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Question:  February is such a curious month for Southerners.  St. Valentine’s Day is smack in the middle of it, when red indicates the color of our poor runny noses instead of our lovely blooming roses.  February is also American heart month, connecting red roses, love, healthy hearts, and long, happy lives.  I’m a gardener, and in addition to growing the deep red “tea” roses my mother grew, want to add vegetables and a few small fruits that are good for me and my family.  Suggestions, please and they don’t have to be red although that would be nice.

Roses are red, hearts beat red, too.
Keep yours healthy and working for you!

vegetable basket.jpgYes, St. Valentine had no idea his death on Feb. 14th in 270 A.D. would be associated with roses, chocolate, and love-ever-after, but the support of individuals (Esther Howland) and companies (Hallmark), have enabled his legacy to live on!

Now, aficionados of valentines, roses, chocolate, and hearts have added a 21st century twist to the story. And, since this is a garden column, suggestions for heart-supportive foods we can grow in our gardens and landscapes is quite appropriate.

These fruits and veggies are nutrient rich, or "nutrient dense," meaning compared to total calories, the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber are the winners.  So in addition to exercise gained, growing your own means controlling the freshness at harvest time, what (if any) chemicals are added, and in many cases, cost savings.

Tomatoes, not just the red varieties, are tasty sources of antioxidants, Vitamin C and fiber.  Interestingly, tomatoes are the most popular food grown in backyards across North America, and Alabama is right there at the top with pounds grown per capita.  While it's a little early to plant them, late February is the perfect time to start seedlings indoors for May planting time.

Berries, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries contain fiber, antioxidants, Vitamin C, are naturally low in calories, and taste best fresh. Most varieties of strawberry are St. Valentine’s red, some are attractive groundcovers, making them a ‘what’s not to love’ plant for gardens and tables.  Blueberries are also ornamental landscape additions with their bright red, winter buds.

Apples, perhaps more challenging to grow in Alabama, are wonderful additions to tasty, healthy meals or snacks.  I grew up on sliced apples and a thin smear of peanut butter, still one of my favorite mini-meals. Although apples come in colors other than red, many of us associate rosy skinned varieties with healthy children happily munching them.

Swiss chard, grown in vegetable gardens for many years, has moved to the ornamental flower bed by virtue of striking color combinations, leaf shape, and texture. Harvest chard for its load of potassium (proper function of cells) and magnesium (muscle contraction, nerve transmission);enjoy them in salads, steamed and seasoned, or sautéed. This is the perfect time of year to add chard to your garden.

Even though growing cool season veggies broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts are not as popular as warm season tomatoes, peppers, squash and okra, their importance to our hearts, joints, and cells is undeniable. Though a former U.S. president famously dismissed broccoli as ‘that food I won’t eat’, many of us enjoy its taste and texture with dips, in stir-fries, and soup. It’s worth growing a small plot as many who’ve consumed fresh broccoli, sprouts, and kale agree their taste is better fresh from the garden!

Garlic and onions are easy to grow, healthy foods for backyards, raised beds, or containers. Red onions fit the month of February red theme, so try growing a small plot of these cholesterol level reducers.  Whether green scallions, or sweet yellows, all onions are super easy to grow.

If you want to learn more about growing and preparing these and other berries, fruits, and vegetables, check Extension’s calendar of events for gardening workshops near you.  www.aces.edu

written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.


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