Many of us find information on the harmful effects of pesticides in our produce consuming our thoughts, and shoppers continue to learn about the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list and their seasonal add-ons. Nothing can keep the contamination from spreading, and yet, achieving a healthy diet means eating fruits and veggies. What do we do?
According to LocalHarvest founder Guillermo Payet, many organic farms are almost as industrial as traditional farms these days. And that readily available produce coming from every corner of the country? In order for it to end up on your table looking perfectly ripe, it must be picked and shipped in the unripe phase. That approach has a downside: to get the most nutrients out of any given fruit or vegetable, it should be allowed to ripen on the plant and be picked just before it is eaten.
In light of all of this, maybe planting your own backyard garden is more necessity than luxury.
One great part of planting your own personal garden is that you can choose an array of foods that appeals to your senses: after all, you control what goes into (and onto) it.
Numerous studies have shown that families that plant their own produce eat more fruits and veggies. And boosting fruit and veggie consumption is now more important than ever: One study found that half of American children and teens consume fewer than five fruits and vegetables per day, even though choosemyplate.gov says that 2½ cups of vegetables and 1½ cups of fruits should be eaten daily (based on a 1,800-calorie diet).
The benefits of gardening are nearly endless. The body has a chance to reenergize and take in fresh air, and the stresses of day-to-day activities are wiped away. Gardening has also been shown to promote mental and physical health, even helping prevent dementia in seniors. Gardening activities—like digging, raking, and weeding—keep the body limber and help people get daily exercise they might not otherwise get. Furthermore, gardening means you are providing your family with cost-effective whole foods instead of processed foods.
A study from the Netherlands showed that gardening is better for stress reduction than an assortment of relaxing leisurely activities. And gardening’s benefits are not only for grownups: When the California Department of Health Services evaluated a campaign called 5 a Day—Power Play!, it found that children who experienced gardening ate more fruits and veggies and were more physically active.
Colors of the (Nutritional) Rainbow
In school we learned all about the colors of the rainbow. But did you know that you can also use them when planting your garden? Fruits and veggies get their colorations from phytochemicals that produce different pigments. The various phytochemical profiles give you different and important nutrients (hence the nutritional advice to “eat a rainbow every day”). Use this cheat sheet when planning out that garden:
Red foods have natural antioxidants known as betacyanins and phytonutrients like lycopene and anthocyanin. These naturally occurring chemicals build healthy cell walls, which improve blood pressure, organ function, and circulation. Plus they provide sun protection from UV rays.
Try: beets, red bell peppers, tomatoes, watermelon, raspberries, and strawberries
Orange fruits and vegetables get their color from the pigment beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is the source of vitamin A, which is helpful in warding off cancer, heart disease, infections, and cognitive degeneration.
Try: carrots, oranges, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe
Yellow varieties are rich in vitamin C and folate, help fight inflammation and allergies, maintain healthy skin, and combat free radicals. The citrus found in yellow fruits works to strengthen the collagen in skin, ligaments, and tendons.
Try: pineapples, lemons, yellow peppers, grapefruit, and yellow tomatoes
Green is probably the most common color found in gardens. The green color comes from chlorophyll, a natural blood purifier that helps eliminate toxins found in the liver and kidneys. Most green vegetables also have vitamin K1, helpful for blood clotting. Greens like kale and collard greens also contain high amounts of folate, a vitamin essential for supporting healthy red blood cells. They have also been known to improve eyesight and lower the risk of cataracts.
Try: kale, broccoli, spinach, green beans, celery, and cucumbers
Blue/violet are shades with more antioxidants than all the other colors. These antioxidants contribute to overall health and longevity. The phytonutrient anthocyanin (found in berries) is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage, helping reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Try: blueberries, blackberries, eggplant, and purple cabbage
White, while not in the rainbow, is also an important color to plant and grow. Known immune-boosters like anthoxanthins, sulfur, and quercetin are all found in white produce. (These micronutrients are also antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory.) White vegetables can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart disease.
Try: garlic, onion, cauliflower, and daikon radish
Growing Your Garden
To create the perfect backyard garden, start with these five tips:
- Start small. There’s no need to gather every vegetable that grows in your area. Choose the fruits and veggies you love the most.
- Find the sources. Your plants will need at least six hours of sunlight and ample water. Map out where in your yard they will be most likely to receive these necessities—plant in that location.
- Choose your soil wisely. Soil is another staple for growing the perfect garden. Start with a soil that is contaminate-free to avoid pollution in your plants.
- Consider a raised-bed garden. Raised-bed gardens give you control over the nutrient/soil blend. They also help avoid the soil compaction that happens from walking near planted rows.
- Consult a pro. Farmers or other gardeners are a wealth of knowledge and will be able to provide information on what grows best in your area.
If gardening is new to you, here is some of the easiest produce to grow, depending on your area: barley, beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, garlic, lettuce, melons, okra, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, squash, tomatoes, and turnips.
Stop worrying about your produce and choose to garden instead. You’ll thank yourself later … and so will your family.
By Amy Vergin