All homegrown vegetables are nutritious. The fact that you can eat them fresh, just after they have been harvested, means that they will be at the peak of both flavour and nutrient value. But among the many food plants you can grow at home are a handful of homegrown super foods, plants that contain significantly high nutrients or boast other health benefits. Here is our easy to grow super foods list.
This ancient grain crop is grown primarily for the abundant seeds it produces at the end of summer. It’s an easy crop to grow, and quite attractive looking. Quinoa is unusual among cereal crops because its seeds are 14% protein by mass, and this is thought to be “complete protein.” That means that it contains all nine of the essential amino acids needed to meet the dietary needs of humans and other animals.
Quinoa is also an excellent source of dietary fibre, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. It’s also rich in calcium – and all these nutrients combine to make quinoa extremely useful for vegans and people who can’t consume dairy products due to lactose intolerance. It’s even gluten-free, so it’s very easy to digest.
Quinoa grows best in well-drained soil in full sun. Sow the seeds from late April to around the end of May (or 3-4 weeks after your last average frost date). Sow the seeds 5mm (1/4”) deep, and thin seedlings to 25-35cm (10-14”) apart. Quinoa plants will grow to 2m (6’) tall or more so expect large plants.
When the first seeds can be seen falling from the plants, cut the stems and bundle them together 6 to 8 at a time. Hang the bundles upside down in an airy place, out of direct sunlight. After a week or so, the seeds can be shaken free from the plants. Collect the seeds by shaking and squeezing them from the plants into large paper yard waste bags. The seeds themselves will then need to continue drying for several days before they can be cleaned and stored.
Kale is exceptionally easy to grow – far easier than most of its cousins in the Brassica group (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi). It’s a very useful crop because it is one of the best for freezing for use all winter. Kale is also so cold hardy that in many parts of North America it can be grown and harvested all winter long. Whether it’s frozen or simply exposed to frost, the cold makes kale taste sweeter.
For eating kale raw, choose the tender, newly emerged baby leaves that are tender and succulent. Its mature leaves should be steamed, microwaved, or stir-fried if you want to take the most advantage of its incredible nutritional value. Kale contains very high levels of beta-carotene and vitamins C and K. It’s a good source of calcium and the two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. Like its Brassica neighbours, kale is rich in sulforaphane, a compound thought to have powerful cancer-fighting properties. Sulforaphane is made more available when kale is minced or chopped, but is diminished if kale is boiled. Recent research has shown that kale also contains a group of resins called bile acid sequestrants. These appear to lower cholesterol and minimize absorption of dietary fat.
Add lime to your kale bed a good three weeks before planting. For a summer harvest crop, start seeds indoors in March (or 4 weeks before your last average frost date), and transplant outdoors in 5 to 6 weeks. For fall and winter harvests, sow more seeds in June and transplant out late July/early August. Sow seeds 5mm (1/4”) deep, three seeds per pot, and thin to the strongest plant. Grow indoors under bright lights to keep seedlings stout and strong. Space plants 45-60cm (18-24”) apart, in rich soil, in full sun. Prevent damage from caterpillars by growing under lightweight floating row cover.
The berries from the Goji (or Wolfberry) plant have long held a place in traditional Chinese medicine. They are certainly rich in nutrients, being packed with vitamins and minerals as well as amino acids and essential fatty acids. Five carotenoids are found in Goji berries: beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, lutein, lycopene, and cryptoxanthin. All of these are reputed to contribute to overall health and disease resistance in humans.
Goji is a shrubby plant that can, in time, grow 1-3m (3-10′) tall. Growers space Goji plants 60cm (24″) apart in rows that are 2m (6′) apart. Spaced this way, 15 plants in a 30-foot row can produce up to 100 lbs of berries in a year. Goji is self-pollinating, so even a single plant will produce fruit. Goji is unusual in that it prefers relatively infertile, slightly alkaline soil with a pH range of 6.8 to 8.1. Goji reacts poorly to fertilizer and manure, so if you’re growing in a large container, use simple top soil with some perlite mixed in for drainage. Avoid peat-based soils.
It’s a slow process to grow Goji berries from seed, but once plants are established, they are highly productive. Plants will produce some fruit in the second year of growth, but from year three on, each plant will provide for healthful harvests of Goji berries. Sow indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. That’s early to mid-February on the coast. It’s important to cultivate strong seedlings, so once the seeds sprout, use generous artificial light. Sow 2 to 3 seeds in each pot, about 5mm (¼”) deep. Use a sterilized seed starting mix, and do not add fertilizer. Keep soil moist until seeds germinate, and then put under bright lights. After the third true leaf emerges, transplant each seedling on to its own individual pot. Gentle hardening off of seedlings is essential in order to avoid transplant shock.
Like its sibling the beet, chard is very easy to grow from seed. You can let it grow to full size (about 60 days after planting), or cut tender baby leaves for use raw in salads. Chard can even be grown as a microgreen to add dramatic colour and generous nutrition to salads or soups. Chard can be used as a substitute for spinach in nearly any recipe. It is an excellent topping for pizza, and its large leaves can be used instead of grape leaves to wrap dolma.
Chard is incredibly rich in vitamins. A single 175g serving contains 214% of the recommended daily value of vitamin A, 716% of your daily vitamin K, and 53% of your vitamin C! It’s a rich source of potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, dietary fibre, and protein.
For summer harvests, direct sow seeds from mid-April to mid-May on the coast (or 2-4 weeks after your last frost date), and for fall and winter harvests, sow more seeds from June to mid-July. So the chunky seeds 1cm (1/2”) deep, spaced 10-30cm (4-12”) apart in rows 45cm (18”) apart. Grow in full sun in soil that has been deeply cultivated and enriched with compost and glacial rock dust. For balcony growing, use 5 gallon containers or larger.
OK, so you don’t even have a balcony to grow super-foods on… Sprouts and microgreens are the obvious answer. You can grow them indoors, they take up very little space, they are fast, and they can be grown at any time of year. When seeds first germinate, they undergo a series of chemical changes, releasing enzymes and converting starches into sugars. Sprouts are very easily digested, and contain concentrated amounts of vitamins, minerals, protein, and amino acids. In short, newly sprouted plants are about the most nutritious food available.
In this regard broccoli sprouts are thought to be at the head of the class. They are the size of alfalfa sprouts, but contain all of the nutrients and antioxidants of mature broccoli – and in a form that is very easy for your body to digest. The tiny plants have not had time to build complex, tough cell structures, so very little energy is spent absorbing their wide range of nutrients. Most significantly, broccoli sprouts contain high levels of sulforaphane, that cancer-fighting compound discussed above in the kale description.
Broccoli sprouts are ready for eating 4 to 5 days after starting. A number of specialized sprouters are available that will make the process simpler and tidier, and the Biosta Sprouter is our favourite. But you can also use a simple mason jar covered at the top by a sprouting screen or a simple piece of fabric. The basic idea is to regularly moisten the seeds, and then allow the water to drain away completely. This process is repeated three or four times every day until the sprouts are ready to eat. If using a mason jar, add one teaspoon of seeds to the jar and then fill it half way with cold water. Agitate the jar a bit to rinse the seeds, and leave them to soak for about one hour. Then, with the screen covering the mouth of the jar, tip it upside-down and let it rest in a deep bowl or sink to allow all the water to escape. You don’t need to soak the seeds again, but you do need to rinse and drain them at least three times every day.