Miniature delights

Good things come in small packages and miniature salad leaves, herbs and veggies are no exception. Steve Botha from Porterville in the Swartland harvests his plants sometimes as early as five days after sowing. These delicacies, known for their intense flavour, striking colour and crisp texture are sold to a niche market of top local chefs. Robyn Joubert reports.
Issue date 23 November 2007

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Micro Greens are the immature leaves or fruit of vegetables and herbs harvested early for taste and aesthetic appeal. Steve Botha started growing plants organically for this purpose four years ago at a time when other farmers were competing for a share of this lucrative market, but were stifled by how difficult it is to make an economic success of this type of farming. “Chefs from six of the top 10 restaurants in the country are using my Micro Greens,” says Steve. “They can’t stop raving about what a fantastic concept the product is. Not only is the flavour noticeably more intense, but the greens add colour, texture and beauty to the plate.

Chefs say it makes their food ‘sing’,” he says proudly. H e came across the idea of growing the mini leaves after seeing baby salad leaves called saladini or mesclun which are three times bigger than Micro Greens. A winning recipe While his business Magic Herbs still successfully grows other vegetables, by February 2007 Micro Greens made up 46% of Steve’s turnover and he was supplying Fruit and Veg City, a handful of supermarkets and a few top restaurants. He reckons it’s the freshness and novelty of Micro Greens that clinched him the Eat In RMB Innovation Award in October this year.

“The judges were astonished by Micro Greens,” he says. “leaves and vegetables are very delicate with a high nutritional value. Micro leeks are thinner than a toothpick and the little basil plant is 7mm high, its two leaves bigger than the stem. If you put a leaf between your teeth, the flavour explodes in your mouth. There is no mistake that you are eating basil.” Micro Greens are harvested when the plant forms its first leaves, usually five to 14 days after sowing. It is not an entirely new concept as people have long grown mustard, cress and sprouts on wet flannel to harvest for salads. Although, unlike sprouts, the roots of Micro Greens are not eaten. Growing micro leaves has been popular in the US and Europe since the early 1990s, but this “superfood” has only recently arrived in SA. “I was producing selected greens even before they were available in the UK,” says Steve.

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A wide variety through partnership About six months ago Steve formed a partnership with citrus farmer Jarred Jagger and relocated his business to Jarred’s 120ha farm in Porterville. “I grow a huge basket of herbs and veggies, about 240 products a year. The partnership with Jarred gives me access to 37ha of land and an opportunity to grow on a larger scale with even more variety,” he says. Steve grows a broad selection including basil, beetroot, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, coriander, cress, lettuce, fennel, fenugreek, kale, leeks, mustard, onions, radish, rocket, spinach, sorrel, sunflower, tat soi and wheatgrass. “The most sought after are rocket and leeks,” he says. “Carrot leaf, fennel, rocket and aniseed are more difficult to grow in this area and I have never had any success with caraway or dill.”

Steve touts pea shoots and popcorn as the next big Micro Greens. “Pea shoots are the newest fad and are beautiful with a delicate, curly handle. The whole plant is 5cm high and chefs put it in salads. Popcorn is another new one and has an intensely sweet flavour.” A new way of growing Magic Herbs has developed its own high-performance organic growing medium. The seeds are densely sown in the pockets of a polystyrene tray. The tray has six 5cm by 6cm pockets. Steve likes the compartmentalised tray as it allows him to remove diseased plant pockets. Broken trays can then be chopped up and used to aerate clay soil. “It’s labour intensive work and the leaves have to be harvested at just the right size, otherwise they become baby greens and not Micro Greens,” says Steve. Micro Greens need very little space to grow and vast amounts can be grown on a small area.

“They are expensive to grow and farmers want to get as much yield out of every square centimetre as possible. Conventional farmers think in hectares. I think in square centimetre. But it is only really profitable on a large scale,” he adds. A one man show Steve has never taught anyone else how to grow Micro Greens. From sowing the seeds to making the organic mix, he does it all himself. “I buy only very good seed. It has to be fresh with a high germination rate. Seeds are expensive; red rubin costs R5 200/kg while fancy lettuce costs over R8 000/kg. Mustard seed is R1 400/kg, so mistakes are costly,” he says. Adding to the cost of seeds is the fact that Steve sows very densely. “One of my clients transplanted a tray of basil and got 2 400 plants from one tray. Divide that by six compartments over a 30cm squared area and it works out to 400 basil plants per compartment. With leeks it is probably 800 leeks in the same space, or 200 radishes,” he says. Gently does it Steve ‘strokes’ the tips of the newly germinated shoots with his hand to stimulate the leaves and prevent “stretching”.

“By the time a plant is sold I have touched the top of the plants two or three times.” This hands-on approach does not stop at sowing and growing. Steve also personally does all the deliveries, which means that he is up at 5am and only back on the farm by 11:30pm for three days a week. “I insist on doing the deliveries myself, it’s just the time wasted driving that I find frustrating. But I am passionate about what I do. I have put up security lights so I can work at night, as there is not enough time in the day.” Steve is not certified organic and has no plans to become so. “I know I don’t cheat. What’s the use of being an organic grower if you cheat? I’m doing it because I have a passion for it,” he says. For more information contact Steve Botha on (022) 931 3209 or e-mail [email protected]