Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2007
Regional Report

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Many herbs, including cilantro, add not only flavor to food but health benefits as well.

To Your Health!

Gardening as a general activity brings you fresh air, sunshine (vitamin D), physical exercise, and a one-on-one opportunity to experience nature and the seasons, as well as a somewhat indefinable sense of well-being. Lawns are nice, flowers are beautiful, and patios are relaxing, but raising food is being added to more and more people's lists of garden projects. As we become more aware of the environmental hazards of transporting food thousands of miles and the potential personal hazards of eating food of unknown origin, growing at least some of our own edibles is becoming ever more important. Not to mention our desire for better health, which comes from eating a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

Choosing What to Grow
Nothing beats the flavor and nutrition of just-picked produce. Try to grow as much as you reasonably can, then buy as much of the other foods as possible from a farmer's market that only sells locally grown produce. There are several ways to go about choosing which foods to grow.

Obviously, your first choices will be the foods that you like. Next, go for the easiest ones to grow, as well as the ones that are difficult to find organically grown. Organic options for certain vegetables, most notably carrots and onions, are widely available, so I choose to buy those.

Another way to choose is to grow as many as possible of the vegetables and fruits that are typically the most pesticide-ridden. These include apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Some of these are easier to grow than others, so pick the easiest ones first.

First on my list is raspberries, as they are incredibly easy to grow and expensive to buy. Choose 'Caroline' as it is an everbearing type that is very productive and has been found to have the highest nutrition of any variety. One of the best apple varieties to try in the home garden is the highly flavorful 'Goldrush'; it also has some disease resistance. Bell peppers and spinach are easy to grow in the garden and also easy to keep in the freezer for wintertime use. Pears, both European and Asian, readily grow with few pesticides, as do sour cherries.

Potatoes are another easy crop, especially if you wait until July to plant; by that time potato beetles will be at a minimum. Strawberries are not hard to grow, but they are more labor intensive than some of the other fruit crops. Be sure to grow some of the day-neutral everbearing types like 'Tribute' and 'Tristar' to have fresh fruit all summer long. Any excess is easily frozen. Grapes, nectarines, and peaches are the most difficult of any of these crops to grow. For me, these are special treats that I buy when I can find organically grown ones.

Another way to choose the edibles for your garden is to select the ones that bring the most health benefits. At one time, people just looked at the vitamins and minerals in foods, but in recent years we've become much more aware of other benefits, usually lumped into the category of phytochemicals. These are powerful natural substances that protect the body's cells from damage. The bottom line, however, is to include a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and herbs in your diet. Still, there are certain ones that should be eaten as often and as much as possible.

Super Foods From Your Garden
Tops on everyone's list should be members of the cabbage, or cole, family. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, turnips, radishes, kohlrabi, and many Asian greens are members. To keep cabbage worms in check, use a Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) spray according to manufacturer's directions.

Spinach is an important vegetable to grow and eat, not for Popeye's iron but for the lutein and zeaxanthine that are the major protectors of eyesight. When choosing varieties, pick ones that are heat tolerant for the summer garden, and more cold tolerant ones for fall and winter. 'Viroflay' is an heirloom variety that grows well year-round.

Tomatoes are just about everyone's favorite vegetable, plus they're a nutritional powerhouse, containing high levels of beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, plus lycopene. Lycopene only develops fully on the eleventh day of natural ripening; commercial tomatoes are ripened artificially and have low levels of lycopene. For even more nutrition, look for varieties with extra-high levels of these nutrients.

Garlic is considered by many to be the king of healing plants. Plan on planting some this fall for harvest next summer. Although beets were considered sacred medicine to the ancient Greeks, they're just now being considered among the super foods as their importance for blood health is better understood.

And, finally, the shrub that should be in every yard: blueberries. Always on the Top 10 list of super foods, blueberries are high in vitamins, phytochemicals, and fiber. Don't be intimidated by their need for an acid soil, just provide a site with full sun and well-drained soil enriched with compost, feed regularly with a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants, and mulch with pine needles. Not only will you have plants that provide healthful food for decades to come, but also attractive additions to the yard with their brilliant red fall color.

Although this only scratches the surface of the many foods that are easily grown and full of health benefits, I hope that you'll be inspired to add more and more edibles to your yard every year.

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