Margaret Lauterbach

Margaret Lauterbach: Learn to choose seeds that are nutritious

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

An important thing gardeners should look for in selecting varieties of food to grow is the most nutritious variety that produces well that you and your family will consume.

Generally, those food crops that are dark colored, red to purple, or have substantial blue color in them are extra nutritious because they are rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that may lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, etc.

Some, like radicchio, for instance, may have a tendency toward bitterness that is alien to our accustomed tastes. Some foods may be potentially nutritious, but if you and your family won’t eat them, that advantage is lost. I grew a “blue” tomato last year I won’t grow again because the harvest was small and undependable, tomato taste ordinary.

Nutrition variability is not just a small difference, either. The Italian lettuce “Lollo Rosso” has 10 times the phytonutrients of green, leafy lettuce, and 100 times more than iceberg lettuce that most of us have grown up with and love. Some lettuces are naturally bitter, others may turn bitter with age or exposure.

We’ve always known that dark-green, leafy vegetables are more nutritious than pale green. Red cabbage is more nutritious than green, purple cauliflower better for you than white, and red lettuce healthier than green. Also, red or black (Tuscan) kale is more nutritious than the green kales. A black slicing tomato that produces abundantly in this area and is loaded with anthocyanins is Paul Robeson. Another is Cherokee Purple. Both have excellent flavor.

One of the problems with the most nutritious foods is that many are bitter to taste. Some like that sharp edge to their food, others do not. Some bitterness may be mitigated by brief parboiling, others are not. These bitter qualities have been bred out of many of our vegetables, substituting more sugars. Could we retrain ourselves to like these tangier tastes? Perhaps we can, in the spirit of “when we know better, we do better.” Or maybe plant breeders will improve taste while preserving nutrients.

smaller is better

Many seed catalogs trumpet large versions of vegetables, gigantic tomatoes, huge pumpkins, etc. In very large vegetables, the calcium strengthening cells may be insufficient, and the huge vegetable collapses upon itself. Small versions are usually more nutritious, having more intense flavor, because they’re not as watery and have a smaller ratio of flesh to skin. In most vegetables, the most nutrients lie just under the skin.

Those of you poring over seed catalogs may see letter combinations and symbols you’re not used to. OSSI is one, for example, and that’s nothing to be alarmed about. On the contrary, it stands for Open Source Seed Initiative, a movement by plant breeders producing seed (and their genes) that can never be patented or otherwise restricted. The symbol they use is an O cut by entwined S’s and a pea pod in the middle of the entwined S’s.

Many seeds have been patented and their use restricted by Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta and others. As the number of vendors shrinks, prices rise and restrictions multiply. For some crops, farmers can only lease seeds for one year’s use, and they cannot save them as acclimatized or the best of the crop, even starting a landrace. Not even professional plant breeders are allowed to work with such patented seeds.

But the OSSI seeds and genes can be used for breeding, perhaps even producing vegetables that will weather climate change. The pledge is meant to prohibit the multinational seed companies and others from using and patenting those seeds developed by independent breeders, since it also asks recipients of those seeds not to patent or restrict their use.

Many of us look for the “safe seed pledge” in the beginning or near the end of seed catalogs to ensure we’re not buying genetically modified (GM) seeds. OSSI is further insurance of conventionally bred seeds. This initiative is U.S. based, principally started by some Northwest plant breeders, but it’s been enthusiastically welcomed by growers and breeders all over the world.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.