As a longtime Colorado gardener, I’ve prided myself on plump heirloom tomatoes, delicate lettuces frilled and ruffled, Italian eggplants with glistening alabaster skins and large sweet onions. Our climate challenges these beautiful vegetables. Hail, steep drops in temperatures or soaring summer heat hinders the most intrepid gardener. And it may be the wrong approach to good nutrition. After I read Jo Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side, I decided to take a new look at what I am growing and why.
I grow vegetables and fruit for nutrition and taste. Sometimes I grow for novelty, too. I like to try one new tomato or pepper each year. A unique strawberry variety or a couple of tender, unusual greens. One year I lean toward Mexican herbs or Italian greens. Another year it’s Asian cabbages. One or two I keep on my list of best edibles. But I’ve never tried to make a roster of most nutritious plants until Robinson’s book.
The gist of her book is that our plants have been hybridized by farmers for hundreds of year to be sweeter, tender, bountiful. In doing so, they avoided bitterness and hardiness in favor of a palate we all recognize: a longing for the sweet tastes of spring. As we learn more about nutrition and face the vagaries of climate change, it may be time to reassess what grows best just beyond the patio in our backyards.
This year I’m growing kale: several kinds to find the one I like best and the one that will hold up in hot weather. I’ve never been a lover of kale but tastes can change. I’m finding new recipes that appeal to my family. Kale is in the cabbage family. It’s a cool weather plant far easier to grow than cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli. It may be subject to the same pests as others in that family, like the white cabbage moth, but it benefits from a familiar remedy: row cover when the moth is laying eggs. Best of all, it doesn’t form a head to be carefully safeguarded. If some leaves are damaged, new will form. And it’s most tasty in cool weather, which makes it an ideal crop for early spring and fall. I’ve harvested the new leaves for salads. But it will satisfy those who like braised greens as well.
I’ve never truly appreciated scallions. I do now. So easy to grow—it’s a reliable crop from direct seeding. Scallions have none of the problems of large, sweet onions. But they have more nutrition, according to Robinson. Sweet onions are precisely the kind of crop that Robinson says farmers hybridized for sweetness. Grilled, baked or added to stews, large onions have a flavor profile all their own. Scallions often appear only in a salad. I’ve found they have a broader range. For braising, quick cooking or an added flourish, scallions now make an entrance in my kitchen more often than onions. They are uncomplaining in the garden and will last from spring through fall with minimum care. I plant them in my salad garden with lettuces, beets, chard and spinach.
Garlic is one crop that has taken over a portion of my garden year after year. Most chefs are familiar with the health benefits as well as a Mediterranean staple. It’s a perfect crop for Colorado. Again, it’s an uncomplaining, nutritious powerhouse. I plant German White Porcelain hardneck in the fall, usually around October. If you’ve ever planted tulip or daffodil bulbs, it’s much the same. They winter over to produce large, perfect four-square bulbs in July. First comes the green garlic scapes—unopened flowers—in summer. Those are set aside for pesto. The bulbs are dug, dried in the shade for a week or two and stored in the pantry. Mine last until January and might last longer if I didn’t cook so many. I try to save some of the harvest to replant in the fall.
Nearly all cool weather greens are easy: lettuces, spinach, chard, mizuna, curly endive, arugula. Like the kales, they produce leaves rather than heading. A few, like mizuna and arugula, are in the cabbage family and will attract a pest like the brassica-family flea beetle. But they continue to send up new leaves long after the beetles are gone.
Lettuces have few pests other than slugs and those I manage by keeping the soil around the lettuces on the dry side and free of debris. I set out drip for the lettuces so that only they are watered. Some gardeners use diatomaceous earth for slugs. The jagged edges of the earth at first impedes slugs but may be unhelpful after the first rain.
Robinson suggests that red lettuces and loose leaf lettuces are among the most nutritious. Color is an indication of nutrients in many veggies. Lettuces developed a protection of their own against UV rays that burn their tender leaves. Dark blue, purple and red colors—like those colors of blueberries, cranberries and blackberries—broadcast antioxidant and vitamin components.
The same colors can be found in a few novelty veggies: red and purple carrots, purple cauliflower and broccoli. None of these is any easier than their usual orange, white or green cousins. But all are fun to try.
Among the easiest fruits are raspberries and strawberries. Both are highly nutritious and far tastier picked from your garden than plucked from the store. But the most surprising recommendation by Robinson is the nutrition of Concord grapes. I planted two Concord grape vines over an arbor. With limited attention on my part, the vines are robust, producing clusters of impeccable fruit each year. My most serious problem is with raccoons. These pesty animals love corn and grapes. I’ve taken to encasing the grape clusters into mesh bags while they ripen. The kind of mesh bags found in grocery stores for small potatoes or other produce will help. Of course, there are other netting products you can buy. The nutrition is most noticeable in the dark purple color–the skin holds most of the nutrients and makes delicious juice.
That goes for tomatoes, too. Like many gardeners, I love summer tomatoes and have an entire garden devoted to them. I once grew for taste and variety. Now I will grow for nutrition. Among the most nutritious are the small tomatoes with names like: ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ or ‘Black Cherry’. These smaller, dark tomatoes are close to the original tomato as designed by Mother Nature. Many of the nutrients are found in the skin—so the more skin, the better. They also are the easiest to grow. Small tomatoes don’t sit on the vines as long as large tomatoes. So there’s less chance of cracking or splitting. Plant a variety of smaller tomatoes and you’ll have enough to withstand a couple of weather extremes.
The same is true for one of the most tender summer vegetables: eggplant. Since it’s nutrients are in the skin, I now plant the long, slender Asian eggplants. Not meant to be peeled, these eggplants also mature faster and less likely to be ruined by weather. As for those summer specialties like corn and beans, Robinson recommends the old varieties of blue, red and purple corn. Sweet corn is just that—sweet and less nutritious than the older varieties. And beans that are purple, like ‘Royal Purple’ will offer more antioxidants than the green varieties. They’re just as easy to grow as the green beans.
Finally, herbs continue to be close to their original design. Few have been hybridized. After all, it’s their pungent flavor that makes them attractive to us. Those strong aromas and tastes in rosemary, mint or cilantro, are the original evolution in plants to drive away predators. Humans have selected herbal flavors over hundreds of years and our herbs deliver a nutritional wallop. Cilantro is one of Robinson’s favorite herbs. But nearly all are good for you.
There’s much more in Robinson’s book. It’s meant to be a compendium of fruits and vegetables widely grown. I’ve chosen those that grow well in my Colorado garden. I hope they’ll grow well for you, too.