The Nutritional Value of Food Crops

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Growing nutritious millet.
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Growing nutritious millet.
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Growing nutritious dried beans.
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Growing nutritious sesame seeds.
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Growing nutritious millet.
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Growing nutritious millet.
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Growing sunflower seeds.
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Growing nutritious peanuts.
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Growing nutritious broccoli.
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Growing nutritious kale.
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Growing nutritious turnip greens.
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Growing the nutritious herb parsley.

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.

Sunflowers

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.

Millet

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.

Sesame

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.

Sesame was smuggled into this country by African Americans,
who called it benne. It’s the basis for the popular Middle
Eastern sauce and condiment tahini — which has helped
people realize sesame can be used for more than a topping
on hamburger buns. Seeds can also be added to cake. cookie
and bread recipes to boost their nutritional quality. And
there’s an old tradition of making benne cakes and candy,
with sesame as the principal ingredient. A tender annual,
benne requires 70 to 110 days of full sunshine, and good
spacing (at least 12 inches) between plants for aeration.
The long taproot makes it sensitive to transplanting but
also serves as its hedge against drought. In midsummer; the
three-foot-tall plants form attractive purple-white
flowers . . . which eventually become small hairy pods loaded
with seed. The pods’ tendency to ripen unevenly and propel
their seed in bursts makes this crop a misfit in the world
of industrial agriculture, but a fine orphan child for the
home gardener.

Dried Beans

Stamp collecting is fun, but bean collecting is fun, tasty
and nutritious. I’ll admit I’ve been bitten by the
bean-collecting bug. How can anyone ignore a crop that’s
easy to grow, harvest and store, fun to thresh, a
nitrogen-fixer and a great source of low-fat protein? Snap
and shell beans will dry if you let them, but there are
dozens of specific dried bean cultivars. Colors and
patterns abound. Names, too: Although most everyone knows
about navy, pinto, black, kidney and Great Northern beans,
how many people have heard of Lazy Wife, Gramma Walters,
Montezuma Red and Mortgage Lifter? You can grow bush or
pole varieties of many dried beans. The bush kind take less
work, but some folks swear the poles have more
flavor. Except for favas, all beans love warm weather. You
can also inoculate the seeds with rhizobium bacteria to
help the root nodules fix nitrogen in your soil.
Pre-soaking the seeds will sometimes cause them to split,
so I give them a head start by rolling them up in damp
cloths or paper towels that are then stored in plastic
bags. When the root tip (or radical) starts to protrude,
plant them tip down one to two inches under the soil,
depending on the variety’s seed size. Keep an eye out for
Mexican bean beetles — you can squash or handpick the bugs,
eggs and larvae. Better yet, interplant the beans with potatoes; the two companions tend to repel each other’s pests.
For best results, the plants should be kept generally free
from weeds and well-watered. Still, we’ve successfully
grown several kinds of dried beans in a field that received
no irrigation and little cultivation. Their hardiness is
impressive. As fall wears on, your beans will dry as they
stand — branch, leaf and pod. When your other harvest
chores slow a bit, pull the bean plants up and hang them to
dry further. There are various home-scale methods of
threshing them (separating the beans from their pods);
we’ve put them in a sack and shuffled and clogged all over
them! You can freeze the beans for a few days to kill
weevils and their eggs. Then dry them some more until you
can’t dent them with your teeth. That’s it. Store them in a
lidded glass jar and the colorful seeds will add to your
kitchen as well as to your diet.

The Sunflower Wall

Sunflowers have uses other than nutritional. A more
beautiful windbreak couldn’t be built. Planted thickly,
sunflowers can provide a wind-pollination barricade between
crops. The leaves can be used as cattle feed and the dried
stems as cord fiber, kindling, or support poles for next
year’s peas. The heads make lovely table centerpieces and
good squirrel feeders, and — of course — serve as a very
effective way to lure birds to the garden.

Soybeans

Of course, soybeans are the nutritional king of the dried
beans-high in protein, calcium and vitamins. We discuss
their cultivation elsewhere in this issue (see “The Most
Important Food in the World” in this issue).

Peanuts

Native to Peru, these nutritional legumes are used to
climates with 120 days of frost-free, sunny weather. Now,
many of you will read that sentence and want to skip over
to the next crop, but wait: There are peanut varieties that
do well even in Canada! How so? Because while the nuts need
warm soil for germination, the plants can survive light
spring and fall frosts without suffering harm. Any peanuts
you plant must be raw, with the skin around each seed still
intact. You can plant them in or out of the shell. Since
soaking them overnight in warm water helps them get off to
a quicker start, “shell planters” may want to crack those
coverings a bit and then soak their nuts, shell and all. If
you live in a warm area, you can sow your crop directly
into the garden after your last spring frost date. Folks in
cooler climes can try starting peanuts indoors four to six
weeks earlier. Use large pots — say, old paper milk cartons
for this; the roots don’t like to be disturbed. And space
your plants about 18 inches apart. After the plants flower,
they’ll produce pegs that grow down into the soil and then
form the goobers. So be sure to raise your crop in loose
soil. (Peanuts don’t, however, need a lot of extra soil
nutrients.) You can even hill up the soil some around the
plants to help the runners meet the ground that much
sooner.

About 60 to 80 days after the pegs submerge, start checking
your hidden nuts. When ripe, they should be deep pink — not
pale pink or milky — with well-indented hulls. The plant
leaves themselves will start to pale as the crop matures.
It’s a rare crop that grows up out of the ground only to
return to it. Why not match peanuts’ novel perseverance
yourself? Give goober raising a try!

Dark Green Leafy Vegetables

Almost all the dark green leafy vegetables (DGLVs) are
nutrient-rich. However, spinach, beet greens and Swiss
chard are also high in oxalic acid, which inhibits the
body’s full use of their calcium. For that reason, I’m
going to bounce them from the “nutritional superstar”
category and focus on four other — perhaps less appreciated
— DGLVs: turnip greens, broccoli leaves, kale and parsley.

Turnip Greens

If you’ve been harvesting turnip roots and composting the
tops, you’ve been throwing good nutrition away: the leaves
are rich in vitamins A, C and calcium. Raising turnips
(beets, too) is growing two crops in one.

I broadcast seed onto a prepared bed, being careful not to
oversow. As leaves first appear, I thin them for use in
salads, soups and stews. When the roots start crowding, I
pull whole plants, often feeding the small globes to
rabbits or chickens. Soon the remaining plants stretch
their stems and the leaves get to be about six inches
across. Then it’s a snap to pick enough outer fronds for a
meal, while leaving plenty of foliage to feed the plant
roots. What could be easier?

Broccoli Leaves

Seems like most everybody knows how to grow broccoli, but
few people realize that, like turnips, it’s a multiple-use
crop. Peeled and chopped stems are excellent stir-fried,
and the leaves, make perfectly good cooked greens. Those
fronds contain 16,000 IU (international units) of vitamin A
per cup (three times the RDA). In fact, they’re better for
you than the plant heads are!

There’s certainly more justification for the space broccoli
takes in your garden if you use all its parts.

Kale

Kale’s attractive greenery packs over ten times the vitamin
A as the same amount of iceberg lettuce, has more vitamin C
per weight than orange juice, and provides more calcium
than equivalent amounts of cow’s milk. It can be grown from
Florida to Alaska with very little effort-it seems to
thrive on neglect.

Like most members of the brassica family, kale is descended
from sea cab bage, from whence it got those waxy,
moisture-conserving leaves. It’s a biennial, storing food
the first year to help it produce the next year’s seeds
(that’s why those first year leaves are so nutritious). And
it’s quite frost-hardy, lasting through winter in many
locations — even under snow — to produce a second growth
come spring.

To plant kale, prepare your soil, broadcast the seed and
chop it in with a heavy metal garden rake. If conditions
are particularly dry, you might sprinkle a thin layer of
straw on top to conserve moisture. Kale grows best when
mixed with organic matter and perhaps some lime in the
soil. Plants thrive when thinned to about six inches apart
and exposed to cool temperatures.

Young tender leaves are a delicacy. I chop them raw in
salads or steam them as greens. But they achieve their peak
flavor after the first frost. The classic Southern way to
serve cooked greens is with chopped onions and a bit of
vinegar, a sour-sounding but surprisingly sweet-tasting
combination. The widely available Blue Scotch variety is
high in vitamin A.

Parsley

That curled decoration on your dinner plate is actually one
of the meal’s most nutritious ingredients. If you’re smart
enough to eat those two sprigs of garnish, you’ll be
getting your RDA of both vitamins A and C.

While parsley can be started indoors, I start mine in April
by soaking the seeds overnight in warm water (this
slow-starting crop needs all the germinating help it can
get!), sowing them directly onto a prepared bed and then
sifting a fine layer of good soil over the top. A light
covering of straw helps keep the soil moist during that
long wait for germination. As the season winds on, that
skimpy stand of wispy seedlings becomes a thick patch of
deep green beauty. Parsley loves sunshine, but if you’re in
a climate with intense summer heat, you should grow it
under the shade of some taller plants to help it retain
moisture. The mature sprigs are quite cold-hardy and —
along with sprouts — will bring life and greens to your
winter kitchen.

So there you have ten health-giving heroes of the garden.
Some are a bit exotic; and others have probably already
been growing, unappreciated, right under your nose. All can
help to make vegetable gardening better for you than it’s
ever been before.

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