One of my favorite things about living in Illinois, is the beginning of May when we can finally start planting our backyard gardens. Growing up, my parents used to take my brother and I to the garden store every year. We were each allowed to pick out two fruit or vegetables that we wanted to grow, and it would be our job to care for these plants throughout the summer. Some years we were both super practical and we would pick plants we knew would do well in the Midwest weather, other years we tried to be a bit too ambitious and we would pick plants doomed to die in the Midwest summer. Even now, as a college student I love coming home and being able to pick my two plants to care for throughout the summer. This tradition taught my brother and I how to garden, grow our own food, and to really be responsible for something. Or at least we used the responsibility line when we convinced our parents to let us get a dog a few years ago, but that is a story for a different time. Focusing on the list however, out of all the various fruits and vegetables these are some of the easiest and most practical to grow in the midwest since they do not require a lot of extra work. They are also very adaptable and can be used in various recipes.
These bright red fruits, yes fruits, are a great source of vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium and folate. Tomatoes are a large source of the antioxidant lycopene which can lead to a reduced risk of heart disease. The wonderful thing about this fruit, is that there are so many subspecies each with their own unique flavor, shape, and sometimes even color. The beefsteak tomato which are large often very juicy, with a mild flavor are great on top of a hamburger. Cherry Tomatoes are bountiful plants and often the perfect plant to grow if you want a quick snack or a good addition to any salad. My favorite however and the plant I chose to plant in my garden this year, was the Roma Tomato. This tomato is extremely bright and flavorful. It is not to meaty, so it is great for cooking, turning into a sauce, or even using in salsa.
Some quick tips for growing the tomatoes. They are vining fruits so they will require a cage structure to allow them to grow properly and expand as much as they need to. This is also a plant that prefers a lot of sunshine, the more sun they receive the more fruits they produce. If you plant more than one, leave room between as they plants like to grow and they need there space.
Cucumbers are a very refreshing vegetable. It is high in water content, allowing for it to have rehydration qualities. Additionally, it is a high nutrient food, it provides a lot of nutrients are body needs, without a high number of calories. They are the perfect addition to a quick on the go snack or added to some water with lemon for a nice flavor.
Cucumbers do come in two different varieties. The bush cucumber is more compact and does not require a trellis, however, it does not yield as many vegetables and they can often be smaller in size. A vining cucumber plant will need a trellis and a good amount of space to grow in because it does spread out. This spreading yield more vegetables. In the long run it depends which plant you would prefer and how many cucumbers you will end up wanting.
Eggplant offers quite a few health benefits that I had not previously been aware of before doing research for this article, for instance, eggplant is a high fiber food and can be great aid in digestion. They are a great source of multiple vitamins and minerals, vitamin C, K, multiple vitamin B’s, magnesium, phosphorus, folic acid, and potassium just to name a few. The deep purple color of this plant is pretty to look at, but also comes from its iron and calcium content making it a great aide for bone health and preservation.
Eggplants are best planted when the temperatures reach a solid 60 degrees or high 50s. Since these plants are very particular about the temperature, I tend to plant them in pots so I can move them indoors if needed. You can also start them as seedlings indoors and move them outside once temperatures wise. Eggplants also rely on a lot of water, the first 2-3 weeks after planting they need a high intake of water typically 1-2 inches, but they need to dry out in-between to prevent mold form growing. They also need support for their vines by use of a trellis to promote proper up growth.
4. Bell Peppers
This is such a fun plant to grow because of the different colors they come in. These also make another good snack because they can be eaten raw or cooked. A great snack is some bell pepper slices with hummus. These plants are super high in vitamin A and one red bell pepper actually exceeds the daily vitamin C intake requirement. Bell peppers also have a high carotenoid content making them great for the skin and beneficial for fighting acne.
Peppers are a relatively easy plant to grow but because peppers become so heavy on the vine, they often require a cage for support, which is easier to insert when planting. Pepper plants should be planted with a small amount of space in between, once the plants mature, their leaves should be touching. You can start to harvest bell peppers in the early stages such as when they are green or purple, but the longer you let them mature they sweeter they will get. The sweetest end stage color is typically red.
Onions contain anti-inflammatory properties which has been linked to a decrease in high blood pressure. They also contain antibacterial properties making them helpful in the digestion process. Onions are the perfect little flavor booster for almost any dish due to the various varieties and flavors they take on. Yellow onions are pretty standard and great for cooking. Sweet onions are the best for when you want raw onion on a salad, a hot dog, hamburger, or as any sort of garnish. Red onions tend to have a bi of spice behind them and I love to add those to any salsa, or spicy dish I’m making. There are so many onions that provide different uses and flavors in the kitchen.
I chose to grow red onions and sweet onions because I tend to use those the most. Because onions are root vegetables, you have to dig a hole and place the bulb in and fully cover with soil. As the onions begin to grow a top of thin onion leaves begin to appear. Typically, onions aren’t pulled up until the tops begin to fall and turn yellow alerting you that the bulb is ready, this normally occurs near the end of summer. These are also a good vegetable to be store during winter in a cool dry place because they have a long shelf life.
Everyone has heard that carrots are good for your eyes and that is true due to their high level of beta-carotene which supports eye health and gives them their bright orange color. Carrots are also a good source of vitamin K, fiber, and antioxidants. Overall, carrots are a pretty versatile vegetable. They can be eaten raw, or steamed, or roasted, and baked allowing them to have a wide variety of use.
Carrots are another root vegetable that need to be planted relatively deep in the ground. Because they come in a hard-seeded shell, the soil has to be kept moist for the first 2 weeks after planting to allow for proper germination. They prefer sun but a cool soil, so they would do well planted in a place that receive sun during peak hours and shade throughout the day as well. I plant mine near a tree so as the sun moves, they receive light and shade. The more moisture the carrots receive during growth, the more flavor they have upon harvest, it is typically recommended that carrots receive about an inch of water a week. They are typically ready for harvest mid to late summer depending on when planted.
Zucchini are rich in water and help with digestion along with rehydration of the body.
Recently, there has been research to support the regulation of thyroid hormone levels from nutrients in the zucchini peel. Zucchini is high in vitamin B and can help to boost energy as well. The large vitamin A content also makes them a good anti-inflammatory food. One of the best zucchini cooking combos is a carrot zucchini muffin. The best vegetable combo if you ask me.
Zucchini like most vining plants, tends to take up a lot of space in the garden. They should be placed with adequate space and have a trellis added during planting for use once thy mature. Once they mature, the trellis will help support the heavy fruit on the vine. This plant relies on a lot of sun and does well in a bright spot with direct sunlight for a majority of the day. Zucchinis tend to be a bountiful plant which makes it a great addition to any garden.
*Planting herbs in a small pot on the back porch is also a great way to get a few extra homegrown ingredients. My favorite are always basil, chives, parsley, oregano, and mint. A quick wash and chop make them the perfect addition to enhance the flavor of any meal.
Once all these plants start blooming, I am planning on creating a few posts with recipes that utilize these yummy vegetables. So, keep an eye out and happy gardening.