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Planting for power: Grow nutrient-dense foods

Amaranth leaves are among the most nutritious of vegetable greens. (Photo Credit: Salt Spring Seeds)

Amaranth leaves are among the most nutritious of vegetable greens. (Photo Credit: Salt Spring Seeds)

Niki Jabbour, author of the best-selling The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, has collected 73 plans for novel and inspiring food gardens from her favorite superstar gardeners in her new book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens. Each plan is fully illustrated and includes a profile of the contributor, the story behind the design, and a plant list.

Over the next few months, Rustik will be featuring a sampling of the designs, beginning with this Power Food Plan from Dan Jason, the owner of Salt Spring Seeds. Dan is also the founder and head of the Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada and the author of many books.

When planning an edible plot, Dan Jason suggests that you consider including power foods like beans, quinoa, amaranth, and flax.

“They pack a wallop, both in their amazing ability to multiply themselves (via their edible seeds) and in their ability to provide carefree means for the home gardener to obtain the highest-quality protein and oil,” he says. Not only are his plant picks easy to grow, but many are also extremely decorative and can be grown across much of North America.

Essentially, power crops are just nutrient-dense foods. They include the aforementioned high-protein seed crops as well as beans, soybeans, kale, and even hull-less oats and barley.

For a well-organized and productive power food garden, Dan recommends planting the crops in 4- by 8-foot rectangular beds. For a comfortable working area and room for a wheelbarrow, allow at least 2 feet of space between the beds.

Dan’s top picks are the protein-packed quinoa, amaranth, and flax. “They are easily as gorgeous as any ornamental you might choose for your garden,” Dan says.

Cooking with power foods

Flax seed is often eaten raw in granola, yogurt, and smoothies, or baked into breads and muffins. Amaranth and quinoa can be ground into a gluten-free flour or cooked as healthy whole grains. Dan points out that amaranth and quinoa grains have an amino acid balance that is close to ideal for human nutrition, while flax seeds have a similar optimum fatty acid balance. And the leaves of amaranth and quinoa are among the most nutritious of vegetable greens. Combine this with their limited care demands, ornamental appearance, and healthful yield (one amaranth plant can produce a quarter of a million seeds in one season!), and it’s not hard to see why more and more gardeners are starting to take notice.

Planting seeds

Flax, a pretty plant with a light blue flower, is grown for its seeds. (Photo Credit: Elayne Sears via Storey Publishing)

Flax, a pretty plant with a light blue flower, is grown for its seeds. (Photo Credit: Elayne Sears via Storey Publishing)

To plant these crops, simply sprinkle the small seeds evenly over the entire bed, tamping down lightly to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Alternatively, seed them in two shallow furrows.

“The same broadcast planting technique [used for quinoa, amaranth, and flax] can also be used to sow wheats, hull-less oats, hull-less barleys, triticale, and other grains intended to be sprouted, juiced, or eaten as whole grains,” Dan says. Soybeans and bush beans should be planted in two lengthwise rows per bed, sowing each seed about 1 inch deep and 3 inches apart.

If you are growing quinoa and amaranth for seed production, thin plants so that they are spaced 12 inches apart on center. If you are growing them for leafy greens, they can be allowed to grow more densely.

Great grains

Dan also believes that more gardeners should experiment with grains like wheat, hull-less oats, and barley. Hull-less oats are gaining popularity as a backyard grain because they require less processing after harvesting when compared with hulled oats. During the growing season, they are very carefree, requiring only an occasional watering in the event of a prolonged drought.

Hull-less barley is a good choice in regions with short seasons, as it matures earlier and tolerates cooler weather better than wheat. Hull-less barley varieties “are hardy, carefree crops that provide hearty and satisfying food,” Dan says. He also notes that the plants have a graceful nodding effect that is attractive in the garden as well as in dried arrangements.

“Grains are a surprisingly easy and very rewarding crop for home gardens,” he says, adding that grains are a good choice for less-than-ideal soils, as they tend to “lodge” or fall over when the earth is overly fertile.

To plant, Dan suggests scattering the seeds over the beds or planting them in rows, with seeds spaced 1 inch apart. Cover the seed lightly with soil, and toss a row cover over the beds if birds are a problem. To harvest, pick or cut individual ripe wheat seeds when the plants have dried completely and thresh by hand. Hull-less barley and oats have very loose hulls that are removed quickly and easily by rubbing.

Super kale

A more common member of the power foods family is kale. He recommends growing it because it is packed with vitamins, minerals, and many phytonutrients (natural compounds found in plant-based foods that can enhance health).

Kale is very easy to grow and can be sown thickly in spring or early autumn for a bed of baby leaves (ideal for salads, stir-fries, or smoothies), or young plants can be transplanted into the garden in early spring and allowed to grow to maturity. In a 4- by 8-foot bed, eight kale seedlings will quickly fill the plot. In zones colder than 6, the bed can be covered with a mini hoop tunnel in late autumn to allow easy winter harvesting. Kale is sweeter when harvested after the first frost.

Dan’s Favorite Power Foods

  • Quinoa. The foliage of this cool-weather native of South America can be enjoyed as a green in the same manner as spinach. The seeds (once rinsed to remove the bitter saponin) can be cooked and eaten like rice or used in a wide assortment of dishes. Dan suggests ‘Multi-Hued’ or ‘Bright Beauties’.
  • Amaranth. Amaranth hails from South America and, like quinoa, has edible foliage and seeds. It is an extremely decorative plant, described by Dan as “majestic.” It grows 4 to 8 feet tall, depending on the variety, with bronze- and burgundy-toned flower heads. Look for ‘Burgundy Grain’, ‘Hopi Red Dye’, ‘Manna de Montana’, or Dan’s own ‘Amaranth Mix’.
  • Flax. A pretty plant with a light blue flower, flax is grown for its seeds that are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. There are two main types of flax: brown and golden, and Dan has found much success growing golden flax seed. A few seed companies offer flax seeds for gardens, but you can also plant the organic whole seeds found at bulk food stores.
  • Wheat. There are many varieties of wheat, so have fun experimenting with the diverse types and flavors. Dan suggests trying kamut (Triticum turgidum var. durum), an ancient wheat with a silvery-blue seedhead and large kernels. It contains 29 percent more protein and 27 percent more lipids than common wheat, as well as increased levels of vitamins and minerals. He also recommends ‘Blue Tinge Ethiopian’ for eating as a whole grain and ‘Brazilian Lavras’, or ‘Thatcher’ for making flour.
  • Hull-less oats (Avena nuda). These are gaining popularity as a backyard grain because they require less processing after harvesting when compared with hulled oats. During the growing season, they are very low-maintenance, requiring only an occasional watering in the event of a prolonged drought.
  • Hull-less barley. This is a good choice in regions with short seasons, as it matures earlier and tolerates cooler weather better than wheat. Hull-less barley varieties “are hardy, carefree crops that provide hearty and satisfying food,” Dan says. He also notes that the plants have a graceful nodding effect that is attractive in the garden as well as in dried arrangements. ‘Ethiopian Hull-less Barley’ is the easiest to thresh, the highest yielding, and the most reliable.
  • Beans. There are many types of beans that can be grown in a home garden, from bush to pole, snap to dry, and soybean to fava, garbanzo, and more. “Try a variety of different types to see what you like and what grows best in your area,” says Dan. He suggests growing pole beans on trellises and soybeans and bush beans in two rows in the 4-foot-wide beds. He likes ‘Trionfo Violetto’ or ‘Blue Lake’ pole beans and ‘Hidatsa’, ‘Agate’, and ‘Grand Forks’ soybeans.
  • Kale. If you want to enjoy a winter harvest, opt for hardy and cold-tolerant varieties like ‘Red Russian’ or ‘White Russian’.

Niki Jabbour, author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, is a food gardener and garden writer who lives near Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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