Whether the limitation is space, money or time, there are always constraints on what to plant in a garden. So how should you decide? How about selecting for maximum nutrition?
In this article, we’ll look at some of the best crops (and varieties) to grow when planting a super-nutritious garden. There are other nutritious crops that don’t appear on the list, of course, but the following are the ones you should keep close.
Garlic: The Cancer Fighter
Garlic is the top growth inhibitor of cancerous cells in the human body by far. No other vegetable or herb comes close.
I like to plant my garlic in September so that it will have an opportunity to put on some growth before the Michigan winter. Root development helps to hold the garlic securely under its mulch during freezing and thawing, preventing it from being pushed out and possibly dying.
In spring, foliar feeding will help to increase the size of your garlic heads, especially if the soil isn’t the richest where it’s planted.
There are two types of garlic to choose from when picking your varieties: softneck and hardneck.
Though hardneck garlic tends to have slightly superior nutrition to softneck, all garlic is so nutritious that you should feel free to select your varieties based on other criteria, such as flavor and/or heat, clove size, storability, etc.
Note: Elephant Garlic is not truly garlic and lacks flavor and nutritional crop benefits.
Asparagus: Get Started Early
Asparagus is a great way to kick-start your healthy eating in the spring. Few foods contain more antioxidants than it does.
It’s also a good crop to head this list as it illustrates an important trait of many foods you should grow yourself. A harvested crop is still alive and “breathing,” or respiring. This means it’s consuming carbon dioxide and nutrients and producing oxygen.
Asparagus is one of those crops that has a high respiration rate, meaning it will use up its stores of nutrients quickly after harvest. To save the nutrients in this nutritious crop, you must eat your asparagus promptly.
Asparagus should be harvested when 6 to 7 inches in height for best flavor and sweetness. Put it in the refrigerator as soon as you can unless you intend to use it at once. The sooner it chills down, the more tender and nutritious it will remain.
Being a perennial crop, weed control is critical. Allowing weeds to get a foothold in a bed will reduce yields in both the current year and future years. Mulching is effective, and composted manure is exceptionally useful as asparagus makes great demands on nutrient resources. Varieties of this highly nutritious crop include Jersey Knight and Apollo.
Did you know that you can grow purple asparagus? It has more anthocyanins (a potent antioxidant found in purple/black/deep red foods) than green asparagus does, though it does have less fiber. Purple Passion is a common variety.
Strawberry: Sweet Success
Strawberries have the highest content of ellagic acid (a polyphenol and antioxidant) of any fruit. They also contain loads of vitamin C and fiber, as well as being one of the fruits with the greatest content of folic acid (vitamin B9).
The perennial strawberry bed tends to have a somewhat finite life for good production of about five years.
During that time, thin plants to prevent overcrowding, which will decrease overall production. A big challenge in growing strawberries is dealing with the slugs, whose love of mulch and moisture makes them quite comfortable in the strawberry patch.
A commercial brand of slug control that is useful for bad infestations is Sluggo. It’s a snail/slug bait that contains iron phosphate, a naturally occurring soil mineral that causes the slugs that ingest it to stop eating.
Recommended varieties of strawberries (though being picked at peak ripeness is really the important factor in strawberry nutrition) are Honeoye and Earliglow.
Black Raspberry: Dark Horse
The richly flavored black raspberry is simply full of the following:
- vitamin C
- vitamin B complex (one of the highest berries in folic acid content)
- polyphenols such as anthocyanins, indoles and carotenoids
- many minerals
Large pickings are perfect for freezing, as they maintain their nutrition when frozen.
Overfertilization of your raspberries could lead to too much vegetative growth and not enough fruiting. It may also exacerbate weed problems. Therefore, be careful that your mulch isn’t too rich. Sawdust is a particularly good option.
All varieties of this nutritious crop are high in antioxidants and anticancer properties, so you can’t really go wrong. Bristol and Jewel are two varieties desirable for their additional attributes (flavor, productivity, cane growth, etc.).
Parsley: Packed Plant
Parsley is an herb that is difficult to beat when it comes to nutrition. Vitamin and mineral packed, parsley is very high in vitamins C and A. It has five times as much iron as spinach and contains calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iodine and other minerals to a lesser degree.
Unlike many leafy vegetables that contain compounds that block vitamin absorption when eaten raw (often termed “antinutrients”), parsley contains no such substance.
Parsley germinates easily from seed but not necessarily quickly. This is especially true in cold ground. Starting seeds indoors is a way to assure a crop.
However, parsley is a famously unhappy transplant, having a long taproot that doesn’t like interference. I make sure my parsley is given plenty of room in the transplant cells so their roots aren’t bothered.
Any parsley variety you pick is going to be a nutritious crop. If a variety is described as having exceptionally dark leaves, grow that one.
Kale: Seeing Red
Past advice about eating your greens needs to be modified. You should either be eating your “reds” or your “red greens.”
Though all kale is a nutritious crop, red kale is especially so. By growing it yourself, you will be able to keep its incredible nutrition (and especially what “sweetness” it has) intact.
Kale is simply loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants, calcium and fiber. Unlike cabbage family crops that yield a one-time harvest (cabbage and cauliflower, for example), kale will keep on producing as long as you keep on picking it, sufficient moisture and nutrition are present, and insect pests aren’t.
Redbor is a really outstanding variety.
Broccoli: Crowned King
Broccoli has long had a much-deserved reputation for being a nutritious crop.
A kingly member of the crucifer family, broccoli is one of the richest vegetables in anticancer substances—quercitin, lutein, beta carotene and indoles, to name a few. It also has a bevy of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Broccoli greatly prefers cool weather in which to grow, so stick to fall plantings for a sure crop. It is a heavy feeder, and so should be planted on rich ground and/or foliar fed for optimum production.
Top varieties for nutrition include Packman and purple-sprouting types. Once you have harvested your broccoli, move fast to keep this great nutrition as it’s another rapidly respiring vegetable.
Potato: The (Un)Commoner
Most potatoes are a particularly nutritious crop. But you should grow your own because by selecting the right varieties you can add significant sources of antioxidants to your diet.
Raising potatoes is relatively straightforward. Variety selection can be much more time consuming as, if you go looking, you will discover there are many different varieties out there.
With potatoes, color is king! Both skin and flesh come in vibrant colors, with most nutrition residing in the skin.
The reds, blues and purples are the good/better/best choices. Magic Molly, Purple Peruvian, Adirondack Blue, and Adirondack Red are excellent varieties.
Of special note is the Nicola potato. With yellow skin and flesh, its real distinction is its uncommonly low glycemic index, meaning it will not spike blood sugar as many potatoes can and is a particularly good option for diabetics.
Currant Tomato: Teeny Tiny & Tasty
Tomato nutrition depends on color and size. Red tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene, purple/black/indigo tomatoes have anthocyanins, and lightly colored oranges and yellows contain less active antioxidants. The darker the color, whichever color, the greater the content.
Antioxidants are concentrated in the skin of many fruits and vegetables, so the smaller a fruit or vegetable, with greater surface areas of skin per volume of produce, the greater the quantities of defensive compounds present.
In other words, a half-cup of a beefsteak tomato doesn’t have as much nutrition as a half-cup of cherry tomatoes, which doesn’t have as much nutrition as a half-cup of currant tomatoes.
Remember that you need your plants to receive enough nitrogen to promote leaf growth. But phosphorus and calcium are both nutrients that are key to the blossoming and fruit setting you really want.
No home garden should be without Matt’s Wild Cherry Currant Tomato. A highly nutritious crop, it produces a bountiful harvest of small, red, sweet fruits, which are best harvested a cluster at a time.
Lettuce: Seeing Red, Again!
Tight forming lettuce heads (such as Iceberg, Romaine and Bibb, for example) won’t have as much nutrition as lettuce varieties that grow in looseleaf-style heads.
Looseleaf types will have more leaves exposed to sunlight, stimulating the production of more antioxidants (making leaf lettuce a very nutritious crop, too).
Again, the darker the color of the leaves (dark green but especially dark reds and browns), the more nutrients and antioxidants they contain. So, plant your red lettuce successionally to ensure a continuous supply throughout the year, and construct a simple cold frame to extend your supply even further.
Dark red lettuce varieties such as Merlot and Dark Red Lollo Rossa have so many antioxidants that they can rival some of the leafy and famously healthy crops like endive and arugula. Lettuce can be a good source of vitamin A, vitamin K and potassium.
Sidebar: 10 More to Grow
Want more? Here are 10 more nutritious crops to add to your growing space.
Possibly the very richest vegetable in anticancer substances, this fun-to-grow crop is a supernutritious way to end the year. Let them be frosted for extra sweetness. Any variety will do, as freshness is the key.
Many people enjoy all of the different winter squash there is to sample in autumn. Keep the others for sampling and grow these by the bushel!
Butternut is the most nutritious winter squash, containing vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, antioxidants and fiber in high quantities. Also, it has an exceptionally fiber-rich, edible skin. Burpee’s Butterbush and Waltham are two varieties to give a try.
Would it surprise you to learn that cooked carrots are much more healthy for you than raw? According to BerkeleyWellness.com, a collaboration between the school of public health at UC Berkeley and a national team of writers and editors:
“Cooking, especially prolonged boiling, does reduce the vitamin content of vegetables. But carotenoids, such as the beta-carotene in carrots, are more readily available when vegetables are cooked or processed (such as chopped or puréed). Cooking and processing help release the carotenoids, which are bound to the cell wall ‘matrix’ of the vegetables.”
Also, a carrot’s orange color can also be improved upon. Red and especially purple carrots are significantly more nutritious and packed with antioxidants. Atomic Red and Deep Purple are a couple varieties to seek out.
Few who have onion chives use them as much as they deserve. Fewer still have garlic chives.
Nutritionally, chives (particularly the garlic type) have more antioxidants ounce for ounce than the most impressive of their onion relatives.
With a high respiration rate, it’s best to raise these yourself. Also, growing your own allows you to select the right varieties.
Some can produce good “pencil leeks” (Lincoln, for example), so named because are thin. And because they are thin they will be more nutritious and possess edible, extra-tender green portions of the leaves, the most nutritious part. Or overwinter other varieties—Bleu de Solaize, Siegfried Frost, King Sieg—for an extended season.
If you have never heard of marionberries, it’s time you looked into them.
Whether considered a blackberry variety or a berry unto itself, this plant’s long, trailing vines will produce bumper crops of beautiful berries loaded with anthocyanins and fiber.
Though there are many nutritious salad greens to choose from (some with celebrated reputations), be sure to give this one room. Attractive and loaded with antioxidants, Rosso di Treviso is the nonheading variety and so the one to grow.
Another to join the roster of ruddy vegetables, red cabbage is vastly more nutritious than green. You can’t go wrong with a red cabbage, but Ruby Perfection is a storage variety and a real beauty.
Don’t get excited. I must point out that this beloved summer treat is, in fact, one of the least nutritious vegetables.
However, as few are willing to go without—and some varieties can actually be detrimental to your health—growing your own sweet corn is definitely a wise move. Grow old-fashioned varieties with true corn flavor, or sugar-enhanced corn if you require more sweetness.
Amongst these classifications, it’s good to select deep yellow or colorful varieties of red, blue or multicolored kernels for the most antioxidants. Look for Golden Bantam or Ruby Queen.
If you only have space for one fruit tree, this should be it. Self-fertile (thus requiring only one tree), the tart cherry has incredible nutrition—rich in antioxidants and well-known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Montmorency is a supernutritious, productive, tasty variety to grow and an old-time favorite.
Sidebar: Brushing up on Nutrition
To be deemed a healthy food, a fruit or vegetable may be known for its vitamin content.
These are organic compounds, which, though differing greatly from one another, share the trait of being essential for normal growth and nutrition of the body and also being required in the diet because they can’t be synthesized by the body.
Antioxidants are also frequently mentioned on the subject of healthy eating. Something of a general term describing any substance that combats oxidative stress on the body, a lot of the diseases and disorders that derail human health involve, at the cellular level, bonds being formed in places they aren’t meant to (oxidation). Antioxidants prevent this from happening and help to keep structures in a healthy, nonoxidized state.
Of course, there is also fiber content—fiber, that collection of materials that are indigestible to humans and yet is so good for our digestive system.
And there you have some basic nutrition!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.