We often get asked, “What are microgreens?” and “What is the difference between sprouts and shoots?” I wondered the same things as I began to grow and market our ‘specialty’ greens. After some searching around the web and asking my own questions, I came to realize that there is not one right answer and that the answers there are, are still open to some interpretation.
Here is my attempt to make clear up some of the confusion.
Generally, sprouts are the very first stage of germination, with little growth. They take from 3 to 7 days to produce and are sprouted using a rinse of water over that time (either in a jar or sprouting tray). Sprouting requires very little supplemental light, as they do very little growing beyond the germination stage. Supplemental nutrition is not needed; the tiny seeds have all they need for this stage and period of growth, and you eat both the sprout and the seed.
Shoots require a longer period of growth. They are usually sown in a growing medium (we use peat organic peat moss) and take 7 to 14 days to grow to the point of harvest. The result is a larger and sturdier shoot, since the seeds are able to create a more mature and elaborate root system in the peat moss. The shoots require some form of supplemental light to grow.
We grow in a building, rather than in a greenhouse, and use an energy efficient, low wattage, artificial light. Shoots grown in full sun can become stressed and overheated during the peak months of summer, due to their age and sensitivity at that time, so if you are growing shoots outside, indirect sunlight is best. Supplemental nutrition is not necessarily required, as the shoots will grow in a sterile medium; but, it is generally believed that the nutritional value of the shoots is greater when they have access to a medium that contains some form of nutrient value, especially nitrogen. We use organic worm castings to supply those nutrients, but there are other natural and organic options available.
The term Microgreen is used a couple of different ways. One is to describe the greens that reach the next stage of maturity after ‘shoots’. These are the greens grown from 14-21 days, which tend to have a greater leaf mass than shoots but less than ‘baby’ greens (baby greens is the stage from 21 days onward). Because of the longer growing period, these greens require a greater source of light and nutritional supplementation. Microgreens is also used as a general term to describe everything grown to a lesser stage than ‘baby’ sized (21 days or less).
Finally, there is another term I have heard used recently: Basil ‘seedlings’. Basil grows quite slowly, especially in a low light environment. Our basil shoots/seedlings require 3 to 4 weeks before they have grown their first true set of leaves and have developed their wonderfully distinct flavor. Either term works, as does the term ‘baby’ basil. Regardless of what they are called, they are delicious and adorable.
Hopefully, this helps you understand the differences more clearly, as slight as they are, and to feel less intimidated by the plethora of terms used to describe these tasty, nutritious and easy additions to your food choices.