Grow nutrition in your garden with plants that can be harvested and used as satisfying snacks.
Think about the kinds of foods you usually reach for when you need a quick energy boost. Chances are not all of them are healthy, and that few contain whole or organic ingredients. But if we decide to replace some of the processed junk with more natural options, we can make many satisfying snack foods at home with ingredients grown in our own backyards. Here are a few garden crops that are surprisingly simple to turn into healthy snacks.
Look at most nutrition guidelines, and seeds are highly recommended as part of a healthy diet. They’re relatively high in calories, which we need for energy, but unlike many other high-calorie foods, they come in a very nutritious package. Seeds are rich in healthy fats, packed with vitamins and minerals, and contain fiber and protein, too. So why not grow some snackable seeds in the garden?
Sunflower seeds have all the advantages mentioned above, and happen to be an especially good source of vitamin E, as well as folate and iron. They’re also a fun plant that’s easy to grow. Look for varieties that specify they are for seed production, not only decoration. Plant sunflowers in spring as soon as danger of frost has passed, sowing seeds about two inches deep. Thin plants so they are about two feet apart in rows. Sunflowers get tall, well over six feet for most varieties, and may need to be staked to keep them upright. Some of the popular varieties to grow for seeds, such as ‘Titan’ and ‘Mammoth Grey’, can easily grow to be 12 feet. Seeds will be ready to harvest in the fall. When they’re mature, individual seeds will be clearly visible and will pop out of the sunflower head easily. You’ll know they are getting close when the flowers start to bend down toward the ground under the weight of all those seeds. If necessary to keep birds and squirrels from stealing your harvest, you can cut the flowers and hang them inside to allow the seeds to finish drying.
While often grown for their tasty flesh, or for decoration, pumpkins are another plant with plentiful, large seeds perfect for roasting and eating. Like sunflower seeds, they’re a good source of vitamins and minerals including vitamin E, iron and zinc. Some varieties even have “naked” or hull-less seeds that make for easier snacking — try ‘Williams Naked Seeded Pumpkin’ and ‘Kakai’. Like other types of winter squash, pumpkins are planted in late spring, after danger of frost has passed, and are not harvested until fall. Sow seeds 1 inch deep. Look for spacing instructions specific to the variety you choose (bush varieties take less space), but one common way to plant pumpkins is in small hills with two or three plants each, with hills spaced 4 to 8 feet apart. Pumpkins and other types of squash experience significant pressure from multiple diseases and pests — not least of them, the formidable squash bug — so it’s a good idea to read up on organic options for coping with these problems. You can expect that pumpkins are ripe when they have developed a hard rind and mature color (many, but not all, varieties will be a solid orange).
Another group of nutrient-dense foods is legumes, which includes beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. As with seeds, legumes contain healthy fats, fiber, and lots of vitamins and minerals. In addition, when we’re hungry, many of us crave protein, and legumes are among the best forms of plant-based protein.
Beans in general are good sources of protein, and soybeans especially so. Like the other legumes mentioned above, soybeans contain fiber and healthy fat, as well as other essential nutrients, particularly B vitamins. There must be hundreds of ways to eat soy, but enjoying the beans fresh as edamame makes a delicious and simple snack. When planting, think of soybeans as your typical bush bean — they don’t require support like pole beans do, and they’re all ready to harvest at about the same time. To plant, wait until danger of frost has passed, and then plant in rows, sowing 1 inch deep and at least 2 inches apart. You’ll need to keep the plants watered and weeded, but they’re generally low-maintenance. To enjoy as edamame, harvest beans while still green — the pods will have swollen noticeably indicating it’s time to pick. Preparing edamame is simple. Just add them to boiling water and blanch until bright green (about 5 minutes). Then add coarse salt, shell and eat. Soybeans are also good roasted. Toss them with olive oil and salt and roast them right in the pod at 425 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes. Some health experts caution against too much soy, which can have estrogen-like properties with uncertain effects on breast cancer risk. However, most of these concerns are related to consuming soy supplements, while eating soy foods is typically considered safe. If you want to read more about these issues, find a summary of the science at nccih.nih.gov/health/soy/ataglance.htm.
Peanuts contain the same benefits as other legumes, and they’re an especially good source of protein, fiber and other nutrients, including vitamin E. Peanuts grow on beanlike plants that form the underground pods we eventually harvest as “nuts.” Peanuts should be planted after danger of frost has passed, and generally do best in warm climates. In the United States, they’re typically grown in the South, but can be harvested as far north as Minnesota. Peanuts do take a long time to mature — some as many as 140 days — so if you live in a Northern climate, look for fast-maturing peanuts, such as ‘Tennessee Red’. Sow peanuts about two inches deep and six inches apart. They prefer lighter soil, so if you have heavy clay, plan to dig in organic material, or plant in raised beds. As the plants grow, they may also benefit from “hilling” or piling up soil around the base of the plant, as you would potatoes. Harvest peanuts when the plants begin to turn yellow, or frost is forecast. Dig up the whole plant, and then hang them to dry in a warm indoor spot for about two weeks before removing peanuts from the plant. Once removed, the nuts may need another week or two to dry. When ready to store, keep them in mesh bags in a well-ventilated spot.
Roasting nuts crisps them and deepens their flavors. To roast any of these nuts and seeds, toss them with olive oil, salt and any desired spices. Spread on a cookie sheet, and roast in a 350-degree oven. Watch and stir every few minutes. Remove nuts when they have darkened noticeably and are fragrant but not burnt. Depending on the nut or seed, this could take anywhere from five to 15 minutes. They will continue to cook for a few minutes outside the oven. Allow them to cool before tasting — they’ll be chewy while warm, but crisp after they’ve cooled.
The prospects for growing energy-boosting herbs in our gardens are a little more limited, although it’s possible to do, especially for experienced gardeners or those in warm climates. The most obvious energy-booster is the stimulant caffeine, which many of us consume daily in the form of coffee. Unless you live in a climate similar to Hawaii, it’s pretty hard to grow coffee at home. However, you might have better luck growing tea plants (Camellia sinensis), which are hardy to Zone 7. (One source for plants is territorialseed.com.) Another approach to increasing energy levels is to turn to adaptogens, herbs that help our bodies combat stress in various forms. One of these is American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), which may boost the immune system and improve mental performance. Ginseng is a perennial, shade-loving plant hardy to zone 4, but the plant should grow for five or six years before the roots are ready to be harvested. Seeds are available from johnnyseeds.com. Perhaps the simplest option for an herbal boost is growing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), which is used in aromatherapy to improve memory and reduce stress. Rosemary is a perennial that can be harvested starting the first year. It may overwinter even in Zone 6, although in cooler climates, you will want to use heavy mulch or other protection. You can also bring rosemary plants indoors to overwinter as a container plant. Harvest the leaves of rosemary, and enjoy them as a tea, in cooking, or in any other preparations that allow you to enjoy its invigorating scent.
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