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Green thumb, healthy plate

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Vicki Moore
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Vegetables that people grow themselves have benefits not available through any other source. If you want salad for dinner, you can walk into your own garden and pick it yourself. You know nobody else has handled it, it hasn't traveled miles to your table and you're getting all of nature's nutrients at their peak.

So how hard is it to grow a vegetable garden? This week on “Take Care,” Marie Iannotti recommends five healthy vegetables that are also easy to grow for the modest gardener. Iannotti is a longtime master gardener, a former Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulture educator, master gardener program coordinator, and a member of the Garden Writer's Association and The Garden Conservancy. She's the author of two gardening books and is the gardening expert at About.com.

“You need some good soil and that is the key to growing a healthy vegetable. You can’t just use any old soil. If you don’t have nutrients in your soil, you’re not going to have nutrients in your vegetables,” said Iannotti.

To have good soil, Iannotti says the soil gardeners use must have strong levels of what she called “the big three”: phosphate, potassium and nitrogen. In addition, they should have at least five to six hours of sunshine a day and should be watered regularly.

Kale & dark, leafy greens

Some gardeners wonder each year if they should use seeds or plants when growing their own products.

“It very much depends on the vegetable and how interested you are,” Iannotti says. “For instance, one of the healthiest vegetables you can grow is kale or any dark leafy greens. And they grow so fast that you can start seeding about now, and even reseed about every three to four weeks, and you’ll have kale the entire season, as much as you could possibly eat.”

Kale’s growth rate makes it possible to use seeds, versus tomatoes or peppers, which take so long to grow, that Iannotti says those would be better to start with plants.

“Anything that has to produce a fruit is going to take a lot longer than anything you’re growing just for its leaves,” Iannotti says.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes, which grow underground, start the same way as white potatoes do, with a stem tuber. Potatoes sprout pretty easily and quickly so they can be ready for planting, Iannotti says. They take a full season to grow, but they can be grown in the North just as easily as they do in the South. Iannotti added that the vines can be eaten too.

Onions & garlic

Onions and garlic are also two underground vegetables that people can grow in their backyards. In the North, garlic is planted in the fall, sits over the winter, and will then come up in the spring. Onions are typically planted in the spring.

“Both of them are just powerful antioxidants and they do all kinds of wonderful things,” Iannotti says.

Hot peppers

Hot peppers come out very fresh and have a lot more pungency in them if grown in the backyard. They are versatile, full of vitamins and protect people against food-borne pathogens.

Tomatoes

According to Iannotti, the number one backyard vegetable crop is the tomato. Tomatoes need a lot of sunshine, at least six hours a day. Some people have trouble growing these, but there are a few ways that can help tomato production.

“You might want to prune some of the vine,” Iannotti says. “Don’t prune it all. You need the leaves to make the sugars in a tomato. But they don’t need to be vigorous plants. You want the energy of the plant to go into ripening the tomato and setting more flowers.”

Iannotti added that having too many tomatoes on a vine can exhaust the plant, so it might be best to remove some of the flowers.

Overall, Iannotti says a backyard garden has many advantages to just going to the store to get them.

“The thing about growing your own vegetables, especially if you have good soil, if you’ve taken the time to amend your soil, is that they have so much more nutrition in them because they’re not sitting around on a shelf where the nutrients are just dissipating for weeks on end,” Iannotti says. “They’re not being shipped. You can go into your garden and just pull an onion or pull a garlic bulb. It’s still alive.”