Growing Microgreens on paper towels at home

Microgreens grown on paper towels are a great way to put healthy homegrown sprouts and herbs on your table year round.

Here today we will show you several different methods to grow Microgreens on paper towels.

Growing Microgreens on paper towels is a great way to produce greens year round with a minimum amount of difficulty and effort.

Most people have at least heard of growing Microgreens at home. And on of the reasons is of course that it is really easy to get started.

But there is one major downside to using a paper towel compared to for example soil

Whereas soil retains moisture well, paper towels will dry out unless you water or spray sometimes as often as 2-3 times a day.

It may not seem like a big deal. But it is easy to forget and end up with a poor harvest. 

Here today I will give you step-by-step instructions on how to build the following systems mostly using a few things you will find at home.

Click the links below to go straight to the step-by-step guides.

  1. Basic Microgreens on paper towels system
  2. Self-watering Microgreens on paper towels system (2 examples)  

But before we get building, what is the big deal about growing Microgreens at home?

What are Microgreens?

Waiting for Microgreens with first leaves to sprout true leaves
Microgreens sprouting first leaves after a couple of days

Microgreens are essentially sprouts of herbs and vegetables that are harvested before they can mature and develop into fully grown plants.

Microgreens are also called “baby greens” and are harvested by cutting the young sprouts with stem and all around the first true leaf stage.

You plant the seeds and wait for true leaves to sprout. Harvesting Microgreens usually takes place as the sprouts reach 3-10 cm (1-4 inches).

Some varieties of Microgreens like wheatgrass, kale and coriander (cilantro) will grow back whereas most do not and need to be replanted after harvest.

Is growing Microgreens expensive?

Not really as your only real cost is the expense of seeds. It could of course get expensive if you chose to buy small packages at retail.

But it makes a lot more sense to buy in bulk or even harvest your own seeds. And for most Microgreens you will find that seeds are plentiful and do not have to cost much.

Most gardeners already know to harvest their own seeds from many herbs and vegetables. There are also many seed exchange platforms where gardeners share and exchange. 

But even if you do buy seeds in expensive small packages, you have to remember that microgreens deliver the possibility of home grown microgreens on your table year round.

And, yes, that is a big deal if you live in a part of the world where natural light is scarce for 4-6 months per year.

Microgreens allow you to produce homegrown greens when conditions outdoors are too dark, cold or wet to grow any above ground herbs or vegetables.

Growing Microgreens is fun, fast and easy

Microgreen seeds germinating on paper towel after 2 days
Seeds with roots after 2 days on paper towels

Most Microgreens will germinate in a couple of days and be ready to eat in as little as 1-2 weeks.

And it is truly fascinating to follow the germination process up close.

As Microgreens start growing quickly it is better to use many small containers rather than 1 big tray.

Succession plant your Microgreens and you will always have fresh plants for salads, smoothies, stir fries or sandwiches.

The name of the game is fresh plants and you should adopt the mindset of “garden to table” where you snip them before they turn green. Actually, as the whole plant or sprout is edible you can tear the Microgreens without being worried about hurting the fragile roots.

Microgreens can be dried or stored fresh in the fridge for up to a week but as they grow fast there really is no need. Instead grow Microgreens by starting a couple of smaller grow beds with a day or two in between planting. You will soon find that you have plenty of fresh green plants “on tap”.

And believe me, it is a lot cheaper to grow Microgreens than to buy them at the local grocery store where Microgreens can be quite expensive to buy.

Grow Microgreens as they are good for you and taste great

Microgreens have been coined a Superfood and is listed as a “health-promoting strategy to meet dietary reference intake requirements for essential elements beneficial to human health.” by Science Direct

And on top of being good for your health, Microgreens taste great and can be grown year round – and even indoors when needed.

My 5 favorite Microgreens to grow

I grow Microgreens for table greens to eat. And I do have my favorites among the many available varieties.

These are my favorites in alphabetical order.

  • Basil (fast grower and lots of flavour)
  • Coriander/Cilantro (a bit slower to grow but I do love the intense flavor)
  • Pea (fast grower, sweet taste, great texture and prolific grower)
  • Sunflower (nutty taste and crunchy texture, choose the black sunflower seeds)
  • Wheatgrass (fast grower, health benefits, I need to mix with other juices to drink)
We grow lettuce in our Ebb and flow hydroponics grow system. Otherwise we would have added lettuce to my list. Broccoli is another favorite that almost made the list.

Growing Microgreens using the paper towel method

You can grow Microgreens using soil, coconut coir, grow mats and many other mediums. And soil is probably still most widely used as it is what we “always use” for any type of gardening.

But when it comes to growing Microgreens I still find that paper towels are the best choice – unless you are planning to grow commercially to make money from Microgreens.

Here I will give you 3 examples of techniques to use to grow Microgreens using paper towels.

1. Your basic Microgreens on paper towels method

Materials needed:

  • A grow bed (any food safe tray including a porcelain plate will do)
  • Paper towels (thicker is better but you can always double)
  • Water (tap water is fine)
  • Seeds 
  • Spray bottle

1. Find a suitable tray to use as grow bed:
Use a shallow grow bed as the young plants you grow never will develop deeper roots. Also, a shallow garden bed will ensure that the Microgreens have good access to light and good air circulation. I have successfully used porcelain plates as well as oven dishes. 

Another good alternative can be the plastic containers you get from the grocery store when you buy fruits or vegetables. Just wash them thoroughly before use.

Where I live it is hard to grow grapes. And I have found that the plastic cups I get when I buy grapes are ideal.

Any grow bed will do as long as it:

  • has an edge to hold in excess water
  • is not deeper than 3 cm (1 inch)
  • is made from a food safe material

2. Place paper towel in bottom of grow bed

Use your hand-eye coordination to tear off a piece of paper towel that is about the size of the bottom of your grow bed.

Double up the layers as needed. You want the layers of paper towel to be thick enough to cover your hand completely if held up against the light. The paper towel needs this degree of thickness to retain the correct moisture level even under warm conditions.

You want the paper towel to cover the entire bottom of the container. Any excess paper is simply folded underneath to create a smooth surface.

3. Soak paper towels

Use a spray bottle to soak the paper towel until it is saturated.

4. Sprinkle seeds over paper towel

You can be generous when you sprinkle the seeds over the paper towel.

Usually when you plant you want to allow enough space for each seed to grow and develop into a young plant. But with Microgreens you do not have to worry about each seedling getting enough space, nutrients or water from the soil. After all, you are growing Microgreens and will harvest the plant long before this stage of development.

Press the seeds gently to ensure there is contact with the paper towel to help your seeds root properly. Seeds that are not in contact with the paper towel may struggle to germinate.

I usually sprinkle the seeds like in the photo below. I prefer to have several trays or grow beds with Microgreens on the go at the same time. You could say that I succession-seed a new batch of Microgreens to always have enough to harvest at any one time - but rarely so much that we need to store to eat later.
Sprinkle seeds as dense or scatter them more loosely as you see fit
Scatter Microgreens as dense as you want

5. Keep moist until harvest

Now you wait for the germination process to start and the sprouting of first leaves. 

Sprouting is faster in warm condition why it can help top cover the grow bed with a plastic bag.

Your only job at this stage is to make sure that the paper towel does not dry out.

Place smaller grow beds in the kitchen. If you have no room in the kitchen choose a room with natural light if possible. 

If you grow during the darker times of the year you will have richer harvests if you provide extra lighting. A grow light is of course ideal but use what you have.

Why not just place the container in a room where you always have the light on during day time. It does not have to be more complicated.

Make sure that the room is not too hot. Regular room temperature works great.

What are the Pros and Cons with the basis setup

The advantages are of course that it is easy to start and does not cost a lot. It is also a lot of fun to follow the Microgreens as they germinate and grow into seedlings to harvest.

The main disadvantage is however that you will have to add water to the grow bed quite frequently. And when I say frequently I mean up to 2-3 times a day under warm conditions.

And this is also why I always advocate the self-watering system using regular milk cartons or plastic fruit cups from the store.

2. Self-watering Microgreens on paper towels system

With the self-watering system we still use paper towels as our grow bed. But we also use the paper towel to transport water to our grow bed from our reservoir.

And it is easy to build. I will show you two ways to build a self watering system.

Materials needed:

  • A milk cartoon or a plastic fruit cup
  • Scissors or a sharp knife
  • Paper towels (thicker is better but you can always double the layers)
  • Water (tap water is fine)
  • Seeds 
We take for granted that you are all adults and know to be careful when using scissors or knives. Milk cartons and plastic containers can be tricky to work with so please take it slow and be careful.

Self watering Microgreens system using a milk cartoon

  1. Rinse an empty milk carton

2. Cut off one side following the pattern indicated by the line in the photo below

Cut the milk carton side to crate a Microgreens grow bed
Cut all the way around following the drawn black line in the photo

3. Cut two lines in the cut off side – see below.

Cut lines for paper towel to be inserted
Cut lines where the paper towel will be inserted to keep grow bed moist

4. Tear off a length of paper towel and thread it through the cuts

Thread the paper towel that will keep the grow bed moist through the cuts
Thread paper towel that will keep grow bed watered through the cuts

5. Fill the remaining reservoir with water (⅔)

6. Place cut off side on top of the reservoir and place excess paper towel inside the reservoir. As you can see from the photo the excess paper inside the milk carton will absorb water and keep the grow bed moist.

Paper towel absorbs water and keeps grow bed moist
Paper towel absorbs water and keeps grow bed moist

7. Place fresh sheets of paper towel on the cut off side on top of the already inserted paper towel. This fresh sheet will be your grow bed.

8. Spray paper towel with water

9. Sprinkle your seeds 

10. Grow bed will keep moist but do check back every day or so to top up water level in reservoir as needed

The completed milk carton Microgreens self-watering grow system
The completed milk carton self-watering Microgreen grow system

Self watering Microgreens system using plastic cup

Using a plastic cup follows the same principle as using a milk carton.

The main difference is that you will use the lid of the plastic cup as the grow bed.

Cut lines for paper towel to be inserted
Lines cut and paper towel to keep grow bed moist inserted

1. Wash the empty plastic cup and lid thoroughly

2. Cut two lines in the lid about 3 cm (one inch) inside the edges

3. Tear off a couple of sheets of paper towel and thread it through the cuts

4. Fill the container with water (⅔)

5. Place the lid inside the cup and let the excess paper towel sit inside the reservoir/cup in the water

6. Put fresh paper towel on top of the grow bed/lid

7. Spray the paper towel and sprinkle your seeds

8. Moisten the seeds lightly

Completed plastic container self-watering Microgreens grow system
The completed plastic container Microgreens self-watering system

Pros and Cons with the self watering system

The main advantage of the self watering system is of course in the name. You do not have to water up to 2-3 times per day to keep the seeds and seedlings healthy and thriving.

There are no real disadvantages apart from the fact that it is a little bit more work to get started.

If you use the plastic cup setup you will be able to use the same container many more times.

The milk carton will however break down over time and should always be placed on a surface that can hold water in case of leakage.

Microgreens on paper towel
Sources:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889157516300448 
https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/HS1164

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants, and garden vegetables. For the past two years, he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.