The Magic of Microgreens

Imagine a tiny little seedling, just emerged from the soil using the energy stored in a single seed. The first leaves are just beginning to unfold, and on the cellular level the tiny plant is bursting with newfound life. Cells are differentiating, nutrition levels are skyrocketing, and flavor is incredibly concentrated. There’s something so invigorating about eating one of these little life bursts, something almost magical.

Microgreens can be that final splash of color atop a gourmet dish, or they can be added onto a salad or into a green smoothie easily at home. Not only are they packed full of flavor and five times the nutritional content as the same plants in their mature form, but they’re tiny and pretty and we’re simply in love with them! Out at the farm we have microgreens on our salads for farm lunch (GTF provides a home-cooked meal for all employees three days a week), and we top most all of our dishes with microgreens in our own farm to table restaurant.

Because nearly five hundred varieties of vegetables wasn’t quite enough for us to juggle, we decided to start our own microgreen operation. For the past year we have been trying out different plant varieties and processing techniques, and now microgreens have become a solid piece of production at the farm. There are many varieties of micros that we have grown, but here are our main selections, complete with flavor profiles and followed by methods of production.

Microgreen Variety Breakdown

Amaranth – Burgundy

  • This dainty little microgreen wins the micro award, coming in at a towering 1-2 inches. It has become quite the favorite among chefs, as its deep burgundy stems and leaves provide a beautiful contrast atop many dishes.
  • Amaranth is most commonly grown for its grain, though we grow it for greens in our salad mix as well as a microgreen. It is related to beets and therefore has a very mild beet flavor.

Mustard Medley

  • We’ve been playing around with various ratios of different mustard greens for a while now, and we have finally landed on a winner—Mustard Medley #4, a combination of Arugula, Ruby Streaks Purple Mizuna, Miz America Green Mizuna, Ho Mi Dragon Tongue Mustard, and Golden Frill Mustard.
  • This microgreen has such a great wasabi-like kick to it, combined with some of the milder yet savory flavors of the more mellow mustards. Beyond the amazing flavor, the color variation in this medley is unique from all the other micros we grow.

Peas

  • Pea microgreens have very soft leaves, and a deliciously mild pea flavor. Due to their leguminous nature, these micros have especially high protein levels making them great for green smoothies.

Radish – Purple Leaf

  • This is another favorite among chefs for its deep purple color and mildly spicy flavor. The dark purple leaves fade down the stem to a lighter purple at the base, and little light green mutants shine through the sea of purple expressing the genetic diversity still present in the seed.

Radish – Purple Stem

  • These multi-colored radishes have slightly darker green leaves than the daikon radishes, only with bright pink stems. The spice level seems to be higher than the purple leaf, but milder than the daikon.

Radish – Daikon

  • This radish is my personal favorite. Both the stems and leaves are such a bright chartreuse color, the smooth, supple seedlings almost glow. Beyond the eye-popping color, daikon radish microgreens provide an intense, feel-it-in-your-nose wasabi spice reminiscent of purple roots that they could one day become.

This selection of microgreens works the best for us currently, though in the outskirts of the season it’s likely that we may play with cooler-weather crops such as micro dill and micro cilantro. We may even toy around with special kale mixes, beets, orach, chrysanthemums, and sunflowers, the possibilities are quite literally endless!

 

The Low Down on Growing Microgreens

Best office ever!!! We built cages to go over our greenhouse tables to keep mice off the microgreens. But we do like to open them up often so that the microgreens can feel free 🙂
Micro peas and beets on one of our house-made pasta dishes at our restaurant.

We make a special soil media for microgreens, heavy on peat moss, mixed with perlite and compost. This way the medium drains well and doesn’t keep the micros too wet, which can lead to dampening off.

We tamp the soil in the flats down to make a solid, flat layer that we can seed the micros onto. To seed the microgreens we simply shake seed onto the flat by hand, doing our best to sprinkle as uniformly as can be.

After we seed the flats, we cover them with a light layer of topper to protect the seeds, and water them in. We have to be careful not to water the flats in too hard, otherwise the nicely uniform seed that we worked so hard to sprinkle will get pushed around in the flat, leading to uneven germination. Microgreens are delicate little souls, they need everything to be just right.

Our pea process is a little different from the rest of the microgreens. First we have to soak them (check out the before and after soaking photo), and then we put them in flats without any topper. The flats must then be stacked and weighted down with bricks so that the peas root down into the soil and don’t pry themselves up into the air, which would make them very difficult to cut later. After a couple of days, we unstack the flats and let the peas do their thang!

We do micro beets in the cooler ends of the season, both spring and fall. Beets really hate being inside a greenhouse in a flat in the middle of summer, so they’re a special treat when we can have them. Beet microgreens have such succulent stems and leaves and a fully bright beet flavor.
Most weeks we have microgreens for sale at the farmers market, generally just PSU Saturday and Hillsdale Sunday. You can purchase greens by the pound or by the flat.
Mustard Microgreens sitting patiently on a creamed carrot soup at our restaurant.

I’d like to give a big thanks to all of the wonderful restaurants and individuals who have been taking advantage of our microgreens. Every week our order boards have been full and we’ve had to turn away customers, so we can only assume it’s time to up production. You can expect to see our microgreens atop dishes at the restaurants listed below and many more in the Portland area, as well as at our own restaurant, The Farmstand.

Thanks everyone for your support!

Here are some photos from Instagram of our microgreens at restaurants in Portland. It’s an honor to have our produce displayed so beautifully.

The Life of a GTF Tomato

  • Seed Selection—there are thousands of tomato varieties in this world, and we need the tomatoes that grow well and sell in this area. Joelene spends countless hours meeting with seed company representatives and other farmers talking about which varieties they think are best. Then she has to use her twenty years of growing experience on GTF land to choose what’s best for us, taking into consideration what sells well at markets and wholesale.
  • Seed Timing & Grafting—We seed tomatoes about every other week from January through April. We have to have successions of dozens of different varieties of tomatoes, some in hoop houses, some outside. Plus nearly all of our tomatoes destined for hoop houses must be grafted, so we have to match the timing of rootstock and scion tomatoes which grow at different rates but must have the same stem girth at the time of grafting.
  • Flat Preparation—We make our own propagation soil mix for all the transplants we grow. To do that we have to make our own compost (a very complex piece of the puzzle), and then sift it all by hand, mixing it in a cement mixer with peat moss, perlite or pumice, and our own special mixture of micro ingredients and mycorrhizal fungi. The greenhouse crew makes soil nearly all day twice a week about January—April.
    • Tomato Seeding—We seed all of our tomatoes by hand, and the flats sit on hot tables to improve germination. For grafted tomatoes, twice the number of plants must be seeded.
    • The Grafting Chamber—After many years, Joelene has finished our grafting chamber to be a deluxe resort where tomatoes can form graft unions, a place where they can have just the right amount of light, heat, and moisture. Two people graft two to three days a week for at least two months. This takes precision razor cuts, sanitation, steady hands, and many years of practice.
    • Up-potting—After the tomatoes have sealed their grafts and the graft clip pops off, it’s time to up-pot all the seedlings into larger pots, which the tomatoes grow up in for another couple weeks.
    • Succession Planning & Disease Rotation—We graft nearly all the tomatoes destined for hoop houses. This is because we don’t have quite enough houses to rotate our hot weather crops as much as we’d like, so there is more disease build up in that soil. Many of the diseases that inflict tomatoes are soil born, so that’s why we graft disease-resistant rootstock with heirloom tomato scion material. We have more land outside of hoop houses and can do a better disease rotation, so grafting isn’t as important for outdoor tomatoes.
  • House Preparation
    • Install snow protection in the winter so we don’t lose any houses to snow. Remove them in the spring.
    • Soil testing—Check for all the macro and micro nutrients, add fertility and other various amendments. It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that, especially including mid-growth applications.
    • Till the ground and form the beds.
    • Lay out drip tape and hook up irrigation, including trench digging, pressure calculations and pipe repairs.
    • Lay plastic over the drip tape and cover edges with soil to hold in place.
    • Sterilize trellising wires and install in the houses.
  • Tomato Transplanting—All the up-potted tomatoes must be loaded onto flatbed trucks and driven out to their planting destination. For many of the things we grow we use a partially mechanized transplanting method (tractor attachments that allow people to either sit or lay down while they plant), but all of our tomatoes get transplanted by hand. It’s a whole lot of bending over, at first in the cold and muddy spring, and later in the blistering hot summer.
  • Tomato Trellising—We have metal hooks with twine hanging down from the greenhouse ceiling. The strings are attached to the tomato plants planted below, and the plants grow up the strings as the season progresses.
  • Tomato Pruning—We prune nearly all of our indeterminate tomatoes to have two main leaders, one to twine around each string hanging down from the trellis. For about ten weeks out of the year a four-person crew works about three full days a week pruning and trellising tomatoes. Trellising entails twining the new tomato growth around the strings as the plants grow. Pruning involves careful pinching and clipping of branches and suckers. Anyone who’s spent much time pruning tomatoes knows the feeling of having green sticky tomato gunk all over your arms and hair and face. We prune largely to decrease disease pressure allowing more air flow through the houses.
  • Greenhouse Shading—In the summer months it can get way too hot inside a long hoop house, so we have to provide the plants some shade. If we had all the dollars we would just buy shade cloth, but we don’t , so we have designed a mud cannon to shoot mud all over the outside of our greenhouses, thus shading our tomato plants. Before the cannon was invented, it took a crew of four people standing (barely) on the back of a flatbed throwing mud up onto the houses one Nancy’s yogurt scoop at a time while driving forward in a jerky fashion.
  • Weeding—This is the one thing that doesn’t take too much time with tomatoes, as they are planted in plastic mulch. The plastic we use is a special plastic designed to prevent weed germination, but also designed to allow lots of heat to come through. This extra heat on the root system is what really drives up our yields.
  • Pest & Disease Monitoring—The plants have to be constantly monitored to see how they’re doing, see if we need to address any pest or disease issues, or if we need to apply mud or go through and do another prune. This is a duty shared by many who are at the farm all the time. We all watch and observe and share our concerns.
  • Tomato Irrigation—Irrigation is a very delicate dance. Water too much and you get disease and dilute fruit; water too little and you’ll have stunted plants and decreased yields. And those are but a few of the problems that can arise from improper irrigation. Joelene lives at the farm and gets up with the sun every day. She spends her entire day turning water on and off all around the farm until it’s dark out, and it’s light out for a long time in the summer! She has to use decades of knowledge about farming to decide which crops need what, taking into account what the weather’s been doing for the past few weeks and what it’s projected to do. Only so much water can be drawn from individual pumps at a time, so crops have to be prioritized, and a huge mental map must exist.
  • Tomato Harvest—Our field crew of about fifteen people harvests tomatoes nearly every day for almost four months straight. It’s a lot harder than it sounds to judge when a tomato is at the perfect time to pick, especially because every variety is different, every microclimate is different, every hoop house is different, and all of our eyes are different. You don’t want it too ripe or else it won’t make it to market, but you don’t want it so green that it won’t finish ripening. And aside from that, the simple mechanics of getting your body into a greenhouse packed with tomato plants taller than you, while holding a flat of thirty pounds of tomatoes while it’s crazy humid and reaching 90 degrees outside—that’s difficult.
  • Tomato Grading—Once in the packing shed, all of our tomatoes get graded by a crew of 2-3 people. Every single tomato gets picked up, felt, looked at, and put back down into its final destination. Tomato grading takes a trained eye and hand, and is broken down into the following categories:
    • Grocery Store Order—get packed into nice boxes and delivered all over Corvallis and Portland.
    • Restaurant Order—get packed into nice boxes and delivered all over Corvallis and Portland.
    • Farmers’ Markets—get packed into yellow flats and sent to markets.
    • #2’s—get sold discounted by the box or get roasted by our food processing crew and used in our salsa, in our restaurant (pizza sauce) and sold wholesale to other restaurants.
    • Compost—another place where the whole cycle begins again.
  • Heirloom Tomatoes—Heirlooms are so huge and delicate that they have to be cradled to stay protected. When harvested, we put them in foam-lined yellow flats in a single layer, so they take up a lot of space on pallets.
  • Marketing Tomatoes—Every year the giant selection of tomato varieties we grow changes to match changes in growing conditions and market demand. This information has to get compiled by our office and given out to our marketeers and our customers, which takes a good deal of time as well.
  • Cleaning Tomato Houses—At the end of the season we have to remove all of the dead tomato plants from the trellis strings. The plants get loaded onto a flatbed and get taken to our compost pile. The strings must be cleaned of all plant material, wrapped up in an organized fashion, and unhooked from the greenhouse ceiling. Then all the plastic must be carefully pulled out of the soil and thrown away. The drip tape must be gathered together and moved out of the way for the winter, and then the whole cycle starts over again.

Though tomatoes are one of our most labor-intensive crops to produce, many of the things we grow take nearly as much work and time, such as leeks and strawberries.

This blog post was written by Laura Bennett.

Seeding and Soil Mixing

Paula expertly using the Hamilton drum seeder.

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Daisy staying very focused as she carefully inserts seeds into each cup.

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The greenhouses are filling up, slowly but surely.

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Mustards

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Austin filling trays with soil.

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Greenhouse Planning and Direct Seeding

While agribusiness may rely heavily on cutting edge technology and precision machines, Gathering Together Farm is in a lot of ways old school, using tools and techniques known to farmers for centuries. Joelene’s method of direct seeding in greenhouses showcases a couple of traditional practices that hold their own on our small-ag farm.

Starting back in December, Jolene began the monumental task of scheduling WHAT was going to be planted in WHICH greenhouse (There are no less than 38 of them now) and WHEN. She has a database of greenhouses and their rotation histories that she’s made into a large board with vegetable/fruit-name magnets that she can manipulate into different configurations to help her visually organize her ideas.

Because the GTF greenhouses come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and each has a different history, she can only plant certain crops in certain houses.  Some greenhouses will be planted with short season greens that will have time to produce and harvest before the ground needs to be prepped for later season greenhouse needs. Some will get early tomatoes and when they’re done, she’ll put in fall/winter crops, quick-to-mature greens, etc.

Because greenhouse space is limited, Joelene prioritizes room for tomatoes (three of four plantings are grown in greenhouses), cucumbers (all of which are grown in greenhouses), eggplant (most of which is grown in greenhouses), and basil (some is grown in greenhouses). There are already two houses full of strawberries and raspberries. She’ll fill in the rest of the houses where time and space allow with other early/late crops of greens, watercress, carrots, potatoes, scallions, radishes, celery, etc.

The preparation for each greenhouse varies also. Some need extra nutrients in the form of gypsum or chicken/rabbit compost. Most are tilled with a small tractor, and then beds are prepared by hand. Greenhouses that will be planted to heat-loving crops will get plastic mulch on the ground, and tomatoes and cucumbers also need trellising. Drip and/or overhead irrigation is already set up in most of the houses, but it often needs a little rerigging or upgrading before it can service young plants appropriately.

Not long after Joelene finalized her full greenhouse rotation schedule and had direct seeded the first few greenhouses, catastrophic flooding hit the farm. When the Marys River receded, greenhouses were left extremely wet and muddy, and most of what was planted had washed away. The high waters also threw a monkey wrench into Joelene’s tightly scheduled plan for greenhouse planting. Joelene took it all in stride, and she made a series of small decisions that will make the best of the farm’s conditions and seasonal timing.

There were four lone greenhouses on the farm that were not flooded, and yesterday Joelene headed out to direct seed one of them. It had previously housed a beautiful potato crop, and after the tubers were pulled, the beds were left intact. While this was convenient because the crew could skip many of the ground preparation rituals, the actual soil was rather chunky and had a top layer of leaf mulch and other organic debris, which were added to enhance soil development. Joelene had planned to plant lettuce for salad mix here, but lettuce germinates best when seeds can be planted almost on top of moist soil. The conditions here just weren’t right because of the rough and dry surface with wet soil only an inch or so below. After deliberating a minute or so, Joelene made a quick switch from lettuce to spinach. This choice meant that she will have to fit in a lettuce planting elsewhere in the next week or so. It also means she’ll have to reconfigure the irrigation in this hoophouse to accomodate three drip irrigation lines per bed instead of overhead watering.

This is Joelene’s seeder. Even though she can drive her seeder tractor into some of the greenhouses, she prefers to direct seed with this relic because she can fit a bigger crop in tighter rows with her push seeder. In this location, she chose to use a disc seeding implement because she thought it would do a better job of cutting into the heavily mulched soil surface.

Here’s the bottom of the seeder unit. It has a dial gauge that regulates spacing of seeds. Each crop is seeded at a different setting, but Joelene has a mental catalog of seed sizing and spacing info in her head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She fills the hopper with spinach seed.

Inside the hopper, brushes sweep seeds out through the disk implement at a set spacing.

She’s loaded up.

In this case, Joelene not only had to walk up and down the rows 12 times, but in order to get the spinach seeded through the mulch layer, she had to put a good deal of pressure on the seeder frame as she traveled.

After a quick trial, she checked the spacing, depth, and consistency.

Each of the four beds got three rows of spinach. The seeds were embeded deep enough that they’re not visible anymore.

After seeding the whole greenhouse, Joelene tightly shut the door flaps. Today she will go back and cover the beds with floating row cover to add extra heat to the soil. The spinach will be ready for harvest in about two months, and when it’s finished, this greenhouse will get planted with cucumbers in early June.

Without any soil preparations, seeding this greenhouse took about an hour start to finish. There are still over 30 greenhouses to plant in the next few weeks, and many of them will require quite a bit more labor to get them ready. Winter may be a quieter time on the farm, but there is certainly no shortage of work to do.