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What are some of the Easiest Superfoods to Grow?

By Alexa Pellegrini, AARP June 2023

What Is a Superfood?

While there is no standard definition for “superfood,” they pack a nutritional punch worth the hype. A recent critical review in the Journal of Cleaner Production describes superfoods as offering exceptional bioactive compounds that target chronic disease. For example, a study from Kampala International University in Uganda shows bioactive compounds in superfoods have been effective in treating diabetes.

But trying to trace where many commercially grown superfoods come from — and whether their growth and supply chains harm their extraordinary nutritional value — is next to impossible. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the United States buys 32 percent of its fresh vegetables and 55 percent of its fresh fruit from other countries.

With proper care, homegrown superfoods are more likely to deliver on their wellness-boosting benefits. “A strawberry might technically be superfood, but if it’s a strawberry grown in Mexico or California for the winter market, and shipped and eaten in January, it's basically a little bag of water with some seeds,” Wides explains. “A homegrown strawberry that ... was not pumped full of water, was not picked green and was not sprayed with gas to ripen is going to have nutrient levels that are off the charts.”

Liven up your menu with the healthiest versions of these wellness-boosting plants today. Growing your own food can be incredibly rewarding – and healthy. It’s an easy way to get vitamin D, boost your agility and ease stress. Plus, tending an indoor or outdoor garden can help you dig into the healthiest version of plant-based superfoods.

“You can lower your cholesterol, inflammation and blood pressure levels by eating more plants,” says Sharon Palmer, associate  faculty for the M.S. Sustainable Food Systems program at Prescott College, and author of The Plant-Powered Plan to Beat Diabetes: A Guide for Prevention and Management. “Homegrown produce is amazing, as there are benefits to spending time in the garden and eating foods that don’t rely on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.” There are also ways to make growing your own food more manageable if you have arthritis or physical limitations, such as container gardening.

So what are some of the easiest superfoods to grow? Here are 10 beginner-friendly superfoods that work for every type of living space and level of experience.

1. Strawberries

Why they’re good for you: Strawberries are packed with heart-healthy phytochemicals. Research indicates that regularly eating strawberries may enhance circulation to your heart, the key to preventing conditions such as a type of chest pain called angina.

How to grow them: To enjoy strawberries for a season, sow your seeds of choice a half-inch deep in seedling trays, spaced 6 inches apart. When seedlings are 3 inches tall, thin them out by removing the weakest of the bunch and transfer into a classic strawberry pot or window box, spaced at least 18 inches apart. Allow no more than three runners, horizontal stems that yield “baby” clone plants, per container. Grow in at least six hours of sunlight a day, but 10 or more hours are ideal. Grow perennial strawberries in raised garden beds or in-ground garden beds, using straw mulch to protect against the cold in fall or winter.

Helpful tip: The best varieties of strawberries for gardening in small spaces include Seascape, Temptation, Tristar and Albion. “It’s a very empowering and beautiful thing to be able to garden from seeds,” says chef Erica Wides, creator and host of the Funny People Making Food YouTube cooking show. “Choosing from different varieties often leads to eating foods a lot higher in nutrients, because they haven’t been hybridized to death.”

2. Sunchokes

Why they’re good for you: Sunchokes a­­re a healthy, high-fiber root vegetable that look like crinklier, knobbier white potatoes — with far fewer carbohydrates. And they yield a beautiful sunflower that gives them their name. A study in the journal Horticulturae found the tubers are unusually high in inulin, a prebiotic that helps control blood sugar. Another study, in the journal Nutrients, found older adults who eat sunchokes (techically Helianthus tuberosus) for breakfast have healthier digestion. Unlike potatoes, you don’t have to peel sunchokes before cooking them, but they are prepared the same way: diced and boiled, baked or pan-fried into a yummy substitute for chips.

How to grow them: Sunchokes are usually grown from tubers with the eyes facing skyward. For indoor gardens, plant no more than 5 inches deep, spaced at least 1-3 feet apart. For outdoor gardens, plant tubers with the same technique in a 5-gallon container (grow bags also work nicely), a raised garden bed or an in-ground bed. Grow in six to eight hours of full sun per day. Enjoy extra-sweet sunchokes by harvesting them when the flowers die down after the first ki­­­lling frost.

Helpful tip: While you can pick up tubers at grocery stores, online and at many farmers markets (both to eat and to plant in-ground), you can also grow sunchokes by planting Helianthus tuberosus seeds. Plant the seeds 3 inches deep, spaced at least 3 inches apart in a 5-gallon container or grow bag.

3. Sunflowers

Why they’re good for you: We’re used to snacking on sunflower seeds, but you can also eat the petals. While nibbling on flowers may seem unconventional, “edible flowers have been used in traditional diets throughout the millennia,” Palmer says. “They can add beautiful color and phytochemicals to your diet.” The seeds may also promote healthy blood pressure levels by delivering peptides that mirror the effects of ACE inhibitors, according to researchers from Nanjing Agricultural University in China.

How to grow them: Plant seeds no more than 1-inch deep, spaced about 6 inches apart in seedling trays. Lightly water growing seedlings and thin out at 6 inches tall, spacing the strongest 12 inches apart. Transfer mature seedlings into pots 6-8 inches deep and 10 inches wide. For outdoor gardens, space seedlings 24 inches apart. Grow in six to eight hours of full sun per day.

Helpful tip: For extra-tall sunflowers, feed your plants once every two to three weeks with tomato fertilizer.

4. Chives

Why they’re good for you: Chives may be disease-fighting powerhouses: University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists discovered chives contain nanoparticles that could lower inflammation linked to heart disease, stroke and obesity.

How to grow them: Plant seeds one-quarter inch deep, 2 to 3 inches apart in seedling trays. Transplant mature seedlings into a container at least 8 inches deep. You can also sow the seeds directly outdoors as soon as soil is workable in the spring . Chives also make for hardy perennial plants in outdoor gardens: Plant four to six weeks before the last frost. Chives are more shade-tolerant, so they can be grown indoors with four to six hours of sunlight per day. However, they do best grown in eight full hours of sunlight per day.

Helpful tip: Grow chives with other produce to ward off mites, aphids, rabbits and other pests. "In my garden, nothing eats them because animals don't like onions,” Wides says. The pretty purple, pink or white pompom blossoms are also edible — toss them in a salad or use them in a garnish. Bees also love them, so consider leaving a few of the flowers for pollinators.

5. Oregano

Why it’s good for you: There’s a reason the ancient Greeks raved about oregano: Not only is the herb a hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, but according to research it may also fight harmful bacteria and fungi. One study published in Nutrition Today found oregano oil stopped H. pylori, a bacterium that causes ulcers.

How to grow it: Plant the seeds one-quarter inch deep, 12 inches apart. Lightly cover with soil. Transplant mature seedlings into a terra cotta clay pot or window box. After seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin out to 18 inches apart, and cut back on watering to avoid tamping down the flavor. Grow in at least six hours of full sunlight per day. For outdoor gardens, sow oregano seeds directly in the soil once temperatures reach around 70°F. In warmer climates, oregano is best grown in pots or window boxes with partial shade.

Helpful tip: Oregano is exceptionally sensitive to overwatering. Add pearlite to your soil and choose plastic pots with extra drainage.

6. Radishes

Why they’re good for you: A 2019 study from the National Institute of Horticultural and Herbal Science has found that this sweet and spicy superfood could halt the growth of cervical, lung and prostate cancer cells. Plus, the leaves can be eaten for extra calcium and protein.

How to grow them: Plant smaller varieties one-quarter to one-half inch deep and larger varieties up to 1 inch deep, spaced at least 1 inch apart, in a container or radish bed with loose soil at least 6 inches deep. When seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin and space 2 inches apart. Grow in six to eight hours of full sunlight per day.

Helpful tip: Extreme heat and underwatering make radishes too spicy. Grow the heat-tolerant Sora variety in outdoor gardens.

7. Zucchini 

Why it’s good for you: Zucchini is not only high in essential minerals, such as vitamins C and A and folate, but science also shows it may have cancer-fighting properties. “One healthy plant can supply you with dozens of zucchini that can be picked daily during the warm months,” Palmer says. Of course, there are many ways to enjoy them fresh: Whip up “zoodles,” toss or dice into pasta salads, or skewer chunks onto veggie kebabs.

How to grow it: Plant one to two seeds 1 inch deep, spaced 3-4 inches apart, in a container at least 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep, but 24 inches wide is a plus. When seedlings are 3-4 inches tall, thin out and transplant them into your container at least 6-8 inches apart. Grow in six to eight hours of full sun per day to maximize the yield.

Helpful tip: Delicious compact varieties for container gardens include Raven, Salman and Sungreen.

8. Green beans

Why they’re good for you: Green beans stand out for their natural blood thinning properties, which may lower the risk of stroke, according to a study from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. The study also shows green beans are high in folate, which has been shown in some studies to help ease depression.

How to grow them: Green beans have fragile root networks, so avoid transplanting. Begin green beans seeds in a container least 15 inches wide; bush beans need containers at least 6 inches deep, while pole beans need containers at least 9 inches deep. Plant seeds 1 inch deep, spaced 6 inches apart. For outdoor gardens, plant seeds 1 inch deep, 6 inches apart after the last spring frost. When the seedlings are 2-3 inches tall, thin to one plant every 4 inches apart. Grow in six to eight hours of full sun per day.

Helpful tip: “If you don't have a lot of room to garden, get pole [green] beans and grow them on a trellis,” Wides says. “You can also try Chinese long beans or snake beans, which grow like crazy.” Note that pole green beans require a pot at least 9 inches deep and pole bean seedlings do not need thinning.

9. Romaine Lettuce

Why it’s good for you: “Romaine lettuce is a nutrient-rich salad green. Simply pluck the leaves and more will grow,” explains Palmer. In one study, eating romaine lettuce helped prevent blood sugar spikes after mealtimes.

How to grow it: Plant seeds one-eighth of an inch apart. Cover with a minimal amount of soil. To prevent drowning the seeds, mist thoroughly until they mature. When seedlings are 4-6 inches tall, thin out and plant in plastic containers 18 inches apart. Grow in eight hours of full sunlight per day. 

Helpful tip: Romaine lettuce wilts when receiving too much sunlight. If planting outdoors in full sun, shield with a shade cloth.

10. Cucumbers

Why they’re good for you: Rich in water, cucumbers may help prevent fine lines and wrinkles by restoring skin elasticity, one study shows. They’re abundant in vitamin C, an essential nutrient for better eye health. So,grow the slicing variety for an on-hand remedy for puffiness and swelling. You can also add a cool touch to summer by adding them to ice pops, salads, and more.

How to grow them: Plant seeds 1 inch deep in soil, spaced 6 inches apart. When seedlings are at least 3 inches tall and have twin leaves, thin out and transplant into a container at least 1 foot deep, with each plant spaced at least 12 inches apart. For outdoor gardens, plant after the last spring frost. Grow in a minimum of six hours and an ideal of eight to 10 hours of sunlight per day.

Helpful tip: The Spacemaster (bush) variety offers the benefit of being highly compact and growing within 50-60 days. Vining cucumbers add an aesthetic touch to your garden, but can grow shoots between 10 and 15 feet long, so you’ll need plenty of space.

10 Essential Gardening Tools to Get Started

1. Seedling trays or peat pots: For indoor gardening, nourish seedlings in reusable trays or peat pots. (A cheap alternative: clean yogurt cups with drainage holes.)

2. Gardening gloves: Wear rubber-coated gloves for more protection; opt for cloth if you have latex allergy.

3. Spray bottle: Mist to water delicate seedlings and boost humidity.

4. Shovel: This long-handle tool helps you scoop up large amounts of soil and work compost into soil. Choose a lightweight design.

5. Watering can: Choose metal to avoid contaminating edible plants with plastic.

6. Containers: If you’re container gardening, plastic pots retain more moisture and allow for handmade drainage holes, while clay containers are more durable and resistant against temperature shifts.

7. Garden shears: Remove dying leaves, snip away weeds, and harvest your fruits and vegetables.

8. Hand trowel: Perfect for indoor gardeners, a hand trowel lets you dig holes for mature plants and move around small amounts of soil and other materials.

9. Spade: Good for in-ground garden beds that require deep holes for planting, a spade has a long handle and the power to cut through roots and other debris.

10. Rake: Another excellent tool for in-ground garden beds, a rake has a long handle and helps remove weeds, refreshes hardened soil and tamps down soil over fresh seedlings.

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