When it comes to plant-based nutrition, most people envision long rows of organic farmland with luxurious stretches of leafy lettuces, kale, and other greens. But there’s another type of crop that offers nutritional density and a surprisingly zesty taste. Behold the power of microgreens. These diminutive greens — harvested when they’re only a few inches tall — are the first stages of growth in plants like beets, arugula, and chard. Smaller than a pinky finger, they can vary widely in terms of color, shape, and leaf size, and they tend to pack quite a bit of flavor. The Asian mustard varieties, for example, can hit the tongue like a ball of wasabi paste.
Microgreens have been grown in the United States for only about 20 years, and at the beginning, the varieties were limited. As their popularity grew, however, so did the options, and adventurous cooks and gardeners now can choose from dozens of varieties. Combining multiple types in one blend can result in a profusion of color and flavor. Beautiful to behold, chefs often use them as garnishes in fine restaurants. Nutritionally, the greens pop with vitamins, particularly vitamins A and C, as well as calcium. Those that have red pigment, like beet greens, are full of lycopene, which has been shown to reduce the risk of some types of cancer. And the yellows and oranges in others, such as carrots, contain carotenoids — antioxidants that boost overall health. The greens are grown in soil, which improves their nutritional value.
Growing microgreens at home doesn’t require much of a green thumb, either, or even a greenhouse setup. Standard UV or fluorescent lights, like those found in many kitchens, provide enough “sun” for the greens. Setting them next to a window will help speed their growth, too. Seeds are available from purveyors such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, GrowingMicrogreens.com, or High Mowing Organic Seeds. Growing time depends on the microgreen you’ve chosen, but in general, most should take only about ten days. For a good primer on planting techniques, High Mowing provides some excellent instruction on its website. The rewards of putting in the effort to grow them are numerous: intense flavor, beautiful color, versatility, and most of all, abundant nutrition. So if you’re looking for a huge health boost, it might be time to think small.