Planting and growing my own fruits and vegetables have always been a passion of mine ever since I was a small child. To this day I always look forward to the spring season when the ground begins to swell, birds chirp, sun is high in the sky and your lawn never looks better. It also means that it’s time to churn the garden soil! You may be wondering why I’m writing a blog about growing fruits and vegetables on a dental website. What you may not know is that there are several fruits and vegetables that can be both healthy and harmful to your oral health. Hopefully this will educate you on the health benefits and dangers while at the same time learning a little bit about fruit and vegetable gardening and the fun it can bring to any family!
It was a Saturday morning in the early summer of 1984 in Duxbury, Massachusetts. My father was out in the yard watering his vegetable garden. A few small zucchinis were just starting to grow. My sister Amy and I were watching Scooby-Doo and He-Man cartoons while my mother packed the old green GM station wagon for our summer trip to the family cabin in Washington, New Hampshire. My mother shouts out “All packed”! Dad shuts off the hose. I punch the large knob on the old Panasonic TV and were off for three days of swimming, fishing, boating and hiking! What I wasn’t expecting was what awaited me when we returned home from that trip. I walked over to the garden and saw three massive zucchinis! I was amazed at how fast these vegetables grew! Here were these baby zucchinis that blossomed into “ready to harvest” vegetables in the matter of days. It’s the same feeling when the tomatoes change from green to red in late summer. I don’t know why but to this day it still fascinates me. I’m 43 years old and I still look forward to waking up every day and seeing the progress in the garden. There’s something very rewarding about growing, harvesting and sharing the food you grew with family and others. I can already see my two young boys enjoying the garden. My oldest son Lucas loves to bark orders at his little brother Milo to stop picking all the green tomatoes! It brings me back to my youth and always puts a smile on my face when I watch them pick the vegetables with excitement.
The vegetables that I like to grow in my garden are zucchini, cucumber, onion, potato, lettuce and my favorite…tomato! All of these do very well in this area. I now live in Norfolk, MA. The soil in this area and surrounding towns is amazing. So if you’re looking to start a fruit and vegetable garden don’t hesitate. You’ll be glad you did! You’ll just have to prep your soil a bit before you start planting.
Prepping the Soil
Mid to late spring is a good time to start turning over your soil. Get a good spade shovel and start churning up your soil. I also like to add a little cow manure and compost to the soil. How much will depend on the size of your garden bed. This will feed nutrients into your soil for a new season of planting. Your crops will grow much healthier and stronger. I also like to add a little fertilizer. When it comes to potatoes and onions, I like to till in an equal trifecta of bone meal, blood meal and Epsom salt. For tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini and lettuce I like to use an all-purpose tomato and vegetable fertilizer and use as directed. You can find these products at any garden center.
When Should I Start Planting?
Fruits and vegetables depend on climate for success. Some fruits and vegetables need to be planted at different times. For this blog I will only discuss the fruits and vegetables that I plant. Potatoes and onions do better when planted in early spring. I like to plant my seed potatoes in mid-April. You can purchase seed potatoes at most garden centers. It’s good to plant your seed potatoes about 8 inches deep in rows of 12 inch spacing between them. You want to make sure you plant your seed potatoes with the eyes or sprouts facing up. Cover them loosely and don’t pack down the soil. Potatoes like a loose and granular soil. Don’t be too worried about frost. It will take about 2-3 weeks until you start to see your seed potatoes sprout. The leaves are very hardy and can handle the early cool month of May. I like to plant onions at the beginning of May because they sprout a bit quicker than potatoes but can still handle the cool, early May weather. Like potatoes, I plant onions in a row but only about 2 inches deep with 5 inch spacing between them. I plant onions in the “set” form rather than seed. Sets are small onion bulbs that you can buy in most any garden center.
Tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini and lettuce do not handle the cold well and will die in any frost. I always plant these vegetables at the end of May when typically you don’t get any more frosty nights. I don’t have the patience to start any of these vegetables by seed but if you want to have at it! I buy these plants when they are in the early stages of sprouting. Most garden centers will carry these plants. Tomatoes and cucumber I like to stagger at about 12 inches from one another. Zucchini and other similar squash plants you want to give about 24 inches of spacing. They tend to have a large plant radius. Lettuce I will plant in rows with about 6 inch spacing.
Maintaining Your Crop
Sun! Having direct sun throughout the day is key. Lots of sun is vital for a bountiful harvest. This is important if you are starting a new garden. Find a part of land that gets the most sun and use that area. If you live in a shaded area do your best to trim as many branches or bust out the chainsaw and clear some timber for that sun to come shining through!
Water! Watering is essential. Be sure to water your crop twice a day. It’s important to water in both the morning and evening. Watering during the day can be harmful to your crop. Water can bead on the foliage and act as a magnifying glass in the hot summer and damage your plant.
Weeding! Its important to clear weeds from popping up around your plants. They can suck up the nutrients from the soil and prevent growth to your crop. I can’t stand weeding with a passion and have no patience for it but luckily Kim, a coworker of mine recommended cocoa shells or buckwheat hulls as a ground cover to help prevent weeds. I used the cocoa shells this season. I spread them around my garden bed about an inch or two thick and they worked great. Highly recommend!
When do you know it’s time to harvest? In my garden the first thing to harvest would be the lettuce. I like to grow romaine lettuce and it only takes about a month until you can start harvesting. You start by getting a good pair of shears and work your way from the outside. Cut off the outer most leaves and work your way into the lettuce head as needed. Sometimes lettuce can get crowded and you may have to cut off a whole head to give more space. Zucchini is the next vegetable I will harvest. I start picking zucchini around the end of June and that continues to the end of August. These suckers can grow fast and you don’t want them to get too big. I like to pick them when they reach about 7-10 inches long. Cucumber and Tomato are typically ready to harvest around the end of July and can last through August and September. Potatoes and onions are usually sometime in August. You know it’s time to pull them up when you notice all their leaves die back and turn a brown/yellow straw color.
I’ve been working in the Patient Accounts department at Dental Associates of Walpole for about four years now and I got curious about the vegetables I grow and wondered how some of them may affect your oral health. I decided to do a little research. Below I discuss some fruits and vegetables that are both good and bad for your oral health.
Cucumbers & Zucchini: Both are high in fiber and that crunchy fiber acts as a scrub on your teeth that helps with stain removal. Cucumbers & zucchini also have a highwater content of about 95% which helps coat your mouth so it doesn’t dry out. Chewing both cucumbers & zucchini produce saliva to help wash away bad bacteria in your mouth. It also helps with bad breath! Other fruits and vegetables such as celery, radishes, carrots, lettuce, spinach and apples have the same benefits!
Potatoes: Potatoes can have both a healthy and unhealthy benefit to your oral health. Sweet potatoes are a great source of Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a necessary nutrient for healthy gums. The problem with potato’s is that they are high in starch. That starch turns to sugar and can get trapped between your teeth and feed bacteria that causes plaque. Especially with potato chips!
Onion: Raw onion is very healthy for you. The anti- bacterial compounds contained in an onion will kill the harmful bacteria on your teeth. You may just want to carry around a good pack of sugar free gum afterwards!
Tomato: Nothing beats a vine ripe, fresh garden tomato! (In my opinion) I was extremely curious and hopeful to find out tomatoes were healthy for your teeth and gums. Sigh…Tomato’s are surprisingly very acidic which can cause tooth erosion and damage to the enamel. Its recommended that if you eat tomato’s they are best consumed in a salad with crunchy vegetables like cucumber, celery and carrots so they will not directly expose your teeth.
I’m hoping that reading this has inspired you to garden or given you a little more knowledge about gardening and the rewarding fun it can bring while at the same time providing healthy oral tips when it comes to consuming certain fruits and vegetables. The good old days of the green GM station wagon and Panasonic TV are behind me. Now when our Nissan Rogue pulls into the drive way from a nice weekend at the cabin, iPads go off, and we all take a walk to the garden with anticipation.
By Jeff Vangel, Patient Accounts Coordinator