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Gardening for Health: Prioritizing Plant Choices

Motivated by the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and other concerns—such as becoming more self-reliant and having a healthier diet—I recently decided to grow more edibles. I wanted to gain more nutritional benefit and better control over the food we consume. Our goal is to grow enough fruits and vegetables throughout the year so that we are more likely to eat the number of daily vegetable (3-5) and fruit (2-4) servings recommended by nutritionists and health experts. To accomplish that goal, we allocated a 10´ by 50´ fenced area, realizing it will be too small to grow everything that is tempting. Difficult decisions are necessary. To guide those choices, we are selecting foods that that can be grown organically in the Mother Lode and that provide the most nutrition, disease fighting components and overall health benefits.

Our first step in planning the new “edibles” garden is to determine which foods are healthiest. Lists of the best foods (from the standpoint of promoting health) are frequently published in popular magazines and on the Internet. Although the specifics vary from one list to another, many of the vegetables, fruits and nuts generally regarded as the healthiest foods can be grown organically in the Mother Lode. The most reliable and easiest to grow are: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, citrus (kumquat and Meyer lemon, with protection), figs, spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, radishes, romaine and other dark lettuces, peppers, garlic, and sunflower seeds. Others high on the healthy food lists are: asparagus, beans, peas, bok choy, arugula, winter squash, greens (collards, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard), onions, cantaloupe, and beets. There are also many beneficial herbs such as spearmint, chives, parsley, rosemary and sage.

Since plants grown organically may have more antioxidants and higher levels of vitamins and minerals* than those subjected to pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, plants easily grown using organic methods are the first priority. Those plants known to have more bugs, diseases and growing difficulties such as fruit trees can be purchased at the local farmers markets rather than trying to grow them in home gardens with limited space.

The Mother Lode climate is also problematic for some of the healthiest foods. Examples are apricots, that flower early, or citrus, which bears fruit in the cold season. Both are often zapped by a freeze, if not protected. Other healthy foods require equipment that is frequently not available to homeowners such as olive oil presses or drying equipment for prunes. Enough space to allow for several species of the same tree for good pollination is another factor limiting fruit tree production. Examples of the healthy foods frequently falling into these categories that are grown relatively locally (within 100 miles) are apricots, plums, apples, almonds, cherries, avocadoes, artichokes, carrots, raisins and prunes. These “best foods” usually can be found in season at local farmers markets and will supplement the foods grown in my garden.

Because there are health issues targeted for improvement through better food choices, the specific nutritional qualities of these foods are being seriously assessed. Foods providing a variety of benefits such as blueberries—anti-inflammatory, high in vitamin C, E and fiber-are top on the list despite the fact that they are large bushes. The same is true of tomatoes—antioxidants high in vitamin C, E, K and lycopene-that are believed to fight heart disease, bladder, stomach and colon cancer. Broccoli may reduce risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke because it is rich in beta-carotene, calcium, iron, folate, vitamin C, E and zinc.

Since there are serious space constraints, plants have to compete for space in the garden. For example, if several plants supply the same nutritional value—such as beta carotene—at the same time (sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and winter squash all mature in late summer) the amount of space allocated to each will be reduced. Or the one least preferred by my family or most difficult to grow in this climate will be eliminated.

An example of a more difficult choice is asparagus. It requires 3 years before it can be picked; the season is short; it has limited productivity relative to the space it consumes; but it’s nutritional benefits are vitamins K, C, A and folate. Since it is a personal favorite, my solution is to find a spot in another garden for perennial edibles and not take space away from the new edible garden that is being designed for annual crops.

A final planning consideration, that affects space allocation and helps determine how many of these edibles can be grown, is when and for how long various plants will be grown. Some are cool weather crops started when the soil temperatures are 40-50 degrees. Examples of cool weather crops are arugula, kale, peas, spinach and onions. Others (such as tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupe) are started when the soil temperature reaches 60-70 degrees. Luckily, gardeners living at elevations under 2500 feet, may get an early spring and late fall crop of the faster growing broccoli raab (or rabe) while leaving the area free for a summer crop such as beans, peppers or summer herbs. Consideration also needs to be given to rotating crops so that the same food family is not planted in the same place in consecutive years.

The most difficult challenge in determining what ultimately gets planted in the garden will be satisfying family cravings for foods not on the list such as white potatoes, corn and zucchini. The decisions will be made based upon relative nutritional value, space consumed, productivity, and availability at farmers market and organic sections of grocery stores.

If we incorporate many of these organically grown foods into our regular diet, we will have taken a big step toward better health. For more information on vegetable gardening and nutrition, check the UC Davis websites, the Mitchell Lab at http://mitchell.ucdavis.edu or contact the Tuolumne County Cooperative Extension Office. For answers to specific questions call the Master Gardener Office at 533-5696.

Marlys Bell is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener who is developing a demonstration garden on her property to illustrate “living green.”

*Alyson Mitchell, U.C. Davis Associate Professor and Food Chemist, has authored two studies on the nutrient content of tomatoes grown organically and conventionally. You can read the reports at http://mitchell.ucdavis.edu