The in vitro growth of ovarian follicles is an emerging technology for fertility preservation. Various strategies support the culture of secondary and multilayer follicles from various species including mice, non-human primate, and human; however, the culture of early stage (primary and primordial) follicles, which are more abundant in the ovary and survive cryopreservation, has been limited. Hydrogel-encapsulating follicle culture systems that employed feeder cells, such as mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs), stimulated the growth of primary follicles (70–80 µm); yet, survival was low and smaller follicles (<70 µm) rapidly lost structure and degenerated. These morphologic changes were associated with a breakdown of the follicular basement membrane; hence, this study investigated ascorbic acid based on its role in extracellular matrix (ECM) deposition/remodeling for other applications. The selection of ascorbic acid was further supported by a microarray analysis that suggested a decrease in mRNA levels of enzymes within the ascorbate pathway between primordial, primary, and secondary follicles. The supplementation of ascorbic acid (50 µg/mL) significantly enhanced the survival of primary follicles (<80 µm) cultured in alginate hydrogels, which coincided with improved structural integrity. Follicles developed antral cavities and increased to diameters exceeding 250 µm. Consistent with improved structural integrity, the gene/protein expression of ECM and cell adhesion molecules was significantly changed. This research supports the notion that modifying the culture environment (medium components) can substantially enhance the survival and growth of early stage follicles. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2014;111: 1417–1429. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.