What you need to know to grow a nutrient-dense garden

Unfortunately, the produce we consume today is significantly less nutritious than produce eaten decades ago. According to Scientific American, this is mostly due to modern agricultural practices, which result in soil depletion. Not to mention crops are usually bred based on traits such as size, color, disease resistance, sweetness, and rate of growth, rather than nutritional content. Scientific American goes as far as to say that "each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before." That's a pretty discouraging statement.
Thankfully, there are ways to gain back some of what has been lost, especially if you're willing to take up gardening. Still, either as a consumer and/or as an organic gardener, you can choose more nutritious produce.
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The first thing to keep in mind is that going organic really does make a difference. Either purchasing organic produce or growing your own food using organic methods, you're produce will have more nutrition to offer you and your family. This is mostly due to the fact that organic methods build the soil, while conventional farming methods deplete the soil. And your plants can't be any healthier than the soil in which they grow.
Here are some other ways to ensure nutrient dense fruits and vegetables:
1) Remineralize the soil. This is something you will need to do some research on yourself, but as an organic gardener it's where you should start your journey to growing nutrient dense food. As far as building the soil, we often focus on organic fertilization - adding nutrients through compost or some other organic material. However, even if your soil has enough organic matter and nutrients, it may not have enough minerals. And this could be a limiting factor to plant health. According to Dr. Mercola, minerals are critical for plant enzymes to function well. Rock dust and cover crops are both helpful in the remineralization process, but again, you'll want to dig into this subject on your own.
2) Utilize herbs. According to Jo Robinson in her New York Times Article 'Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,' "herbs are wild plants incognito." People have found herbs useful in their true forms for so long, and for good reason. Look to herbs for high phytonutrient content. Robinson defines phytonutrients as the molecular compounds that protect plants from diseases, insects, etc. Likewise, phytonutrients help protect us from disease, free radicals, etc.
3) Plant a variety of crops. To get the most nutritional value out of your garden, you'll want to grow a variety of crops. The more diverse, the more nutritious. It's really that simple.
4) Choose nutrient dense varieties. Unfortunately, conventional farming usually results in new plant varieties based on yield, not nutritional value. So, if you want to grow food that has more nutritional value than what's sold, you're best bet is to choose varieties for their nutritional content. Again, this will require some digging, but it will be well worth the effort. In the meantime, here's a list Mother Earth News has made available for '44 Super-Nutritious Varieties for Your Garden.' In general, nutrient dense varieties will be:
- Brighter in color. In 'Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,' Jo Robinson identified yellow corn as having "60 times more beta-carotene than white corn." In general, bright colored produce usually implies higher nutritional value.
- Smaller. Dr. Mercola points out that majority of a fruit or vegetable's antioxidants are in their skin. Unfortunately, many fruit and vegetable varieties have been bred based on size - the bigger the better. But, this actually reduces skin to pulp ratio, which increases the sugar to antioxidant ratio. Generally speaking, the smaller the fruit, the less diluted the nutrients are in sugar and/or water.
- Bold in flavor. Jo Robinson, in an article contributed to Mother Earth News, says that bitter, strong flavored produce is often the result of some of the most beneficial types of phytonutrients. So, settle for a more mild flavored variety and you're probably settling for a less nutritious variety as well.
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So, while eating more fruits and vegetables is generally good advice, the real value lies in eating nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. As an organic gardener, you have the power to grow some of the most nutritious foods in your own backyard!

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