Nutrition in the Garden – Choose Wisely!

When it comes to nutrition in the garden, choose your plants wisely. Is the high cost of food a concern? Is ready availability a thought? Do you consider nutrition when you plant your garden? How do you choose?

Recently, I have read numerous posts on the severe weather we have had across this country. Due to the high volume of rain, there are many farmers who are either late getting crops in, or were just unable to plant at all. This led to questions on whether or not our food prices will go up in 2020.

Is there an Answer?

While researching, I saw where no one really has a definitive answer. The only thing the ‘experts’ agree on, is that the jury is still out, and we won’t know for sure until ‘later’. For some of us, ‘later’ can make the difference between feeding our families healthy alternatives, and preventing our budgets from ever balancing.

This got me to thinking. Some of us have difficulty making ends meet. If they are then faced with a food shortage, or gigantic price increase, we need an alternative. I am always trying to encourage folks to grow as much of their own food as possible, but rarely do I consider the true nutritional value of what I plant I decided to regroup.

I talked to a couple of experts. Mark Stephenson is a Nutrition Services Manager. Amie Mitchell is a Clinical Dietitian. I asked them to help me choose vegetables and fruit that can be grown in with a focus on nutrition in the garden, and pack the best vitamin and mineral punch possible.

Considering some of us don’t have a lot of space for a garden, I narrowed it down to the top eight choices. Most on this list are very easy to grow, and can easily be grown in containers or small beds.

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Nutrition Packed Vegetables


1. Beans/Peas: These are in a category of Super Foods which when added to nutritious foods in an already balanced diet can bring health benefits. Naturally fat free, low calorie, low sodium, beans and peas are fiber packed, and can be dried or canned. Peas and beans can be counted as a protein source. Beans are rich in complex carbohydrates.  Bean intake has been associated with a decrease in breast, stomach, colorectal, kidney and prostate cancers. They are high in natural antioxidants especially beans with red, brown or black coloring, folate, potassium, magnesium, and iron.


2. Beets: Beets contain lots of anthocyanins, and are a perfect consideration when planning for nutrition in your garden. They are purple after all. Even golden beets contain a fair amount. But beets are one of the best ways to reduce blood pressure. By eating beets, your body naturally increases the production of nitric oxide, a strong nutrient resulting in vasodilation, the bodies natural ability to dilate your arteries.

Want an even stronger vasodilator? Drink beet juice. It’s a little “earthy” but quite sweet. Speaking of sweet, did you know beets are used to produce sugar? They can be canned and pickled (my favorite), and used as a dye. Beets also contain betaine, a nutrient which helps reduce inflammation, a significant link to cardiovascular disease. One of my sisters calls beets “old people food” but I’ll let you figure out which one. Hint: she’s a dietitian who’s supposed to like all food. I’ll just leave it at that.


3. Dark Green Leafy Vegetables: (Mustard, collard, broccoli and cabbage are cruciferous leafy greens) – These are high in nutrients, low in calories and contain glucosinolates which inhibit the growth of certain cancers. Low in calories, fat free, high in vitamin A, C and K, folate, iron and calcium. Great source of fiber.

Mark also adds this about Purple Cabbage: Cabbage is a good source of fiber, provides half of your needed vitamin C in a cup, and is low in sugar. The biggest benefit of purple cabbage comes from its color. Most purple and blue vegetables and fruit contain a nutrient called anthocyanin. The fruits and vegetables which contain anthocyanins include beets, purple onions, blueberries, and grapes (yes, wine is high in this nutrient so drink up……in moderation).

Anthocyanins have been closely studied over the past 20 years and have shown to have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-obesity properties. It has been said, anthocyanins can also help reduce blood pressure. The drawback? There is a direct correlation between high cabbage intake and the number of friends who will stay in the same room with you. So, be kind and socialize outside if you don’t want to be a hermit.


3. Spinach: Do I really need to say anything about spinach? It is considered a superfood after all. Open any nutrition magazine and you’ll hear how super awesome spinach is. My only issue with it is you have to eat a lot of it to get the benefits. A cup of spinach only contains 7 calories with only .3 net grams of carbs (great for those with diabetes).

Spinach is a good source of Vitamins A and K, Calcium, Iron, and even contains a gram of protein. It’s a pretty versatile veggie. Put it in salads, quiche, casseroles, or anywhere you can hide it to get your kids (or me) to eat it. I used to liken it to grass. You know, a nice St. Augustine or even a Zoysia. Recently I’ve learned to appreciate it more. I’ll even eat it raw under a big pile of romaine.


4. Onions: Onions are truly one of the most versatile vegetables to grow. They can be cooked and eaten alone or added to any savory dish. Like peppers, they get really sweet when cooked due to the abundance of natural sugar. Some people eat them raw due to their sweetness. They are also a great supply of a little researched nutrient called quercitin. Quercitin is a powerful antioxidant which can help reduce inflammation, reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease, aid in treating diabetes, and reduce the risk of some cancers. Onions are a good source of fiber, providing 3 grams of fiber in a cup of chopped onion.


5. Peppers: Dinner, dinner, vitamin C winner. All sweet peppers (green, red, orange, and yellow) have more vitamin C than most fruit. In fact, orange peppers have 3 times more vitamin C than an orange. So tell me again why we need fruit in our diets? They are low in calories and carbohydrate, but a good source of potassium, calcium, and B vitamins.

In my opinion, the best way to cook them is to grill them. They are almost like candy when grilled, although I’m not quick to turn them into ice cream anytime soon.


6. Sweet Potatoes: Besides being delicious and versatile, sweet potatoes are low calorie and nutrient dense. They are high in fiber, Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, manganese, pantothenic acid, beta carotene (orange color) and vitamin E, all of which are antioxidants.

If you have never grown sweet potatoes, visit Amber over at My Homestead Life. She offers a step-by-step guide to making it as easy as Sweet Potato Pie!


7. Tomatoes: Tomatoes are technically a fruit, but have long been considered a vegetable. Still, it is probably one of the most common, and typically easy plants to grow. They are probably one of the few vegetables that have well over 100 varieties to choose from. These delicious fruits are nutrient dense and low in calories.

Tomatoes are high in antioxidant lycopene which is linked to many health benefits such as heart disease and cancer. They are a great source of vitamin C (also an antioxidant), potassium, folate, Vitamin k, phosphorus, and Vitamin A. (*I have to add my own two-cents worth here – Amie states in her notes that for some reason, tomatoes are difficult for her to grow. So, just for you, Amie – here is a link from Dianne at Hidden Spring Homestead to help you out!)

The Farm Wife - Book

‘Fruitful’  Nutrition Thoughts

In addition to these eight top choices, Mark also mentions that if you do have to purchase fruits or vegetables, consider adding Avocados to your list. This is what he says about them:


Fruit or vegetable? Definitely a fruit, without all the sugar. In our house, the love of avocados is legendary. So legendary, our youngest daughter is called the “Guacamole Queen.” We usually have to place two orders when eating out; one for her and the other for everyone else.

Avocados are truly one of the premium superfoods. They are high in fat, specifically heart healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber, vitamin E, potassium, folate, and vitamin K, contain little sugar, great for people with diabetes, and provide a ton of energy.

The drawback to avocados? It takes a long time to produce fruit. If you start an avocado tree from seed it can take up to 15 years before you’re rewarded. Buy a tree from a nursery and you could see fruit in as little as 3 years. Either way, it’ll be worth it. Guacamole anyone?

Adding Fruit to your Homestead:

Mark and Amie both agree. Berries. Blue, black, boysenberry, lingon, raspberry: no matter how they are listed, berries are low in sugar, high in Vitamin C, promote low risk of heart attacks, help repair tissue damage by aiding in collagen formation, and “believe it or not, a cup of them have 1 gram of protein.

Whether you’re looking to lose weight, cut sugar intake, or get healthier, any combination of berries is a good way to do it. And like Garrett Morris once said, “Baseball has been berry, berry good to me.” SNL fans unite!!” Can you tell Mark is a major baseball fan? (My question is, does it still count if those berries are turned into shortcake?)

If you have concerns about feeding your family through growing a healthy garden, these are great vegetables to grow. Most are easy, and can be grown in containers. Even if space is limited, there is usually room for a companion plant, especially herbs.

If the cost of raising your own foods is an issue, visit Mary over at Mary’s Heirloom Seeds. She offers some of her seeds for .99 per package. Most seed packets can run $2.75+, so with that, you have already saved a minimum of $1.76 per packet. Plus, there are enough seeds to grow more than one plant. That is a great win for the budget!

Are you ready for Mark’s Honorable Mention, and why he chose it?

Grapes: “Why grapes? With grapes you can make wine. Do I need to say anything else?”

* * *

Time for a Confession

Amie is my older sister, and Mark is my younger brother. I watched both of them as they worked their way through college studying their passion. When we first moved to the farm, I think my siblings thought I was crazy. However, they knew the health benefit of our goal to focus on nutrition in the garden, and grow the healthiest foods possible for our families.

Because of that, they encourage us, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Over the years, I see they have become healthier because of their commitment to fresh fruits and vegetables, and consideration of all foods. Both work diligently to help others learn the importance of basic nutrition. And Mark?  Let’s just say he likes to get up close and personal with his food!

Note: All the vegetable photos are courtesy of Mary’s Heirloom Seeds. If you are planning on starting a garden, just hop on over to her site – you can find just about every kind of vegetable and herb seed you could ever need.  

Julie Murphree is a blogger, newspaper columnist, and speaker on all things ‘Living a Simple Life on the Farm’. She is the author of \\\'The Farm Wife – Living a Simple Life on the Farm. She and her husband have 60 acres in NW Louisiana where they actively work on living as sustainable as possible.

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