The Winter Windowsill

Julie Falk
Adams County Master Gardener

The time of year has arrived when gardeners must express their vegetable gene through indoor plantings. If you take special pleasure in cooking with food that youíve grown yourself, itís time to make room on or near the windowsills for the miniature crops of winter.

For at least a decade, chefs have been showing increased interest in the production of "microgreens". These are vegetables and herbs that are grown to a grand height of one or two inches, and then harvested as a garnish or ingredient. Although the finished products are about the same size as sprouts, microgreens are different in a few important respects. They are both, as you would expect, grown from seeds Ė but sprouts are essentially grown solely with water, and the seeds are consumed. With microgreens, the seeds are planted in soil or a growing mix and harvested at the soil level when their first true leaves have unfolded. If you remember your high school biology, the first set of leaves are called cotyledon leaves, and the second set are the true leaves of the plant.

Microgreens are fun, easy and cheap to grow. You can use a flat, or even the plastic containers you bring home from restaurants. Just fill the shallow container with soil or potting mix, taking care to punch holes in the bottom for drainage. Plant your seeds and cover with about one quarter inch of soil. Thatís it. You neednít worry about spacing the seeds because youíll be harvesting before theyíre big enough to crowd each other out. The choice of seeds to plant can vary wildly. The most popular are probably leaf lettuce or lettuce mixes, but you can gainfully plant many others Ė beets, kale, parsley, basil, cilantro and arugula among them.

Microgreen lettuces and herbs are harvested at about two inches in height

About one week after planting, your seeds will have sprouted, taking on the appearance of a chia pet. Within about two weeks, depending on the species youíve selected, the second set of leaves will have unfolded and itís time to harvest. No aching back from bringing in this crop. You just trim them off near soil level with a scissors, wash them off, and theyíre ready for use.

While some people grow microgreens in large quantities as a commercial product, you and I may be more interested in this as an edible experiment. The tiny plants are flavorful and pretty, just begging for artistry. In my premier batch, I toyed with colorful mixtures. I blended red and green lettuces, beets and lettuces, basil and lettuces, dill and lettuces. They grew beautifully, possibly because I lucked into just the right degree of drainage. One wants to keep the soil moist but not wet. Because of the shallow containers, there is also a high risk of excessive drying if you forget to water. After rinsing my crop, I stored them in the refrigerator, where they lasted over a week.

Seeds sprouted in jars are profuse, but require careful handling to prevent contamination with germs

One caveat I discovered was that the blending of lettuces and herbs in the same container produced little plants of different height. Lettuce, for example, came out tall while basil was still short. So for the next batch, I decided to grow each thing separately and do the mixing after harvest. I think that would have worked nicely, but I used some discarded plastic berry containers from the supermarket. They didnít drain well, so the soggy seeds only sprouted sporadically. That final crop was lackluster. Iím old enough that Iím finally learning from my mistakes, so Iím sure the next crop will be a success.

When the parsley and basil seeds sprouted, I decided to transplant a few of them into nice pots. Iíll grow those near a sunny window and enjoy the fresh herbs for the next few wintry months. Also, seeing the profusion of sprouting things reactivated my interest in sprouting things in jars. My mason jars and screens are out again, and Iíve had a fresh round of red clover sprouts and mung bean sprouts. Although microgreens can be grown from any commercial seed packet, remember that sprouts grown in jars must be from seeds that are specifically produced for sprouting. In order to avoid food-borne illnesses it is always essential to use clean equipment and potable water, and to wash both your hands and the produce. Enjoy your windowsill gardening!

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