A perfectly ripe, juicy tomato, still warm from the sun. Sweet carrots, pulled from the garden minutes (or even seconds!) before they're eaten. Growing your own vegetables is one of those activities that balances practicality and indulgence. In addition to the convenience of having the fixings for a salad or light supper right outside your door (or on your windowsill), when you grow your own vegetables, you're getting the most nutritional bang for your buck as well. Vegetables start losing nutrients as soon as they're harvested, and quality diminishes as sugars are turned into starches. For the tastiest veggies with the best nutrition, try growing a few of these nutrient-dense foods in your own garden. And don't let the lack of a yard stop you — all of them can be grown in containers as well.
Broccoli is high in calcium, iron and magnesium, as well as vitamins A, B6 and C. In fact, one cup of raw broccoli florets provides 130 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement.
- How to grow broccoli
- Grow broccoli in containers: One broccoli plant per pot, pots should be 12 to 16 inches deep.
- What to watch out for: Cabbage worm. If you start seeing pretty white butterflies fluttering around your broccoli, you're guaranteed to start seeing little green worms all over your broccoli plants. To avoid this, cover your broccoli plants with floating row cover or lightweight bed sheets. If you start seeing cabbage worms, simply pick them off by hand.
Peas need support for plants to climb. (Photo: Isabel Eyre [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
There is nothing like peas grown right in your own garden — the tender sweetness of a snap pea just plucked from the vine is unlike anything you can buy in at a store. Aside from being absolutely delicious, peas are high in fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, B6 and C.
- How to grow peas
- Grow peas in containers: Sow peas approximately 2 inches apart in a pot that is at least 10 inches deep. Provide support for peas to climb up.
- What to watch out for: Hot weather. Once the weather turns hot, pea production will pretty much shut down. Grow peas in early spring and late summer/autumn, or any time of year when temperatures are consistently between 40 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Beans (especially navy beans, great northern beans, kidney beans)
There are so many kinds of beans you can choose for your garden. (Photo: Mike Mozart [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
While snap beans (green beans/wax beans) are a great addition to any garden, it's the beans we grow as dried beans that are real nutritional powerhouses. Dried beans, in general, are high in iron, fiber, manganese and phosphorous.
- How to grow beans
- Grow beans in containers: Bush beans are your best option for growing in containers. Plant beans four inches apart in a container that is at least 12 inches deep.
- What to watch out for: Harvest at the right time. Harvest dry beans when the pods have completely dried on the vine. The pods should be light brown, and you should be able to feel the hard beans inside. Shell the beans, and let them sit out a few days to ensure that they're completely dry before storing them in jars in a cool, dark, dry place.
4. Brussels sprouts
Brussels sprouts grow on a stalk. (Photo: Nick Saltmarsh [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The bane of many a childhood, Brussels sprouts get a bad rap mostly due to overcooking. When prepared right, Brussels sprouts are sweet, tender and delicious. They also provide tons of fiber, magnesium, potassium and riboflavin, as well as high levels of vitamins A, B6 and C.
- How to grow Brussels sprouts
- Grow brussels sprouts in containers: Grow one plant per 16-inch deep container.
- What to watch out for: Cabbage worms (see "Broccoli," above.)
Many people get into gardening just for the tomatoes. (Photo: photon_de [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Fresh, homegrown tomatoes are the reason many gardeners get into vegetable gardening in the first place. There's just nothing that compares to eating a perfectly ripe tomato, still warm from the sun. Tomatoes are also incredibly good for us, packing plenty of fiber, iron, magnesium, niacin, potassium, and vitamins A, B6 and C. They're also a great source of the antioxidant lycopene.
- How to grow tomatoes
- Grow tomatoes in containers: Container sizes will vary depending on the variety you're growing. If you're growing an indeterminate variety, your container will need to be at least 18 inches deep. For determinate varieties, 12 inches is a good depth, and for dwarf or "patio" type tomatoes, 8 inches is perfect. One tomato plant per pot.
- What to watch out for: Tomato horn worm can be a problem in many areas — these large caterpillars should be removed by hand whenever you see them. Also watch out for signs of blight, which is a real problem in many parts of the U.S.
6. Red bell peppers
Red bell peppers are packed with nutrients. (Photo: Lucas Cobb [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Red bell peppers are high in potassium, riboflavin, and vitamins A, B6, and C — in fact, one cup of red bell pepper packs an amazing 317 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and 93 percent of the recommended vitamin A.
- How to grow peppers
- Grow peppers in containers: Plant one pepper plant per each 8 to 12 inch deep pot.
- What to watch out for: Aphids and flea beetles are the two most common insect pests when growing peppers. While both can be controlled with insecticidal soap, which is a common organic option, you can also make all-natural, homemade sprays to deter these pests. A tomato leaf spray will get rid of aphids, and garlic/hot pepper spray works very well on a flea beetle infestation.
Beets are a great "two-fer" crop — you can harvest the beet roots, of course, but you can also harvest and eat the greens. Young beet greens are delicious when added raw to a salad, and larger beet greens can be sauteed as a quick side dish or used the way you'd use other greens such as spinach. (Plus: 5 recipes for beet greens.) Beet roots are very high in iron, potassium and vitamin C. Beet greens are even better, as they are high in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A, B6 and C.
- How to grow beets
- Grow beets in containers: Plant beet seeds three inches apart in a container that is 12 inches deep. Because each beet seed is actually a cluster of seeds, be sure to thin the seedlings to one per cluster. Thinnings can be added to salads or sandwiches.
- What to watch out for: Knowing when to harvest. Beet roots are at their best when they are harvested small — between one and two inches across. At this size, they are sweet and tender. Larger beets tend to be kind of woody and less flavorful.
8. Leaf amaranth
The leaves of amaranth have a sweet, tangy flavor. (Photo: Kasey Lo [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
Leaf amaranth is a less-common vegetable that is well worth a try in your own garden. The leaves have a sweet and slightly tangy flavor that works well in a variety of dishes, from stir-fries and soups to simply steaming it all by itself. As a bonus, leaf amaranth is one of the few heat-tolerant greens. It won't bolt in the heat of summer the way spinach and kale are prone to. Nutritionally, leaf amaranth is very high in calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavin, zinc, and vitamins A, B6 and C. Everyone should be growing this!
- How to grow leaf amaranth
- Growing leaf amaranth in containers: Scatter the tiny seeds over the soil's surface in a pot that is at least 8 inches deep. Harvest the leaves when they are two to four inches tall. You will be able to get at least two or three harvests before you'll have to sow more seeds.
- What to watch out for: Leaf amaranth is fairly easy to grow, and relatively problem-free. Rarely, leaf miners can become a problem.
Carrots are at their sweetest, crunchiest best when freshly harvested from the garden. These icons of healthy eating deserve their "good-for-you" rep — they're very high in fiber, manganese, niacin, potassium, and vitamins A, B6 and C. Their only drawback is that they do tend to be high in sugar, so if you're watching your carb intake, you'll want to limit the amount of carrots you eat.
- How to grow carrots
- Grow carrots in containers: Sow carrot seeds two to three inches apart in a pot that is at least 12 inches deep. Look for shorter varieties, such as Thumbelina or Danvers Half Long.
- What to watch out for: Harvesting at the perfect size. Carrots are at their tastiest when harvested small. Leaving them in the ground too long can result in overly large, woody carrots. You'll also want to make sure to keep your carrots evenly moist, as letting the soil dry out too often can also result in somewhat bitter, fibrous carrots.
10. Leafy greens
OK, I cheated here. I can't recommend just one leafy green, because they are all incredibly good for us, as well as delicious — kale, collards, spinach, turnip or dandelion greens — how can you possibly choose just one? In general, the "green leafies" contain high amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins A, B6 and C.
- How to grow kale and other leafy greens
- Grow greens in containers: Grow one kale or collard plant per ten inch deep pot. Other greens can be grown a few plants to a pot — they should be planted at least 4 inches apart and harvested small.
- What to watch out for: Heat and cabbage worms. Most leafy greens are cool-weather crops, so they're best grown in spring and fall in most areas — hot weather will cause them to bolt. In addition, many of these greens are members of the Brassicas family, which means they are prone to cabbage worm infestations. Control them with the same methods outlined in the "Broccoli" section above.
Try growing one or two (or all!) of these nutrient-dense, delicious vegetables in your own garden, and you'll get double the health benefits: healthy food and time spent outdoors, nurturing your plants.
This story was originally written for TreeHugger and now lives on MNN.