Gardens: Make magic with micro greens
They’re expensive to buy, but micro greens are easy to grow
These baby plants may be of Lilliputian proportions, but they are wonderfully decorative and intensely flavoursome. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make all the difference. Take micro leaves (or micro greens or microveg, as they are also known), those tiny, edible seedlings that are typically harvested within a few weeks of germination to be used as garnishes, or in soups, stir-fries, salads, sandwiches, juices, smoothies, occasionally even in cocktails and puddings. Fast growing and eminently suitable for cultivating indoors on a sunny window sill throughout the year, these baby plants may be of Lilliputian proportions, but they are wonderfully decorative and intensely flavoursome.
Depending on the particular leaf, that flavour might be spicy, sweet, lemony, limey, peppery, oniony, even aniseedy, and is typically a purer, more concentrated version of that of the mature plant. The shape and texture also varies widely according to the particular species/variety, as does the colour. Various shades of green aside, micro leaves can be pink, purple, bronze, red, white or yellow; their ability to add droplets of intense, vivid colour to a dish is one of the reasons why professional chefs love them so much.
Which are best? It all depends on what you want to use them for. A dozen succulent coriander seedlings, for example, will pack a powerfully fragrant, zesty punch in a mixed salad, while the purple seedlings of the oriental salad leaf known as ‘Red Frills’ are intensely spicy with a peppery hint of horseradish that adds bite to a meaty beef sandwich. Chervil micro leaves, meanwhile, lend a mild, sweet, aniseed flavour to chicken and seafood dishes.
But these are just a few examples; other micro-leaves suitable for growing on your window allotment include alfalfa, beetroot, basil, dill, amaranth, sorrel, sunflowers, watercress, perilla, peas, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, leaf radish, fenugreek, rocket, celery leaf, chard, carrot, chives, mint, mizuna, mibuna, komatsuna, tatsoi, summer savory, onion, leek, salsola and cabbage.
Seed of all of these can be bought individually from specialist online suppliers, or as a blend of interesting mixtures. It’s also very worthwhile digging out any old seed packets close to their sow-by date and using them in this way (only use those species/varieties whose leaves you would also eat as mature plants).
So how to grow them? All you need is a shallow seed tray with drainage holes, good-quality seed compost, seed, and a sunny window sill in a warm room. Begin by filling the tray with compost to a depth of 5cm-7.5cm, gently tamping it down to get rid of any air pockets. Now sow the seed; with micro leaves, do this much more generously than you would if propagating plants to grow to adult size. Roughly aim for a density of 10-12 small seeds per square centimetre, half that for larger seeds.
Once sown, gently tamp the seeds down into the compost and use a garden sieve (or even an old kitchen sieve) to lightly cover them with a fine layer of compost. Then water the tray gently but thoroughly, using a container with a rose/spray attachment. If your seed tray came with a transparent lid, now’s the time to pop it on. If not, use cling-film to cover it, before placing it on a sunny, warm window sill. Examine the tray regularly over the next few weeks for any signs of germination; once you see them, immediately remove the cover. This might feel cruel, but it greatly lessens the risk of tiny seedlings succumbing to disease or becoming leggy.
Speed of germination and growth will vary greatly according to the variety, as well as according to available levels of heat and light; you can expect to wait anywhere between seven days to a month before your micro greens are ready to harvest. Remember, also, that no matter what the variety, it will give just one crop; for that reason, it’s wise to succession-sow.
Typically, micro leaves are ready to eat when they’re between five and 10 centimetres tall and have just produced their first set of true leaves (unlike the seed cotyledon, these leaves are typical of the adult plant.). Until then, make sure that they’re adequately watered, while keeping in mind the fact that good drainage is key to their success. I’ve also found that rigid white card, placed behind the seed tray where it will reflect light back from the window, is a useful way to boost natural light levels and encourage even growth during our dark Irish winter days.
To enjoy them at their best, harvest your home-grown micro leaves just before you plan to use them, using a sharp scissors to slice them off just above compost level (remember that the stems are just as edible and colourful as the leaves). Tiny they might be, but you’ll soon discover that in terms of flavour and colour, they punch far above their weight.
Recommended Irish seed suppliers include Klaus Laitenberger of Green Vegetable Seeds, who recently added interesting micro leaf seed mixes to his range, and Sue Barnes of Westport-based Seedaholic (seedaholic.com). Other online suppliers include Nickys Garden (nickys-nursery.co.uk), and for bulk quantities, Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com). For more advice, pick up a copy of The Speedy Vegetable Garden by Lia Leendertz and Mark Diacono (Timber Press).
This week in the garden
Dates for your diary
November 26th, 10-30am-12pm, Christmas from the Garden at the Powerscourt Garden Pavilion, Co Wicklow, with floral artist and AOIFA demonstrator/competitor Brenda Joyce. Admission €5.
See powerscourtgardenpavilion.com for detail.