Mar 27, 2014

The Top 5 Most Productive Veggies We Have Grown: Grow More Save Time

Edibles can be pretty!  ornamental kale image via AZ Plant Lady

Well it's time to start planning your garden, even though it doesn't look like it today in Minneapolis!  We still have about a foot of snow on the ground, puddles and ice on the side-walks, and it's snowing as I write right now (just flurries).   But before you know it, it will be time to start planting so I am taking this time to finalize our garden plans for this year.  I think the best way to start planning your garden is to reflect on past experiences (assuming your not new to gardening), and to consider what you hope to accomplish with your garden this year.  What has worked for you before?  What problems have you had in the past?  What are your goals for your garden this year?
Half of our garden  (garden A) July 2013

Our Goal For Gardening This Year: To Grow The Most Produce Possible With as Little Work as Possible. 

Last year I got smart and planned our garden for this year, while we still had our garden as a visual aid.  I've found it helps to plan your garden while your successes and failures are still fresh in your mind as well as your placement of plants.  While we mostly have our garden planned out, I'm currently reviewing that plan to see if it matches with our goal for gardening this year: To grow the most produce possible with as little work as possible.

In the past I've been focussed on growing more produce in our garden every year than the year before, but this year I want to still have a full garden but dramatically reduce my time in it both tending to it and preserving food as well.  My goal is to spend time planting in seeding this spring, minimal time maintaining it, and harvesting as if our garden was a grocery store as much as possible (less time preserving food), and time taking down the garden for fall.  So basically less time tending to plants, harvesting, and preserving.   I will be elaborating on this more in future posts, but for right now a good place to start I think is to look at what veggies have been our favourites that we are for sure going to grow this year.

The Top 5 Easiest and Most Productive Veggies We Have Grown

My husband and I have been growing veggies for 5 years in Minneapolis zone 4a with clay soil (that we amended with compost and peatmoss).  We have tried many different varieties and types of veggies, and have had some winners and losers.  Below is a list of our top consistent winners that are easy to grow, highly nutritious, produce a lot, are easy to preserve, and are cost effective (expensive to buy at the grocery store).  Or in other words the biggest bang in nutrition and your wallet for your time.

Keep in mind different zones and soil conditions can make a difference in what plants will do well in you area.  Or in other words what worked for me might not work as well for you, so when in doubt ask someone in your area what works best for them.  If you have a neighbour who gardens, I'd start there.  But if you don't know of anybody to ask in your neighbourhood, don't forget to try to find online a local club, forum, or garden blogger in your area to ask. 

1. Kale  
Red Russian Kale in our garden zone 4a still growing on Nov 16 2013
Favourite variety: Red Russian (because it grows larger, is more cold tolerant, and is pretty with it's purple spine).  What's your favourite variety?

Why We Love Growing Kale
This is hands down my favourite veggie to grow by far!  It's low maintenance, packed with nutrition, frost hardy (flavour actually improves after a frost), and is harvest-able in MN from May-Nov.  It's biannual, so you only have to plant it every other year (it seeds in it's second year). I love this because not only is it less work planting, but every other year it crops up early in the spring.  It's always the first and last plant I have every season.  In MN it starts to grow in April and last usually until Nov.  Not bad for MN!  In MN where we have short seasons this is awesome.  If you live in a milder climate it might almost last year round.  Not only is Kale very hearty to cold temps (see below how some varieties are hardier than others), but it tolerates heat well too (which most greens don't).  It also rarely has any pest or disease issues.  I have found kale does best if 1 1/2 feet of space between each plant, and make sure to mulch! 

Another bonus about kale is it can be rather decorative, especially if you pick a relatively colourful variety.  I have seen a trend in landscaping of Minneapolis parks of using decorative edible plants.  Often I have seen purple kale, ornamental cabbage, in my local parks.  Check out this pdf from Loghouse Plants with pictures and names of ornamental cabbage and kale. Another similar plant to Kale Swiss Chard is similar to kale just not quite as frost hardy.  I just didn't include it on the list because I prefer to eat kale to swiss chard myself.  If that wasn't the case Swiss Chard would be #2 on my list!

Nutrition
Kale is so full of vitamins and minerals one could easily call it a super food.  It's high in calcium (more calcium than a glass of milk), vitamin A, K, and C (more vitamin C then an orange).  Eat it with healthy fat like nuts, olive oil, avocado, or coconut oil so that the vitamin A and K are better absorbed. 

Beard and Bonnet
How Do I Eat It?
There are many ways you can eat kale.  You can eat it raw in salads, wraps, sandwiches, and even add it too smoothies (if it's made right you won't even taste it I swear).  Kale is much like spinach in cooking, since you can lightly cook it as well.  I often like to add it to pastas, soups, and stews for this reason.  It adds some nice colour and extra nutrition.  Another fun way to use kale is to bake it as kale chips.

Harvesting
To harvest kale simply cut off an outer leaf (an older leaf) with a pair of scissors.  I harvest a little every month.  Unlike some veggies, kale doesn't have a specific time of year it needs to be harvested.  You just want to make sure you harvest the leaves before they start to change color.  If they do start to change color that means that tier of leaves (that leave and it's buddies next to it) are likely dying soon so you will want to harvest it soon. 

Preserving
Unless your like me and plant a ton of Kale (we had 11 plants last year), you probably won't need to preserve any kale.  But if you do it's not too bad simply rinse your kale in a salad spinner and blanch it in boiling water for 1-2 min then shock it in ice cold water, dry it in a salad spinner and then freeze in dated ziplock bags.  They are still great frozen in soups and stews, and I also add them to my smoothies for added nutrition (you don't even know it's there).  You can even make pesto with kale to add to pastas or sandwiches.

2. Tomatoes
image via love and lemons
Favourite variety: Roma (they have less water so are easier to preserve and are smaller so you have a longer harvest and are unlike to have cracks).  I love them so much it's almost all I'm planting this year!  What's your favourite variety?

Why We Love Growing Tomatoes
Just about every veggie garden has tomatoes (unless the gardener doesn't like them!), and there is a reason for it.  Tomatoes are so easy to grow!  We have never had a bad year for tomatoes yet, knock on wood!  Tomatoes are great fresh with so many dishes.  While tomatoes can have pest and disease, usually any disease issues will not kill the plant and it's likely to still produce perfectly fine tomatoes.  Outside of mulching and watering (it needs a lot of water in July), there isn't a whole lot of care needed for tomatoes considering they are properly staked or caged and have adequate light and space. Preserving and harvesting them is more difficult in the sense that there is a certain time period that you have to harvest, not just whenever you feel like it.  

Nutrition 
Tomatoes are most known for being high in lycopene (a very potent antioxidant). One cool thing about lycopene is it can actually work as a mild internal sun screen.  This doesn't mean you won't need to still wear sun screen, just that your more likely to be protected in case your not applying sun screen appropriately.  I learned of this while watching the BBC "The Truth About Food" (see video below) where they did an experiment with lycopene and sun damage.  They had participants eat 55 g of tomato paste every day for 3 months and found a reduction of 11-30% in sun damage. 

 BBC "The Truth About Food" How 2 Stay Young & Beautiful Part 2/6 (10 min)

lycopene actually increases when you cook it, so cooked tomatoes are actually healthier for you.  If you eat tomatoes with fat you increase the absorption of lycopene, so don't be shy with adding olive oil to your tomato based pasta meals or avocado to a tomato heavy mexican dish. 

Tomatoes also have many other vitamins and minerals, some of it's highest concentrations are vitamin c, biotin, molybenum, vitamin k, copper, potasium, and maganese. 

Please not that you may want to not over do it on tomatoes if you have psoriasis.  While it has not been scientifically proven what cause psoriasis, there is a belief (not scientifically proven) that it's caused by a reaction to the toxins in night shade plants (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes).  I do have psoriasis and have tried to stop eating nightshades to see if it would help last year and my out break did clear up.  This could mean something or be completely coincidence. I have however eaten night shades in normal amounts for my diet since and have not had a reoccurrence of psoriasis.  I was at the time I had my last outbreak of psoriasis eating ALOT of tomatoes because we were at our height of harvest at the time and was harvesting like 5-10 lbs a day! 

Harvesting
In MN you can typically harvest tomatoes July-Oct but I find my biggest tomato harvesting time here in MN to be August and September.  I even schedule time now just to focus on harvesting.   While you can harvest it green starting to turn red, it's best to harvest it red, just be sure to harvest it not too long after it turns red and then leave it on a counter (where you can see it every day so you don't forget about it) until you plan to use it.  


Preserving
There are many ways to preserve tomatoes.  Their high acid content makes them ideal for canning.  You can can them whole, make sauces or salsa and can it, make tomato paste and can it, or make sun dried tomatoes (or dehydrated tomatoes).  I use to make marinara sauce and can it along with sun dried tomatoes, but I've decided to only dehydrate tomatoes.  This way I can skip canning which I'm not fond of.  The only work is slicing it up, which if you use Roma tomatoes, is super easy because they have less water and are therefore less messy, are firmer so easier to slice, and take less time to dehydrate.  

3. Beets
3 different varieties of beets via Wise Habits
 favourite variety: heirlom Chioggia (because it's so pretty!)

Why We Love Growing Beets
 Last season was the first season that I planted a lot of beets.  We planted beets in the free spaces of garden A last year and planted carrots in garden B.  While we did get a lot of carrots, I felt like beets were a way bigger success and plan to plant both sides with beets this year.  I felt like carrots are a lot more work than beets to harvest (much smaller for the same work) and are cheaper and easier to find then beets.   Also beets are one of the first thing you can plant, which means a longer growing season very important in MN!  In MN you can plant a little before Mother's day. You can plant beets every 3 weeks except in the summer.  So considering that and the fact that you can plant as many as 9 per square foot, beets are quite productive indeed.

Nutrition  
Beets are both helpful in protecting your liver and heart.  Beets are an excellant source of betaine which is vital to good cardiovascular health.  According to Fit Day, " Betaine's purpose is to lessen your body's concentration of homocysteine, a substance which is hurtful to your blood vessels in the sense that it can contribute to peripheral vascular disease, stroke and heart disease. Moreover, there is decent, scientific data to indicate that betaine is also beneficial for the purpose of shielding you against liver disease. It does this by way of acting to lessen fatty deposits in your liver."  Beets are also high in naturally occuring nitrates which help blood flow and therefore help with lowering blood pressure and cardiovascular health.  It is also high in other nutrients such as folate, vitamin c, maganese, copper, vitamin B6, and magnesium.

How Do I Eat It?
Beets are also high in fiber to balance the high amount of sugar.  As Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics says nature packaged fructose with the antidote fiber.  It's when we remove the fiber that we have problems.  This makes it a great natural substitute for both sugar and fat in baked goods, especially red coloured baked goods like red velvet cake.  

I often add beets with other root vegetables in a roast.  Some other ideals are to make beet chips, pickled beets, red velvet pancakes, baked goods, salads, ice cream, juicing.

Harvesting
You can harvest beets whenever you feel like it during the growing season.  So you don't have to worry about harvesting alot at a certain time.  Love that!  You also can harvest beet greens until you harvest the root.  So you get greens and the root!   

Preserving
You could preserve beet greens in the same manner as kale described above,pickle beets, and store them for 2 months or more in the fridge. According to Backwoods Home, "Harvest only mature beets and cut off the tops, leaving an inch of stem. Do not remove any of the root tip. Brush off the dirt and pack in layers in damp sawdust, sand, or moss. Keep cold (near 32° F) and very moist at 90 to 85% humidity. Unwashed beets keep quite a while in bags in a refrigerator. Depending upon storage conditions, beets can last anywhere from two to five months in storage."

4. Cucumbers
Image Source: You can grow cucumbers into shapes with molds, or cut them into shapes with cookie cutters. 
Why We Love Growing Cucumbers
While we have had  problems with cucumbers in the past, I think it was due to learning.  We had two years that cucumbers did not grow and I think it was due to planting it incorrectly.  We didn't give it enough space and light.  Since learning this we have had very productive cucumbers, so I still think it's worthy of being on this list. Cucumbers are easy to start from seed and we haven't had any problems with pest yet. 


The main reason cucumbers made my list is out of all the veggies you can grow vertically I feel this is the most productive per square foot.  You can grow peas and beans vertically but you have to constantly pick them and they don't produce as much since it weighs much less.  You can also grow melons, squash, pumpkins, or watermelons vertically.  You don't need to harvest these often and they weigh alot, but I have personally had problems growing all and have found it easier to just buy them instead.  Our squash and pumpkins were attacked by pests and never grew, and our melons and watermelon didn't grow much and never tasted that great. So cucumbers are perfect for small space urban gardeners if you make a vertical trellis.  I've created tutorials for making vertical trellises from PVC and from cedar wood, so check them out and start growing some cucumbers. 

Nutrition  
Cucumbers are 95% water so they are low in calories and very hydrating.  Perfect for summer.  They are also high in b vitamins, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc. - See more at: http://www.doyouknowgk.com/2013/03/interesting-facts-about-cucumber.html#sthash.tszxMM7Y.dpuf
Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc. - See more at: http://www.doyouknowgk.com/2013/03/interesting-facts-about-cucumber.html#sthash.tszxMM7Y.dpuf
Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc. - See more at: http://www.doyouknowgk.com/2013/03/interesting-facts-about-cucumber.html#sthash.tszxMM7Y.dpuf

How Do I Eat It?
Outside of pickles and eating it raw in salads, I didn't know before I gardened how else to use pickles.  Our first year gardening we had a huge bumper crop of cucumbers and I was trying to figure out what to do with them.  I learned I could juice them and found a fantastic recipe for cucumber limeade which is very popular in Mexico.  I love this drink!  It tastes so good on a hot day, very refreshing.  You can also make a salad with it as a side dish, cucumber water, greek salsa, to make tzatziki sauce, or use it in appetizers in place of a cracker or as a wrap.

Harvesting
In MN we usually harvest from the end of July to Sept or Oct.  You can harvest when they are small for pickling which will boost production of more cucumbers, or harvest them full size before they start to turn yellow.  Before the cucumbers turn yellow they will start to turn a lighter shade of green.

Preserving
Pickles of course! You can pickle them as whole small pickles or slice larger ones on a mandolin.  One great reason to make your own pickles is not only can you flavour them how you want but you can avoid food colourings.  Believe it or not food colorings blue and yellow are in almost every pickle jar on the aisle (unless your shopping at a health food store).  Crazy huh? 


5. Asparagus
Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus: Body N Balance Spa
Why We Love Growing Asparagus
Asparagus takes a little while to get started, 3 years when grown from crowns, but after that it's all gravy baby.  Asparagus is one of the few perennial veggies there are.  Perennial means no more planting ever only harvesting.  Not only that but asparagus is an early spring veggie so in spring (usually April in MN) Asparagus will pop up on it's own.  Asparagus can have pest, but I luckily have had no problems myself. 

Nutrition
Asparagus is a very good source of fiber, glutathione (a strong antioxidant), folate, vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream into cells. 


Harvesting
As I stated earlier Asparagus is a perennial vegetable so it pops up out of the ground in early spring all by itself and lasts through spring here in MN.  To harvest cut it off at the bottom of the spear.  I use pruning sheers to cut it.  Make sure to harvest before the tips start to fern.  If not harvested the spears turn into large feathery ferns.  

Preserving
Asparagus can be blanched and frozen.  I prefer to eat mine fresh so I don't freeze mine.  I think it would be fine frozen however in pastas, stir frys, or soups.  

Storing Asparagus
Have you ever noticed how grocery stores keep their asparagus?  They usually have it in a plastic bag on top and in water at the bottom and so should you.  To recreate this in your home place some water in a cup or mug and place the asparagus spears into it, then put a plastic bag on top of the spear heads (this keeps the heads fresher) and secure with one rubber band on top and one at the bottom and place in the fridge until ready to use.  


Cooking Asparagus
Before cooking with Asparagus hold each spear horizontaly and place your hand near the end of the sprear and start to bend it until it snaps.  It will snap in the spot that is still fresh and not woody.  Asparagus starts getting woody at the bottom and as it gets older it will move up.  To cook it you can steam, grill, or even batter and deep fry it to make "fries".

So what's your favourite fruit and veggies to grow?  I'd love to hear about it!

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