Three Crucial Steps to Growing the Most Nutrient-Dense Vegetables

March 21, 2012

We all appreciate the health benefits of eating fresh homegrown veggies, but have you considered implementing techniques to actually boost the nutritional value of the produce that is harvested from your garden? It always seems to revolve around paying less attention individually to plants, and focusing more attention on the soil as a whole and living element! The following post about growing more nutrient dense vegetables is a guest article written by Phil Nauta, who shares innovative vegetable garden tips and ideas over at the website.

Kenny does a great job of writing about interesting veggie gardening tips. I know he and I are on the same page when it comes to wanting to grow food that is full of nutrients, in order to help us and our families and friends be as healthy as possible.

We call it “nutrient-dense” food. It’s relatively easy to grow food, but to grow exceptionally nutritious food takes a little more effort. As I sit contemplating the garden this year, here are 3 main factors I will focus on to achieve this goal:

1. The Soil Food Web.

Here I’m referring to the organisms that live in and on the soil. That includes plants and small animals, but especially beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. While they’re mostly too tiny for us to see without a microscope, they make everything happen in the soil.

They rearrange the soil particles to make it suitable for plants. They even directly feed plants and protect them from predators. That’s why my goal in the garden is increasing the health and diversity of these organisms (if you’re interested, here’s where I discuss why it’s necessary to actively get involved in improving our soil food web).

The main way to accomplish this is through well-made, aerobic compost. Most gardeners know that compost supplies nutrients and organic matter, but just as important is the beneficial microorganisms it brings into the soil.

In the last couple of decades, we’ve also been getting into microbial inoculants such as aerated compost tea and effective microorganisms. They don’t offer the wonderful organic matter of compost, but they do have the advantages of being very inexpensive to acquire and fast to apply. Plus, they can be sprayed onto leaves, where we also desperately need microorganisms.

2. Supplementing Nutrients.

If you’re interested in being as sustainable as possible, you probably like to get as much of your fertility from on-site as you can. Compost is the best for this, and cover crops are useful, too. But occasionally, especially during the first couple years of a new garden, it’s necessary to bring in some organic fertilizers to help out.

In a new garden, the soil is often poor and needs a little help. You can let nature fix this soil over the course of hundreds of years, or you can intervene and make it happen in a few years. That’s why we compost, too. A compost pile isn’t a natural thing, but it does quickly help create more natural conditions in the garden.

So supplementing nutrients includes mineral fertilizers such as calcitic lime and rock phosphate that you only use when a soil test tells you that you need them. It also includes some broad-spectrum fertilizers such as kelp and sea minerals to make sure your plants and soil food web have all of the micronutrients they need. All of these fertilizers help get the nutrients into your food.

3. The Boring Stuff.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fascinating world of compost tea and sea fertilizers and then forget the basics, which are often more important. For example, watering is kinda boring, but providing proper water is more important than any compost or fertilizer because every living organism needs water, nearly every day. That means you have to water the whole soil surface, not the just the plants, because all of the important beneficial organisms need water in order to do their jobs.

It also means mulching the soil with appropriate materials like leaves or straw. Keeping a moist, organic mulch layer is a big goal for me, as is keeping plant cover. As much as possible it’s nice to have a cover crop growing over winter in the vegetable garden, and ground covers in your ornamental gardens.

And then it’s all the other little things: Choosing healthy seed and plants. Planting them properly, in the right location, at the right time of year. Keeping an eye out for pests, which only come when your plants are unhealthy and in need of some care.

Keeping these 3 tips in mind, you can grow food that is much more nutritious than food from the grocery store. It takes a few years to build up the soil and soil food web to the point where it will promote this nutrient-density, but it’s definitely worth it.

Any questions about growing more nutrient dense vegetables? Feel free to ask below.

Phil Nauta is a SOUL Certified Organic Land Care Professional and author of ‘Building Soils Naturally’ to be released by Acres U.S.A. this spring. He has taught for Gaia College and been a director for The Society For Organic Urban Land Care. He holds a Certificate In Organic Landscape Management from Gaia College, a Certificate In Sustainable Building And Design From Yestermorrow, and a Permaculture Design Certificate. He ran an organic landscaping business and an organic fertilizer business before starting Smiling Gardener to teach innovative methods for organic gardeners.

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  • Good article. I found it when it was posted on my Facebook page, which is entitled, Gardening For Nutrition – Growing Nutrient Dense Food. So you are preaching to the choir.

    That being said it is good to hear the basics discussed from someone other than myself. I do get tired of talking to myself and I know my wife gets tired of hearing me carry on and on about mineralizing the soil and not putting anything on or in the garden that will kill an earth worm.

    And you did have good advice about when it is necessary to use “off farm” inputs. My company, Mighty Grow Organics, promotes just that, using minerals and organic fertilizers when you get started so you can speed up the good food express. I would love for you to become a “member” of my Facebook page and post/comment when you like.

    Michael LaBelle
    Mighty Grow Organics
    Fruitdale, Alabama (just over the river from the end of nowhere)

  • Thanks for these tips… However, I have my plants and veggies grew already so I can apply your steps in the future extension of my garden. I actually host a weekly gardening link up every Friday on my blog. I’d love for you to drop by and join in.

  • We were so happy to finally be able to have our own home vegetable garden. For many years we only had a little container garden as we rented and had no space. It’s such a blessing to be able to grow healthy food these days.

    My wife and I are both 60 now and nutrition is really important to us.

    We have never used a cover crop over the winter but it is something we plan to do once the 2012 growing season comes to an end.

  • Barbee

    Oh I hear ya’ James! It’s the same way w/ us.
    My husband and I just bought our 1st house 5 years ago and he’s older than you.

    That’s why Kenny is such an important resource. Over 60 and just staring out? We NEED experts like Kenny to help us do it right the 1st time-not wasting precious seasons wasting our time w/ methods that don’t work.

    Kenny is great!

  • Barbee

    Bwa Ha Ha Ha-I just had a thought.

    I guess when you are twenty-something you have all the time in the world to: “sit contemplating the garden”. LOL

    W/ me? It’s work. Non stop work. And today was a good day!
    Brought in: lettuce, asparagus, shell peas, snow peas, snap peas, turnips and radishes. Washing and processing all that stuff is work too AND as soon as you’re done…you PLANT! Beans, squash, cucumbers and lima beans. (Oh and don’t tell anyone-I’m setting out my sweet potato slips EXTRA early this year.)

    Sit and contemplate? Not likely. LOL

  • Lezlee

    Thanks for the article! We’ve had a garden for several years, but are just getting in to composting and trying to improve the quality of our soil/plants. A couple questions-can I make my own compost tea and if so, how? Also, I see a link to a product called THRIVE on your site- does that differ from compost tea and would I want to use both on my plants and soil? Lastly, what am I looking for if I go to buy a kelp or sea mineral fertilizer?

  • Great Post! I am new to having my own garden, in my third year now. We have been composting from the beginning, but I am very interested in learning about additional ways to maintain and enhance the health of the soil.

    Looking forward to finding out more!

  • I’m not the moderator of the comments regarding this article, but I would like to offer what assistance I can.

    RE: compost tea – this is a HUGE subject, with entire books written about it. If you want to jump off into the deep end, read “The Soil Food Web” by Dr. Elaine Ingram. Very helpful with LOTS of info about compost tea. In a nutshell, what you are trying to accomplish by using compost tea or AACT – actively aerated compost tea is to take top quality compost and extract the beneficial microbes from the tea and by using molasses, liquid fish and trace minerals grow more of the good guys so you can “flood” your garden with life.

    Again, just about anyone that is “into” gardening will assist in any way they can, so ask away. I hope what little info I offered is of benefit.


  • Kenny Point

    Lezlee, THRIVE is different than compost and they can both be used together to improve the garden’s soil and plant growth. You can make your own compost tea by placing finished compost into a mesh bag and steeping it in water for a day or so. When buying seaweed fertilizers I would look for a reputable that harvests their crop in a sustainable manner and does testing to check for things like chemical contamination or heavy metals.

  • Jan Ashe

    Kenny, Help!! I live in the Florida panhandle and have very sandy soil. We also have nematodes that are killing the vegetable plants we plant in the ground. Our latest were squash, zucchini and cucumbers. The plants were healthy and were doing great. We even got a few squash before they died a slow death. At first I though it was powdery mildew and got an organic solution to try and help, but to no avail they died anyway. Not from the mildew but from the nematodes. What can we do?

    Jan Ashe

  • Jan,
    Root knot nematodes infestation is usually caused by one (or both) of the following situations. The most common is to grow the same crops year after year in the same area. Crop rotation will usually correct this if the second cause of nematodes is addressed as well.

    The second cause is that there is an unbalanced biological condition in the soil. This can be amplified by the first cause, not rotating the crops. There are always “bad” nematodes in the soil. Problems arise when the “bad” guys outnumber the “good” guys.

    The solution is to (1) increase biological activity by using good quality compost, (2) planting and incorporating green cover crops, (3) balancing the minerals in the soil as needed, (4) rotating crops and finally, (5) using crab meal as a soil amendment.

    Ground crab meal is a natural “nematodecide” as well as being a good organic fertilizer. Crab shell contains a lot of chitin, the same material found in insect exoskeletons. The theory is that you mix crab meal into the soil a couple of weeks prior to planting. The bacteria that likes chitin shows up and digests the crab shell. In the process they multiply due to the presence of an abundant food source. Once the crab meal is gone, they look around for other sources of chitin, which in this case, is the hard parts of nematodes.

    All this may seem a little overwhelming, but it really just involves good stewardship of your garden. The other solution is to install raised beds, completely above your soil. A good source of ideas is I like the guys concepts, but I like my fertilizer better.

    Hope this helps. For more information on the best organic fertilizer in the southeast, see

  • Karina

    Hi Kenny!
    Rampicante success. Thank u.
    Looking for organic purple flesh sweet potato slips. Where is the best place to order organic slips for next year!!!?

  • Barbee

    Hi, Karina
    Have you looked at Sand Hill Preservation Center’s web site? They have a S.P. list that is mind-boggling.
    I,too, am looking to grow purple flesh S.P. and I’m looking @ Okinowan. Because I have read that the growing season is so VERY long for purples I may ALSO try to start my own slips from a store bought tuber.
    Good luck w/ yours.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Karina, glad to hear that the Rampicante produced for you, it is one of my favorite squashes. I second Barbee’s recommendation for Sand Hill as a source for sweet potato slips and they do have a long list of varieties. Also, I haven’t noticed that the length of growing season was much different for the purple varieties, but they all like warm growing conditions and I’ve had success using black plastic mulches and floating row covers over them.

  • Karina

    Barbee and Kenny

    Thank you. As soon as I finished writing that I saw Sandy Hill and yes they have a mind boggling amount of varieties of sweet potatoes. I also noticed that there are a couple Early Variety Purple fleshed. Okinawan is a long season variety. I will try purple and a few other early varieties. I put in some slips from a sp I got at wholefoods and sprouted at home. I’ll update results next month.
    Has anyone here ever plant sweet potatoes in woodchips? I planted reg potatoes this year in plain raw wood chips. Great success!!

  • Bought a home jan 15th, 2012, Feb, I started clearing the vines and brambles as land laid fallow 12 yrs and I chose the least grown-over place to begin my digging of the soil-turns out it was a grown over gravel driveway used at one time by Diesel Trucks to get to the next level lower, and park. Compacted? Surely was. All digging turned out to be on the dawgone gravel drive! Took Pick Ax to break it up, so I only dug 18 inch beds, a foot deep. I had Ingrams book “Soil Food Web” and made compost and aact for introducing micro-organisms to that group of beds, just 60 in all, 13 ft wide by 29 ft long. No worms found while digging, it was so compacted and stony, looked barren! Rocks removed somewhat, in June I planted Corn, of all things! Heavy feeder but this IS, just an experiment as the land is such a mess with tangles and Briars everywhere yet to clean out. No spigot for a hose, either, but made AACT in a 32 gal new garbage plastic barrel using rain water off Metal roof. Carried it in 5-gal buckets to the beds once a week, and added a good sprinkling of Soybean meal (couple handfuls per bed and fed the “herd”. Surprise! It worked! and how well it worked! thanks Dr Ingram, and Jeff Lowenfels, and Wayne (Co-Author). Soil test in hand today recommends one pound each per 100 sq ft of garden bed of N, P, K minerals and One Pound of Lime per 100 sq ft, and I’m OK. Cover cropthere now, and dug one 5 ft bed X 5 ft area I’d made later (that wouldn’t sprout Buckwheat seeds) and as of October as soil sample time, today I dug for a transplant and found way over 200 worms within that bed 2 to 3 in long, must be newborns! Yippee! Soil now can be dug with 5-tine pitchfork, easily! And all that in just from Feb to October!! I’m elated! Thanks guys, and Elaine.

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