I finally got my fall garden planted over the weekend. You know, the basics like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and buttercrunch lettuce.
But the most exciting thing I’m trying this fall is microgreens. Arugula, to be exact. And unlike its autumn brethren that won’t be ready until mid-November, we’ll be harvesting the arugula microgreens next week.
Thanks to Tenita Solanto, the Navy veteran and microgreen farmer (and expert), now I know all about microgreens. During her years in the Navy, Tenita was an electronic technician, focusing on things like repairing radars and satellite systems.
“The Navy really put me on the path of electronics,” she told me. So when she got out, she began working as a contractor with IBM. Two acquisitions later, Tenita found herself swept up in one of the seasonal rounds of corporate layoffs from Lenovo, and a motivation to start her own IT business. She went to a minority land conference in Fayetteville with the intention of sharing her knowledge of running your own business. Instead, she learned about urban farming, and the generational effect on farmers, and the field of farming dying out.
“We need fresh food to eat,” said Tenita. “I was inspired.”
At the time she and her wife, Christina, had an acre of land in Raleigh that they were going to convert into an urban farm. But that would take too long, to prepare the land and amend the soil, so Tenita turned to microgreens and converted a whole room in their house to a microgreen nursery. Over time, she perfected her approach and started Green Panda Farms.
“Farming is rewarding,” she said. “To know you’re providing nourishment for someone. Compared to a lab all day and developing new hardware.”
Tenita got of a RAFI grant (Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA) in 2017 and found space in Siler City to house the growing space for Green Panda Farms. When you’re farming microgreens, you don’t need acres and acres of land. Just a 1,200 square-foot metal building with 14-foot ceilings.
“When we took over the building, it was like a tin can,” she said. “It was literally a shell. No windows. We did the work ourselves to stretch the grant.”
The inside structure of the building is simple, with grow lights, metal shelving, and good air flow.
I was excited to learn something completely different about gardening. To begin with, I needed to learn the difference between microgreens and sprouts. Sprouts got a bad rap back in the day because of E. coli. Microgreens don’t typically have bacteria problems because they’re grown in soil rather than in water (like sprouts). I’m also happy to learn that there are way more superfoods to eat than just kale (GAG). “Microgreens are a superfood,” Tenita said, “because you’re eating the seedling, with nutrients more densely packed than in an adult vegetable.”
Broccoli microgreens and pea shoots were Tenita’s starting point, and she’s thrived from there.
“The broccoli is pretty easy to grow,” she said. It’s nuttier tasting than a bite of broccoli florets. Now, Green Panda Farms grows everything from basil and lettuce, to kale and spinach. “Almost anything could be a microgreen—especially leafy greens and carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and radish.”
The microgreen growing process is fairly easy.
“We use a 10x20 tray set up on racks with artificial light,” said Tenita. “We scatter the seeds pretty densely over the soil in the trays. If you were to plant broccoli in your garden, you’d leave ten inches between each seedling. In a tray of broccoli microgreens, you’re going to use about 500 seeds in a single layer. We mist our trays to start and once there’s a good grow, we water it from the bottom.”
The average growing period, depending on the seeds, averages between seven and 21 days. You know the microgreens are ready when you see the stem and two leaves (also known as “the true leaves”), and they’re two to three inches in height. Tenita uses really sharp harvest scissors and trims by hand so she can inspect the quality of the harvest. There’s no fertilizer —just soil, seed and water. “I try to use high-quality soil and seeds to grow the best product,” she said. Most of her seeds come from Fifth Season because Tenita is a fan of their products.
Broccoli and sunflower shoots are fan favorites: “The kids at the North Hills midtown farmers market always love the sunflower shoots.” If you grow borage microgreens, they taste like cucumbers. But the arugula and cilantro microgreens get mixed reactions. Tenita loves the cilantro microgreens, particularly on taco night or in her butternut squash soup.
Buy Green Panda Farms microgreens through their Web site (www.GreenPandaFarms.com), at the Durham Co-op Market, or Chatham Food Hub.
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