Eating Fresh is Eating Best
by NGB
August 7, 2016

Vegetable gardeners are always asked: "Why do you spend so much time and effort growing your food, when it is readily available at food stores?" Good question. There are lots of answers--probably as many answers as there are vegetable gardeners. However, most agree that while there are also significant intangible physical and spiritual benefits to be gained from the vigorous outdoor exertion involved in coaxing food from the soil, it is the tangible benefits that are easiest to describe.

Homegrown food is freshest. Unlike store produce, backyard vegetables and fruits are picked at their peak ripeness. The longest distance they have to travel is measured in feet to the kitchen, not miles across the country. This means that they taste better than anything you can buy. Anyone who has plucked a ripe, sun-warmed tomato or crisp sugar snap pea and promptly eaten it while standing in the garden knows what taste really is. The freshest vegetables are also the most nutritious. They are picked ripe with their full complement of vitamins.

Homegrown food is the safest. These days everyone is alert to the various issues in the production of food. While enormous strides have been made in regulating and minimizing the use of pesticide products in domestic food production, there is still concern about residues on store bought produce. Unlike commercially grown vegetables that are raised in a monoculture, backyard vegetables benefit from the presence of a diversity of plants on the property which host beneficial insects. When there is a problem the gardener can choose from a wide range of remedies--cultural, mechanical, and biological--to deal with weeds, insects and critters to minimize or avoid the use of pesticides.

Modern Vegetables for Modern Life

Homegrown food is convenient. These days this is no small issue. The availability of fresh vegetables and fruits just outside the back door offers a whole different way to use and serve food. A constant supply of fresh, nutritious food simplifies modern life where mealtimes are ad hoc events squeezed in among conflicting family schedules. Dinner parties are often co-operative affairs where both guests and hosts prepare the meal after the guests arrive. (Sending guests out to pick vegetables from the garden is a great icebreaker, and it provides entertainment as well!)

The advent of new plant hybrids supports the trends in contemporary life where the emphasis is on saving time, and eating healthy. Fresh vegetables in the yard reduces both time-consuming trips to the supermarket and meal preparation time. No need to spend time removing peas from their pods, thanks to sugar snap peas that have edible pods and taste delicious raw or lightly steamed. Neither is there a need to cook tender young carrots, peas, corn, peppers, summer squashes and other crops from the garden at all. Unlike the old days when grandma had to seriously overcook string beans so that the "strings" would be tender, modern green beans have no strings. Already tender, they are delicious raw or heated briefly in a little water in the microwave oven. Homegrown vegetables, then, provide quick meals, and food featuring maximum fiber and nutrition.

Homegrown food offers the most diversity of colors, sizes and shapes as well as convenience. Gardeners can choose from a huge number of vegetable varieties featuring interesting colors, shapes and sizes never available at stores. There are little bite-sized peppers that are ready for dips and salads in no time at all. Small softball-sized cabbages are perfect for today's smaller families, eliminating waste and saving preparation time. "Grape" sized tomatoes that literally burst with flavor are perfect for bag lunches. Tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, eggplants, Swiss chard and even corn are now available in a rainbow of colors. There are yellow watermelons, striped beets, purple beans, pink eggplants, purple asparagus, and blue potatoes in the garden, but not necessarily on store shelves. Vegetable gardeners can choose from several different kinds of parsley, basil, mint and oregano.

Homegrown food offers variety. Why just eat only purple eggplant when you can dine on white, black, deep pink, green, or purple and white striped eggplant grown in your garden? Red, white and blue potatoes from your garden can provide a patriotic 4th of July salad. The possibilities are endless--and fun.

Homegrown food offers fun for children. Unusual vegetable shapes, colors and sizes are appealing to children, and many of these specialty vegetables are only available in seed. Children can have fun growing white pumpkins, orange watermelons, UFO shaped summer squash, blue potatoes, golden beets, violet radishes or round yellow cucumbers. They will likely even want to taste the vegetables they have grown in their own garden.

Homegrown food offers edible table centerpieces. Purple, green, red, yellow and orange sweet bell peppers make a beautiful, easy, edible table arrangement when placed in a pretty basket. Ornamental peppers in casual terra cotta pots or in elegant crystal also make a striking arrangement. For a patriotic theme try a large brandy snifter of red, white and purple radishes. For fragrance, you can't beat a container full of sweet smelling basils and parsleys.

Homegrown food offers the opportunity to share your bounty. You can help feed family, friends and neighbors or the less fortunate. You can help fight hunger by donating your produce to a neighborhood food pantry or participating in the Plant A Row for the Hungry program.

Mesclun: A Case in Point

Nothing represents the way modern vegetable garden crops suit modern life like the wonderful lettuce seed mixtures called "mesclun" that are available now. From the Provencal region of France, the idea of planting and then harvesting many types of greens mixed together has been enthusiastically adopted in this country. Fancy restaurants feature mesclun on their menus, and grocery stores sell it for an impressive $8.99 a pound. These assortments of greens are appreciated for their sophisticated mixture of flavors, textures and colors, their wholesome taste, and their ease of preparation. Gardeners have discovered that they are wonderfully easy (and economical) to grow, as well.

Mesclun has all the virtues of homegrown food. It yields for a long period of time, it does not need cooking, and it is nutritious, beautiful, sophisticated, and delicious. Commercially packaged seed assortments typically feature plants with a variety of colors, flavors, and textures such as peppery mustard greens, bittersweet chicory, tender butterhead, arugala, crunchy romaine, mache, endive, cress, anise tasting chervil and, perhaps, some parsley. Gardeners can make their own custom mesclun by mixing the seeds of several types of lettuces and other greens to suit family tastes.

So, when someone asks, "Why bother with a vegetable garden when there is lots of produce at the store?" I invite him or her over for dinner on a summer evening. We begin the meal and the discussion with a mesclun salad.

We credit Liz Ball as the author of this article.

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