Powerhouse Plants For Home Gardeners

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The Search For More Nutritious Vegetables

Although American food quality in general is in decline, we Northwestern gardeners have a remarkable resource close at hand. The Alf Christianson Seed Company in Mount Vernon, Washington (for many years the last major family-owned seed breeding company in America), has been working for decades with plant breeders, notably Dr. John Navazio, to develop stable seed strains of edible plants with superior nutritional value using classic breeding techniques rather than genetic engineering.

Now owned by Sakata Seed Corporation, a Japanese company which has been its partner for many years, the Alf Christianson Seed Company is a huge wholesale seed growing company that supplies spinach, beets, cabbage, and leafy green crops to much of the world. They continue to maintain and improve open-pollinated varieties as well as hybrids and are also deeply committed to improving the nutritional quality of the food crops they produce seed for. As the international market for organic produce increases, Japanese farmers are looking for seed crops that will thrive in a variety of conditions without chemical treatments, so this merger has not changed the direction of the company’s focus.

Building A Better Edible Plant

Dr. Navazio (who now has his own company, Seed Movement), is an international leader in the effort to find and refine easily grown foods with better than average nutritional content. His other specialty is breeding plants that will thrive with organic farming practices. For example, Dr. Navazio will deliberately infect a test crop–let’s say spinach–with a disease that has been problematic for growers. The crop is given natural care but never treated with pesticides. He then selects seed from the plants that show resistance to that disease to develop a spinach crop with natural immunities.

This selection technique is used with multiple varieties of edible plants, all of which are subjected to a variety of diseases and stresses. Through such rigorous trials come lines of seed crops that can be grown successfully by organic growers without using toxic agri-chemicals. Recently, Dr. Navazio has worked with the Abundant Life Seed Company, helping them strengthen their grower development and seed management programs. He has also taught intensive workshops for growers with Seeds of Change and worked with a number of West coast growers as well.

So Where Can We Find Super Vegetables?

Over the years, Dr. Navazio and others have developed many exciting new varieties of super-nutritious vegetables, some of which are already available to the home gardener. For example, orange tomatoes are an especially rich source of beta-carotene, a phytonutrient our bodies convert into vitamin A. Beta-carotene makes carrots, cantaloupes, sweet potatoes, apricots and pumpkins orange.

Many people associate carrots with good night vision, because beta-carotene assists good vision, day or night. It’s also an important builder of strong immune systems and affects reproductive health as well. This year, consider including at least one orange tomato in your home vegetable plot. Varieties such as Orange Blossom, Orange Jubilee, and Caro-Rich are especially good sources of beta-carotene, particularly when mulched with well aged compost. (Compost helps plants take full advantage of soil nutrients and boosts flavor as well.)

Some Super Carrots

Orange carrots have been the standard since the early 1800’s, when Dutch breeders developed an all-orange seed strain to celebrate Holland’s new royal House of Orange. Before that time, carrots were grown in many colors, from red, purple, and yellow to white and green. Today, many of these older seed strains have been restored and we can enjoy carrots in all colors of the rainbow.  Each color offers a different assortment of phytonutrients, but orange carrots remain the best source for beta-carotene. Look for seed packets of  Bolero, Artist, and Nelson, all of which are exceptionally rich in beta-carotene.

The Power Of Purple

Today, we can easily find seed for a number of purple carrots, some of which are also offered in most farmer’s markets. Purple carrots are loaded with anthocyanin, a compound that protects healthy cells and inhibits the growth of certain cancers. Anthocyanin is what makes cabbages and plums purple and puts the blue in blueberries and blue corn.

For the home garden, look for Dragon, a Kuroda-style carrot carried by a few seed companies. You may also find a dusky wine-purple carrot called Betasweet in farmer’s markets and some grocery stores. Crunchy and sweet, it also makes a nutritionally superior crop for home growers. The seed is supposedly available to home gardeners, though I haven’t found it. Too bad, because these are really delicious carrots!

More Colorful Greens

Though green greens are still popular, red and purple leafy greens are increasingly sought after, partly because they look so pretty on the plate. Both also add a valuable supply of anthocynanin to our daily diet, so try growing a few deeply tinted greens this year. In the grocery store, look for colorful greens to toss with plain green ones. When you buy seed for spring greens crops, consider dark red Marshall Romaine lettuce, Red Rhubarb chard, and spicy-hot Osaka Purple mustard, both of which offer lots of anthocyanin. Come summer, add Red Rubin and Sacred Purple basils (another great source) to your usual selection of herbs.

Nutritionists have long pointed out the benefits of eating dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, kale, collards, Chinese mustard greens, turnip greens, and Swiss chard. All of these are excellent sources for calcium as well as vitamins C and K. Dark leafy greens also bring a good supply of folic acid to the diet. Folic acid is known to reduce the rate and severity of cardiovascular disease, strokes and birth defects. Dark green leafy vegetables come with their own instant rating system: the darker the color, the better the nutritional value.

Super Spinach and Better Beets

Here in the Pacific Northwest, spinach is the most popular leafy green and is easy to grow well. Nutritionally valuable choices for home gardeners include Tyee spinach, a summer crop that retains its rich green coloration and high nutritional content even in the heat. Fall crops can include any cool-weather spinach (all of which are dark in color and high in food value). Consider too growing some long-lasting Red Russian and Winterbor kale, both of which hold their color and food value over several months.

Novelty beets in many colors are growing more popular, but please don’t forget to grow some of the good old red beets as well. Red beets are a splendid source of folic acid, as are fresh beet greens. Serve them together to increase the food value (a spritz of wine vinegar makes this combination especially tasty). If you grow your own, try Bulls Blood, with deep red foliage, and Pronto, a round European beet with bright-green, flavorful tops. Both beets and beet greens contain high amounts of folic acid.

Try Something New

Even if you only have space to grow a few of your own vegetables and greens, consider concentrating on these high powered plants. In truly tiny spaces, a half-barrel will hold an ongoing cycle of lettuces and greens as well as a cherry tomato (orange, of course) and some purple basil come summer.

Adding fresh, home grown super foods to daily meals will improve the nutritional quality of our diet significantly. Growing our own, and choosing seeds with care, also helps to keep us thinking about the quality of what we eat, which is always a good idea (perhaps especially after a holiday!). Bon appetite!

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