Monday, 27 May 2013

Growing microleaves

If you can remember growing mustard and cress on blotting paper at school then you are familiar with the idea of microleaves.
These are new-born baby versions of salad leaves, sown thickly and harvested when still just a centimetre or two high. You get all the flavour and nutrients from the full-size plant in a miniature package.

Microleaves were all the rage in restaurants not so long ago – around the time that making everything into foam was fashionable too. They’re used mainly for garnish, but also are good for adding flavour and texture to a salad.

Good varieties to try in microleaf form include mizuna, mustard, shiso, radish, rocket, basil, coriander, and peas. Especially peas - this is a quick and easy way to get pea shoots for a salad.

I sow microleaves when I have a few seeds left in the packet and no space left in the ground.
  1. You need a shallow tray to grow microleaves in, one with drainage holes in the bottom. I use up these clear plastic supermarket trays which fruit, veg or even meat come in. The tray gets a good wash before we do any sowing! 
  2. Helpfully, many of these trays already have holes punched into the bottom. If yours doesn’t you’ll have to add some, with a skewer or fork or scissors.
  3. Cut a single piece of kitchen towel so that it fits snugly into the bottom of the tray. This is to stop your growing medium falling through the drainage holes while still letting water in and out.
  4. Now add your growing medium – I’m deliberately not specifying what it is because there are a number of effective things you can use:
a.     Seed compost. There are plenty of people who say that using compost gives your microleaves the best flavour. 
b.     Perlite. These are particles of volcanic rock that have been heated to a very high temperature so that the granules become light and very porous. Good for anchoring the roots in place and absorbing water, which is then available to the growing plants. Looks like cat litter.c.     Vermiculite, a silicate mineral which provides a clean inert anchorage for the micro-seedlings. It also has the advantage of being much cleaner than soil.
d.     Cotton wool covered with kitchen towel (or blotting paper). This has to be the cleanest solution of all. My only objection here is that I’ve found I get patchy germination using kitchen towel to germinate seeds.

Whichever you use, it needs to be about 1.5 centimetres deep in the tray. Sprinkle it in and tap or shimmy the tray from side to side so that the granules are evenly distributed.

5.     Sow the seed on the surface. You should sow quite thickly, so long as the seeds remain in a single layer on top of the vermiculite. You don’t need to cover the seeds.
6.     Now place your tray in a shallow dish, into which it fits comfortably. Add water to the dish, not the seed tray. The water will be drawn up into the seed tray, moistening the seeds.
7.     Place the seed tray and dish somewhere bright and consistently warm – a south-facing windowsill, especially if you have double-glazing, is good.
8.     All you have to do now if to make sure that the bottom of the dish doesn’t dry out. Check it daily and top up with water if necessary. And wait. Your seed should germinate in 2-4 days (2 days for pea shoots and mizuna, 4-5 for shiso or coriander), and, if it’s on a windowsill, you may have turn it so that the shoots continue to grow up straight.

Pea shoots are my all-time favourite here. You know that distinctive taste of pea shoots in salad? This is by far the easiest way to grow your own tender pea shoots – if you pick the growing tips of the peas you’re growing for full-grown pods, you will reduce your harvest.

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