NATURE’S TURN: Vegetable varieties for the 21st century garden, Part 1

There are vast nutritional differences among the varieties of a given fruit or vegetable. …..To this day, the nutritional content of our man-made varieties has been an afterthought. -- Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side

April 25 – May 8, 2016

“One of the most important discoveries of twenty-first century food science is that there are vast nutritional differences among the varieties of a given fruit or vegetable. …..To this day, the nutritional content of our man-made varieties has been an afterthought. A plant researcher for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can spend years perfecting a new variety of blackberry or apple without ever measuring its phytonutrient content or its effect on blood sugar. If the variety is attractive, pleasing to eat, productive, and disease resistant, it is considered a triumph. Meanwhile, our bodies hunger for the nutrients that we have left by the wayside.”

— Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side*

Redwing onion plantlets laid in furrows ready to be stood up, their root end buried in 1” of earth. Photo: Judy Isacoff
Redwing onion plantlets laid in furrows ready to be stood up, their root end buried in 1” of earth. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Mt. Washington — It’s a spring sensation, walking the garden paths propelled by the desire to plant everything at once. The free-edged raised beds are round with compost that was added in the fall. One bed at a time, I wake the soil from its winter rest by running a favorite rake over the surface. Once the earth is teased out to a crisp edge on both sides, I dust the surface with rock phosphate and an organic fertilizer composed of mixed minerals, seaweed and a preparation that activates the beneficial soil microorganisms. When turned in, the bed is ready for planting a crop of storage onions.

I’ve been choosing red onions over yellow, guided by the rule of thumb that the more colorful the food the more nutritious. This is true in many instances, but current research cited by Jo Robinson reveals an overarching principle: the more bitter and astringent a food the richer in phytonutrients (phyto=plant). Pungent red and yellow onions are preferable to sweet, mild varieties for staple food, and they keep longer. In my search for storage onions, even before reading Eating on the Wild Side, I chose Redwing, Copra and Borettana Cippolini. I wondered why my red Redwing wasn’t sweet when eaten raw. All the good keepers are bold tasting. Varieties that I grow without the expectation that they will keep through the winter and long into the spring include Red Zeppelin, Red Torpedo Tropea and Red River, the latter a mild choice. By the way, Robinson notes that onionskins are more nutritious than the onions, so save them to include in making broths.

Egyptian onions, tips frostbitten. Photo: Judy Isacoff, April 23, 2016.
Egyptian onions, tips frostbitten. Photo: Judy Isacoff, April 23, 2016.

Perennial alliums, different from the onions, garlic and leeks that we plant every year, begin to grow as soon as the earth thaws. They provide continuous harvests beginning in mid-April and are at home in any garden, border or beside the doorstep. Egyptian onions — also known as walking onions, top multipliers, spring onions, green onions or scallions — are typically grown from little bulbs. Tubular-leafed onion chives and flat-leafed garlic chives are easy to grow from seed or nursery plants. They are among the most health-giving foods on the planet.

Garlic and shallots far exceed onions in promoting health and healing. Robinson’s research reveals that hardneck garlic is preferable to softneck and

Fall planted garlic. Photo: Judy Isacoff, April 23, 2016.
Fall planted garlic. Photo: Judy Isacoff, April 23, 2016.

that shallots deserve a much more prominent place in our gardens and on our plates. Shallots, grown from seed or bulbs, are suitable for the ornamental garden; they produce a lovely fountain of tubular green leaves. They are better keepers than even the best varieties of storage onions.

For immediate sowing, choose lettuces and other leafy vegetables that have bold flavor and intense color, like their wild ancestors. Red lettuce varieties with loosely arranged leaves produce the most antioxidants and vitamins. Look for Red Sails and Rosso di Treviso, a radicchio. Arugula is among the most beneficial of our salad greens. A twenty-first century spring garden is sure to sport Bull’s Blood beet interplanted between the onion rows.

Resources:

*Robinson, Jo, Eating on the Wild Side, The Missing Link to Optimum Health. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2013. Quotes are from pages 13, 10-11.

A self-seeded mixture of overwintered Johnny Jump-ups. Photo by Judy Isacoff, April 23, 2016.
A self-seeded mixture of overwintered Johnny Jump-ups. Photo by Judy Isacoff, April 23, 2016.