Growing Microgreens Without Soil – is it a Good Idea?

Growing microgreens without soil is becoming more common. 

I’m sure you’ve seen photos on Instagram of beautiful microgreens growing on thin fiber pads.

These pads can be made of wood fibers, jute fibers, felt-like materials, or coco coir fibers.

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Three trays used in the test. The left two have jute fiber the left tray has premium potting mix.

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Above are three of the most popular microgreen growing pads. Click the each image to get more information.

Growing Microgreens Without Soil

Let’s face it, working with soil inside your home can make a mess. Soil has also been blamed for bacterial and fungal issues on microgreens. Fiber pads may remove the need to wash your microgreens before consumption.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean growing microgreens in soil is a bad idea. Soil also has many advantages.

Especially for those of us that have busy schedules and are prone to forgetting to water your plants. The volume of soil retains more water than the thin fiber pads regardless of what their marketing propaganda suggests.

Soil also provides nutrients for the young microgreen seedlings. Yes, the cotyledons in seeds do contain a lot of energy, but as the microgreens grow in trays, they require additional nutrients provided by a good professional soil mix.

I’m using the term soil even when the growing medium might be considered soil-less as in coco coir potting mixes. It’s just easier to say soil than potting or starting mixes. 

growing microgreens

Time & Space is Money for Indoor Gardeners

As an indoor gardener, I have limited space, time, and money to grow nutritious vegetables and greens.

As such, I’m always looking for a better way to grow vegetables and greens. Whether it be cleanliness, efficiency, or cost. But ultimately, the more productive method is the one that I’ll choose over the others.

Growing Microgreens Without Soil - A Test

Fiber microgreen growing pads would be ideal for me.

Storing soil takes space. I only have so much storage place in my house. Besides, the soil bags are heavy, and I need to drive to a hydroponic speciality store to pick up a bag. While fiber pads are delivered to the house.

Soil can also make a mess, both when starting microgreen seeds and during harvest.

There’s a belief, whether true or not, that soil can cause fungal disease and bacterial problems such as E. coli on the harvested greens. Therefore, some regulatory agencies require microgreens grown in soil to be washed before selling them.

Furthermore, I’m selling media for growing microgreens and shipping soil is many times more costly than it would be to mail a thin fiber pad.

That said, I’m still not giving up time or productivity to grow mine or my customers’ microgreens over a bit of mess or the cost of shipping. Quality and quantity is more important to those of us with limited space and time.

So, the best way to see if growing microgreens on a fiber pad or on soil is better is to design a microgreen growing test and compare the rate of growth and harvestable yield.

Below is such a test.

Microgreens Grown In Soil

I regularly use FoxFarm Bush Doctor® Coco Loco® potting mix to grow microgreens.

Besides coco coir, Coco Loco contains aged forest products, perlite, earthworm castings, bat guano, kelp meal, oyster shell, dolomitic lime, and well as beneficial mycorrhizal fungi.

You can purchase small bags of the soil mix I use from the Home Microgreens Store.

Microgreens Grown on Jute Fiber Pad

I cut GreenEase Jute Micro-seed pads to fit into the same size container used for soil.

The micro-seed pad is made of jute.

Jute is described by as natural fiber designed to effectively control water, allowing seeds to thrive in a variety of hydroponic systems.

I tested two watering methods using the jute fiber pad, a shallow tray where water would stay and be absorbed, and a deeper tray which could be watered from below similar to the soil tray.

Microgreen Grown in Soil vs. Fiber Pad

The surface area of all three trays is the same.

The same weight of Tatsoi seed is applied to the surface of the soil and jute fiber pads.

Both the soil and jute fiber pads are pre-wetted with a spray bottle and also sprayed after planting.

All three seed trays are placed on a Vivosun Seed Heating Mat with covers over them. 

Photos of the Microgreen Jute vs. Soil Test

Pictures tell the store. Below are side-by-side comparisons of the microgreen growth over nine-days.

Click to expand images if you're viewing the post on a computer.

Day 0 - Seeding

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Shallow Jute Tray - Deep Jute Tray - Soil Tray. The deep and soil tray have holes on the bottom for watering.

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Three trays inside watering tray with seed heat mat beneath watering tray.

Day 3 - Sprouted Microgreens

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From left to right: Shallow Jute Tray, Deep Jute Tray, Soil Tray.

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Shallow Jute Tray on Day 3. Spotty germination.

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Deep Jute Tray on Day 3. Better germination. Soil Tray is in top right of image.

Three days after seeding the trays there isn't much difference between the trays. The germination rate is a bit lower on the shallow tray.

Day 5 - Seedling Microgreens

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Day 5 - All three trays, the shallow tray is obviously falling behind.

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Close-up of the shallow jute tray on Day 5. Poor germination and not much growth.

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Close-up of the deep jute tray on Day 5. Microgreen leaves are forming and germination rate is good.

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Close-up of soil tray on Day 5. Microgreens grown in soil are more vigorous than those grown on jute.

As you can see, the microgreens grown in soil are starting to grow quickly; they're more dense, and the leaves are larger overall.

While the microgreens in the more protected deep tray are growing better than those in the shallow tray. The unprotected tray dries out quicker and has more exposure and is more vulnerable.

The microgreens grown in soil have a more stable environment, more consistent moisture and temperature, as well as, more room for the roots to anchor the plant.

Regardless of what others say, nutrients in the soil are having an affect on growth. 

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Day 7 - Harvestable Microgreens Grown In Soil

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Day-7 All three trays. The microgreens grown in soil are harvestable.

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Close-up of the shallow jute tray. Sparse growth to say the least.

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Close-up of the deep jute tray on Day 7. The tray is 1 1/2-inches deep. Microgreens are 1-inch tall & leaves are small.

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Close-up of soil tray on Day 7. Microgreens are harvestable. They're 1 1/2-inches tall.

It's obvious that the microgreens grown in the potting soil mix are growing quicker and better than either of those grown on the jute pad. 

If you have any doubts take a look at the photo below that was snapped on the ninth day after sowing the seed. 

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Photo taken on Day 9. The Tatsoi microgreens grown in soil are twice as tall and more mature than those grown on jute pads.

Is It a Good Idea to Grow Microgreen Without Soil?

No, it's not a good idea.

Growing microgreens without soil may be cleaner, a bit less of a hassle, but in the end, the microgreens don't grow as quick. The yield is also much lower.

For the Home Microgreen Gardener growing on fiber pads will cost you time and produce less nutritious greens. 

Is This Test Scientific?

Heck no.

Look at it this way, growing microgreens at home isn't scientific either. 

We pay as much attention to our plants as we can. But there are times when life gets in the way. 

I didn't ignore any of the trays during the nine days. But I also didn't cater to them every hour. 

Microgreen seeds grown in soil grow faster compared to those on jute fiber pads. 

Will results vary? Most likely to some degree they will. I've seen many photos of beautiful microgreens grown on fiber pads. 

The question is how were they grown? Did they have a constant supply of fresh water, were they grown in a protected environment? 

For the home microgreen grower it's best to use a premium potting mix. You'll see quicker results and not have to tend to them as frequently.

Have a Question?

If you have any questions about the information in this post or microgreens in general?

Please leave a comment below or reach out to me using the Ask a Question page

Leaving a comment or using the Ask a Question page does not add your email to any mailing or marketing list. 

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Author of this Article is Todd

Todd is the founder of Home Microgreens & the Home Microgreens store. He also writes for several other websites, including Todd worked at a large farm market, garden & nursery center for 20-years. Somehow he snuck off to become a geologist and professor before coming back to his senses to write & lecture about microgreens and gardening. When not at the computer, he can be found in the garden, trout stream, or mountain trail with his new Springer Spaniel Caden.

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  • I’m a newbie and had the same experience using the pads. I wonder if using a pad over the top of a thin layer of soil would work–you’d get the benefit of the soil, but the microgreens would be free of soil.

    • That does work, and we have a couple of customers that do this. I want to say, though, if you bottom water microgreens, the soil doesn’t come up on the microgreens. It would be best to use potting mixes, although we often refer to them as soil because it’s easier, and they should not contain any bad guy germs. I’m not against mats, but we are believers that a good potting mix will grow better microgreens than any mat can, and adding a mat over the soil is another step and cost. But we want you comfortable with what you eat!

  • Just passing by says:

    You are not accounting for distance to the lamp in your experiment. Your soil tray is about 2-3″ closer to the lamp compared to “shallow” tray. That could contribute to different rate of growth. Would be great to re-run the experiment with the growing surface at equal height between all the options.

    • Yes, in the end the height difference is 2- to 3-inches, but at the start, the distance is less than 1.5-inches. Still, you are right, the distance from the light source is a variable that I can eliminate. In an upcoming article, I will be testing soil, Terrafibre, and a bamboo grow mat. I’ll make the adjustments to that test.
      Thanks for reading and replying!

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