous for posing a risk of becoming a source of food-borne illnesses like salmonella or E. coli. This causes nutrition specialists like University of Illinois Extension adviser Jenna Smith to strongly discourage eating sprouts raw because of the potential health risks and horticulturists like me to adopt different growing practices to increase food safety. Rather than growing sprouts, grow these tiny greens; they do not pose the same risks. They are harvested when these risks are not present.

Another factor making microgreens safer than sprouts is the tiny greens use soil and sunlight to produce a plant rather than germinated seeds rinsed in water. It is always best to use good agricultural practices in food gardening to prevent contamination, like using seeds from reputable company and sterilizing pots with a 10 percent bleach solution. Many past contaminations of sprouts can be linked to seed sources or poor sterilization practices.

These sprouts will provide that great garden taste in the middle of winter but could also be more nutritious than their adult counterparts. According to a recent study from USDA and University of Maryland, Gene Lester and his colleagues found 25 of the varieties had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. Vitamin A, Vitamin E and beta-carotene was tested and the highest levels of Vitamin C were found in red cabbage and the most vitamin E was found in daikon radish.

There is an extensive selection of seeds, and growers have used 80 to 100 varieties to come up with leafy, spicy, crunchy, sweet or tangy leaves. If a “tiny green” garden bug hits, simply remove the roots and stems out of the soil, toss them in the compost bin, and till the remaining soil with a fork and begin anew. Next week’s column I'll share growing tips for tiny greens.

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Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.

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