About this time of the year, when the beach weather's coming to an end and you want to get your winter veges in, kids start mooching around the house whining, "I'm bored". Unfortunately you can't put small children to work scrambling up chimneys or down pits, but you can get them helping to grow food for themselves and the family. Growing little morsels of salad greens - micro greens - can be done on a window sill with little more than a bag of growing mix and some water.
New Zealand floral designer Fionna Hill has always made beautiful creations with vegetables, but was astounded when she tried her first packet of microgreens from a farmers' market a few years ago. "I thought, what are these little gems? They were mini, zesty and perfect as salad greens, just divine," she explains. "High end restaurant chefs have been using microgreens for years, but as a garnish. I wanted people to know they are tasty as a salad and just so easy to grow."
Her search to find out more about them led to growing the flavour-packed food in a full-on balcony garden in her inner city Auckland apartment. She started taking seeds on visits to great nieces in Wellington and soon had the children hooked. A particular hit were the little peas with their feathery wiry tendrils - the youngsters loved the feeling in their mouths.
Hill's love affair turned into a book (see below) with detailed instructions on how to grow an astonishing 25 varieties of crops, including linseed flax, clover and wheatgrass, as well as the more familiar vegetables such as corn, spinach, beets or mustard. She is already experimenting with another 10 crops, but has one proviso: do not use seeds intended to be grown into full crops as these are often treated with a fungicide (often a pink dye on the seed) which can carry into the greens. And a tiny seed packet will not yield enough seeds; instead, buy bulk bags from Kings seeds (a starter pack of 100g packets of the most popular basil, beetroot, cress, radish, pea and rocket is $37.50). Or try mustard seeds, popping corn or lentils from the bulk bins at Indian food markets or spice shops.
Growing the crop couldn't be easier. Hill's artistic eye spots containers in the most unlikely places and many of us will recall growing mustard "hair" in empty eggshells, but anything shallow into which you can punch drainage holes will do. Hill uses either a sterilised pumice for greens she likes to eat roots and all, or a seed raising mix when she plans to cut the greens, or the seeds are particularly tiny.
Then you are ready to start. Soak bigger seeds like peas, wheatgrass or corn, then sprinkle them on the growing medium, densely so the seeds grow tall and straight, not spread out like a vege garden. Gently pat down and cover with a paper towel (this acts as a mini-greenhouse until the seeds have germinated). Keep moist, and, if you're using pumice, feed them a seedling nutrient and sunlight.
Flavours change as the plant grows, some taste better harvested while they are still quite hairy, while others are nicer when they have matured to full leaves (anything between seven and 21 days). Cut in the cool of the day, rinse and eat.
Says Hill: "Some kids don't like greens, but they have such pleasure eating these."
Grow your own
For detailed growing instructions, problem solving and recipes, see Fionna Hill's book How to Grow Microgreens: nature's own superfood, (David Bateman publishing, $29.99).