The Nutritional Value of Food Crops

Discover the nutritional value of food crops and ten ways to increase your vegetable self-sufficiency.

| June/July 2000

How to increase the nutritional value of food crops on your homestead. 

The hunter stalked his prey through the awakening forest. As the early rays of the sun filtered through the branches overhead, he moved noiselessly from tree to tree. Finally halting, he quickly but carefully fitted an arrow to his bowstring, aimed and let, fly. This time he hit his mark; he was glad, because he had not eaten since the previous day. He walked to where his arrow had fallen, carefully removed the chocolate-covered jelly doughnut, and walked away.
— Jonathan V. Wright, M.D.

The above fanciful passage from Dr. Wright's Book of Nutritional Therapy (Rodale, 1979) makes the point that, though our bodies and their nutritional requirements haven't changed all that much from the time when we were hunter-gatherers, our eating habits have changed dramatically and recently. The refined foods that most of us subsist on have been around for barely 100 years. That means gardeners don't have to reach so very far back to create a diet superior to that of the average American. Even the act of growing your food provides an essential vitamin — D, from sunshine. And a person can grow enough food to supply the rest of his or her complete nutritional needs for one year in a space of only 1,000 square feet. Yet few of us put any real thought into the nutritional value of food crops we grow. If we did, I imagine we'd be surprised by our discoveries. Indeed, the crops that rate as nutritional "superstars" aren't even raised by most gardeners. To help you boost the health-promoting power of your garden, we've assembled cultivation information on ten of the all-around most healthful plants you can grow.


If you read through the vitamin and mineral chart, you'll see that sunflower seeds are a nutritional powerhouse. They are amazingly health-promoting, but there's a hitch: The nutritious nuggets are packaged quite well. Some folks dehull their seeds by putting them in a blender with water (the chopped hulls float, while the heavier seeds sink) . . . by rubbing them across a screen box made of hardware cloth . . . by running them through a hand mill . . . or by just plain shelling them by hand. In truth, there is no easy way in; build a better home-scale sunflower seed huller and the world will beat a path to your door. Some sources will tell you to plant sunflower seeds in warm weather, but I've seen magnificent volunteers pop up when I was still in long johns. You might try sowing both early and late in the season. Full sun is a sunflower's delight, as is adequately drained soil . . . though the crop will tolerate less than ideal conditions. With little other care, the golden monarchs will reward you with a burst of colorful bloom and then later with large seed heads. (You may want to tie some sort of netting loosely over these to keep birds from eating your crop.) Sunflowers are a Native American crop — one that was used extensively by the Indians. And based on their food and flavor value, they're still heroes in their own country. Mammoth Russian and Giant Single sunflowers both have particularly high protein contents.


The ancient Hunzas and Chinese knew something most of us don't; millet was one of the first grains to be domesticated. And with good reason: Millet contains more of the essential amino acids — and is more easily digested — than wheat, rye, oats, rice or barley. Yet the only time most Americans use millet is to feed caged birds! It's also widely used as a livestock feed (I bought the seed I planted from a local feed-and-seed store). Millet is becoming more popular as food for humans, though, and can now be purchased at food co-ops, health food stores and even some chain groceries. Proso, or broomcorn millet, and pearl millet (which is said to be easy to thresh) are the varieties most used for human consumption. Pearl millet has long, compact seed heads — the plants look a lot like cattails — and has been grown as emergency forage on many a farm when fall was approaching and a quick crop was needed. (Millet will yield good livestock forage in as little as one month.) While millet grows best in fertile ground, it's known for its hardiness in poor soils and under dry conditions. It's also quite disease- and pest-resistant. It can be sowed any time from spring to early fall, depending on the climate. You can broadcast seed onto prepared ground and chop it in about one to three inches deep with a heavy metal rake. Or, in a small garden, you can plant it closely in rows. Harvest the seed heads about three months after sowing. Be sure to get them before they're fully ripe, or foraging birds will leave you nary a one. Tie the heads together and hang them upside down in a dry place — inside a bag or else loose if your storage area is free from mice. (Does such a place exist?) You can grind the seeds finely, hull and all, or flail or winnow them as our forebears did. My main uses for millet have been as a breakfast cereal, mixed with rice in stir-fried dishes and as an extender in bread and fish loaves. There's no shortage of good recipes for this grain in health-oriented and international cookbooks. (And any you don't eat makes great hay or hen feed.) So if you want to take one more step toward nutritional self-sufficiency, try a home plot of millet.


I saw my first sesame plant at the Blue Ridge Institute's Farm Museum in Ferrum, Virginia, and was intrigued even then. But after doing research for this article and discovering sesame's high percentage of niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin E, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus and protein, I decided to grow some myself.

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