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Microgreens make a big impression as easy-to-grow ‘superfoods’
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Microgreens make a big impression as easy-to-grow ‘superfoods’

For most people, harboring organisms of otherworldly colors in their basement is a scenario typically reserved for horror movies. But for Dan Kline, the mystical green, pink and purple shades of microgreens cultivated in the cellar of his Richmond home are a dream come true.

Kline, a pastor, is among an increasing number of non-traditional agriculturists growing microgreens in small spaces and harnessing their tremendous nutritional content.

Microgreens are broadly defined as vegetable greens that are grown and harvested before the sprout stage, or after the plant has developed its first leaves. Generally, it takes between two to three weeks for microgreens to reach this phase.

Much like their mature counterparts, microgreens contain some of the same nutritional properties as brassicas like arugula, broccoli and kale. However, microgreens differ because the seedlings are much younger than mature vegetables and their biochemical composition contrasts slightly.

Microgreens packed with vitamins

“A lot of enzymes and nutrients that are packed into the seed and occur during the sprouting process are still there when microgreens are harvested,” explained Chris Mullins, a Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulture specialist.

“The plant is still living off the nutrients in the seed and the enzymes that are produced, and minerals and even some antioxidant chemicals are very much there in the early stages,” he added. “They don’t necessarily go away as the plant matures, but that small little plant is going to be more densely packed with nutrients.”

To better grasp the extent of microgreens’ nutrient content, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources conducted a study of 25 crop varieties.

The resulting data revealed microgreens can contain four to six times the amounts of vitamins C, E and K and beta carotene compared to mature plants of the same variety. In addition, microgreens taste similar to the mature crop.

‘Superfoods’ are easy to grow

Mullins said these characteristics place microgreens in the category of “superfoods,” which are revered for their nutritional and overall health benefits.

He also noted microgreens are generally easy to produce and require little more than containers that can hold soilless media, grow lights, water and a dedicated space to grow. With this equipment, microgreens can be planted and harvested within 10 to 20 days.

This simplicity has led growers from all walks of life—like Kline at Bring Forth Urban Farm in Richmond—to raise their own microgreens.

Easy-to-eat veggies at micro stage

Kline began producing microgreens after his mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, an event that motivated him to grow food to fortify his physical and mental health. He initially was drawn to brassica microgreens because of their abundant sulforaphane content, which is believed to help prevent cancer, cardiovascular issues and neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s.

Sulforaphane, a sulfur-rich compound, is at its highest level in the seed, Kline explained, and a single plant in the microgreen stage can contain as much of the compound as the full-size plant. At a fraction of the size of mature vegetables, it’s easier to consume sulforaphane—as well as vitamins and minerals found in other crop varieties—in larger amounts during this stage.

Kline selected four crop varieties that were found by the USDA study to be the most nutritious and added them to his “Sweet Rainbow Mix.” The mix includes broccoli, red cabbage, red Russian kale and red garnet amaranth microgreens.

Kline also markets individual varieties including Rambo purple radish and sunflower microgreens. He has sold his products through home deliveries and at Richmond’s Lakeside Farmers’ Market since 2018.

Though his operation of a few shelves and containers is modest, Kline said his products have made a big impression on customers. He said he’s even taught a few repeat customers how to grow their own microgreens.

Mullins said the future’s bright for hobby farmers who grow microgreens. “As people become more interested in local farmers markets and locally grown food, you also can see the trend of them becoming more aware of microgreens and similar products.”

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