Sprouts, Shoots and Microgreens
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Think you can't have fresh vegetables during our long, cold winters? Think again! Say hello to sprouts, shoots and microgreens: the easiest and fastest way to get your greens even when it is -30 C outside. Today we are going to talk about exactly what you need (and don't need) to grow these super nutritious veggies and take you through how to grow and harvest them, step by step.
What's the Difference?
Essentially, the difference between sprouts, shoots, and microgreens is how mature they are when you harvest them. There is some debate out there, but here is the most commonly accepted definitions of the three.
Sprouts are harvested once the roots begin to emerge (and sometimes a very tiny bit of the cotyledon or seed leaves emerging). Because they are eaten before any leaves are formed (and therefore before any photosynthesis takes place), they don't require any sunlight or soil to grow. All they need is water. They are also crazy fast to grow! Often in as little as 3 days, you can go from seed to plate.
Conversely, shoots are harvested once the roots and the cotyledon have fully formed. The cotyledon are the seed leaves and every single plant out there grows them first. In monocots there is one leaf (usually all the grains and grasses) and dicots have two leaves (most other plants). These seed leaves are completely different in terms of looks than the true leaves that will emerge next. Typically with shoots, it is just the stem and cotyledon that are harvested (the roots are left behind). To grow shoots, we need more than just water. We also need some type of substrate to grow in and some light, as those seed leaves need to photosynthesize. The substrate we use does not need to have a lot of nutrients in it, as most of the nutrition need to form the cotyledon is included within the seed itself.
Microgreens are harvested once the roots, the cotyledon and the first set of true leaves have formed. Be aware that the line between shoots and microgreens can be a bit fuzzy. Often, there is no differentiation between the two and they are both labelled as microgreens. As with shoots, the roots are usually left behind, and the stem with leaves are cut just above soil level. Water, light and a bit more nutritious soil is required to grow them. Most microgreens can been grown in 7-14 days, which is still super fast when you compare them to anything in our outdoor summer garden, right?
Why Grow Them?
Most people have only seen sprouts, shoots or microgreens as bean sprouts on sandwiches or microgreens as a garnish in fancy restaurants. They can be so much more! I have already mentioned that they are crazy fast to grow and available to us year round (very important in an area with very long cold winters). But did you know that they are nutrient powerhouses too? Sprouts, shoots, and microgreens have up to 40 times the nutrients of mature plants (especially protein and fiber) and 3 to 5 times the vitamins (especially the B vitamins). The more colourful the microgreen, the more vitamin packed it is! Not only that, sprouting grains before drying and using them for flour increases their digestibility. This process removes phytic acid, which is often to blame for gluten intolerances.
And the taste! There is everything under the rainbow in terms of flavour when it comes to these guys. Want spicy? Try mustard greens or arugula. Want herbal? Try basil, parsley or cilantro. Want sweet? Try popcorn. Want salty? Try orach. Want colourful? Try swiss chard, beets or amaranth. The colours and flavours are unlimited! In addition, many seeds can be grown as any of the three: sprouts, shoots or microgreens. They usually have quite different flavour profiles depending on when they are harvested. What I am saying is that you need to experiment. Good thing they are wonderfully easy to grow a little at a time and see what you like (and with just a small amount of time commitment too).
Don't forget, by growing your own, you ensure that your family's food is safe. No E. coli or pesticides here. Plus, they are as convenient as your kitchen counter, can be grown on a small scale, are available whenever you need them, and are just pennies a serving. Are you ready to learn how? Let's do this!
Let's Start With Sprouts
From left to right: red radish sprouts, green pea sprouts, alfalfa sprouts
What you need
To grow sprouts you need seeds, water and a container to grow them in. That is pretty much it. You can get pretty fancy when it comes to the container and there are many options out there specifically made for growing sprouts but, honestly, you can get away with a glass jar and a mesh cover of some kind (cheese cloth with an elastic band or fine wire mesh cut in a circle with a screw band). You can also purchase plastic lids with perforations or premade wire screens that fit mason jars perfectly. In addition, there are a number of tray type sprouters with perforations in the bottom that are very convenient for larger seeds. You will also need a way to keep your container inverted to drain. A dish drying rack works perfectly for this or you can buy stands specifically for sprouting. There are a couple things to keep in mind before you choose your container:
You will need good airflow and to repeatedly rinse and drain your sprouts so you need holes of some kind.
Think about the size of your seeds and make sure they won't fall through those holes.
Ensure your container is large enough to accommodate your seeds once they have sprouted. That can be up to 6 times in size!
Most importantly, make sure whatever container you use, it can be sterilized. We are dealing with an environment that is warm and moist and is therefore very prone to mold and mildew. Good sanitation of your equipment and your hands is mandatory!
How to grow
I will say it one more time: sterilize everything! Hot soapy water, the sanitization cycle on your dishwasher or a 10% bleach solution all work fine. Start by adding 1 - 2 tablespoons of small seeds or 1/4 - 1/2 cup larger seeds to your container. It's not going to look like a lot, but don't worry, they will grow! Don't forget to label your container so you can tell what you are growing. Cover with a couple inches of lukewarm water (tap water is fine). Then let those seeds soak:
2 hours for anything in the broccoli family (Brassicas)
6 hours for small seeds
12 hours for larger grains or beans
don't soak gelatinous seeds (see special instructions below).
Once your seed have soaked, drain them, rinse them by filling the container with fresh water and then drain them again. Store your container so that it can continue to drain and so that air can circulate within it. For jars, invert them at an angle. That way water can escape and air can still get in the jar to prevent mold or mildew (the seeds won't fall and cover the entire mesh lid if it is on an angle). See the photo below for my setup. For other sprouting specific containers, follow the instructions given.
Twice a day (about every 12 hours) add water to about 2 - 3" above your seeds, swirl and drain. I like to do this in the morning just after breakfast and in the evening after dinner. I'm right by the sink at that time anyway. Do this everyday until you are ready to harvest.
Gelatinous seeds are an exception
Some seeds need special treatment. These are the seeds that produce a gel-like substance when they come in contact with water. Have you ever used chia seeds in cooking or baking? They are used as a thickening agent because they are gelatinous (great for jam, by the way!). If we treated these seeds like the others, we would end up with a jar of thick gluey slime. Fun for kids, but not so much for sprouts. Remember Chia Pets? Cha cha cha chai! You took chai seeds, added water and spread them over a terracotta shape like a head or an animal and green "hair" would grow. That is exactly what we need to do to sprout gelatinous seeds. Start by soaking an unglazed clay or terracotta tray in water overnight. A plant pot saucer works perfectly for this and is easily available wherever you buy your plant pots. Once soaked, sprinkle densely with seeds and spray lightly with water. Cover the tray with clear plastic and spray lightly with water twice a day. We are going for damp, not soaking wet here. Continue to spray daily for 3 -5 days. Gelatinous seeds include:
You can grow short sprouts (with only the root and seed) or let them go a bit longer until the cotyledon (seed leaves) just begin to emerge. This can take from three to five days. Taste as you go to ensure they are at a point that tastes good to you. Once they are ready to harvest give them one last rinse and drain. Remove as much water as you can during this final rinse. If your sprouts are clumped up, give them a toss with a fork. If there are lots of attached hulls (the empty seed covers), swish the sprouts gently in a sink full of water to remove and drain well. Your finished sprouts can stay in the jar in the refrigerator for up to a week. The drier they are, the better they will keep. After a week, toss the remaining sprouts (into your compost). If ever you see mold or if they smell at all like rot or mildew, toss them. Better safe than sorry here. When in doubt, toss them out! Don't forget, you can get new sprouts in as little as three days.
Seeds to try
Keep in mind that we are eating the seed when we ingest sprouts. Make sure the seeds you purchase have not been treated with anything (such as fungicides or insecticides). Organic is better and seeds specifically for sprouting will be best. You can also grow your own mixes of sprouts. There are many that are commercially available too. Make sure that you combine seeds that sprout at the same time (most premade mixes do) so you are not sorting through your sprouts to pick out the ones that are ready to eat. The most common sprouts are mung beans (often served in Asian dishes like Vietnamese bun) and alfalfa sprouts (the standard sandwich topper), but there are many more that you should try:
alfalfa, all types of beans (including mung beans), beets, broccoli, clover, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), fenugreek, kale, lentils, mustards, onion, radish, rye, spelt, hulled sunflower, soft wheat plus all the sprouts listed under gelatinous seeds above.
Shoots and Microgreens
We are going to look at shoots and microgreens together, as the process for growing is the same. The only difference is when we harvest them. Although we don't require a large amount of room, we do require a bit more equipment and supplies than for sprouts.
What you need
First thing you need is a container. There are lots of options here from professional garden trays to recycled plastic clam shells (like the ones you get berries in at the super market). I like to use greenhouse 10x10s or 10x20s (see pictures below) but have definitely used Tupperware with self made holes punched in the bottom too. Whatever you use, there are some important things to keep in mind:
it must have drainage holes (if the holes are too large and soil falls through, insert a paper towel in the bottom before filling)
a tray to place your container in is helpful to catch water from the drain holes (and for watering from the bottom)
a wide shallow container is best as we are going for high surface area
you must be able to sanitize it between uses
you need a cover of some kind to keep humidity up and assist with germination (a clear plastic bag that fits over your container works well and will allow you to see when shoots form)
Unlike sprouts, we need soil to grow shoots and microgreens. Once again there are a number of options here. Seeds have all they need in terms of nutrition contained within the seed itself until the first true leaves begin to form. Because we are not growing our plants much beyond this point, we don't actually need much nourishment from our growing medium. We do, however, need really good drainage. Seed starting mix is ideal to use. You can also make a homemade seed starting mix by combining 7-8 cups of potting soil or compost with 2 cups of vermiculite. Like I said, we don't need much in terms of vitamins and minerals, so don't waste money on fertilizers. The only thing I would ever consider adding would be worm castings (no more than 10%) to act more as a plant probiotic rather than a fertilizer.
We also need to talk about lighting here. Whether you need grow lights or not is going to strongly depend on the time of year you are growing, the specific location you are growing in and how long your plants will be growing for. If it is late spring or early fall (light is more intense and less inclemental then) and you have a large south facing window, you may be able to get away with no additional light. Try it and see! If your plants have long spindly stems (what I like to call supermodel plants) and stretch towards your window, you may want to think about supplemental lights. If you do decide to go with lights, there are a few options:
good old fluorescent shop lights are your cheapest option and available at hardware stores but you must ensure they are full spectrum bulbs
fluorescent grow lights (you don't need specialty bulbs just for shoots and microgreens)
LED grow lights are more expensive but will last far longer
Regular incandescent bulbs (the ones we typically use in our homes) are not appropriate here as they are not full spectrum and produce too much heat for growing. For more details on grow lights see the article All About Seed Starting. You will need your lights on for 8-10 hours per day and have them situated at 4" above the top of your leaves. A timer will save you having to turn your lights on and off every single day and is a small investment that will save you much stress and time. Having a light that you can move up and down (or a tray that you can move up and down) will allow you to keep your plants at the perfect distance from your lights.
There are also a couple of optional equipment pieces. A heat mat that goes under your grow trays will be beneficial if you have a cooler spot (such as a window sill) and will always help speed up the rate of germination. Ensure it is a heat mat specifically for growing (to ensure the proper temperature and water resistance). They should only be used just until you see the shoots appear from the soil. If used any longer, they can lead to increased incidence of mold and mildew. Some sort of device to increase airflow can also be helpful for growing. This is used once sprouts have emerged and decreases the chances of mold and mildew as well as promoting sturdier, thicker stems (remember, we don't want supermodels!). A small fan works great, but you can also just give them a blow (with your own breath) twice a day or so.
If you like, you can presoak your seeds. It is not mandatory, but will help speed up germination, especially for those seeds that take a bit longer to grow. To do this, place your seeds in a jar and cover with water (just like you were going to sprout them). Some people add 1 teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide at this point to reduce the chances of mold, mildew or bacterial contamination. I don't usually do this, but I am very vigilant about sterilizing all my equipment. It's up to you. Let sit approximately 24 hours then strain and rinse well. Some seeds, like radish, may start to pop open after just this soaking.
Place 1 - 2" of soil in your container. Tamp it down lightly to even it out. Dampen your soil first, then sprinkle seeds very densely over the top of the soil. You want enough seeds so that they are still in a single layer (not on top of each other) but thick enough so they are just touching one another. This is going to take more seeds than you think, which is why I usually buy the seeds I use often in bulk. Do not cover the seeds with soil! Don't forget to label your container. Cover your container and if you are using a heat mat, turn it on now.
Water regularly from the bottom (see All About Seed Starting for more details) or use a spray bottle to dampen the soil surface. Watering this way prevents the seeds from being disturbed or crushing your shoots once they are growing, reduces the chances of mold and mildew, and helps prevent overwatering.
Once you see shoots poking up, it is time to take action:
take off your cover
turn off the heat mat if using
turn on your grow lights
turn on your fan
water only when needed from now on (once surface begins to dry)
Your best harvesting tool? Tiny pointed end scissors! Lightly grasp the plant tops and use the scissors to cut the stems just above the soil. This way you don't get any soil on your greens (also because we didn't put soil on top of the seeds) and get as much stem as possible. And remember to taste as you grow! Flavours change as your plants mature, especially when they go from shoots to microgreens (from just cotyledons to first true leaves). Try a couple stems as you are passing by every day and harvest when they taste best to you.
Once cut, your greens will last in a covered container in the fridge for about a week. I like to put a small paper towel in there as well to absorb any additional moisture. The soil and roots can be composted and the container reused once it has been cleaned and sterilized. Use fresh soil for your next batch. If you like, you can let your microgreens grow a second time after they are cut. This is called "cut and come again" in the gardening world. Note that you will get a far smaller harvest the second time around and some seeds are less successful than others at this. I don't usually bother waiting for a second cutting with microgreens as it is quite easy, and just as fast, to start from scratch with a new seeding.
Seeds to try
The most important thing to remember with seeds for shoots and microgreens is that we are planting very densely, so you are going to go through a lot of seeds. Far more than you would in a traditional garden setting. Remember, we are eating baby plants, not full grown large plants. Seeds sold specifically for shoots and microgreens are usually the most economical, as they are in bulk packages to accommodate the increased amount you need to use. Also, don't forget to try different varieties of the plants listed below. For example, there are an enormous variety of different mustard greens out there, all with their own special flavour and spiciness. Experiment!
Seeds that are especially yummy grown to shoot size include:
peas, sunflower, popcorn, nasturtium
The following seed are great grown to microgreen size, but can also be harvested at shoot size. Remember to taste as you grow and see how you like them best:
amaranth, arugula, barley, mustards, beets, broccoli, buckwheat, cabbage, chicory, chives, collards, endive, all the herbs (parsley, basil, cilantro, dill, chervil, lovage), kale, kohlrabi, lettuces, linseed, millet, mustards, oat grass, peas, purslane, sunflower, spinach (try kimatsuna if you can find it), swiss chard
From left to right: broccoli, sunflower, pea shoots, popcorn shoots, pac choi (at back) and arugula (in front).
Pest and Diseases
So you may have noticed that I mentioned mold, mildew and fungus a few times. That's because these are the most common issues with sprouts, shoots, and microgreens. I also mentioned a number of ways we can help prevent them from becoming an issue: sanitizing equipment, watering from below and only when needed, removing that cover and turning off the heat mat once shoots appear, and using a fan to increase air flow. These strategies will also help reduce the occurrence of any diseases. Keeping your greens in a prominent, easily visible place will allow you to catch any issues before they become big ones.
Note that some fine white root hairs look remarkable similar to fuzzy mold. Radish seeds are one example. (See the photo of pac choi germinating above.) Ensure you actually have mold, and not root hairs, before you toss!
Many insects that affect other indoor plants (such as aphids, whiteflies, mites and mealybugs), can also infect your shoots and microgreens. Your best line of defense is to keep your edible greens isolated from the rest of your houseplants. Because they have such short growing periods, treating them with even natural insecticides is not usually worth it. It is often best to isolate any plants as soon as you see an issue, garbage them (or city compost them) and start over with sterilized equipment. This is another really good reason not to reuse your soil!
The Best Part: Eating!
The whole point of growing our own greens is to eat them, right? Sprouts, shoots and microgreens are super versatile and can add a burst of flavour to almost anything! Here are some ideas to get you started:
as a lettuce replace in salads and sandwiches
to add some crunch or extra nutrients in soups and stews (like Vietnamese pho) or in entrees (like Pad Thai)
pureed into pesto and sauces
as a garnish (think of the colour possibilities!)
juiced into wheatgrass shots or in smoothies or fruit/veggie juices
sprouted grains dried and ground for use in baking
add sprouted seeds or nuts to baked goods like muffins and cakes
mill sprouted and dried grains into flour to use in baked goods
To make sprouted grain flour, follow the instructions above for sprouting using wheat, amaranth, flax, buckwheat, chickpea, millet, oats or rye. Just as soon as roots start to appear, transfer to a baking sheet and dehydrate at a very low temperature in the oven until completely dry. Then use a food mill to grind into flour. Yes, this is a long process. However, it can be worth the time for the increased nutrients (especially protein and B vitamins) and because sprouted grains are far easier to digest than regular whole grains due to the reduction of phytic acid. Those who are gluten intolerant can often tolerate sprouted grains.
Simple Shrimp Pad Thai (recipe coming soon)
Instant Pot Vietnamese Pho (recipe coming soon)
throw a burst of microgreen goodness to top almost anything! (try open faced sandwiches, avocado toast, pizza, tacos, guacamole or hummus, a folded omelet or every single salad known to man)
There is nothing saying you can't grow beyond the sizes of sprouts, shoots and microgreens. All you need is a bit more time, a bit more space and to plant your seeds less densely. Salad greens are larger than microgreens and grow up to 4" tall. They require potting soil instead of seed starting mix because, being in the soil for longer, they will require more nutrition. If left in the soil for more than four weeks, they will also require a nutrient top up in the form of fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Braising greens are even more mature, at over 4" tall. They are great for cooking (think sautéed kale or collards) and the seeds need to be spaced as for a full size plant. These often take upwards of 35 days to mature. Needless to say, both salad greens and braising greens require full lighting and much more space to grow.
Sprouts, shoots and microgreens are a super fast, nutritious and convenient way to get a wallop of flavour into your meals any time of year. So start with just one jar of sprouts or one small tray of microgreens on your kitchen counter and see just how easy it is to turn your dishes from bland into flavour bombs!
Yummy gardening everyone!
Reference and Further Reading
Mumms Sprouting Seeds (http://sprouting.com/) for everything sprouting including seeds, equipment and education.
Veseys Seeds (https://www.veseys.com/ca/)
West Coast Seeds (www.westcoastseeds.com) for everything seed starting, seed sales and timing charts, etc.
T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) Longstanding Manitoba company with a huge variety of seeds as well as trees, shrubs, perennials and gardening accessories.
Millard, Elizabeth "Indoor Kitchen Gardening" 2014, Cool Springs Press, Minneapolis, MN, USA
McCrate, Colin & Halm, Brad "High-Yield Vegetable Gardening" 2015, Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA, USA
don't forget your local garden centre or greenhouse!