How to grow microgreens—one of 2020’s biggest food trends—at home
Enhance your salads and more with home-grown greens.
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Winter may mean the outdoor gardening season is over, but you can still grow delicious sprouts and microgreens inside. And with such a simple setup, it's no surprise that Pinterest named indoor microgreens one of its top 100 trends to watch in 2020.
These crunchy, vitamin- and fiber-packed powerhouse mini-veggies are easy to grow, and you can choose from dozens of tastes and textures, from familiar standbys like radishes and mesclun mixes to bold flavors of lemon balm, scallions, and arugula. It’s easy and quick to add zest to your salad or spice up stir fry—and for sprouts, you don’t even need sunlight. Here’s how to get started.
What’s the difference between sprouts and microgreens?
Sprouts and microgreens are similar—they’re both very young plants—but they’re harvested at different stages.
Sprouts are eaten whole, seed and all, and they’re ready to enjoy shortly after the seed has first sprouted, a few days after the dry seeds have been soaked in water. You don’t need soil or sunlight to grow sprouts, the seeds contain all the energy they need. All you need is a container and water for soaking and rinsing the seeds.
Microgreens are small plants that have sprouted and grown for two to three weeks. To grow microgreens, you’ll need to place container with soil or potting mix by either a sunny window, a plant light, or fluorescent light fixture. When you harvest microgreens, you can either snip them off above the soil, or pull up the entire plant (just be sure to wash whole microgreens well to remove any lingering soil).
Too busy to harvest your microgreens? No worries. They’ll grow into baby greens if you wait a little longer to enjoy them. Baby greens have stronger flavors than microgreens, and their texture is a little more leafy and less crunchy.
The best seeds to plant for sprouts and microgreens
If you’re growing sprouts, you want to be careful to buy seeds intended for sprouting or organic seeds. After all, you’re going to be eating them—many conventionally-grown seeds are treated with fungicides or other chemicals that aren’t intended for humans to eat. Play it safe.
You can make tasty sprouts out of beans, edible seeds, onion, herbs, and salad crops. If you’re new to sprouting, alfalfa, radishes, and mung beans are reliable for home-growers. If you’d like to experiment, the University of Vermont and The Sprout People have lists of dozens of types of seeds to try, from adzuki beans to sunflower seeds. Or, you could just buy a sprouting seed variety pack and experiment.
For microgreens, look for plants where you’d eat the stems and leaves—because that’s what you’ll be growing. Leafy greens like lettuces, kale, chards, and mustards are a good bet, but plenty of herbs and onions makes tasty microgreens too. Johnny’s Selected Seeds recommends mustard, Swiss chard, cress, cilantro, and radishes for beginners; Bootstrap Farmer has info on how to grow trickier microgreen seeds like leeks, endive, and fennel. You can also buy a microgreen variety kit.
How to grow sprouts
Growing sprouts is easy, but preparing to grow sprouts takes some thinking. Why? Because sprouts grow best in warm wet places, the same conditions that are great for growing nasty bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, which can lead to serious gut illness. If your seeds or your equipment are contaminated with these microbes, your sprouts could be too.
Millions of people grow and eat raw sprouts at home safely every year, but sproutbreaks of illness from home- and commercially-grown sprouts are still common. The FDA recommends that some people—children, people over age 65, and pregnant women—never eat bean sprouts raw because of the risk of illness.
If you’re planning on thoroughly cooking all your sprouts, you may choose to skip the sterilization—but if you’d like crunch sprouts on your sandwiches and salads, follow a sterilization procedure. In brief, you’ll be briefly soaking the seeds for five minutes in warm water treated with hydrogen peroxide, and then sprouting them in a jar that’s been soaked in a bleach mixture.
Once you have your seeds and your container ready, sprouting seeds is simple.
You will need:
- A glass jar that has eight times the volume of your seeds. For ¼ cup of seeds, you’ll want a jar that holds at least two cups (16 oz).
- Either a rubber band and a piece of cheesecloth or a mesh sprouting jar lid
To sprout your seeds, follow these steps:
- Soak your seeds overnight (12 hours). You can soak them right in the sprouting jar.
- Drain your seeds; they should be damp, but not soaking wet. Rinse them with fresh water, then drain them again.
- Attach the cheesecloth to the top of the jar with a rubber band, or screw on the mesh lid.
- Store your jar at a temperature of about 70°F. Keep your jar in the dark if you prefer paler, milder-tasting sprouts; light will make the sprouts greener and stronger-tasting.
- Two to four times a day, take out your jar and drain your sprouts, then put them back in the dark place. Do not expose your sprouts to light.
- Most sprouts are ready to eat in three to five days. Taste your sprouts; if you like them, drain them and store them in the refrigerator.
- Small sprouts like alfalfa last up to a week in the refrigerator. Use larger sprouts like mung beans in a few days.
Instructions have been adapted from Virginia State University
How to grow microgreens
Growing microgreens is easier than sprouts in some ways, and a little more challenging in other ways. There haven’t been any reported outbreaks of food-born illness associated with microgreens yet this year, but far fewer people eat microgreens than sprouts, and microgreens are grown under conditions similar to sprouts. If you’re an at-risk person, or someone with an impaired immune system, think about cooking your microgreens before you eat them.
You will need:
- A container for soil with holes at the bottom to drain water. Any kind of plastic container will do, although a shallow tray works best. You can also get a combo seedling tray to catch water and a cover to keep pets out.
- Something for the microgreens to grow in—either potting soil or seedlesspotting mix
- A light source: a sunny window, or a plant light
Steps to plant your microgreens:
Fill your planting tray with potting soil or seedless potting mix. Don’t use dirt straight out of your yard—garden soil can become hard and compressed in trays. Moisten your soil; you want it damp, but not soaking wet.
Sprinkle your seeds on top of the soil. Be very generous. Penn State Extension has the best advice: “Picture a toddler adding pink sprinkles to a cupcake.” Some experts say to press the seeds into the soil lightly and leave them uncovered; others say to sift a fine layer of potting soil over the seeds. Both methods work.
Water your seeds gently. Don’t just pour a glass of water on top— you’ll wash your seed away! Spray the seeds with a mister or spray bottle, or poke holes in the top of a milk-carton cap or soda bottle lid and use the bottle to shake water over the seeds.
Cover the tray with a dome lid, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, a plate, or a wet dish towel to keep the top moist and dark. Check your seeds every day to make sure they haven’t dried out and to see if they’ve germinated.
Remove the covering as soon as the seeds have sprouted. Place them where they’ll get six to eight hours of light per day.
Keep watering your seeds gently while they grow, but just enough to keep them from drying out. Overwatering will make your little microgreens vulnerable to fungal diseases like damping off. If you have a bottom tray under your planting container, water from the bottom by pouring water into the bottom tray.
You can munch on your microgreens any time, but most people wait until they’re about two inches tall, or when first true leaves form—look for the second or third leaf on the tiny plants. Most microgreens are ready in 14 days. A few exceptions: Radishes and kale are ready in seven days in seven days, while basil, cilantro, and Swiss chard may take up to 20 days.
Harvest your microgreens by snipping them with kitchen scissors.
Enjoy your microgreens in your salad, your pesto chicken breast, your dahl dahl—any way you like. And when you’re done, it’s time for another batch. Soon you’ll be eating fresh greens all winter long.
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