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Garden Guru: Superfoods are becoming garden superheroes

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Over the last few weeks, I've talked about some of the trends that the garden marketing world has picked up and is using to influence everything from what you find at the garden center to what hot new garden books are hitting the shelves.

For the first time, it is interesting to note, the sale of food plants and seeds has surpassed that of purely ornamental plants.

This means that more gardeners, especially new gardeners, are growing more food than flowers. This week, we'll talk about how "superfoods" -- foods high in nutrients with health-boosting properties -- are becoming popular in home gardens and even showing up in the smallest of places.

What makes food 'super'?

The term "superfood" is a general, unofficial term used to describe foods that contain a high concentration of health-promoting compounds. These compounds are either the pigments that give the plants their color, like beta-carotene and lycopene, vitamins like C and K, or things like fiber.

These compounds serve as antioxidants and other health boosters that improve overall general health and likely reduce the risk of diseases and disorders such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and even Alzheimer's disease. It's no wonder that gardeners are clamoring to grow their own to get the added boost of consuming home grown goodness.

What superfoods can I grow?

The No. 1 superfood is blueberries. The 2014 Garden Trends Report published by Garden Media Group. More and more people are growing blueberries, and I can tell you from experience that I answer more questions about growing blueberries than any other fruit.

I hear lots of people say that they have or will be growing blueberries. Why? Most experts tout them as the most super of the superfoods, linking them to reduced cancer, cholesterol and Alzheimer's risk, and boosting brain function thanks to their fiber and anthocyanin pigments. They are also a favorite snack food, and the trends report states that 18- to 24-year-olds buy them as a staple grocery item.

Truth be told, about all berries -- from strawberries and raspberries, cranberries and lingonberries (both relatives of blueberries) to tomatoes (yes, tomatoes are berries!) -- are considered superfruits. Tomatoes and other red fruits are high in the antioxidant lycopene, which is their primary pigment compound.

Another common class of superfoods we see in local gardens are dark leafy greens. Kale steals most of the spotlight, since it is the most identifiable and usually has a milder, more familiar flavor. But most of the dark leafy greens, from mustard and collards to Swiss chard spinach (Popeye was ahead of his time) are all high in fiber and vitamins A, C, K and calcium.

Many of their bigheaded relatives, such as broccoli, also are superfoods. Beets are even making a return as a favored vegetable, and are prized for the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of their pigments called betalains.

Even weeds are included -- the garden trends report specifically mentions dandelions as growing in popularity among cooks and gardeners. Well, if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.

Where are people growing all of this superfood?

In short, the answer is: everywhere. Those who have gardening space are definitely taking advantage and growing more of the nutrient than ever before. But food gardening is on the rise even where people don't have the space.

Microgardens in containers are becoming a popular way for folks wanting to grow fresh, healthy foods wherever they are. While containers lend themselves easily to leafy greens, fruits are also getting in on the act.

Small, container-size fruit trees and shrubs are gaining popularity, such as the Dwarf Top Hat Blueberry. Dwarf versions of tropical fruits and less-hardy fruits, such as citrus fruits and pomegranates are also gaining popularity, but they need to be brought indoors during the cold winter months. Even dwarf apples and peaches can be grown in large containers.

On an even smaller scale, microgreens and sprouts are becoming a popular way to add some fresh superfoods to the diet. These tiny morsels are grown indoors with little to no soil, usually in trays or in jars. But if you are going to try it, you'll need to make sure you get certified seeds that are free of diseases such as E. coli and salmonella.

Common garden seeds that you buy aren't for sprouting. Many health-food advocates have been growing them for years, but they are becoming more and more popular in the mainstream, both in the home "garden" and in major cuisine.

There's still time ... to become a Master Gardner

My Kanawha County Extension Master Gardener class will begin Feb. 8. You don't have to be a great gardener to get started. All you need is the desire to learn.

Classes will run for 10 weeks on Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon. The course materials fee is $100 ($120 for couples sharing the book). The registration deadline is Feb. 1. You can find registration details at www.kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/mastergardener/course or call 304-720-9573.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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