Let’s face it. When we get to point that you can’t call out, use a computer, or find a stop light that is working, our stash of stored food will eventually become depleted. We will all become more and more dependent on local produce. Even if food is available for purchase, many people will want to grow some of their own. For most of us, growing our own fruits and vegetables in an efficient manner will be a challenge. How successful we are in gardening will very much depend on our individual knowledge and skills. If you have never gardened, be aware that there is lot more to it than just planting seeds and harvesting.
Basically, all of our gardening goals will be much the same — to grow large quantities of fruits and vegetables that are packed with minerals for good nutrition. When fruits and vegetables are high in minerals, we call it “nutrient-dense.” Depending on the way a fruit or vegetable is grown, its mineral content can easily vary as much as 100 percent. It’s the minerals we are after. In fact, we don’t need to eat as much food if it is nutrient-dense to get the same benefit. Gardening in ways to get nutrient-dense food is therefore a move to greater efficiency. This is especially critical when gardening in restricted spaces.
This article is about the concepts and techniques for growing nutrient-dense produce. It’s for beginning and experienced gardeners. After more than 50 years of gardening experience and extensive training, I offer what I know to be the critical factors for growing nutrient-dense produce in an efficient manner.
If at all possible, I urge you to get started now with growing your own food. Don’t wait until there is an emergency at hand. Start small, develop a gardening community, make it an adventure, and enjoy it. Bonding with Mother Nature serves us all well.
Choosing the Fruits and Vegetables you will Grow
We know that there are differences in nutritional value among the many fruit and vegetable choices that we have available to grow and consume. That is simply the nature of the individual species. Beans, corn, melons, broccoli, etc. are not alike in nutritional value. It’s important that we eat a variety of foods to get a full complement of minerals.
Before you begin learning and using techniques for growing nutrient-dense produce, recognize that your selection of what you can grow is dependent on your geographic location. Summer and winter temperatures, length of growing season, winter chilling requirements, basic soil types, and other factors, all influence what you can grow. Especially if you are new at gardening, it is wise to see what is available at local Farmer’s Markets and visit with long-time local gardeners and farmers before deciding what to grow and when to plant.
The aim of this article is to help you get the most minerals/nutrients possible into whatever crops you are growing. The more nutrients you get in all your produce, the more efficient is your gardening effort. Besides the efficiency issue, we need to understand that the more nutrition we have in our produce, the healthier will be all the consumers. This concept applies to your livestock and pets, as well as to people.
Basic Gardening Considerations
First, plan and grow mainly the amount of produce that you will actually eat fresh and store. The exception to this is growing crops that you are using for sale, sharing, and/or for bartering. Under “survival” conditions, produce will be in short supply, at premium prices, and a tradable commodity. Many people will have limited gardening space, so plan, plan, plan. Although garlic is a wonderful, easy-to-grow crop in many ways, it’s not likely you will eat several pounds of garlic each day. On the other hand, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash might very well be a main-stay item that is eaten several times a week. They are relatively easy to grow and can be stored for many months. Deciding how much of each to grow will become easier, as you get gardening experience.
For health reasons you will want to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, but be a bit cautious of trying to grow too many things. Each crop has unique germination, transplanting, watering, and other maintenance requirements, and until you are experienced, management of a garden with 30 to 40 varieties can seem overwhelming. Start small and grow into the more complex garden.
Everyone will not have a site for growing a garden. If you have an big area that requires more work than you can do by yourself, consider asking others to join you in the endeavor. Choose carefully, only those who are willing to do hard physical work under all kinds of conditions and throughout the year. Everyone involved needs to feel “full ownership” in the project. Work together from the beginning in planning, and in defining individual work and financial responsibilities.
Second, grow crops that store well. Some fruits and vegetables will store fresh under the correct conditions. Many crops can be canned, frozen, dried, or fermented and will safely last at least a year. In areas where you can grow a spring, summer, and fall garden, it is not difficult to have a supply of produce that will last for a year or more. Weather disasters may severely limit what you can produce in any single year. Put considerable emphasis on drying your fruits and vegetables. When done properly most dried produce will last for several years. Excellent home-size, fruit and vegetable driers are available. Under certain climatic conditions, sun drying can be used and is advised.
If you don’t know the nutritional value of the different fruits and vegetables, your best choice is to grow and eat a big variety. Think in terms of growing and eating leafy greens (like kale, spinach, and lettuce); common vegetables (like peas, beans, tomatoes, and okra); root crops (like potatoes, beets, carrots, and turnips), and dried seeds (like the beans and grains) — perhaps some of each every day. A wide variety of crops will help you in getting a broader array of minerals/nutrients. Of course fresh produce is best, but it may not always be available.
Third, plan for year-around gardening. While year-around gardening is relatively simple in the south, as you move north, it requires different season-extension techniques. These techniques are available, and it is wise to become familiar with them, and be prepared to implement them when needed. Under severe “survival” conditions, growing your own vegetables may be a necessity. Eliot Coleman’s book, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Garden All Year Long, offers excellent advise on this topic for backyard gardeners.
Techniques for Growing Nutrient-Dense Produce
The bottom line — it is the soil that primarily determines the nutrient-density of fruits and vegetables. Weather, including rainfall, is important, but the soil must be healthy if it is to perform its primary functions. A healthy soil functions effectively in water infiltration and storage, digestion of organic matter, recycling of nutrients, and feeding the plants the needed water and nutrients. Healthy soils must also contain major and trace minerals at the proper levels. The techniques that help the soil fulfill these functions are explained in the 7 steps listed below. John Jeavon’s book, How To Grow More Vegetables, is an excellent source for details on gardening (growing soil) in a sustainable manner.
If you follow these 7 steps, you will be on your way to more successful gardening. You will be able to measure your success by growing produce with improved, intense flavors. If you grow nutrient-dense produce, you will taste the difference. Some folks say, “It’s like I remember vegetables tasting from my grandmother’s garden.” I actually use a refractometer to get an index of sugar/mineral content of my fruits and vegetables, so I can monitor progress, and adjust fertilization of the garden accordingly. The refractometer reading is called the Brix value. Ideal Brix values vary with the individual fruit or vegetable. See www.highbrixgardens.com for information on helping to improve your health by growing high quality produce.
1. Select the Best Garden Site Possible. Most people won’t have a lot of options on this, but as a rule, go with the area with the most sun. Stay back away from the drip line of trees and find the area with the deepest top soil and fewest stones. If the site is entirely shaded, you might have to sacrifice some trees for the sake of food production. Ideally, you also want an area that has not had pesticides and chemical fertilizers applied in the past.
Use non-contiguous areas. The garden can be a single plot or many small plots. Produce can be grown right up next to buildings. Consider replacing shrubbery with annuals and/or perennials that provide a source of food. Some berries and vegetables, figs, and many herbs will do just fine around the periphery of buildings.
Everyone will not start out with high quality soil. In some cases, you may need to bring in topsoil to build up the garden. Try to get the best topsoil possible. While this may seem like a very work-intensive or expensive approach, if you really have to grow most of your own food, it could turn out to be a real life-saver activity.
2. Use a No-Till or Minimum-Till Approach to Produce a Living Soil. No-till makes sense from the viewpoint of reducing energy costs, but more importantly, no-till is best for improving the soil and increasing productivity. As a general guideline, apply the concept that all gardening activities should result in protecting and improving the soil. Soil quality determines the productivity and nutritional quality of your produce.
Tilling can reduce the biological activity in the soil. Soil quality depends on many factors, but on the top of the list is the soil biological activity. Beneficial bacteria, fungi, earthworms, etc. are the organisms that are continuously digesting and relocating organic matter. Without this workforce of micro-organisms, the soil becomes dead. Dead soils are the result of applying toxins (chemical fertilizers and pesticides), but can be converted to healthy soils over time. Though expediency often drives gardeners to adopt the chemical approach, it should be avoided at all cost. Stay with the organic approach for the sake of the soil and your health.
Tilling can negatively impact the physical properties of the soil by destroying the soil structure. Good soil structure implies individual soil components of sand, silt and clay are held together with the natural glues secreted by soil microbes. These soils are not subject to erosion and they have good tilth, meaning they are easily worked, and have the capacity to hold water.
3. Grow Diverse Crops. Growing many different species of plants, over time and space, increases the number and varieties of soil microbial populations and is an insurance program against disease and pest problems. Sugars, made from the diversity of plants, are released from plant roots into the soil. In the soil, the sugars serve as food for soil microbes, which in turn decompose organic matter into nutrients that support plant growth. It is the way the natural soil development process works.
As part of this practice, try to rotate crops as much as possible. Although there are crop rotation patterns in commercial agriculture, just think in terms of not growing the same vegetable in the same place year after year. Depending on your geographic location, you may have 4 different crops on the same bed within a year. That may include a cover crop (generally a non-vegetable)designed only for improving the soil. Cover crops (e.g. oats, Austrian winter peas, buckwheat, clover, and rye) should be an essential part of the rotation system. The cover crops that are classified as legumes have the ability to “fix” nitrogen on the plant roots in the soil. This can be sufficient nitrogen for the year. Always keep a cover crop on the garden over the winter.
4. Grow Crops Throughout the Year. For a healthy soil you need to be continuously feeding the soil microbes, primarily by growing plants that are providing live roots that freely exude sugars. Providing plenty of sugars means easily accessible food for soil microbes and a plethora of benefits for plant growth. Maintaining a suitable habitat for the myriad of soil food web creatures (the microbes) is the key in suitable soil development. One teaspoon of healthy soil can easily contain more individual microbes than there are people on earth. It is so clear: we need to be gentle and kind to the soil, and the soil will be good to us.
5. Keep the Soil Covered. I like to tell visitors to my garden that what they can not see, is the most important aspect of my garden. It’s my precious soil. A garden where the soil is covered by growing plants and/or their residues is very likely a garden as nature intended. Soil covers protect the soil aggregates from beatings by the rain, suppress weeds, keep the soil cool and moist, and promote soil microbial activity. How can it get any better than that?
The five practices listed above are aimed at maximizing the physical and biological activity in the soil. In essence, they are speeding up the natural soil development processes and will lead to healthy soils, healthy plants, healthy produce and healthy consumers. These are steps that take little or no input from outside the garden area. While not entirely free, they are low-cost gardening techniques, that move us in the direction of being sustainable gardeners.
6. Mineral and Nutrient management. Beyond the five steps described above, one major topic in gardening remains. It’s that of adding supplements to the garden. The kind and amount of supplements to add will depend primarily on the original rock material (e.g. sandstone, limestone, etc) and past uses.
The degree to which you address this topic will depend on resources available. Here are a list of things to do, all which will likely lead to improved nutrient density in your produce.
** Make and use compost. Collect organic matter from the kitchen vegetable refuse, garden area, and other sites and make compost for use on the garden. Use the compost sparingly and wisely. Don’t use excessive amounts of compost. Too much compost can lead to higher than needed nitrogen levels in the soil, excess nitrates in the produce, and encouragement of insects. It’s not likely that the compost will increase minerals to the point of being in excess. Four to five percent organic matter in the soil is sufficient. Once at that level, and assuming you are following the five steps above, 20 to 40 gallons of compost per hundred square feet per year may be sufficient to maintain the desired nutrient level. Bear in mind that compost derived from garden plants will be similar in nutrients to what is in the soil.
** Increase the diversity of bacteria and fungi in your garden. If you have some adjacent prairie and/or woodlands, collect some soil/humus from it and add it to your compost pile and/or sprinkle it directly on your garden. This is simply an insurance program to add microbial diversity to your garden. Natural environments will likely have new, desirable microbial species that will be helpful in the garden. You can also find bacterial and fungal inoculants available for sale from many sources.
** Add mined and minimally processed rock and organic minerals. Determining what to add, and how much, goes beyond what we can specify here. In short, this is the place for contacting a laboratory that specializes in making recommendations for organic gardeners. There is some room for your own garden diagnostics, but only if you know the plant symptoms for deficiencies for the various nutrients. Materials like alfalfa meal, soft rock phosphate, lime, kelp, wood ashes, epsom salts, borax, and many others may help to correct mineral shortages, but do not add them until you have some indication they are needed. It is possible to have excess minerals in the soil system.
Some other options can also be helpful.
** Raised beds are an optional, but very useful technique. In essence, it means developing beds that are 8 to 12 inches higher than the adjacent walkway. I use four-foot beds and two-foot walkways. I recommend that you do not use any sideboards. Unless you use treated material or expensive redwood, wood sideboards will rot or succumb to termites in a few years. One exception — if you have a garden plot on a steep slope, sideboards on the downhill side might be needed to prevent erosion.
Raised beds have several advantages. They drain more quickly after heavy rains and they warm up faster in the spring. Early and more timely plantings are critical to maximizing production and nutritional quality. As a rule, raised beds have better aeration, which promotes better microbial acuity and increased growth.
** Double-digging is the process of loosening the soil to a depth of 16 to 24 inches, depending on specific soil conditions. In short, the top layer of soil is removed, a little compost is added, the lower layer is then loosened, and finally the top layer is replaced. The top layer of the pathway is then added to the bed. This process creates raised beds.
Double-dug beds are better aerated, more biologically active, and promote deeper plant root penetration. All this translates into increased production and better nutritional quality.
** Use heirloom seeds and save seeds. Heirloom seeds exist for all of the major garden crops. Once you have them, take the extra effort to save seeds or vegetative starts for subsequent years. The fruits and vegetables from the heirlooms will generally be more nutrient dense. Work with neighbors and friends and plan for sharing seeds. Also, consider a more general cooperative garden sharing plan. Use the knowledge of all involved.
If you read this article and have the impression that all gardening techniques and processes are interrelated, then you have it read it correctly. Everything you do in the garden and all the growing processes are all tied together. It is the way nature has designed the system. That may be disconcerting to you as you try to understand what is happening in your garden. Or it may be troubling as you try to prioritize your gardening activities. Do not become overwhelmed with understanding all the interconnections. Just remember that the interconnections serve as a safety or buffering system or insurance program for how your plants grow and survive. Nature’s system is designed so that life might continue.
When we use techniques to protect and promote that natural system, we are harmony with nature and more closely within reach of our objective of producing nutrient-dense produce. That goal is good for us as individuals and good for us a world full of people, everyone looking or sadly hoping for three meals a day. Following the 7 techniques above is a good place for all of us to begin. Work diligently, maintain patience, share with others, keep an open/positive mind and you will be blessed.