By Dr. Mercola
Growing your own food is a convenient and cost-effective means of boosting your nutrition and health. Garden-grown organic vegetables and fruits are nutrient-rich and represent the freshest produce available. Growing your own crops not only improves your diet, but it also:
- Enhances and protects precious topsoil
- Encourages composting, which can be used to feed and nourish your plants
- Minimizes your exposure to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other toxins
- Promotes biodiversity by creating a natural habitat for animals, birds, insects and other living organisms
- Improves your fitness level, mood and sense of well-being, making gardening a form of exercise
While gardens have many benefits, the most important reason you should plant a garden (especially given the many issues associated with industrial agriculture) is because gardening helps create a more sustainable global food system, giving you and others access to fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense food.
Sprouts Are a Nutrient-Dense Food Easily Grown in Small Spaces
If you are new to gardening and unsure about where to start, consider sprouts. Sprouts are an easy-to-grow, but often overlooked, superfood with a superior nutritional profile. You can grow sprouts even if you don’t have an outdoor garden, and you should consider them if you live in an apartment or condo where space is limited. (For more tips on growing food in small spaces, Alex Mitchell’s book, “The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces,” is an excellent resource.)
A powerhouse of nutrition, sprouts may contain up to 30 times the nutrition of organic vegetables grown in your garden, and they enable your body to extract more vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fats from the foods you eat. During sprouting, minerals such as calcium and magnesium bind to protein, making them more bioavailable. Furthermore, the quality of the fiber and protein content of most beans, grains, nuts and seeds improves when sprouted.
Sprouting also helps reduce toxic lectins, the sugar-binding plant proteins known to attach to your cell membranes, which are often a hidden source of weight gain and ill health. The content of vitamins and essential fatty acids also increases dramatically during the sprouting process. In addition to the benefits already mentioned, sprouts have been shown to:
- Defend against free radical damage due to the antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins and minerals they contain
- Inhibit abnormal cell growth due to being abundantly rich in oxygen (bacteria and viruses generally cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment)
- Protect your body against disease, including cancer, due to their alkalinizing effects (many tumors are acidic)
- Support cell regeneration
I grow sunflower sprouts in trays because they provide some of the highest quality vegetables you can eat. Sprouted sunflower seeds also contain an abundance of chlorophyll, which will help detoxify your blood and liver. Beyond their superior nutritional benefits, sprouts are inexpensive to grow and can be added to salads, sandwiches, smoothies and vegetable juices.
Home Gardening Is the Answer to Many of Our Problems
There’s no doubt that home gardening is an important step toward building a more sustainable food system. I’ve been encouraging readers for years to plant gardens as a means of making high-quality, nutrient-dense foods more readily available. After all, food grown in your own garden is fresher, more nutritious and tastes better than store-bought food — and you can’t beat the convenience and price. Those are just a few of the many benefits of putting a garden in your backyard.
According to a survey by Gardeners’ World magazine, 80 percent of gardeners reported being “happy” and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of nongardeners. Many of the happy feelings undoubtedly come from sticking your hands in the soil and spending time in nature, which includes vital sun exposure that helps promote your body’s synthesis of vitamin D.
In addition, walking barefoot outdoors and making contact with the soil provides you with the many health benefits associated with grounding, also known as earthing. As detailed in the documentary film, “Grounded,” walking barefoot on grass or bare ground transfers free electrons from the Earth’s surface into your body that spread throughout your tissues, providing beneficial effects.
Grounding has been shown to enhance well-being, improve sleep, reduce inflammation and relieve pain. If you are a gardener, you undoubtedly can attest to the uptick of energy and positive feelings that accompany the work. An additional pleasure comes from cultivating and eating your own homegrown food.
Wood Chips Can Help Make Your Garden Self-Sustaining
What many fail to realize is that your health ultimately depends on the health of the soil because it is the vehicle through which vegetables and fruits can become nutrient-dense. When soils are depleted of nutrients, the foods grown in them will be deficient in critical minerals and phytonutrients. Unfortunately, that’s the state of a large portion of the Earth’s soils today. Despite many years of adding chemical fertilizers, most soils remain depleted of nutrients.
Soil health is maintained and maximized by the microorganisms living in the soil, such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa. Far from being scourges to be avoided, microorganisms are an essential necessity for optimal plant growth. It is the cooperation between these microorganisms, the soil’s biome and the plants’ roots — called rhizosphere — that enable the plant to absorb nutrients from the soil in which it’s grown. The 2011 film ”Back to Eden” underscores the premise that nature is self-sustaining.
At the end of the growing season, when left alone, the ground becomes covered with leaves and organic materials that turn into lush compost, adding nutrients back to the soil. This top layer of organic material also shields the soil and helps retain moisture. By imitating nature and simply covering his garden with wood chips, the movie’s gardener Paul Gautschi finds he does not need to water his garden and yet it continually yields plenty of large, well-formed, delicious fruits, berries and vegetables.
While you could purchase wood chips from a garden store, I suggest you contact a local tree service instead. They usually have far larger and less expensive options they need to get rid of anyway so, like me, you may be able to get a big load at a minimal cost. It will take some time and a number of phone calls but you will typically be pleased with the results.
After successfully using wood chips in my own garden and yard, I agree they are a crucial part of the equation for creating healthy soil to produce healthy plants. They not only eliminate the need for fertilizer and mineral supplements, but also reduce the need for watering and weeding.
Industrial Agriculture Is a Risky Choice
Without access to homegrown food, you become dependent on the global industrial agriculture system, which I assure you does not have your health in mind. Far from being life-sustaining, the world’s large-scale, chemical-dependent farming methods:
Degrade and contaminate soil
In the average diet, grains account for about 70 percent of daily calories, and grains are grown on about 70 percent of the acreage worldwide. The continuous replanting of grain crops each year leads to soil degradation, and 40 percent of the world’s agricultural soil is now classified as either degraded or seriously degraded.
Top soil is also lost, which means our current modes of operation simply will cease to be effective at some future point. Experts suggest we have less than 60 years of topsoil remaining.
Contaminate and overconsume water supplies
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of our fresh-water use. When the soil is poor, water is wasted because it simply washes through the soil and away from the plant’s root system. According to Environment America, corporate agribusiness is “one of the biggest threats to America’s waterways.”
Tyson Foods Inc. was noted as the second-worst polluter, releasing 104.4 million pounds of toxic pollutants into waterways between 2010 and 2014. The report authors stated: “The company’s pollution footprint includes manure from its contract-growers’ factory-farm operations, fertilizer runoff from grain grown to feed the livestock it brings to market … and waste from its processing plants.”
Contribute to greenhouse gas emissions
While fertilizer production produces its share of greenhouse gases, most of the emissions occur when it is applied to crops.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, 1 out of every 100 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer applied to farmland ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and known to deplete the ozone. In 2014, those released gases equaled the average annual emissions of 72 million cars driven in the U.S.
To achieve efficiencies of scale, industrialized agriculture demands a monoculture, wherein farmers grow a single crop exclusively. Sadly, monoculture has contributed to dietary changes that promote ill health. Today, the primary crops grown on large-scale industrial farms are canola, corn, soy, sugar beets and wheat — the core ingredients in processed foods known to promote disease, nutritional deficiencies and obesity.
Threaten food safety and promote disease
Agricultural overuse of drugs, especially antibiotics, has led to the development of drug-resistant disease, which has now become a severe health threat. Pandemic outbreaks are also becoming more prevalent in concentrated animal feeding operations, revealing the inherent flaws of industrialized animal farming.
As noted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: “The rapid spread of new disease strains … is one very visible reason why the expansion of factory-style animal production is viewed as unsustainable.”
Jeopardize food security
Due to the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides, industrial agriculture has a devastating effect on important pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. Says The New York Times: “Plants that depend on pollination make up 35 percent of global crop-production volume, with a value of as much as $577 billion a year.”
Promote nutritional deficiencies and poor nutrition
Industrial farming is set up and subsidized to grow ingredients used in processed foods — this is the cheapest way to feed the 7.5 billion people on the planet. What people really need for optimal health is more fresh, nutritious produce.
According to research presented at the 2016 American Heart Association’s Epidemiology/Lifestyle meeting, adding one more serving of fruits and vegetables a day could prevent as many as 3.5 million deaths from heart disease in just two years.
Necessitate the use of unnatural farming methods and chemicals
Industrialization led to the separation of crops and livestock farming into two different specialties, a change that has done tremendous harm. As a result, a host of land maintenance services that animals previously provided for free are now less-effectively handled using chemical and mechanical means, much to the detriment of humans, animals and the environment alike.
Quality Soil Is Key: The Five Principles of Regenerative Agriculture
Thankfully, there are better solutions than industrial agriculture. Regenerative agriculture, which makes use of cover crops, focuses on no-till and supports herbivore grazing, can help solve many of our most pressing problems, including reducing atmospheric CO2 levels and normalizing weather patterns.
After visiting with Gabe Brown, a pioneer in regenerative land management, on his farm in Bismarck, North Dakota, I am even more convinced that growing nutrient-dense food is only possible with healthy soil. Brown suggests there are five basic principles to growing topsoil and building a healthy soil ecosystem on farms. Because his guidance also applies to home gardens, you should:
- Avoid disturbing the soil microbiome.The less mechanical disturbance the better, which means no tillage, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.
- Protect the soil’s surface. Use cover crops, untreated lawn clippings, mulch and wood chips to maintain soil biology, prevent water evaporation and lower soil temperature, which is particularly important on hot days.
- Diversify your crops. Having a diverse array of plant life is essential to healthy soil, and cover crops help fulfill this requirement.
- Maintain living roots in the ground as long as possible. Growing something at all times is key to soil vitality, so be sure to plant a cover crop after you harvest your vegetables.
- Integrate livestock and other animals, including insects. To mimic the large herds of wild animals, such as bison and elk, that previously roamed the Northern Plains, Brown pastures chickens, cows, lambs and pigs to benefit the soil and ensure a highly nutrient-dense finished product. Flowering plants that attract pollinators and predator insects will naturally help ward off garden pests.
Gardening Tricks That Work
Try these gardening tricks that involve another beneficial practice, recycling:
- Make green tea fertilizer: By steeping a green tea bag in 1 quart of water, you can create a simple fertilizer, when cooled, that can be applied once every four weeks. You can also make compost tea.
- Reuse glass bottles for self-watering: Fill empty glass beverage and food bottles with water, then place them upside down into terra cotta irrigation spikes positioned inside your containers. This provides your plants with a self-watering system that will last for days.
- Transform old milk jugs for garden uses: You can create a do-it-yourself watering can by poking holes in the cap of a gallon jug and filling it with water. If you are short on pots for growing herbs, simply cut the tops off gallon jugs and fill them with potting soil to make your own portable herb garden.
- Use coffee filters for transplanting: If you know you’ll be transplanting your plant at a later date, place a coffee filter into the bottom of the first pot prior to planting. The filter will help keep the soil together when it’s time for transplanting.
Starting Seedlings Indoors Can Extend Your Growing Season
Whether you’re working with containers or have an outdoor garden patch, you can get an early start by growing seedlings that can later be planted outdoors after the danger of spring frost has passed. Growing seedlings, which can take between four and 12 weeks to sprout, will allow you to harvest your vegetables four to six weeks earlier than had you planted the seeds directly outdoors.
This can also be particularly useful in areas where the growing season is short. When growing plants such as artichokes and asparagus from seeds, it is best to start them indoors. The University of Maine, which has a helpful website describing how to grow seedlings, says: “Using transplants instead of direct seeding is especially important for plants that take a long time to mature or are sensitive to frost, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons.” To grow seedlings, you need just a few supplies:
- Fresh organic seeds, ideally heirloom varieties
- Containers about 2 to 3 1/2 inches deep with drainage holes
- Soil blend, such as a fine-textured mix of equal parts of peat moss and vermiculite or perlite
Once your seedlings are grown and the outdoor temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, they will require a period of “hardening off” to prevent them from going into shock when planted into the ground. This is done by placing them outdoors for a few hours a day over several days in a semi-shaded location, gradually increasing their sun exposure. Transplant your seedlings into your garden in the late afternoon when the weather is cooling down or on a cloudy day, and water the plants thoroughly.
No matter what you choose with respect to gardening, I hope you will do your part to grow your own fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense food. You won’t regret the investment. Each of us must take steps now to save the planet, our food supply and ourselves. To do so, it’s clear that small-scale organic and sustainable farming must not only prevail, but also flourish.