Gareth Cameron of the National Veg Society (NVS) recently got in touch with us regarding our Micro Herb Trials. In what can only be described as an inspired move he invited us to pen an article on our trials for the NVS’ “Simply Vegetables” Magazine. We thought it would be frankly criminal if we failed to share the devastatingly good article here!
Micro herbs are proving a simple revelation to kitchen-gardeners everywhere. These minute miracle morsels make a vast range of flavours available in just a few weeks growing time. They require minimal space, are simple to grow and are mess-free, thus perfect for indoor gardening. The never-ending culinary pursuit of that which is innovative and unique has further enhanced the appeal of micro herbs and the flavours they yield. Cultivating and cooking with herbs that are often otherwise unobtainable to commercial and retail customers is certainly a driving force behind this emerging horticultural trend.
However, in many respects there’s nothing modern about micro herbs. It’s unlikely you’d regard cress or mustard grown by the kids for a school project as cutting edge and yet micro herbs are little more than this. In essence they are the seedlings of edible plants which otherwise would be left to harvest in their maturity. What is perhaps new about the current vogue for micro herbs is the relative availability of seeds for plants that are scarcely, if ever, seen on these shores, and much less in our stores. Equally surprising is the way in which more familiar plants are given a new lease of life when used in their micro form. Flavour is present in it’s most concentrated form, powerful and clear even when used sparingly.
Growing sufficient quantities of micro herbs to occasionally serve household needs is a simple affair. Seeds, a hobby level propagation kit, a suitable substrate and a sunny-when-needed spot is pretty much all that is required. But even the mildly curious or ambitious gardener wants to explore beyond this. Consistent results, higher yields, greater variety and that old chestnut ‘experimentation’ are all excellent excuses for further tinkering.
Growing with the help of a watering system is one way in which serious and seriously curious gardeners can take micro herb cultivation to the next level. Watering systems allow you to measure and vary the plants irrigation and nutrition with intriguing and impressive results.
AutoPot Global Ltd are a UK manufacturer of watering systems who are currently developing a means by which garden-chefs and commercial customers alike can produce micro herbs on a grand scale. The product AutoPot aspire to create is an integrated racking system including heating, irrigation and lighting which can quickly and efficiently take seeds from germination to propagation and on to harvesting. The product development process that AutoPot have been following has involved an illuminating series of micro herb growing trials. It’s fair to say that AutoPot have explored all aspects of micro herb growth, from substrates to lighting via feeding and propagation techniques.
The choice of substrate is an integral question when utilising an automated irrigation system. AutoPot have utilised biodegrade paper confetti for it’s ease of use and ecological virtues. The confetti, when soaked in water, expands to retain and release moisture in a controlled way.
The paper substrate was first used in punnets with seeds sown directly onto the soaked confetti. The punnets, with holes in their bases for moisture induction, sat upon root control sheeting which, in turn, lay atop coco coir matting. The coco matting served as a wick for water and nutrients and was placed in large garden trays irrigated by AutoPot AQUAvalves, a solution of half strength General Hydroponics 3 Part Flora Series, with an EC of 1.2-1.4 fed the trays. Heat mats under the trays provided around 28 degrees centigrade during germination, throughout which the seeds were blacked out. AutoPot found that by soaking the paper substrate in warm water the germination process could be reduced by up to 24 hours as the heat mats had less
to do in bringing the substrate up to temperature. Use of temperature control equipment from Global Air Supplies aided the trial by enhancing the level of accuracy with which temperature could be applied. Once the seeds had germinated the heat mats were turned down to 21 degrees centigrade and the covers were removed to allow LED light in. Seedlings were kept under propagation lids until they had established a canopy to protect their root zone. LED lights from four different manufacturers were trialled simultaneously under the same conditions. Units from Crop Master, Heliospectra, SANlight and SunBlaster all exhibited great innovation in their design and, as a source of light, represented a highly efficient means of accelerating growth.
This first growing technique proved effective but not nearly as potent as cultivating micro herbs with roots hanging in suspension. Punnets, coco matting and root control were taken out of the equation. Instead the same absorbent biodegradable paper, in it’s sheet form rather than as confetti, was laid on four-legged, slotted racks. Seeds were sown directly onto the soaked sheets. The slotted racks were then arranged in the same large, AQUAvalve irrigated garden trays as before. Small wicks of the paper substrate hung down into the trays and drew up moisture and nutrients. The same growing process from germination to propagation was followed under the range of LED lights.
This time growth occurred explosively and in a much more even pattern across each test bed. The success of this arrangement is such that it now appears to be locked-in as the prime candidate for application in the integrated racking system. However, tests continue with further substrate concepts in the pipeline and further evaluation of LEDs. The aim here is continual development of techniques in order to offer continual improvement and innovation.
One of the key benefits of having a system you can control is knowing how plants respond to different growing approaches. The specific benefits of the AutoPot systems employed in this trial are simplicity and efficiency. Few hobby-growers or commercial producers of micro herbs would want a complex irrigation system that relies on large quantities of water, power and maintenance. In this respect AutoPot Watering Systems provide a highly efficient solution. Gravity-fed and only activated when the plants have expended all the water and feed available AutoPot systems do not require electricity or timers. Whilst LED lighting does draw power it is a highly efficient technology that is developing to deliver exponentially increased power for continually decreasing input. For AutoPot the key aim is to make something that is universally applicable; a watering system that can provide micro herbs on a commercial scale by using tech that is present in their simplest consumer-end equipment.
This technology is all very well, but what about the herbs? As predicted, the different varieties of micro herbs germinated and developed at different rates. AutoPot trialled a range of varieties including Red Frilled Mustard, Red Ruby and Crimson King Basil (14, Amaranth, Radishes and Broccoli. Quickest to harvest were the earthy, sweet grass inflected Amaranth and crisp, spicy Radish plants at five to ten days. In their wake were summery, health enhancing Broccoli and pungent Mustard at around ten days. Requiring more time but worth every minute for their sweet, aromatic flavour were the Basils.
Readiness for harvest is generally judged by plant height, leaf growth and flavour. Once micro herbs are 5-10cm high with a couple of true leaves the they should be sufficiently developed for eating. If in doubt a quick taste test should decide matters. The herbs can be snipped away with scissors but it is worth remembering that this may expose the roots of other herbs nearby to lighting (if used) and deprive adjacent stalks of support. It’s not necessary to harvest all at once, bear in mind that a little goes a very long way and that these little delicacies will store for a many days in the refrigerator within a simple plastic air tight container.
One of the great things about micro herb growing, on whatever scale, is it’s crossover appeal to the equally popular pastime of cooking. It is a quick, visible and demonstrative means of proving the connections between growing, eating and living. It brings plant cultivation to a greater section of the public and into homes where everyone can engage with horticulture everyday.
Follow the progress of AutoPot Watering Systems micro herbs growing trials on Facebook @AutoPotSystems.