Small but intense

31 March 2017

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ANY forays we make into garden­ing, as children, tend to involve sowing seeds, whether scattering mustard and cress on to damp tissue paper, or pressing a sunflower seed into the soil. Mature gardeners may forgo the practice altogether, prefer­ring instead to buy ready-grown specimens and leave the sowing, pricking out, and potting on, to the professionals.

Nature has evolved mechanisms to ensure that seeds germinate at the optimum time. Horticulturists mimic the natural environment by stratifying seeds in bags of damp compost in the fridge, or soaking with smoke-impregnated papers. Sowing fine seed can be fiddly and, all in all, it seems a bit too much like hard work.

Growing microgreens — which are used as intensely flavoured garn­ish in the top restaurants — is child’s play. Their cultivation is akin to the 1970’s craze for sprouting seeds. You may remember mung beans, alfalfa, or adzuki beans, in slotted trays, which you had to keep rinsing with fresh water. Micro­greens are easier, and it feels more like growing a proper crop, albeit in miniature.

Seed merchants — notably John­sons, and the sister companies Mar­shalls and Unwins — sell a range of microgreen seeds. Broccoli, radish, fenugreek, and special mixes all fea­ture. They can be sown thickly on to damp kitchen roll, or a thin layer of multi-purpose compost, in small trays on a warm windowsill. Ger­minated seeds first show seed leaves or cotyledons. These are followed by the first pair of true leaves, and it is at this stage that microgreens are cut for the kitchen; they are smaller than “baby” salad leaves, but larger than traditional mustard or cress.

Microgreens are highly nutritious and have higher concentrations of the phytochemicals that can help protect us against illness. We are talking the delightful candy col­oured stems of rhubarb chard “Bright Lights”, or an aniseed-flavour hit in the case of basil. They can be added to soups, sauces, salads, and sandwiches following traditional flavour combinations: basil with tomato, fenugreek and coriander with spicy foods, rocket with pasta, and so on.

If you have packets of herb or vegetable seed, perhaps bought with good intentions but nearing or ex­­ceeding their sow-by date, growing microgreens is a good way of using up seed quickly. Any crops where the above-ground part of the mature plant is the part we eat are worth a try: lettuce, pak choi, Brussels sprouts, basil, dill, coriander, chard, spinach, rocket, and cabbage.

Beetroot, carrot, and radishes work, as their leaves are lesser-known vegetables in their own right, but avoid parsnips, as there is evid­ence that parsnip seedlings are mildly poisonous.

Commercial microgreen or micro­leaf kits make a fun gift, especially for flat-dwellers who wish to grow something of their own. Unwins and Marshalls sell a little tool for harvesting: tiny shears, called micro snips. They are not strictly necessary, as scissors will do, but some of us love a new toy.

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