Our main team has jobs in the wintertime
Microgreens growing in the greenhouse.
like parades, hauling Santa Claus or entertaining guests. It is imperative that they work steady and quiet. The best way to keep horses this way is to work them. Sweat under harness is a great teacher. You don’t have to overwork them but steady work every day, or even every other day, is a teamster’s best friend. The more you work them, the better they get. The better they get, the more you work them. It is a circle that enriches the lives of man and horse alike. It makes everyday fun and is well worth the effort.
The work does not have to be heavy work like plowing. A wagon ride around the farm or block will do wonders. We pull a large tire behind the forecart sometimes. When conditions allow, we use them on the sled. Often, we do meaningful work like getting firewood; other times we just go for a ride.
My husband and I have been growing microgreens and shoots to expand our produce production offerings since 2017.
Pea Shoots - the finished product.
Since we’re a small scale (we have less than an acre in vegetable production at the height of the season) certified organic vegetable farm in eastern Pennsylvania, we knew we wanted to supplement our farm income with a top dollar crop that has a quick turnaround time. Although we’ve been growing microgreens for years at this point, I can say with complete certainty that like any other agricultural pursuit, things change. What might work for us, very well might not work the same way for you. Or vice versa. I continually seek out new information about growing micros
to continue to expand in my knowledge and understanding of these little baby plants, and I encourage you to do the same. There’s a plethora of information available on the subject of microgreens, and becoming familiar with all the different techniques will only serve you in a positive manner. With that being said, here’s how we grow our microgreens and shoots on our farm.
Microgreens and shoots are anywhere from one- to three-week-old baby greens that are harvested just after their cotyledon leaves have been developed.
They can range anywhere from 1 to 3 inches in height, and are nutritionally packed with vitamins, minerals, and other health supporting components.
Soil scoop with a fill line drawn for the amount needed to prepare a single tray.
A 1020 tray for growing shoots
A seeded pea shoot tray.
Not only are these tiny greens wonderfully delicate in texture and taste, but they also can serve to garnish any plate to give it that “fresh out of a fancy restaurant look.” If you want to impress your dinner guests with one of your homegrown or locally grown meals, just add some microgreens, and you’ll be amazed at all the compliments to the chef! Popular microgreen varieties are radish, cabbage, broccoli, kale and different culinary herbs – you can pretty much grow anything as a microgreen. Popular shoots are pea tendrils and sunflower shoots – yes, you can eat a sunflower! Microgreen and shoot seed, both organic and conventional, are readily available online.
Aside from the extreme health benefits of consuming microgreens, and the visual appeal of them, there are also a host of other reasons to consider growing microgreens. Whether you wish to scale up your current farm operation, start a new farm enterprise, or you just simply wish to experiment with growing at home, the following are great advantages.
Minimal Start-Up Investment
The upfront investment to growing microgreens is approachable and attainable and has a low barrier to entry. The start-up costs are reasonable and can scale up from home/hobby to professional production, all without needing massive start-up capital. A microgreen farm is the perfect way to ease into starting a farm business, given the realistic initial investment, and it’s extremely easy to track profitability and expenses, as microgreens have fixed inputs and fairly reliable outputs. (Every once and awhile, yields can get weird due to pests, poor germination, temperature, etc.) Even if growing microgreens becomes your new favorite pastime at home, I thoroughly recommend doing a cost analysis on inputs and yields. All too often, farmers forget that running the numbers is a vital part of financial success.
A plastic container in which holes have been drilled for soaking sunflower seeds.
Limited Space Requirements
Due to their tiny-but-mighty nature, microgreens need minimal space for production, which is appealing to those who wish they could farm, but lack the space to do so. Many people with success grow micros in greenhouses, on storage racks with grow lights, or at home in a large south-facing window. In my very humble opinion, while many people grow micros underneath grow lights, I believe that those grown under natural sunlight are far superior. I believe that no matter how hard we humans try to simulate the great divine, good old-fashioned sunshine is best. (Of, course, this is just my opinion, and I strongly encourage others out there to find what works best for them!)
Sunflower shoot seed soaking. A weight is holding the container down.
Seasonal Product Extension
For those of us who garden and farm year-round, growing vegetables in the dark and cold time of year can be quite challenging. A lot of the time, during the colder months, vegetable variety, if any is available at all, is lacking. With the addition of supplemental heat or the use of heat mats, microgreens and shoots are easily grown year-round in a greenhouse or other protected structure. I also started growing certain microgreens during the winter months to add a bit of color to our mainly green vegetable market set- up. The variation in color and vegetable variety at our market stand during winter helps dramatically with sales.
High Dollar Crop with Minimal Turn Around Time
Depending on the time of year, microgreens are ready to harvest and sell within one to three weeks. Due to their delicate nature, and that they’re in high demand, growing microgreens can be highly profitable. Also, due to their short turn around time, if you have any type of micro crop failure, you can quickly correct the issue at hand, and start over with minimal loss, unlike some of our other favorite season-long crops. Of course, be sure to run the numbers! On our little farm, microgreens account for over 16% of our sales, utilize the least amount of space, and only eat up a minimal amount of labor.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how to grow microgreens, I also want to touch on the importance of temperature, ventilation, and keeping the area in which you grow your microgreens pest-free.
A seeded sunflower shoot tray.
A misting watering wand for initial microgreen watering.
Varying temperatures affect the growth of microgreens. if the temperature is too cold, the baby plants will barely grow, and you’ll find that if it’s too hot, you’ll either burn the plants or they also won’t grow as fast. Aim for the optimal temperature recommended by your seed company for the given variety of microgreen or shoot that you plan on growing. In the winter, we run propane heat in our propagation house, and we also utilize a heat mat. My husband, Ansel, takes great lengths in the winter to close the greenhouse properly to make sure no cold air comes in and to make sure we’re not wasting our money by heating a drafty greenhouse. We’re also currently working on creating radiant heat bunches for our entire tunnel, but I’ll save that adventure for another day. In the summer when it can get quite hot in the greenhouse, we pull shade cloth over the entire greenhouse to bring down the ambient temperature.
After the sunflower shoots have sprouted and grown about 2 inches, you can "pet" the trays daily with clean hands to help knock off seed hulls
Farmer Sam seeding some microgreens into some prepared trays alongside some trays that have already sprouted and are ready for harvest.
Another major factor into successfully growing microgreens, is proper ventilation. If it’s too humid in the area where you’re growing your shoots, you will find that the seed or plants will become moldy. Moldy or diseased greens equals loss. To encourage proper air flow, make sure you have fans that will circulate otherwise stagnant air, and if possible, ventilate your structure. On our farm, we have a propagation house strictly devoted to starting plants and growing microgreens.
Using the Gardena trimmer to harvest micros.
Since micro production is such a vital part of our business, we opted to create an optimal space for growing. In our micro tunnel we have numerous HAF (horizontal air flow) fans which are strategically placed throughout the greenhouse to continually move around air, and we have peak vents and fans that are automated to vent at the temperature/ humidity level we set. We also have automated roll-up sides on either side of the tunnel, that open and close based on temperature. Additionally, we have concrete floors in the tunnel to, again, keep humidity down. While our set-up is high tech, and might seem like a tad overkill, we used to have a much simpler set up with which we grew micros with a fair amount of success (just remember to ventilate).
Pests of all kinds love microgreens. Whether it’s the tiny, tasty greens, or the seed themselves, make sure to have a proper pest prevention plan. This may not so much be a concern for the home grower, but, nonetheless, growers of all kinds will be surprised at how easily micros and shoots attract pests.
Getting started, to grow microgreens or shoots, you’ll need the following:
- 10/20 trays (about 2.5 inches deep) for growing shoots. Some people prefer to add an extra solid 10/20 tray underneath the tray with drainage holes to prevent a mess when watering, but we found that we prefer the extra drainage with one tray.
- A protected structure: greenhouse, south facing window, etc.
- Propagation Soil Mix; we use PRO-MIX MP Mycorrhizae Organik
- A Soil Mix Scoop
- Plastic Deli Shaker with the widest lid (for seeding micros)
- Measuring Cup (for seeding shoots)
- Mister attachment for a watering wand (watering in micros)
- Regular watering wand head (for watering in shoots)
- OR a watering can or spray bottle for watering micros and shoots at home
- A bucket to soak shoot seed in (if soaking sunflower shoots, you’ll need a closeable plastic container with holes drilled in it and a weight to keep the sunflower shoot seed from floating to the top of the bucket)
- A colander to rinse soaked shoot seed
- Marker and tape to label/ date your trays
- A log journal to keep track of your planting dates, harvest dates, amounts planted, harvest yields, disease or pest interference, and any other important details.
- Fill your microgreen 10/20 shallow tray about 3/4 full with soil mix. To make things easier, I use a scooper with a line drawn across it to mark the soil fill line with the amount needed for a single tray. Spread the soil out evenly in the tray.
- Based on the seeding density recommended by your seed company, use the deli shakers to evenly seed the tray.
- Use the mister attachment for your watering wand, or a spray bottle with a fine mist setting, and water in the tray. Be careful to not over water your tray, and be careful to not under water your tray.
- You’ll need to monitor the trays twice daily to see if the trays need to be watered or not.
- Within one to three weeks, the micros will be ready to harvest. The micros will be anywhere from 1 to 3 inches in length, and you’ll want to harvest the micros before they get their first true leaves.
- Soak the amount of shoot seed you need overnight in water. For pea shoot seed, you can soak the seed directly in a bucket. For sunflower shoot seed, you’ll need to place the seed in a closable container with holes in it, weight the drainable container down in a bucket, and fill with water.
- Once the shoot seed is soaked, drain the seed in a colander, and rinse with fresh water.
- Fill your standard 10/20 tray about halfway with soil mix. To make things easier, I use a scooper with a line drawn across it to mark the soil fill line with the amount needed for a single tray. Spread the soil out evenly in the tray.
- Based on the seeding density recommended by your seed company, use a measuring cup to measure out the amount of shoot seed you need for each tray. Evenly spread out the seed once it’s in the tray
- Use the shower attachment for your watering wand, or a watering can, and water in the tray. Be careful to not over water your tray, and also be careful to not under water your tray. Some people prefer to stack or cover their shoot trays until the seed has germinated, and then space out the trays (the darkness helps to get the seed germinated). I’ve found this step to not be needed (even though my husband thinks otherwise)
- You’ll need to monitor the trays twice daily to see if the trays need to be watered or not.
- Within one to three weeks the shoots will be ready to harvest. The shoots will be anywhere from 2 to 4 inches in length, and, depending on your variety of shoots, you’ll want to harvest the shoots either before or after they get their first set of true leaves.
When you’re ready to harvest your shoots or microgreens, you can carefully use a knife to harvest the plants, or, if you’re looking to harvest a decent number of microgreens regularly, I recommend purchasing Gardena Handheld Shears. If you’re looking to sell micros and shoots professionally, you’ll need to carefully wash, dry and pack the finished product. I generally find that micros tend to have about a weeklong shelf life, and shoots have a two weeklong shelf life once harvested and refrigerated.
For a whole host of reasons, growing microgreens and shoots either commercially, or just as a backyard hobby, will add value to your diet and farm. Playing around with growing the different varieties and learning how to incorporate micros into your daily meals is a ton of fun and is a great way to further your knowledge about growing food. When we first started growing microgreens, I never would have guessed that it would become a huge part of our success, and for that I’m very grateful. Just as we have done, it’s entirely attainable to start small with your microgreen business and then scale it up. With any new venture, always remember to have fun, learn from your mistakes and to keep at it!