In the Garden:
Upper South
October, 2005
Regional Report

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Kale is one of the most nutritious of vegetables. Transplants can still be set out with a protective cover.

Reap the Benefits of a Kitchen Garden

The 18th-century culinary expert Brilliat-Savarin wrote, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." For 21st-century Americans that means we are an overweight people short on time, with little knowledge of what really good food tastes like, up to our gills in fats and additives, and walking time bombs for major illnesses. The solution to this is incredibly simple: choose a plant-rich diet.

Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, has written, "A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can decrease the chances of having a heart attack or stroke; lower blood pressure; help you avoid constipation; guard against two common aging-related eye diseases -- cataracts and macular degeneration; help you feel full with fewer calories; add variety to your diet; and enliven your plate." There is also strong evidence that fruits and vegetables may help prevent certain cancers.

The good news is that it is easier than ever to eat wholesome fruits and vegetables, with grocery produce departments providing an ever-expanding range of items, including organic ones. Even with increasing gas prices (and concurrent increases in produce costs due to long-distance hauling), you'll still be able to buy more produce with your dollar than with packaged foods. Of course, the most beneficial solution for the longevity of our planet is to grow as many fruits and vegetables as possible in our own gardens, then buy the remainder seasonally and locally, utilizing farmer's markets and growers who raise crops organically.

The pleasures and rewards of growing my own food are such that it's difficult for me to imagine why more people don't. Even a small area in a suburban yard can yield an amazing amount of produce with incomparably fresh flavors. And why not grow trees and shrubs that provide fruits in addition to beauty? Plus, gardening can give you a great workout, and you get to enjoy fresh air and sunshine.

Choosing What to Grow
Although we should all eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible, in deciding the most important ones to grow, I look at several criteria: which ones give me the most nutritional benefit; which ones are easiest to grow; which ones are difficult to grow but easy to find grown organically; and which ones have the most potential pesticide residue when purchased at groceries.

Apples and carrots are two crops that, although I do grow some, I generally buy because they require more time and effort to grow organically and are readily available at my local grocery. Tomatoes are, of course, one of the most easily grown crops. When choosing varieties, remember that some are extra-high in nutrients, including 'Caro-Red', 'Caro-Rich', 'Doublerich', 'Vita Gold', and 'Health Kick'.

Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritious of vegetables, loaded with carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. They are easy to grow, especially when black plastic is used as a mulch. 'Centennial' is particularly high in beta carotene.

Green beans are a snap to grow, with 'Festina' rated among the highest in nutrients. For sweet flavor and tenderness, try growing the French green beans, or haricots vert; my favorite variety is 'Morgane'. Commercially grown green beans can be pesticide-heavy, so this is a good crop to grow in the home garden.

Spinach and kale extend the garden season in both spring and fall. They're loaded with vitamin C, carotenoids, calcium, and fiber, plus they're easy to grow. 'Dwarf Scotch' is the most nutritious and also one of the most hardy of kales. With some protective covering, you can harvest from it almost all winter.

Cantaloupe and watermelon are both nutritional powerhouses, with cantaloupe being rich in vitamins A and C, and watermelon having lots of vitamin C and carotenoids. Watermelons are slightly easier to grow than cantaloupes. I've had good success with the heirloom 'Golden Jenny' and some of the smaller-fruited watermelons, such as 'Yellow Doll' and 'Golden Midget'. Melons, when traditionally grown, are pesticide-laden.

Berries, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, provide us with healthful desserts rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. But commercially produced ones are usually treated with pesticides. Fortunately, they are easily grown organically in home gardens.

Choosing a rainbow of fruits and vegetables adds enormously to the pleasure of eating a healthy diet, and appears to be important for living a longer, healthier life.


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