Although they are very well-equipped to defend themselves, our bodies’ cells are under constant attack from free radicals—unstable molecules that damage cells and DNA, potentially leading to chronic illnesses such as high cholesterol, vision loss, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Free radicals come from a variety of sources—in particular air pollution, exposure to pesticides, cigarette smoke and excess alcohol consumption—but thankfully, we are not without our defenses against these free-ranging marauders. Thousands of substances naturally found in fruits and vegetables act as antioxidants, combating the damage of free radicals.
It’s important to note than an antioxidant is not just a substance but a chemical property, according to Harvard’s School of Public Health. Some substances that act as an antioxidant in one situation may not behave the same way in another. This may be why so many studies find antioxidant supplements to be ineffective. Another reason may be that the antioxidants need to remain within a natural, complementary network of chemicals in order to fend off free radicals. Studies that have investigated the benefits of antioxidants “don’t provide strong evidence that antioxidant supplements have a substantial impact on disease,” according to Harvard’s health team.
While supplements aren’t a sure bet, study after study has shown that real, whole foods have reliable antioxidant properties. Fruits are high on the list of foods chock-full of beneficial antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and related carotenoids, selenium, manganese, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens and more.
If you’ve never or rarely tasted homegrown fruits, you’re missing out on some real treats. Commercial fruit varieties are bred and selected to bear uniformly and heavily, to withstand jostling and other traumas of shipping, and then to hold up in storage as long as possible. Many are doused with toxic pesticides during the growing season, harvested underripe, then dipped in fungicide to delay spoilage. Homegrown fruits, on the other hand, can be harvested at the peak moment of ripeness. And when you grow fruits in your yard, you can select varieties that don’t need pesticides.
The fruits described here are all easy to grow in most parts of the United States, and all rank especially high in antioxidant content. Growing your own fruits organically will arm you with important defenses against free radicals, but you’ll also have the luxury of enjoying peak flavor and nutrition, sans chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Alpine strawberries are diminutive cousins of common garden strawberries. They have pointier fruits and more intense flavor with hints of pineapple.
Why Grow? Low-maintenance, insect- and disease-resistant; bears fruit throughout the growing season; grows just about everywhere; yield ½ cup per plant
Plant Size and Growth Habit: Mounds of compact greenery make perennial alpine strawberries nice edging plants.
Seasons of Visual Interest: Looks fresh except during winter; produces small white blossoms in spring and throughout growing season; flowers followed by fruits
Alpine Strawberry Varieties: Some red-fruited, some white-fruited; red and white taste different—the white are more pineappley
Harvest, Storage and Use: Bright color (white varieties turn creamy white or yellowish and seeds darken) and a strong aroma when ripe; ripe berries are very soft and perishable, so don’t plan on storing them.
This fruit is sweet, juicy and flavorful.
Why Grow? Low maintenance beyond some easy pruning; suitable for landscaping almost everywhere; yield 3 pounds per plant
Plant Size and Growth Habit: Blackberries have perennial roots and biennial canes. Canes typically grow just leaves their first season, then flower, fruit and finally die during their second season. New plants grow from the roots each spring, emerging a few inches to a couple of feet away from the mother plant.
Seasons of Visual Interest: When thornless, canes have a smooth, satiny sheen; leaves are a rich green and retain healthy appearance all season; come autumn, leaves of some varieties turn a fiery, orange-red; white blossoms appear in late spring and resemble roses (blackberry is in the rose family)
Blackberry Varieties: Thornless blackberry varieties include ‘Apache’, ‘Arapahoe’, ‘Black Diamond’, ‘Black Pearl’, ‘Black Satin’, ‘Chester’, ‘Hull’, ‘Navaho’
Harvest, Storage and Use: If blackberries don’t stain your fingers when you pick them, they’re not going to taste their best. Of course, at that point you can’t transport the fruit much farther than from bush to mouth or, at most, the kitchen, which is why backyard blackberries taste so much better than store-bought ones. For jams, pies and other cookery, slightly underripe fruit is satisfactory, perhaps even better than dead-ripe fruit.
Highbush blueberries dominate the market, but lowbush blueberries are generally smaller and sweeter. Lowbush blueberries are the ones found in pie fillings and cans. Rabbiteye blueberries are small, often not as highly flavored as other species, and have a thick skin that lets them hang well and develop full flavor even under hot conditions. Many varieties are hybrids whose parentage includes these three, and sometimes other, species.
Why Grow? Beautiful plants year-round; no insect or disease problems; yield 7 pounds per plant for highbush, 15 pounds for rabbiteye, and 5 to 10 pounds per 100 square feet for lowbush; with some soil modification, some kind of blueberry can grow almost everywhere; ideal as a ground cover, shrub border or hedge
Plant Size and Growth Habit: Blueberries grow on shrubs ranging from only a foot or so high in the case of the aptly named lowbush blueberry to 6 to 8 feet high for the highbush blueberry and up to 15 feet high for the rabbiteye blueberry.
Seasons of Visual Interest: Visual offering year-round; clusters of nodding pink or white flowers in spring; slightly bluish leaves remain healthy-looking until autumn when they turn bright crimson
Blueberry Varieties: Try planting varieties that ripen at various times throughout the growing season; for highbush blueberries, ‘Atlantic’, ‘Berkeley’, ‘Bluechip’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Duke’, ‘Earliblue’, ‘Jersey’, ‘Nelson’, ‘Wolcott’; for lowbush blueberries, choose seedlings or unselected clones; for rabbiteye blueberries, ‘Aliceblue’, ‘Beckyblue’, ‘Tifblue’
Harvest, Storage and Use: Commercial blueberries are harvested when they first turn blue. You, however, should wait a few more days and then tickle the clusters so that only the truly ripe fruits drop off. With cool temperatures and high humidity, harvested blueberries will keep for up to two weeks.
Let’s consider the three basic kinds of edible grapes. The European wine grape is typically mild and very sweet with a meaty flesh and tender skin; ‘Thompson Seedless’ is a characteristic European wine grape.
The fox grape, a native of eastern America, of which ‘Concord’ is characteristic, typically has a tough skin and a jellylike flesh that is very sweet with a unique flavor. European wine grapes and American grapes have been extensively hybridized. Many so-called American grapes, including ‘Concord’, have at least some European wine grape in them.
The third basic type of grape is the muscadine (sometimes called ‘Scuppernong’), which can be up to 1 inch in diameter and has a tough skin, hard seeds, and a distinctive musky, fruity flavor. Muscadines are native to southeast North America.
Why Grow? Delicious fruits, decorative vines; yield 10 to 30 pounds per vine; some variety can grow almost everywhere
Plant Size and Growth Habit: Look and perform best when trained deliberately on some type of support.
Seasons of Visual Interest: Can provide visual interest year-round if grown in a way that makes the most of its ornamental qualities; as a vine, it’s a natural for clambering over arbors, providing a picturesque twisting trunk in winter and shade from the hot sun in summer; leaves of muscadine grapes turn a nice yellow in autumn
Grape Varieties: European wine: ‘Flame Seedless’, ‘Muscat Hamburg’, ‘Perlette’, ‘Thompson Seedless’; fox and hybrid: ‘Alden’, ‘Bluebell’, ‘Delaware’, ‘Edelweiss’, ‘Kay Gray’, ‘Lakemont’, ‘New York Muscat’, ‘Price’, ‘Reliance’, ‘Swenson Red’, ‘Vanessa’; muscadines: ‘Black Fry’, ‘Cowart’, ‘Noble’, ‘Scuppernong’, ‘Summit’, ‘Supreme’, ‘Sweet Jenny’
Harvest, Storage and Use: Harvest grape bunches when the stalk holding it to the stem snaps off cleanly and easily. Muscadine harvest is a bit different—individual berries do not ripen all at once, even in a single bunch, and ripe berries tend to drop. One way to harvest muscadines is to spread a dropcloth on the ground to catch ripe, falling berries, then go out every day to gather them up. Berries keep well refrigerated.
Along with fresh eating, grapes make jelly, juice, raisins, and, of course, wine. Generally, European wine grapes and muscadines are used for wine, fox grapes are used for juice and European wine grapes are used for raisins. Grape leaves also provide a wrapping for rice and other foods, as in the classic Greek dish dolmathes.
Though there are many types of plums, two types of European plums are most worth growing for fresh flavor: Prune plums, which are sweet, dark blue and oval; and ‘Reine Claude’ (also called ‘Green Gage’) plums, which are sweet, round and yellow-green. Oriental plums are also delicious and are large, juicy and yellow, red, or purple. Oriental plums tend to be less sweet than European plums. And finally, Japanese-American hybrid plums are generally smallish and have an array of flavors, some sweet, some tart, some spicy.
Why Grow? Beautiful, fragrant blossoms and delicious fruit; yield 75 pounds per tree; at least one type can grow in most regions
Plant Size and Growth Habit: Most plums grow to become small- to medium-sized trees; Japanese and European plums are more treelike than the Japanese-American hybrids and the American species, both of which tend to be shrubby.
Seasons of Visual Interest: Spectacular in spring as they burst into a profusion of white blossoms that perfume the air
Plum Varieties: ‘AU-Roadside’, ‘Bluefre’, ‘Green Gage’, ‘Methley’, ‘Monitor’, ‘Mount Royal’, ‘Ozark Premier’, ‘Pipestone’, ‘Santa Rosa’, ‘Shiro’, ‘Stanley’, ‘Superior’, ‘Toka’
Harvest, Storage and Use: For best quality, harvest plums when they feel slightly soft, have fully developed their ripe color, and part readily from stems when given a slight twist. Except for late-ripening varieties, all plums on a single tree will ripen around the same time. Eat them then or store them, refrigerated, for no more than a few days. Plums also make nice jams and pies. If you have a dehydrator or live in a dry climate, dry excess fruits.
For more disease-fighting foods, read the article The Best Antioxidant-Rich Foods.