A tray of soil and seeds within days becomes a lush carpet of miniature greens under the care of Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson.
Hundreds of twice-weekly harvests passed while the Ashland couple nurtured a book on the process. Almost two years after founding a business that grows gourmet garnishes, Franks and Richardson have published "Microgreens: A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Greens." The book explains how anyone can produce pounds of microgreens for a fraction of their retail cost and with minimal knowledge and materials.
"Anybody with a window can grow greens," Franks says.
Franks, 31, and Richardson, 25, house their True Leaf Microgreens in a 400-square-foot greenhouse in their backyard.
The bare-bones structure lacks auxiliary lighting, climate control or any other high-tech systems. The couple simply sows seeds in trays of soil, covers them to aid germination, waters and relies on sunlight to finish the job. They sell the greens to about 15 local restaurants, Ashland Food Co-op and Market of Choice.
"A lot of people haven't known about them before," Richardson says, explaining that microgreens fall between sprouts and baby greens in size.
Franks and Richardson grow more than a dozen varieties of microgreens from arugula to Tokyo bekana, just two of the 16 crops profiled in "Microgreens." The book explains each crop's unique characteristics, preferred growing conditions and quirks that could create challenges. In addition to the 10 steps of producing microgreens, the 192-page guide contains a troubleshooting section followed with the 10 most frequently asked questions and recommended books and Internet resources.
The book's lavishly photographed recipes appeal to the home cook interested in elevating dishes with microgreens' chef-worthy cachet. Most recipes were contributed by restaurant-industry acquaintances of Franks and Richardson, who worked as wait staff in Big Sur, Calif., before moving to Ashland last summer. They brought True Leaf and their book manuscript with them.
Published in April by Salt Lake City-based Gibbs Smith, "Microgreens" had an initial print run of 7,000 copies and is stocked in major bookstore chains, as well as the Co-op and Ashland's Bloomsbury Books. The cover price is $19.95.
But Franks and Richardson weren't looking to trade the life of farmers for writers. They continue to harvest 20 pounds of greens per week for their wholesale accounts while brainstorming how they can purchase more land for larger endeavors. The couple learned the business of diversified, organic farming as apprentices on several East Coast farms, including a community-supported agriculture program in Pennsylvania, where they met.
"The microgreens are a springboard for that," Richardson says. "It was an opportunity for us to get our hands in the dirt and have an extra income."
Whether purchased for a restaurant or the home kitchen, True Leaf's most popular product is mixed greens, which sell at the Co-op for $9.95 in a 4-ounce bag. Franks and Richardson say they didn't even consider the possibility that demand for their microgreens may decline if their book transformed customers into fellow micro farmers.
"There's plenty of abundance out there," Richardson says.
The abundance shows no sign of waning as the couple's neighbors, Michael McKenzie and Paige Morse, take over True Leaf when Franks and Richardson leave the Rogue Valley later this month for the East Coast. The couple says they are returning to their roots, and family in Baltimore and Pennsylvania, for the sake of their 20-month-old son, Haven. They should have no problem, Franks and Richardson say, expanding True Leaf given the East Coast's cosmopolitan dining scene
"The market there is ridiculous," Franks says.
And the market for microgreens continues to grow in Southern Oregon, they say. McKenzie, 38, and Morse, 40, are looking to expand the business' reach under the name OneLeaf Microgreens. Learning the methods outlined in "Microgreens" over the past few months, the couple will continue to supply local restaurants like Cucina Biazzi, Larks, The Garden Bistro at McCully House and Oregon Cabaret Theater.
It doesn't take a chef, however, to make the most of micogreens, McKenzie and Morse say.
"We put 'em on pizza," Morse says.
"They're friendly in that sense," McKenzie adds. "There's something very unintimidating about them at that small size."
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail email@example.com.