Microgreens became popular about 20 years ago, when a few trendy California chefs started growing and using them to add “bling” to their garnishes and salads. That popularity has continued to grow, with microgreens named as one of the hot new food trends by several restaurant magazines, even National Public Radio.
This popularity has created a steady demand for this micro-crop, and made it one of the best new crops for urban farmers, as it takes very little space to grow microgreens, indoors or outdoors. If you’re considering starting an urban farm with microgreens as a primary crop, here are the top ten questions and answers about this popular specialty crop.
1. What is a microgreen?
Microgreens are tiny edible plants that are older than a sprout, but younger than a full-grown plant. Microgreens are harvested after the first “true” leaves have developed. They are the smallest of the salad greens, and can be grown from almost any plant variety that would produce a mature plant, such as beet, radish or mustard.
2. What’s the difference between sprouts and micro greens?
Because of their size, microgreens are often confused with sprouts. They are not sprouts. Sprouts are just germinated seeds grown in water that are eaten whole, with the seed, root and stem still attached. . Microgreens are not grown in water, as are sprouts. They are commonly grown in soil or on a sterile growing mat such as a fiber mat. The seed density for microgreens is much lower than for sprouts, which allows plenty of room for each tiny plant to grow, and prevents the disease problems common to sprouts. Microgreens are harvested by cutting, without any roots.
3. Can I grow microgreens in my area/climate?
Unlike most crops, microgreens can be grown almost anywhere, even during winter in northern climate zones. Because microgreens take so little space, it is practical, and profitable, to grow them indoors when weather conditions don’t permit outside growing.
4. What are the best plants to grow as microgreens?
Because microgreens are widely used to add “zing” to a main course or salad, the most popular varieties are the spicy ones. These include arugula, which adds a spicy, peppery flavor to other foods, basil, celery, cabbage, cilantro, a widely used spicy herb, endive, mustard and tangy radish. In addition to the popular spicy microgreens, growers will also produce a wide range of colorful greens, such as rainbow chard or kale.
5. How much money can a microgreen business make?
Because the crop cycle is so short, commercial growers can make a good income in a very small space. Most microgreen varieties are ready to harvest in about two weeks, so a capable grower can produce 20-25 crops per year. By stacking the growing channels or trays vertically, four times as much can be produced in the same space.
Using a four rack system, many growers are producing an average of 50 pounds of microgreens in a 60 square foot growing area per 2-week crop cycle. At $25 per pound, that’s a return that beats just about any other legal crop. Most growers report an average harvest of 5 to 6 ounces of microgreens per single tray ( 10″ x 20″ ) when grown on a single level, such as a tabletop.
6. Are special seeds required for microgreens?
The seeds used for microgreens are untreated seeds, preferably organic, that are the same seeds used to grow full-size plants. As the plants are grown much closer together, it takes more seed to grow microgreens than field-grown crops. That’s why purchasing seeds from a wholesale source is a must for profitability.
7. What kind of soil does microgreens require?
Although many hydroponic growers use no soil to produce microgreens, growing in soil is easier for most small growers. Any high quality potting soil will work, especially those “fortified” with natural nutrients such as kelp.
8. When should microgreens be harvested?
Most microgreens are ready to harvest when they have produced a second set of leaves, known as “true leaves.” Some growers also let the microgreens continue to grow an additional week or so to produce baby greens, also a popular and profitable sideline crop to sell to buyers.
9. Do microgreens have special nutritional value?
Studies have shown many microgreens , such as red cabbage, broccoli, and radish often contain up to 40 times more nutrients that mature plants. According to Professor Qin Wang at the University of Maryland, microgreens are 4 to 40 fold more concentrated with nutrients. His research team tested 25 different commercially grown microgreens, and found consistently high levels of important nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, lutein and beta-carotene. Dr Gene Lester, a USDA researcher says, “All these nutrients are extremely important for skin, eyes and fighting cancer, and have all sorts of benefits associated with them. To find these high levels of nutrients, I find that quite astonishing.”
10. How much does it cost to start a microgreen business?
Because growing microgreens does not require expensive equipment like tractors and tillers, the startup costs can be quite affordable, as low as just a few hundred dollars. Even indoor growers can use low-cost fluorescent fixtures to keep costs down, and outdoor growers can build a basic hoop house to grow microgreens for around $3 per square foot. One successful grower has called microgreens the best “shoestring startup” for new urban farmers. To learn more about starting your own microgreen business, read Growing Microgreens For Profit.