Why We Grow What We Grow
Why Grow Unusual Things? Eating new things is not only fun, but very important for food security!
Here are the 3 primary reasons:
Nutrition: Some of the foods we choose to grow are superior in nutrition and medicinal benefits to more common fruits, vegetables, and herbs. These include elderberries, Egyptian spinach, stinging nettles, tulsi (holy basil), cilantro, kale and collards, okra, jujubes, aronia berries, paw paws, goumi berries, rose hips, purple sweet potatoes, blueberries, maypop passionfruit.
Fun and Interesting Flavors: Some that come to mind are papalo (Kevin’s favorite herb), hoja santa, huacatay, aji amarillo peppers, tulsi (Kevin’s favorite ice cream flavor), BBQ berries, and paw paws (George Washington’s favorite dessert.)
Food Security and Healthy Environments. Our food system is precarious due to many factors that is a rabbit hole of a subject that could be a volume of books. On a basic level, our narrow range of crops that we grow to feed ourselves are highly inbreed, weak, and vulnerable to disease, pests, and climate related crop failures. The solution that Kevin has been promoting for 20 years is to diversify what we grow and what we eat.
This can be someting that is botanically unrelated to anything else we eat, plants that have resilience not only because they haven’t been weakened by modern breeding and selection, but because they are in different plant families than any other crop, thus less vulnerable to the same pests and diseases. These crops are often tougher and more resilent, and require less inputs to grow, which creates a more sustainable and secure food system. Many of these plants attract pollinators, and provide habitat for native species.
On the hand, taking more “normal” crops and trying to re-wild and rejuvenate them is another approach that Kevin is more and more getting into. This is the concept of not only saving seeds of heirloom and other less common varieites, but participating in something called landrace farming. This is the concept of allowing plants to cross and hybridize naturally, and saving the ones that thrive under local conditions. Over a few generations, the seeds become more genetically rich and diverse, and are thus able to adapt to local conditions. Requiring less inputs and no sprays or pest control necessary. And how cool is it that they become and expression of the land itself!
Some of Kevin’s Favorite Plants He Grows:
Tulsi — also known as Holy Basil, this plant is renowned for its health benefits and anti-inflammatory properties. Look up the health benefits of tulsi and you’ll find them to be numerous. This summer annual plant is very resilient — so gets the food security checkmark. It is also delicious, Kevin’s favorite ice cream flavor, that he and his family use to make smoothies all summer long. Also makes delicious ice tea. So tulsi gets all the check marks! Flowers also attract bees and pollintaors.
Papalo — This herb from Mexico and Central America was used for thousands of years like cilantro is often used today. But unlike cilantro, it loves summer heat and grows at the same time tomatoes, peppers, and other summer foods are available. The flavor is totally unique, and is Kevin’s family’s favorite herb, that is used fresh in tacos, salsa, and as a pizza topping in his household all summer long (and into the fall a bit.)
It is easy to grow and resilient so it gets the food security check mark as well. It is also possibly super nutritous (not a lot of research on this.)
Maypop Passionfruit: This is Tennessee’s state wildflower. It is very reslient, and attracts myriad native pollinators and the like. It is also absolutely beautifu. The fruits are passionfruit, and their juice is tropical tasting deliciousness! And unlike other passionfruit species that are tropical, maypop has edible and medicinal leaves and flowers with a unique flavor and renowned for it’s health benefits, particularly concerning relaxation and improved sleep.
Egyptian Spinach: In the summer heat, all of the traditional greens don’t fare so well. Lettuce, kale, collards, spinah, and chard. However, Eygptian spinach is the okra family and loves summer heat. It’s leaves are mild in flavor but superior in nutrition.
Jujube: These amazing fruits grow on trees that are not only drought tolerant and disease resistant (they are unrleated to any other food crop) but also late to leaf out in the spring and early to go dormant in the fall, making them less susceptible to crop failures due to weather fluctuations. They are also superior in nutrition to most other fruits, and besides rose hips, by far the highest source of vitamin C you can grow in a non tropical climate. They also dry and store very well making them a great food security plant. — (at that point they taste like apple pie filling “nouget”)
Purple Sweet Potatoes (and sweet potatoes in general): That purple color means extra nutrition, (check that box), the flavor is different that other sweet potatoes (to Kevin they often taste like brownies but not super sweet), and they get an high score in the food security category as well. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop — they grow well with not too many pests or diseases, and produce lots of calories. We could essentially live on sweet potatoes, and Kevin’s number one food security crop by far. And the greens are also edible and nutritious! The only thing about then is that they are propogated asexually from cutting/clones “slips” from the tubers themselves. What this means is that each plant is genertically identical, thus prone to disease related failures. That is why Kevin has started planting true sweet potato seeds and will continue to select new varieties primarly based on their ability to set seed. This will hopefully lead to more resilience in sweet potatoes.
Aronia: Aronia is a resilient shrub that produces copious amounts of extremely high antioxidant berries — way higher than blueberries and pomegranates. They dry and store very well and although outright the flavor is at the same time both incredible and mouth puckering/astringent and a little gritty, when blended in a smoothie with other sweet fruit imparts a rich almost chocolate like flavor (and of course all the nutrition!)
Elderberries: Elderberries are becoming famous for their superious nutrition and health benefits. They also are very fast growing and resilient to most pests and diseases as they are unrleated to other food crops. They also attract native pollinators and other beneficial species. Kevin is happy to be partnering with Tony at Blue Honey Farms where there is an elderberry orchard they are working on together.