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Grow Your Own Nutrient-Rich Garden

Discover the benefits of creating a nutrient-rich garden for health and self-sufficiency. Learn how to transform your gardening experience.

Many of us are passionate about growing our own food. Promoting self-sufficiency and our health is a no-brainer for those with the time and space, right? What’s rarer and more untapped is the idea of crafting gardens to provide us with specific nutrients, such as vitamin A or C. When it comes to healing horticulture, we tend to think of herbal remedies. But common everyday food plants also have powerful therapeutic attributes due to their nutrient stores — and the fact we consume them regularly and in much higher amounts.

About 47 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men in Australia use nutritional supplements, suggests an article in the journal Nutrients. Popular supplements in our cupboards include vitamins C and D, zinc, omega-3, iron, magnesium, creatine, natal blends and multivitamins. Why not source some of them direct from your own garden? The benefits of living nutrients, fresh from the garden, include the fact that they come packaged with helpful plant enzymes, fibre and cofactors.

Obtaining specific vitamins and minerals au naturel from Mother Earth can be as simple (free, delightful and delicious) as plucking berries off a bush and popping them straight into your mouth. Or it can be a more complex undertaking — such as creating your own nutrient powders and capsules from foods grown in your garden.

For optimum health, nutritionists advocate enjoying a range of organic wholefoods. But we can tweak this concept further by homing in on specific foods that benefit us when we’re suffering deficiency or increased demand because of sickness, fatigue, injury, disease and other challenges.

Historical evidence

Historical documents and modern research back the power of individual fruits and vegetables to address specific nutrient deficiencies and improve health complaints caused by diet imbalances.

From the 1700s, oranges and lemons were taken on board lengthy sea voyages to ward off scurvy, the common naval disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. More recently, a 2014 study by King’s College, London, found that eating prunes (dried plums) improved stool consistency and frequency in the constipated more than supplemental psyllium. And eating cabbage has been shown by research to significantly reduce our risk of bowel cancer. These are just a few examples of using common foods to address our health.

Common nutrient deficiencies

Health data shows that nutritional deficiencies are widespread across the globe. Common deficiencies in people living in Australia and New Zealand include calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and vitamins D and B6. Almost three quarters of females and half of all males aged two years and over had inadequate calcium intakes in the most recent Australian Health Survey on nutrient intakes.

Iron deficiency, as we know, is more prevalent in females — almost one in four had insufficient intakes compared to 3 per cent of males. Females in the survey were also twice as likely to get inadequate vitamin B6, and more likely to have deficient thiamin intakes, than males. Males, on the other hand, are more vulnerable to zinc deficiency. Among teens and young people, poor vitamin A levels were common. On the upside, almost all those surveyed met recommended intakes for protein, vitamins C and B12, phosphorus and selenium.

Identify your needs

To get started with planning a nutrition garden, identify key nutrients your body needs more of. Taking a blood test and having awareness about your body can help you identify personal deficiencies. Any gaps in your diet are another consideration.

Next, identify what nutrients are helpful to your health complaints and symptoms. For example, asthmatics benefit from magnesium and anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids. Dry, flaky skin? Plant pumpkins for their zinc and fatty acid-rich seeds and cook up the pumpkin flesh to top up your vitamin A. Suffer chronically from colds and flu? You might benefit from a vitamin C boost. Consult a trained nutritionist and naturopathic nutrition guides.

Research what you might grow that’s a rich source of such nutrients, selecting plants that suit your climate and garden. How might your garden produce better support your health?

Try labelling your chosen plants according to their nutrient status, such as high iron or zinc plants. This will act as a prompt for what to tend, pick and prepare according to your health needs.

Boost soil nutrition

As any gardener knows, good soil, sunlight and water are essential to healthy (and nutritious) plants. The simplest, most holistic and self-sufficient approach to soil health is to create compost. Include nutritive tonics in the mix, such as seaweeds (kelp, bladder weed and sea lettuce), animal manures, mineral accumulator plants like comfrey, nettle and yarrow, legume plants like lucerne, clover and lupins, clay minerals, rock dusts and biochar. Throw in any eggshells for added calcium. Replenish your gardening soil regularly with your compost and natural fertilisers like seaweed solution, worm farm castings and/or the tonics mentioned.

Also keep bare soil protected and covered with crops or mulch. This helps protect soil microorganisms, earthworms and other tiny critters that have been found crucial to soil health.

Grow nutritionally dense superfoods

With over 30,000 food plants in the world (recorded by Food Plants International), is there one or more that cover all bases? While no such utopian plant has ever been found, some come close.

In 2015, scientists analysed and ranked over 1000 raw foods for nutritional fitness. The study “Uncovering the nutritional landscape of food” was published in PLOS One. Foods that scored highest were those that appeared most in nutritionally adequate food combinations, contained important, harder-to-obtain nutrients like alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and two or more synergistic nutrients.

At the top of the list was the humble almond, a rich source of mono-unsaturated fats and minerals, followed by cherimoya (custard apple). Other plant foods in the top 10? Chia and pumpkin seeds and the seeds of other squashes, Swiss chard and beet greens. Those ranked between 11 to 40 included dried parsley, celery flakes, watercress, tangerines, green peas, spring onions, red cabbage, pink grapefruit, dandelion greens, spinach, chilli, basil, collards, broccoli rabe, kale, mustard leaves, Cos lettuce, coriander, apricots and cress. Hearteningly, many of these are easy to grow.

Iron in the gardening

If you’re iron deficient, your veggie patch should ideally be packed with spinach, parsley, beets, peaches, figs, legumes (such as soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lima beans and navy beans) and pumpkins. The highest plant sources of the mineral by equivalent weight are pumpkin and squash seeds. Other iron-rich plants include sesame seed (which suits tropical climates), dried thyme, marjoram, parsley, beet greens, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, black olives, button and morel mushrooms and leeks. Drying your herbs, legumes, seeds and peaches concentrates their iron content. Add vitamin C-rich food to the mix (see next) to increase your iron absorption.

Vitamin C food forests

Vitamin C-rich foods are among the most delicious bounties in the gardening. Widespread in many species across different climate conditions, there’s
a variety of plant options to weave into your garden. The highest sources by weight are Kakadu plum, rose hip, acerola berry, guava, lilly pilly, blackcurrant, sea buckthorn, jujube, Indian gooseberry, red chilli, capsicum, broccoli (especially eaten raw), mustard greens, watercress, parsley, taro, kale, Chinese broccoli, bitter melon, kiwifruit, rockmelon, lemon, cauliflower, loganberry and redcurrant. Other decent sources include red cabbage, chives, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, lychees, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, limes, English spinach, sprouts, snow peas, elderberry, goji berry, persimmon and papaya. Ensure vitamin C stores across winter by choosing some that crop across the cold seasons. For best benefit, pick and eat fresh as storage depletes vitamin C.

A zinc patch

Add sunflowers and pumpkin to your patch. Not only are they cheery, the seeds of both plants are loaded with zinc, and can be dried and stored. The perfect zinc garden should also have a nut tree positioned well for sunlight. Cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts and to a lesser extent walnuts and hazelnuts are a great source of the mineral. Choose the species that flourishes best in your climate. Turmeric root, which takes up less space, is also a good source.

B12 boost

Vegans can boost their vitamin B12 levels by growing and eating lots of mushrooms. A Japanese study published in the journal Nutrients examined B12 in different plant foods including a variety of mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms were the best source. On average, their samples contained about 5.61 micrograms of B12 per 100 grams of dry weight. Fermenting soybeans is another source.

B6 fix

In warm climates, grab a fix of vitamin B6 by planting and eating chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans, which you can grow from the dried peas), bananas, avocados, pistachios, sweet potatoes, mangoes and watermelon. Those in cooler climates can grow walnuts, sunflowers (eat the seeds), winter squash, peas, onions and spinach for B6. Eat your nuts raw: roasting reduces B6.

Grow your own omega-3

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the plant-based omega-3. The richest sources are the seeds of chia, flax and hemp and walnuts. Chia (Salvia hispanica) loves warm climates and is an easy-care annual of the mint family which self-seeds readily. Position this drought-tolerant herb in full sun.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) thrives best in temperate climates with loamy soils. Harvest once most of the seedpods have yellowed or browned — before they burst open and scatter the seeds.
If harvesting seed isn’t for you, other sources of ALA are edamame (immature soybeans), navy and kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, avocado, broccoli, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, Hubbard squash and pumpkin seeds.

Cultivating calcium

Calcium, which our body requires in large amounts, can be particularly hard to obtain from plants alone. Create a mini calcium orchard in the garden with almond, fig and other nut trees. Underplant with calcium-rich, shade-tolerant parsley, rocket and cress. Make beds of broccoli, Chinese broccoli, kale, rhubarb and beans (especially white beans and chickpeas). Other rich sources are sunflower seeds, oranges, grapefruit, lemon peel and most kitchen herbs including basil, dill, coriander and poppy seed.

Vitamin A and carotene

Think the colours orange and green. Top sources to plant are pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato, spinach, Cos lettuce, kale, rockmelon, red capsicum, apricots and mangoes.

Make your own nutritional capsules or powders

DIY vitamin C powder
Save any organic orange, lemon or other citrus peels you have. Note: the peel is where most of the vitamin C is located. Cut into strips and allow to dry — at room temperature is OK. Once crisp and snap-dry, grind up into a powder using a spice or coffee grinder. For additional sweetness, add ground dried stevia leaves to the mix.

Rose hip vitamin C antioxidant tonic

Harvest enough rose hips to almost fill a jar. All roses produce rose hips (the fruit of the rose), but shrub, rambler and wild varieties including rugosa and dog rose are the most prolific. Pick when the hips are high in colour but not overripe. Chop them up and place in a jar with a non-metallic lid to avoid rusting. Fill with vinegar. Infuse for two to four weeks in a dark place, shaking every second day. Strain the liquid out using muslin or coffee filter paper. Add honey for taste.

Super iron “Popeye” powder

Harvest leaves of beet, spinach, parsley and dandelion from your garden and dry in a slow oven or food dehydrator. Nettle is also useful. Once dried, powder using a spice or coffee grinder. Add the powder to juices, smoothies and soups or stuff into empty capsules.

Article Featured in WellBeing 205

Linda Moon

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.

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