by Faye Beery, Bluebonnet Master Gardener Assocation
Let’s face it, fresh vegetables just taste better. As more articles appear about the need for a slimmer and healthier America, more people are paying attention to eating fresh fruits and vegetables and wondering how they can improve on what they consume. According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension publication, The Vegetable Growers Handbook, web edition, complied and edited by J. G. Masabni, F. J. Dainello & S. D. Cotner (aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu), in the past, Texas ranked third in vegetable production behind California and Florida, however, Texas produce acreage has declined to sixth place due to problems with plant diseases, droughts, and insects and competition with growers from Mexico. Texans are showing a renewed interest in home gardening as one in every three families does some sort of gardening. Texas gardeners enjoy a year around growing season according Texas A&M AgriLife’s Texas Home Vegetable Gardening Guide, EHT-0077 6/14.
Home-Grown Vegetables are More Nutritious
A concern is the increasing loss of nutrients in mass produced fruit and vegetables. Most produce, with the exception of the tomato and pumpkin, can lose much of their nutritional value in the large market growing, transport and canning process. Donald Davis, PhD, while a researcher with the Biochemical Institute at the University. of Texas, Austin, led a team which analyzed the nutritional value of 43 fruits and vegetables from 1950 to 1999. He found that foods had a reduction in minerals, vitamins and proteins in 1999 than in 1950. An example is broccoli, which had 130 mg of calcium in 1950, but only 48 mg of calcium in 1999. One possible explanation is that commercial growers select varieties for yield, growth rate, pest resistance and other attributes but are seldom selected for nutrient content. See Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999; Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol 23, No 6, 669-682 (2004). Dr. Davis further explained that intensive agricultural practices reduced the amount of nutrients in the soil which fruits and vegetables need to grow.
Fruits and vegetables destined to be shipped are picked before they are ripe, depriving the vegetable or fruit of reaching maturity and their full nutritive value. Buying local produce, or growing it yourself, allows the produce you eat to be grown for flavor and healthfulness rather than to remain sturdy for transport over long distances. Foods continue to breathe, or respirate, after they are picked. This also leads to flavor and nutritional loss as well as moisture loss. Eating and preserving fresh foods helps you get more nutritional value from those foods. By growing your own fresh foods, you can add compost to ensure that your soil is healthy and provide plants with adequate nutrition. You decide on your own gardening philosophy as whether to use commercial feritizer and other commercial products, whether to grow strictly with organic methods or to use a yoru own combination of methods. Whatever your philosophy, you know exactly what has gone into growing your food, and what has not.
How you cook your vegetables plays a part in the nutrients as well. Steamed vegetables are generally thought to be more nutritious than boiled ones, as the gentle heat softens cells making nutrients more available according to Sarah Burns in Prevention magazine. She also recommends pairing your vegetables. Food compounds can affect how we absorb their nutrients. According to Steve Schwartz, PhD, a professor of food science at Ohio State University, a 2004 study of salsa and avocado found that these two foods up the body’s absorption of the tomato’s cancer fighting lycopene.
Gardening for Therapeutic Benefits
A search of gardening websites reveals a plethora of types of gardens, from square foot gardens to container gardens and large square gardens for large landowners. Gardening also has therapeutic benefits, and according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Therapeutic benefits have been understood since ancient times. In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and considered the father of American psychiatry, reported that garden settings held curative effects for people with mental illness. The American Horticultural Therapy Association website gives techniques of therapeutic treatment benefits for a wide range of individuals with physical and mental disabilities. In today’s hectic world, gardening contributes to a slow down and stress reduction as well as being fun and producing healthy, delicious vegetables and fruits. Looking forward to fresh produce for the table is exciting, and introducing children to gardening and eating vegetables they grow can encourage better health habits.
How to Begin Raising Vegetables
So just how does one go about raising vegetables? A good first start is to think about what you like to eat. It would be a good idea to start small, and increase the number of vegetables as one becomes more proficient in gardening to be sure that you have the time and physical ability to work in the garden. Seed packets are available in many places these days, even in the grocery store. Nurseries and hardware stores have seed packets, as well as small vegetables ready to transplant in your garden. If you are starting with container gardening, you can grow most anything except maybe corn. Your garden should have good soil, and a soil test can kit can be obtained from your local county extension office.
Compost will probably be needed for the soil to provide nutrients and aeration. The garden should have a source of water, as rainfall is unpredictable. Basic tools, such as a hoe, shovel, rake, spade forks, and probably a tiller will be necessary to work the soil for larger gardens in order to keep the weeds out. Soil preparation is a must. If your garden is small, vertical gardening, with supports for climbing plants, such as beans or cucumbers is a good way to save space. You should also decide whether you will have a spring garden or a fall garden, and will need to know which vegetables are cool weather vegetables (such as lettuce and spinach) or hot weather plants such as corn or cucumbers and tomatoes.
Get gardening help from Master Gardeners and AgriLife Extension. As an example, most insects are not harmful to gardens, and it is important to know who the good guys are and how they can help you in the garden. If you have a problem, or a question, get help! The Master Gardener Program has knowledgeable people who can help with questions about your garden. There are websites and books that can help also. Your County Extension office has brochures and programs that can help with gardening questions and problems and they may refer to you to a local Master Gardener in your county. The Aggie website contains much information. A good place to start is the Easy Gardening Series published online by Aggie Horticulture. The Horticulture Committee of Austin County, Texas sponsors two seminars, spring and late summer/early fall, on vegetable gardening and other related topics. The next one is August 23, 2019 at the Liedertafel Hall in Sealy, Texas. Visit the BMGA Calendar for more details on that seminar.