Dakota Gardener: Gardening in the Winter

Esther McGinnis, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension

Gardening catalogs are arriving in the mailbox and my inbox is flooded with emails from seed companies touting the newest vegetable cultivars.

I’m starting to get the itch to get my hands dirty, but my garden is covered in 6 inches of snow.

What can a gardening addict do? Grow microgreens indoors!

Pioneered by the Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, microgreens are young, densely seeded vegetables or herbs that are grown in containers for one to four weeks before being harvested. Microgreens are sometimes called vegetable confetti and are a flavorful and nutritious topping for sandwiches, soups, pizzas and salads.

Easy-to-grow microgreens include radish, cress, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli and mustard greens. From seed to harvest, these crops take seven to 14 days, depending upon the temperature of your house. Mixes of different microgreen seeds also are sold and usually labeled as mild or spicy in flavor. I like the spicy mixes because they usually contain peppery mustard greens.

More challenging crops, taking three to four weeks to mature, include beet, carrot, cilantro, basil, parsley and amaranth greens. The herbs tend to prefer warmer temperatures than the vegetables.

Not to be confused with sprouts, microgreens typically are grown in shallow containers with approximately 1 to 2 inches of new potting soil. A wide range of containers can be used. Some people prefer 10- by 20-inch seed flats. I’ve used shallow aluminum roasting pans and the plastic containers that once held lettuce mixes from the grocery store. Ensure that the container is clean for food safety purposes.

Seeds can be sourced from local garden centers or from online seed companies. Due to the large number of seeds used, buying seeds in bulk is more economical. Buying seeds labeled for microgreen use ensures that the seeds have not been treated with a fungicide and that they are appropriate for human consumption.

Microgreen seeds are scattered uniformly on top of the moistened potting soil at a density of approximately 10 seeds per square inch. Larger seeds will require lower densities.

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Do not cover the seeds with potting soil. Instead, water them with a spray bottle and cover the container with a plastic dome or plastic wrap.

After the seeds have germinated, you must remove the cover to allow air movement and place the container near a sunny window or under grow lights. Check daily to make sure that the soil has not dried out.

Harvest the microgreens when they are 1 to 2 inches in height. They are at their most nutritious and tender when they are harvested at the cotyledon stage (first set of leaves) before the true leaves (second set) develop.

Harvesting is done by using clean scissors to clip the shoots just above the soil line. Microgreens should be rinsed and consumed raw like salad greens.

Fresh homegrown greens are a wonderful luxury in the middle of winter. Surprise your family with some microgreens for dinner. Happy gardening!

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/directory/counties.