In my last blog post, Tips for Better Brain Health, I suggested that we clean up our diets and our home environments by eliminating harmful toxins, thereby improving the health of our brains. This month, I’m taking this concept a step further by encouraging you to grow your own organic vegetables and herbs.
You may be asking, Why should I grow my own, if I already buy organic? There are many reasons. In addition to the incredible burst-in-your-mouth flavors of homegrown produce, the nutrition profile of garden-to-table veggies that have not been transported or placed in storage can’t be beat. Growing your own produce eliminates the need for packaging and the petroleum required for shipping, and it offers an enjoyable outdoor hobby as well.
I realize at this point you may still be hesitating, thinking you absolutely do not have the space, time, or green thumb. But let me assure you that gardening doesn’t require any of these. Eight years ago, when my husband and I moved into our first house, I encouraged him to build aboveground organic vegetable boxes. We now produce the most incredible-tasting summer vegetables and herbs, and it hasn’t required anything more than willingness and a commitment to our health. The time requirement has been much less than expected, and, having started from scratch, we both learned how to garden surprisingly quickly.
There are many websites that offer good information on how to start gardening, but if you get bogged down in the details, you’ll never jump in. The trial-and-error process has been more valuable to me than any one resource. Over time, I learned a lot, and I’ve found that these simple rules are enough to get started:
- Start with organic or non-toxic produce boxes or containers. Using off-gassing plastic containers can contaminate your produce. Use untreated wood, natural ceramic pots, or canvas growing bags instead.
- Don’t overcrowd the plants. Be sure to use containers with plenty of room for what you’re planting.
- Ensure proper drainage to prevent your plants from rotting.
- Plant non-GMO and organic when possible, for maximum health benefit.
- Use organic potting soils specific to vegetables and herbs when building your garden beds/boxes/planters.
- Use organic fertilizer at the start of the planting—not too much, not too little, but just enough.
- Use an organic or non-toxic mulch to cover the soil when the plants are growing.
- Pay attention to siting. Some plants love sun, while others love shade. Be especially thoughtful when placing large plants like tomatoes, which can cast shade over neighboring plants.
- Water your plants according to their specific needs. For extra nourishment, use the water (at room temperature) from steamed vegetables on your plants.
- Weed and clean your garden regularly. Weeds, of course, crowd out your plants and steal their nutrients, but did you know that fallen leaves can cause produce to rot and create fungal problems? Keep a tidy garden to keep these problems at bay.
- Save your used tea leaves and coffee granules. Spread them about ¼-inch thick on the soil once a month to increase acidity.
- Plant marigolds between your vegetables. They’re easy to grow, provide a beautiful pop of color, and even help to keep away harmful insects and hungry rabbits!
- Don’t strive for perfection. Tractor-driving farmers require their rows to be perfectly straight, but fortunately you do not! Make sure there is enough room around each plant to allow it to grow, but beyond that, it doesn’t matter if your rows even resemble a straight line.
The easiest and most nutritious limited-space vegetables to plant are:
- Lettuce—Easy to plant and extremely quick growing, lettuce is a great choice for beginning gardeners. Plant a variety of types and colors (dark green, red, and purple) for a bountiful salad bowl throughout the season. Stagger your plantings for a consistent supply, and choose cut-and-come-again varieties that grow their leaves back after you harvest them.
- Kale—This powerhouse of nutrition can be used in so many ways, including (my favorite) as a blended juice; blanched, cooled and chopped into a salad; or as crispy kale chips hot out of the oven.
- Tomatoes—An extremely versatile vegetable, tomatoes can be eaten fresh throughout the season and then savored in the fall and winter in the form of homemade sauce and purees. Plant at least two varieties: one for eating immediately and one for preserving.
- Broccoli—Perhaps one of the best sources of nutrition for our health (in particular for our immune systems), broccoli is surprisingly easy to grow in containers.
- Carrots—Rich in beta-carotene, vitamins, and minerals, carrots are great to snack on with a healthy dip.
- String beans—These are extremely easy to grow, and delicious sautéed or in a stir-fry.
- Bell peppers—Go for the bright colors. Bell peppers are amazingly versatile, finding a place in snacks, pureed soups, sauces, stir-frys, and grilled skewers.
- Peas—Rich in protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, peas are easy to grow, sweet to taste, and great to munch on.
- Celery—This common vegetable is a great source of naturally occurring sodium and an excellent addition to an “alkalinizing” green juice blend, salad, or snack. It’s also a remarkable source of luteolin, a potent phytonutrient with anti-cancer potential.
The Benefits of Homegrown Herbs
Flavor-boosting herbs are easy to grow both indoors and outdoors, particularly in pots and containers. Plus, growing our own can save us a lot of money at the grocery store—in fact, a fully grown herb plant at the nursery can be cheaper than a small bundle of herbs in the grocery aisle.
But that isn’t the only reason to plant them. What many of us don’t know is that herbs are extremely nutritious. They exhibit natural antimicrobial benefits, are excellent sources of antioxidants for the body and the brain, and offer additional support and protection to our immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, and detox system.
Here are some versatile and easy-to-grow herbs that can be used fresh or dried for the winter:
- Rosemary is a rich source of phytonutrients that exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial potential, as well as essential oils, vitamins, and minerals. Rosemary is also used to support optimal brain and immune function.
- Basil contains the phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect the aging eye from free radical damage. Basil also contains several essential oils, such as limonene and terpineal, which offer support to the immune system as antibacterials and anti-inflammatories.
- Thyme offers one of the highest antioxidant levels of all the herbs, and it is prized for the antimicrobial benefits of its essential oils. Thyme also contains a good number of vitamins and minerals.
- Oregano. This herb has long been used to treat gastrointestinal symptoms, bacterial infections, and fungal infections, and it’s also a good source of vitamins and minerals. And like basil, it’s a rich source of the eye-protecting phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin.
- Parsley and cilantro are rich sources of polyphenols, which have strong antioxidant potential and contain essential oils, vitamins, and minerals. Cilantro has been used through history for its digestive tract support and deodorant properties. Parsley should be enjoyed as a garnish and not consumed in large amounts, due to its high oxalate content and its potential to increase uterine stimulation and bleeding.
- Mint grows like a weed but heals like a medicinal herb. Mint is prized for its calming and soothing effects on the gastrointestinal tract and its cooling effects on the skin. Mint is another herb that offers a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant-exhibiting phytonutrients. Brewed with a blend of ginger and rooibos tea and a few sprigs of tarragon, it helps make a refreshing summer drink.
So put your hesitations about gardening aside, and indulge in the gifts of Mother Nature by planting your own vibrant, vital market basket! The benefits you will yield will far outweigh the effort. Vegetables and herbs are low in calories but bountiful in their nutrient potential, delivering a healthy amount of vitamins, minerals, and fiber and a wide range of antioxidant and immune-boosting phytonutrients. In addition, you will also enjoy a much reduced produce budget, no wasteful packaging, and less time on the couch!
Our nutrition expert, Peta Cohen, M.S., R.D., has been a clinical nutritionist and metabolic specialist since 1996. Peta specializes in examining the root causes of complex and chronic health issues, and helping clients prevent the diseases caused by lifestyle choices, environmental influences, epigenetics, and aging. With her extensive clinical and research experience, she's been invited to share her knowledge at seminars and conferences worldwide. In Peta's articles for the BoomSpot, the blog of the online store theBoomShop.com, she gives practical tips on how adults 50+ can improve their health right now. Learn more about Peta at PetaCohen.com.