LECTURES, VEGGIES, & HERBS

My upcoming lecture schedule:

Feb 8-9, PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, State College, PA): UNCOMMON FRUITS WITH MARKET POTENTIAL, BLUEBERRIES: RELIABLE & EASY TO GROW, HEALTHFUL, & DELICIOUS; PRUNING FRUIT TREES, SHRUBS, AND VINES
Feb 12, Planting Fields Arboretum (Oyster Bay, NY): FEARLESS PRUNING
Feb 16-17, NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farming Association, Burlington, VT): FRUIT GROWING SIMPLIFIED, NO-TILL VEGETABLES
Mar 2: Miami Valley (Dayton, OH) Garden Conference: WEEDLESS GARDENING
Mar 9: Philadelphia Flower Show: Fruit Growing Simplified
Mar 10: Philadelphia Orchard Project: LECTURE AND HANDS-ON WORKSHOP ON PRUNING FRUITS
Mar 16, Thetford, VT: FEARLESS PRUNING
April 6, Maine Garden Day (Lewiston, ME): FRUIT GROWING SIMPLIFIED, MULTI-DIMENSIONAL VEGETABLE GARDENING
April 10, Rosendale (NY) Library: BACKYARD COMPOSTING
April 20, Berkshire Botanical Garden (Stockbridge, MA), GROW FRUIT NATURALLY, BLUEBERRIES: RELIABLE & EASY TO GROW, HEALTHFUL, & DELICIOUS 
May 11, Margaret Roach’s Garden (Copake Falls, NY): BACKYARD FRUIT LECTURE, GRAFTING WORKSHOP
May 16, Brookside Gardens (Wheaton, MD): MY WEEDLESS GARDEN
June 1, The Cloisters (NYC): MEDIEVAL FRUITS A GARDENER’S NOTEBOOK
by Lee Reich

And now, on to my post…
Growing vegetables is really quite simple. You put the seeds or transplants into sunny ground, you water and weed, and then you harvest your bounty. For that small effort, you can put on your plate food that is organically, sustainably, and (very) locally grown. Perhaps even richer in nutrients than food you can buy.
Studies over the past 10 or so years have documented a general decline in nutrients in our fruits and vegetables. Some people contend that our soils have been mined for their nutrients, worn out from poor farming, and therefore no longer able to provide us with nutritious food. The cure, according to these “experts,” is to sprinkle mineral-rich rock powders on the soil to replenish and rebalance that which has been lost. It all sounds very logical.
You might have sensed a big “but” looming. Here it is: But . . . further studies have pinned that nutrient decline on a dilution effect from increased yields. Pump up production with nitrogen fertilizer and water, or by breeding for increased yields, and nutrient concentrations decline; it’s as simple as that. The final nail in the “worn out soil” coffin comes from side-by-side plantings of low- and high-yielding varieties of specific vegetables. The higher yielding varieties end up with lower concentrations of minerals and protein. The problem, then, if there is one, can be blamed on breeding and farming practices aimed at producing more bulk.
I’m not concerned with nutrient decline in my own garden. First of all, I’ve chosen the varieties I grow — Blue Lake beans, Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Lincoln peas, Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Ashmead’s Kernel apple, and Fallgold raspberry, as examples — with one thing in mind: flavor! It just so happens that the most flavorful fruit and vegetable varieties are ones that have been around a long time. Yields may not be heavy, but these varieties are rich in flavor (and probably nutrients).
I’m also not concerned with nutrient decline because I don’t push yields to the max with repeated applications of soluble, nitrogen-rich fertilizers. My soil management is simple: One inch of compost per year spread on top of the ground of permanent vegetable beds; compost, wood chips, hay, and/or leaves around my fruit plants. As these organic materials decompose, nitrogen and other essential nutrients are bled slowly into the soil in response to warm temperatures and moisture, the same environment that spurs plant growth.
That compost is not just serving nitrogen to my plants, or just the big three, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Into the compost goes orange peels from Florida, avocado skins from California, and other kitchen waste, garden trimmings, some weedy hay, and, occasionally, horse manure. So the ground gets a wide variety of organic materials that, in turn, feed the compost and, in turn, the soil and the plants a wide spectrum of nutrients. And just to make sure that my soil lacks nothing, I occasionally sprinkle some powdered kelp around.
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Even if herbs were rich in nutrients, their nutritional contribution to our diets would be minimal because of the small amounts used. But the small amounts needed to pizazz up a tomato sauce or frittata in winter also make herbs ideal for growing indoors in winter. A little goes a long way. 

The basic problem is that many cooking herbs are Mediterranean plants that, of course, thrive best in Mediterranean conditions, with bright hot sun beating down on them. So the expectations and the reality of a windowsill herb garden often diverge. Forget about growing basil or oregano in January. 

Bay laurel, 23 years old!
With that said, I nominate three herbs perfect for indoor growing in winter. The first is tarragon. Because my tarragon plant waned all summer out in the garden, I decided to pot it up so I could keep a closer eye on it. And then in autumn, as long as the plant was in a pot, I decided to bring it in to sit in a sunny window. It has thrived.
The second herb is bay laurel. This plant, a small tree trained as a “standard,” has spent the last 23 winters near a sunny window. A freshly plucked leaf brings to soups and stews a flavor only hinted at by the dried leaf; to me, it’s reminiscent of olive oil.
The third herb, rosemary, is my favorite for indoor growing. Rosemary tolerates being trained as a standard or fanciful topiary; it looks equally good left to its own devices to grow as a relaxed, small shrub. Pinching off a few stem tips with leaves not only puts some warm, Mediterranean sunshine into tomato sauce but also encourages growth of side shoots to keep the plant dense with shoots and leaves.
Once spring warmth has settled in around here, tarragon, bay laurel, and rosemary move outside to bask in the full force of Hudson Valley sunshine. 

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Would you mind recommending one of your books on growing fruit? My garden is about 30 miles north of San Francisco. In my neighborhood I see the same things over and over–figs and lemons, fuji apples, black-boysen berries, blueberries, strawberries–I want to plant some unusual fruits in my garden…. Just planted red currants

    • Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      I’d recommend UNCOMMON FRUITS FOR EVERY GARDEN. The fruits are interesting, tasty, and easy to grow.

  2. Posted January 26, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Thank you, that was the one I was targeting…

  3. Posted January 26, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Nutrient dense garden produce is a topic in which I’m extremely interested. High brix gardening sounds good, but most people either could not be bothered, or cannot afford the high costs of specialized soil testing and amending. From what I’ve read, high brix numbers do correlate w/high nutrients (as does fantastic flavor). My dear husband gifted me a refractometer for my recent birthday so that I can play. Do you happen to have one? For my blog, and for my role as a Master Gardener in my county, I would love to have gardeners around the country take brix readings of what they are growing, and send them to me, along with their methods of gardening. I’m thinking that this would be a reasonable way to make recommendations of types of gardening based on nutrient density.

    • Posted January 26, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      There’s no scientific backing for this whole nutrient dense / high brix gardening movement (as I pointed out in my Sept. 1, 2011 blog post). The correlation of minerals with brix levels is only found in that group’s publications. There is NO reason for gardeners around the country to invest in refractometers to check brix levels for fertility recommendations. The testing and amending are good business for those selling such services and products. Don’t believe everything you read (except for this, of course.)

    • Posted January 27, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Thanks! I’ll go back and read your post.

    • Posted January 27, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      No need to give away your refractometer. It is, as I wrote, useful for measuring sugars in solution, which can be useful for determining optimum harvest of some fruits. Wine grape growers do this. Also if you grow kiwifruits and want them to store well and taste good, you harvest them when their Brix level is about 10.

  4. Josh
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Lee,

    Then would you say that there is little, some, or much correlation between taste(however defined) and the nutrient density of food?

    And why couldn’t farmers add chemical fertilizers with the “right” amounts of micronutrients to achieve historical levels of nutrient density in their food? Are we simply up against the physiological limits of the plant to uptake nutrients?

    • Posted January 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Good questions. As far as the correlation of taste and nutrient density, it might depend on which nutrients. Suppose something was more dense in a few nutrients and less dense in some other ones. More importantly, though, I don’t think anyone has established a correlation between taste and nutrient density, however either is defined, except for those who stand to profit from and promote “nutrient dense” farming.

      Adding chemical fertilizers in the “right” amounts could do something. But plants are not passive players here; they take an active role in deciding what and how much to take up of various nutrients. The way to get the best nutrition is to to grow great-tasting varieties in ground that’s been enriched with plenty of compost. Growing a variety that is naturally more nutrient-dense is for naught if the vegetable doesn’t taste good; you won’t want to eat it.

      A bigger issue is whether produce that is less nutrient dense than in the past is a major health concern. I don’t think so. Fast food, too much food, factory food (anything in a package), and lack of exercise are, I think, more important limitations to our general health. More home-grown fruits and vegetables would help.

    • Josh
      Posted January 28, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      That would make sense that a fruit higher or lower in certain nutrients would lend different flavors to it depending on the levels of which nutrient.

      I agree that if present day produce is less nutritious, that is relatively insignificant in overall health compared to the other factors you list. I would only add to your list our food selection. Much too much grain and starchy foods.

    • Posted January 28, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Be careful about the difference between conjecture and fact: “That would make sense that a fruit higher or lower in certain nutrients would lend different flavors to it depending on the levels of which nutrient.” It might make sense but it has not been proven and is not necessarily true. A lot of things make sense until you learn more about what’s going on.

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