When I moved to Tacoma, Washington, someone explained to me that here, the precipitation percentage is not a matter of probability, but rather an estimate of density. That is, if there’s any chance of rain, it’s going to rain—the only distinction between a 20% chance and a 90% chance is how hard that rain will be.
I bring this up, because January is here, the rain is driving, and I’m at least a month out from starting even the earliest spring seeds in my cold frame. At this moment, I’m actually grateful for the relief. I work as the Trades and Agriculture Interpreter at Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, and the rainy month of January provides a welcome opportunity to take apart garden shears for cleaning, oiling, and sharpening, to sketch out garden designs, organize saved seeds, and prepare for spring planting.
But even as gardeners enjoy the slower pace of winter, the short days leave us with an itch for that first opportunity to once again place our hands in the dirt and sprout seeds. Thankfully, there’s a perfect workaround for impatient planters eager to put seed stockpiles to use without waiting for soil temperatures to warm.
Window-grown microgreens can bridge the gap between seasons, give purpose to spare and nearly spent seeds, and improve physical health all at the same time.
While I’ve grown microgreens before, I’m far from an expert, in terms of nutrition or practice—but thankfully Frank Catalano, owner of Window Garden, is. In 2009, Frank was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After having his prostate removed, the cancer came back and doctors suggested a traditional path of radiation. Unwilling to accept the potentially harmful effects of the process without first exploring every option, Frank and his wife Lisa dove into the available medical research to try to understand the “why” behind the unhealthy cellular growth.
A 2012 study by the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources demonstrating microgreens contain 4-40 times more nutrients than the same plants at maturity caught the Catalanos’ attention. The nutrient levels were so high that initially the researchers thought they had made a mistake, but the results were confirmed over and over. “We were really surprised,” said assistant professor Qin Wang. “Those nutrients are very important to us. Vitamin C is considered an antioxidant, as well as Vitamin E, so they’re very important for us to consume.”
For Frank and Lisa, the nutrient potential of the microgreens meant more than an energy boost; it was a possible alternative to radiation. They kept digging and came across the work of Dr. Michael Greger. “All the other articles boasted [the benefits of microgreens] and reinforced my decision, but it wasn’t until I found Dr. Greger’s posts that I was completely convinced,” says Catalano. “I have a very high opinion of Dr. Greger as he is solely science based and does not sell anything or provide personal opinions.”
Greger synthesizes research on the impact of sulforaphane, a phytonutrient found in broccoli sprouts that has been associated with a heightened targeting of breast cancer stem cells and a limitation of pathway growth of human prostate cells. Most importantly, Dr. Greger explains that the sulforaphane levels that yielded positive test results can be matched by consuming between 0.25-1.25 cups of broccoli sprouts each day—an incredibly achievable amount for the home gardener.
In the same way that microgreens concentrate other nutrients, broccoli sprouts have been shown to contain nearly seven times the sulforaphane as mature broccoli per 100 grams of dry weight and the bioavailability of the nutrients is dramatically higher in fresh sprouts when compared to broccoli supplements. In studies, broccoli sprouts also reached peak sulforaphane content in only 48 hours. That means in only two days’ time, home gardeners can reap study-level cancer-fighting benefits from their own windows for roughly $0.25/day. Not bad.
The research was enough to convince the Catalanos to transition to a fully plant-based diet (no small feat for two individuals from Italian families who recognize cheese and meat as part of their culinary heritage). 10 years later, Frank still consumes 1-2 cups of cruciferous, sulforaphane-rich microgreens every single day, ranging from tasty sunflower sprouts to wheatgrass shots. While the diet change was a challenge, Frank’s cancer growth has halted and documented health improvements.
One thing the University of Maryland professor noted in the 2012 study, was that production of the nutrient-rich microgreens was low and costs were high since the sprouts were really only being used in upscale restaurants. Needing to have access to a constant, low-cost supply throughout his cancer-fighting journey, Frank and Lisa developed microgreen window-ledges and started a new company, Window Garden, to support and promote the use of window-grown sprouts and starts. The past three years, they’ve seen consistently increasing interest from home gardeners, cancer-fighters, and anyone wanting to harness the nutritional power of microgreens.
Window Gardening Basics
After a decade of personal experience, Frank recommends individuals consume 1-2 cups of cruciferous sprouts each day, for both cancer combating and daily health maintenance.
As someone with limited light access in a basement apartment, I asked about the minimum light requirement for microgreen growth. “You can grow microgreens in most any window with filtered or direct sunlight,” Frank says. “[They are] very adaptable.” Though he does note that south, east, or west-facing windows are preferred.
In terms of temperature, the Catalanos live in 200-year-old farmhouse with single pane windows and have no problem starting sprouts all winter long. Translation: the rest of our windows should be just fine.
Lastly, when it comes to soil and moisture, the Catalanos recommend skipping the potting soil (too heavy) and growing mats (un-uniform growth) and opting for a fiber soil instead. Moisture maintenance depends on the growing environment, but it’s key that the seeds never dry out during germination. Check every day to keep moist with a spray bottle or kitchen sprayer and seeds should start without a problem.
One of my favorite aspects of all this is microgreen growing provides an excellent opportunity for home gardeners and homesteaders to put excess seeds to use throughout the slow winter months. I have hundreds of Raggedy Jack kale seeds that I don’t have room for in the garden that will make fantastic microgreens to top winter soups and sandwiches. Additionally, some summer seeds that my growing climate won’t be warm enough for many months—basil for instance—can find more immediate purpose on my winter window ledge.
The low-cost, low-effort and high-impact of winter, window-grown microgreens is hard to argue with. Give them a try and drop a note in the comments if you have questions along the way
Disclaimer: Then information provided above is presented purely for educational purposes only. Please, consult with your doctor to find the cancer treatment options that are best for you.