Starting in the mid-1980s, colorful, often crunchy, and tasty microgreens began showing up on dishes and in salads at some of our finer restaurants. These very young beets, radishes, and other vegetables—called microgreens—have also made their way onto sandwiches, into home cooking, and have become prized for their nutritional value.
Many diners confuse microgreens with sprouts, which are harvested just past germination. Microgreens are more developed; generally one to three inches long, they’re ready to eat when the cotyledons (seed leaves) are fully developed but before the adult leaves have developed fully. Radish microgreens are subtler and less pungent than adult radishes. The same can be said of onion microgreens, which have a bit of a nutty flavor that is a cross between an adult onion and a nigella seed. Kale microgreens have a lighter, sweeter taste than full-grown kale.
Chef Jana McMahon is the director of culinary at the Training, Education, and Resource Institute (TERi), a nonprofit that aids individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. She says, “When you’re adding microgreens, you have to look at the dish.” For example, for a risotto dish you might use purple basil microgreens “to visually complement the dish and complement the flavor profile as well.” Or a cook might use amaranth and cilantro micros to complement a tahini sauce. She believes that in some cases, micros are an afterthought, carelessly added to a dish. “For some people, microgreens have become like what parsley was in the ‘80s,” she says.
Robin Kanzius of Fred’s Urban Farm encourages people to be creative with their microgreens and has found ways to enjoy them that might surprise even those who have appreciated micros for years. “We eat them as a salad, a full salad of microgreens. And tacos! Tacos are great with microgreens,” she says. “It’s nice to sprinkle microgreens on pizza. And on soups—they add crunchiness to soups.”
The Microgreen Farms
Possibly the first farm to produce microgreens on a commercial scale in San Diego County was Sun Grown Organics. When Robin Taylor took over the operation of Sun Grown from his father in 1983, the farm grew only sprouts, but within a year Taylor expanded the farm to include microgreens. “We could actually supply more products that way,” he says. Among their first microgreen crops were sunflowers and peas.
On a visit to the Sun Grown farm, I park next to a tractor with a semi-trailer, indicative of the major grocery stores that the family-operated farm supplies, such as Whole Foods and Sprouts. Although Sun Grown is a large-scale commercial producer, the farm is only five acres, which is considered small by agricultural standards. “And production in the greenhouse is 80,000 square feet,” Taylor says.
Immediately behind the main processing building are a half dozen greenhouses. Stepping inside the first one, there are rows of tables, all covered with square seedling trays. This greenhouse has micros of sunflowers and onions, all in various stages of development. Taylor displays a freshly planted container in which sunflower seeds completely cover the substrate. “We lay down a bed of compost, which we produce here, and add the seeds,” he says. Production is year-round, with greens being harvested in seven days during summer and taking as long as 16 days during winter. Once the greens are ready to harvest, the roots are cut off; the greens are then cleaned, packed, and shipped. In smaller greenhouses, the seeds are distributed on the ground in a bed of compost, a simpler method than growing in trays.
San Diego County has a number of other commercial microgreen producers, all serving to fill a number of culinary niches. A newcomer to growing microgreens is Fred’s Urban Farm.
“We started two and a half years ago. We were looking for a way for my sister to work at home,” says Mike Suter, who, with his sister Robin Kanzius, manages Fred’s Urban Farm. “We started brainstorming ideas to start a business without a whole lot of infrastructure.” The farm was also inspired by the two enjoying microgreens during a vacation in Washington State. Fred’s Urban Farm delivers to local restaurants, and also delivers fresh microgreen to local household subscribers.
Aside from their stands at the La Mesa farmers’ market on Fridays and the La Jolla farmers’ market on Sundays, they maintain a microgreen “ATM” at their farm in La Mesa.
McMahon has recently introduced microgreens as part of TERi’s agricultural program. When she started working with TERi 10 years ago, they administered 13 group homes, all of which presented the opportunity to convert their lawns to gardening or small-scale agriculture. McMahon says, “One had a quarter acre of lawn, and I said, ‘If you’re going to water it, you might as well eat it.’” TERi delivers chef-specific mixes to 25 chefs in North County. “We deliver directly, there is no middleman,” McMahon says, emphasizing the freshness of their products.
Fresh Origins is perhaps the largest producer of microgreens in San Diego and one of the largest producers in the country, offering an array of 400 products. Besides microgreens, Fresh Origins produces Tiny Veggies™, those Tom Thumb-sized carrots, radishes, and beets that are often found garnishing high-end plates, and Petite Greens, which are stronger-tasting than microgreens. They also grow 60 varieties of edible flowers, including extremely aromatic and flavorful herb flowers. Among their edible flowers are lavender, basil, and mint blossoms.
In addition to supplying microgreens to local chefs and offering their micros at farmers’ markets, Quantum Microgreens markets an array of do-it-yourself microgreens kits, which feature micros such as arugula, radish, and mustard.
Nutritional Benefits of Microgreens
From the beginning, microgreens have been hailed for their nutritional value, yet the peer-reviewed science to back up those claims has only recently come out. A 2017 study from the USDA found that most micros contain more nutrients than their full-grown counterparts. Another research team at the USDA found that microgreens contained as much as five times the vitamins and carotenoids than of adult vegetables. Of the 25 microgreens tested, red cabbage, cilantro, garnet amaranth, and green daikon radish had the highest concentrations of vitamin C, carotenoids, vitamin K, and vitamin E, respectively.
In another study, laboratory mice who were fed micros had lower “bad” cholesterol than mice without microgreens in their diets. Researchers also found that red cabbage microgreens contained more polyphenols and glucosinolates—antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that also lower cholesterol—than mature red cabbage.
The nutritional value of microgreens is part of what motivates Robin Kanzius to produce micros herself. She is encouraged by research out of the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University that shows measurable improvements for people with autism and depression when given a daily diet of microgreens.
Describing some of the findings of the research, she says, “There are the cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale—they all have a compound, sulforaphane, but it’s mostly in broccoli. It opens up NRF2 pathways, which regulate 200 different genes, ones that work on detoxification and inflammation.” There is no scientific proof, but since Kanzius’s family began incorporating microgreens into their diets, her mother claims that her vision has improved. Kanzius adds, “I love helping people live healthier lives.”