Growing things is such a complex interplay of nutrients, water, sunlight, wind, temperature, predatory insects, soil microbes, spacing, companion planting, beneficial insects, pollination, planting times, harvest times and who knows what else, that there is no way a scientist can possibly investigate all of the components that affect the nutritive qualities of foodstuffs. What we can say, with some degree of certainty, is that well-watered, rich soil loaded with nature’s nutrients and plenty of beneficial microbes will produce more nutritious plants than conventionally grown plants.
The same applies to animals. If your chickens eat the same high-quality foods you do (as opposed to commercial lay mix) and have an opportunity to scratch around in real dirt or pasture under the sun, they will provide you with more nutrition in their eggs and meat. Cows grown on high-quality grass and hay, who can nibble on weeds, tree leaves and other browse that takes their fancy, will produce more nutritious meat and milk. They will also be healthier and less stressed. Does stress affect how your meat tastes or its nutritional value? Odds are high. When people and animals are stressed, their bodies’ chemicals, enzymes and hormones change. Any hunter will tell you an animal that has been run hard before it is killed doesn’t taste the same as an animal dropped quickly as it grazes quietly in a field.
After reading Jo Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side, I have finally figured out why our animals don’t like white corn. We sometimes buy screenings or middlings – what’s left after grain is ground – to feed our pigs, chickens, cows and horses. Because screenings are ground, they’re easy on the big animals’ digestive systems, especially for our old stallion, whose teeth are not what they once were. For pigs and chickens, we mix it with excess milk and whey or add water and soak it overnight to decrease phytates, which are hard to digest and affect the absorption of other nutrients. Corn screenings come from white and yellow corn. I could never understand why our animals were reluctant to eat the white stuff, but voraciously inhaled the yellow screenings. Turns out they’re smarter than I am – or than I was. Generally speaking, according to Robinson’s research, fruits and vegetables that are more highly colored are more nutritious (there are a few exceptions, such as white-fleshed peaches and nectarines). The deep color means they have more antioxidants, for example, something we humans need for optimum health. So when the animals expressed a preference for the yellow corn, they were instinctively looking for more nutrients.
Daily attention is one of the keys to gardening success. You’d be amazed at how quickly many vegetables and fruits can grow. A zucchini, for example, can turn into a baseball bat from one watering to the next. Some plants like to play hide-and-seek with you; summer squash and cucumbers are notorious for secreting their offerings in little nooks and crannies or under a leaf. A daily check helps to keep these tendencies from running amok in the garden. It also allows you to find the zucchini that’s about to be useful as a baseball bat (and that’s about how tough it will be, too, if it makes it to that size). I find it helps to take a flashlight to the garden with you, as the shaded areas are often where the zucchini that ate Chicago are hiding. The skins of the summer squash and cucumbers reflect light and are easier to see when hit by the flashlight beam. This tendency is why it’s also a good idea to grow cucumbers on a trellis.
When you’re growing food to fill the pantry, freezer and root cellar, it’s important to protect yourself from disasters, such as a blight or virus that wipes out your entire crop of something. I like to grow at least two different varieties of whatever the plant is, and in some cases, three. That means, for example, that I will grow at least two slicing tomato varieties, two canning varieties and two paste/drying varieties. In some cases, I can get double duty. Rutgers and St. Pierre tomatoes are good fresh and canned, although not quite as good for either purpose as those that are bred specifically to eat, like Mortgage Lifter, or to make sauce with, like Roma. Although, if tomato disaster struck and I had to make do with only one tomato instead of six or seven, it would be St. Pierre. It’s quite good eating and still meaty enough to make good sauce or even ketchup. Amish Paste would also make a good I-can-only-have-one. Tromboncino and Crookneck can be used as both summer squash and as winter squash, depending on when they’re harvested. Because of genetic diversity, what clobbers one variety may leave another one alone. By growing more than one variety, if disease befalls my garden or the weather is finicky, the odds that I get at least half a crop are much improved.
It’s also important to remember that specialization in vegetables – much like specialization in people – isn’t really a good thing. Just because your tomatoes are slicers doesn’t mean you can’t turn them into tomato sauce. You’ll have to cook them a bit longer to make the sauce thick, that’s all. And if you slice and roast them first, they’ll cook off a lot of the excess water in the oven. The other reason to grow several varieties whenever possible is that – unlike our ancestors – we get our nutrition from a relatively limited group of foods. The Uggs probably ate hundreds of different plants, while most of us eat 50 or less including fruits, veggies, herbs and grains (count it up – how many fruits and vegetables do you eat regularly?). We are also subjected to a lot more pollutants, chemicals, toxins and things like microwaves, all of which damage cells. We need all the help we can get. Every variety of plant has some unique qualities that probably translate into unique nutritional advantages. For example, a pole bean is not exactly the same as a bush bean of the same variety, nor is a cherry tomato the same as a beefsteak. Odds are high that yellow summer squash and green summer squash supply some slightly different micronutrients, as do yellow, green and purple bush beans.