PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Moira McGhee
April 12, 2017

As one of nature’s premier superfoods, microgreens are easy to propagate and have an extremely short turnaround time. In fact, they’re second only to sprouts as the fastest growing food crop: Some varieties are ready for harvest in as little as seven to 12 days.

Unlike most crops, you can also grow microgreens almost anywhere, even in colder climates. Because they take up so little space, it’s profitable to grow them indoors when weather conditions aren’t conducive to outdoor growing. Thus, small-scale commercial growers can profit from 20-plus harvests of microgreens in year-round operations.

Growing The Green

Microgreens are older than sprouts, but younger than baby greens and much younger than adult plants. They’re tender and delicate, but still pack a powerful, delicious and highly nutritious punch. Results from a 2012 USDA study conducted by researcher Gene Lester in conjunction with the University of Maryland, College Park showed that leaves from nearly all microgreen varieties had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant.

Microgreens can also be grown from almost any type of edible plant you’d normally grow to adulthood, so there’s a wide array of textures and flavors. And, despite being called “greens,” there are also wonderful reds, yellows and purples that provide a treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

Microgreens are easy to incorporate into your diet, which is great news for small-scale farmers, because they’re also one of the easiest crops to grow. This makes them an ideal choice when you want to diversify your operation with a crop that can potentially provide steady income.

Microgreen Varieties That Work

There’s a long list of microgreen varieties, but some fare better than others for small-scale commercial growers. Kara Wood, owner and operator of Bloom Microgreens in Los Osos, California, suggests keeping it simple when you start out by growing varieties with similar germination rates. Here are some ideas:

  • Amaranth
  • Arugula
  • Basil
  • Bull’s Blood Beet
  • Buckwheat
  • Cabbage
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Collards
  • Cress
  • Daikon Radish
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lemon Balm
  • Red Giant Mustard
  • Popcorn
  • Shiso

“In the beginning, it’s a good idea to plant items that germinate at about the same rate, such as mustards, broccoli, cabbage, kale, radishes and arugula, so they’re all ready to harvest about the same time,” Wood says. “When you’re ready to branch out, try basil, beets, peas, sunflowers and herbs, which are a bit fussier and have longer germination and grow times. They need to be planted on a different schedule to harvest at the same time as your fast germinators and growers.”

Wood advises interested growers to choose wisely, too. “The key is to stay away from some of the more expensive seeds, because some specialty varieties can run up to $100 per pound,” she says.

Whichever varieties you choose, maximizing your space is vital to make your venture profitable. She also suggests using racks, shelves and tiered tables to provide more square footage in your greenhouse.

Soil Requirements

Armed with your initial varieties, the growing process starts with high-quality, nutrient-dense soil. Although hydroponic growers have successfully produced microgreens without using soil, most small-scale growers find growing in soil easier. Due to the short growth cycle, using soil also means you shouldn’t need fertilizers or chemicals, which adds further appeal to organic consumers.

For all of her 30-plus microgreen varieties, Wood uses only one type of soil. “I use a top-of-the-line germination mix with peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and a wetting agent,” she says. “I choose a middle ground on perlite coarseness and size, which works perfect in my area and climate year-round.” Some growers do use a variety of mixes, changing up the coarseness of the peat moss or the amount of perlite.

Some commercial growers found that using potting soils containing ocean-based nutrients, such as kelp and crab meal, resulted in higher yields. Wood also uses fresh soil for each tray of microgreens, but some growers reuse their soil after running it through their worm bin, which has the added benefit of worm castings in the mix.

Harvesting Tips

Microgreens should be harvested during the cotyledon growth stage, which is the time after a plant’s first true leaves appear. Harvesting is typically the most labor-intensive part of growing these tiny greens, which entails snipping off the leaves and stems at soil level and leaving the seed and root.

“Use clean, sharp scissors and clean hands,” Wood says. Those sharp scissors will prevent cell damage and give the harvested greens a longer shelf life, while dull scissors can cause deterioration or discoloration at the stems’ bottoms.

“It’s also important the product is dry to touch but well-hydrated when you harvest,” Wood says. “If greens are limp at all, water them and give them time to perk up. Then, package them with either a coffee filter or paper towel to keep all moisture from the product.”

Microgreens are highly perishable and need to be washed and cooled quickly following harvest. Wood weighs her microgreens while harvesting, then packages them in clear, plastic clamshell containers, but you can also use food-grade resealable plastic bags. Wood immediately labels and deposits each container in refrigerators kept inside her greenhouse.

Marketing Musts

While microgreens offer the convenience of short grow times, they’re also hampered by a short shelf life. To benefit the most from each harvest, commercial growers must cultivate regular customers and basically presale the entire crop each cycle.

Wood chooses to custom-grow greens for her clients. “Everything in my greenhouse is sold prior to even planting,” she says. “I highly recommend this style of business model as dealing with a seven- to 10-day shelf life is not conducive to weekly sales. You need to know what and how much to grow in advance.”

As with any new crop, start small and learn more about the various plant varieties and your local markets. The best customers are repeat customers. Since becoming a hot trend in the culinary world, microgreens appeal to chefs, especially in upscale restaurants. These chefs, along with gourmet grocers and health-food stores, make ideal clients and where Wood discovered a majority of her regular clientele.

As interest in buying fresh, locally grown food continues to grow, small farmers may discover a lucrative niche with microgreens and a great way to diversify their farming operations. “If you keep your overhead low, you can operate this business with a 60-percent profit margin,” Wood says.

This article originally ran in the March/April 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.


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