If you’re investing time and energy to cultivate a garden, it makes sense to grow foods that deliver the greatest health benefits. For a harvest that pays off in tastiness and nutrition, try these easy-to-find, easy-to-grow plants that thrive in many climate zones. We narrowed the list to feature flavorful produce that’s well-suited for family-friendly meals and snacks. Enjoy these foods fresh from the garden or choose cooking methods such as steaming and stir-frying, which minimize the loss of water-soluble vitamins.
Prized by chefs for its peppery flavor and bright green color, arugula—also known as rocket—is rich in cancer-fighting glucosinolates and higher in antioxidants than most lettuces. A spring or fall green that’s easily grown from seed, arugula thrives in lightly shaded areas that receive consistent watering. Enjoy the just-picked greens in salads, atop pizzas, layered in sandwiches and tossed with warm pasta.
Garlic is as renowned for its flavor-enhancing qualities as it is for its abundant antioxidant nutrients. The pungent bulb contains high levels of potassium, sulfur, zinc, saponins and phosphorus, and moderate levels of vitamin A, vitamin C and selenium—a mineral that one study suggests may have anti-cancer properties. Raw garlic has natural antibiotic properties, and people who ate raw garlic at least twice a week in one study lowered their risk of developing lung cancer by 44 percent. The unfussy bulb grows well in most soil types. Softneck varieties are generally better suited to the temperate South, while hardy hardneck varieties thrive in northern climes. Although some types can be planted in early spring, bulbs are typically planted in autumn and harvested in spring and summer. Use garlic to flavor just about anything, including sauces, soups, salad dressings, and Italian and Asian dishes; visit Garlic 101 for some of our favorite recipes.
Every sharp-sighted rabbit knows that carrots are good for the eyes, and studies suggest eating carrots more than twice a week can reduce glaucoma risk, provide cardiovascular benefits and inhibit the growth of some cancers. In addition to the common orange varieties, red and purple carrots such as ‘Red Samurai’ and ‘Purple Dragon’ are especially rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin. Carrots thrive in sunny areas with light, sandy soil. Baby carrots are popular for crudité trays, but large carrots actually tend to be sweeter because more sugar concentrates in their larger cores. Carrots are delicious oven-roasted or sautéed slowly (try this Mark Bittman recipe we love). For a tasty and nutritious dip for raw carrots, combine whole-fat plain Greek yogurt with powdered garlic, fresh minced herbs, salt and pepper.
Compared with common white onions, green onions have more than five times more phytonutrients—organic plant compounds that may help prevent disease. Also known as scallions, slender green onions are easily grown from seed or “bulblets” from the nursery. To harvest, pull the entire plant from the soil when the bulb is about the same diameter as its leaves. The green portions of scallions are more nutritious than the white, so eat the entire plant. Green onions can be used to flavor and garnish dishes, or eaten whole with dips. Mo hanh is a Vietnamese green onion condiment that’s easy to make: In a skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of mild-flavored oil such as grapeseed. Add 1 bunch of chopped scallions. Let it cook until onions wilt, a few minutes, then season with salt and pepper. Use this condiment on rice, noodles or whenever you want a bright onion flavor.
Purple cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable whose color is caused by the production of anthocyanins—the same heart-healthy compounds found in red wine. Purple cauliflower is also rich in vitamin C and contains high levels of phytochemical glucosinolates—antioxidants that may inhibit certain cancers. Cauliflower is sensitive to temperature extremes and may be started from seed indoors early in the season or grown from nursery plants; common purple types include ‘Sicilian Violet’, ‘Violet Queen’ and ‘Graffiti’. Although technically a biennial, cauliflower is grown as an annual in most parts of the country and harvested in early autumn. Raw purple cauliflower tastes milder and sweeter than white varieties, making it a good choice for a veggie tray. Cauliflower is also delicious and nutritious when steamed and puréed like mashed potatoes; the vegetable’s vibrant purple color fades when cooked.
Popeye was right about eating spinach for healthy bones and muscles; both the crinkly-leaf ‘Savoy’ and the flat-leaf variety have high concentrations of vitamin K, which may bolster bone-mineral density. Although spinach is rich in iron, it’s not an easily absorbed form of the mineral; vitamin C aids in iron absorption, so try a spinach salad with fresh orange segments or a lemony dressing. Spinach is easily grown from seed, and is best planted during cooler spring or autumn seasons. Although spinach is wonderful eaten raw, its hardy texture holds up well to cooking. Try it lightly sautéed with garlic and lemon juice or added to cooked dishes such as pastas, casseroles and scrambled eggs. Blanched and drained spinach freezes well.
Craving crunch in your salads? Forgo iceberg in favor of romaine, a crispy lettuce that boasts more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin K requirement in a single serving. Romaine is also an excellent source of vitamin A and folate. The lettuce’s seeds can be direct-sown in a partially shaded area of the garden, and with regular watering the plants are generally heat-tolerant and slower to bolt than most other lettuces. Romaine’s dark green outer leaves contain the most nutrients and can be used in Caesar salads or added to wraps and sandwiches. The tender inner hearts are excellent grilled and drizzled with vinaigrette.
They may be small, but cruciferous Brussels sprouts pack a punch of nutrients: A one-cup serving of raw sprouts provides the full daily requirement for vitamins K and C. Brussels sprouts require a good amount of space to grow—plant seedlings about 2 feet apart or, if you plant seeds, thin to 2 feet when seedlings reach 5 to 7 inches tall. Brussels sprouts are the hardiest of the brassicas, and they love cool temperatures. Plant seeds in mid- to late summer, so developing sprouts can sweeten in autumn temperatures. If you live in a cooler climate, you can also plant sprouts in early spring for an early summer harvest. Overcooked sprouts are notorious for releasing a sulphur smell; instead, cook them in boiling water for five minutes and immediately rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking. Add the blanched sprouts to casseroles; halve them and sauté with bacon and caramelized onions; or lightly salt them and serve as a snack. Raw Brussels sprouts can also be drizzled with olive oil and pan-roasted at 400 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes (stir several times during cooking) until sweet and tender.
Whether you favor green, red, orange, yellow, brown or purple varieties, the bell pepper is an excellent source of disease-preventive carotenoids and vitamin C, and a good source of folate and vitamins B6 and A. Peppers grow best in full-sun gardens in warm climates, and they can be direct sown or grown from plants. It pays to let the colorful vegetables fully ripen before eating, as ripe peppers have even higher nutrient and antioxidant levels. One caveat: Don’t plant peppers in last year’s eggplant or tomato bed because these members of the nightshade family are all subject to similar diseases. Stuffed peppers make a fun, nutritious main dish. To make them, first blanch or lightly roast peppers to partially cook their outsides. Meanwhile, prepare a filling by combining cooked grains such as wild rice or quinoa with sautéed vegetables and meat or beans. Stuff partially cooked peppers with filling, top with cheese or breadcrumbs and pop under the broiler for 15 minutes or until top is golden and filling warmed through.
A member of the cabbage family, leafy green kale has an unusually high concentration of carotenoids and flavonoids—both potent antioxidants linked to the prevention of certain cancers. Lightly cooked kale also offers a surprising heart benefit: Steaming the leaves for five minutes has been found to improve the ability of kale’s fibers to bind with bile acid in the digestive tract. The result of this process enables easier excretion of these acids, which can in turn lower cholesterol levels. Kale is easy to grow from seed in early spring and fall, when temperatures are cooler. The plants are striking in the garden with their frilly, colorful heads, and are usually harvested in late autumn; because the plant reacts to cold temperatures by producing sugars, kale leaves actually become sweeter after a frost. Try kale lightly sautéed with onions and garlic; blended into smoothies; and added to pesto, omelets, salads and soups.
Red-, purple- and black-skinned grapes have high levels of resveratrol, an anti-inflammatory, anti-aging compound that may also suppress some forms of cancer. Grapevines are vigorous growers that prefer full-sun locations, and your county extension office can advise you about the best varieties for your climate. Grapes are usually enjoyed fresh: Try yours with cheese and nuts or sliced in half atop whole-grain toast with peanut butter.
With their dark ruby hue, it’s no surprise that beets have high concentrations of antioxidants; specifically, the root vegetable contains phytonutrients called betalains that provide our cells with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification support. Beets are easily grown from seed. They prefer full sun but will grow in partly shaded locations. To preserve the vegetable’s nutrient content, keep roasting times under an hour or steam beets for 15 minutes or less. Naturally sweet beets can also be grated raw into salads. The plant’s greens are edible, too, and rich in vitamins K, A and C, plus copper, potassium, manganese, vitamin B2 and magnesium. The leaves taste best when they are young, small and tender.
If you’ve ever forgotten why you walked into a room, you may want to add a few blueberry bushes to your garden. Blueberries have potent concentrations of antioxidants that studies suggest may reverse the effects of aging on the brain. A sunny spot in the garden is ideal for growing blueberries. Because the bushes generally thrive in acidic growing conditions, most soils need to be amended with several inches of acidic organic matter such as rotted sawdust or leaf compost. Planting at least two cultivars will improve pollination and help increase yields and berry size. Try our simple, seven-ingredient blueberry cobbler recipe. For more information about growing blueberries, read All About Growing Blueberries.
Heirlooms for Greater Diversity
Anyone who’s eaten a flavorless, commercially grown winter tomato knows that modern hybrid fruits and vegetables often sacrifice taste and nutrition for qualities such as higher yields and shipability. Heirloom varieties, on the other hand, are plant types that were grown before hybrids dominated the commercial market—generally classified as more than a century old. Often sporting colorful names such as ‘Ruby Queen’ beets and ‘Yellow Bull’s Horn’ peppers, heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, which means collected seeds will produce future plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. If you’d like to grow heritage produce varieties in your garden, these companies offer a broad selection of heirloom seeds.
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
• Botanical Interests
• Bountiful Gardens
• Heirloom Seeds
• New Hope Seed
• Ohio Heirloom Seeds
• Seeds of Change
• Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
• Sow True Seed
• St. Clare Heirloom Seeds
• Sustainable Seed Company
• Territorial Seed Company
• Victory Seeds
Eliza Cross is the author of seven books, including her most recent cookbook, 101 Things to Do with a Pickle. She blogs about sustainable living, organic gardening, simplifying and saving money Happy Simple Living.