Story and photos by Elizabeth Joseph, garden and education coordinator at Heifer Farm
After a spring of seeding and tending to plants, the warmer days of summer arrive, and the harvest is in full swing. Before we know it, young transplants have matured and put forth an abundance of roots, shoots, fruits, stems and seeds. The bounty is beautiful, abundant and, ideally, diverse.
In nature, biological diversity means strength. The more variety of plants and organisms present in an ecosystem, the greater the resilience of the larger whole. Our gardens and agricultural fields are no exception— the more, the better!
Polycultures, or the growing of multiple crops in the same area, improve the soil, stimulate microorganisms critical for plant health, attract beneficial insects and pollinators, and break up weed, pest and disease cycles. For example, cilantro planted amongst tomatoes attracts beneficial parasitic wasps that prey on tomato hornworms, providing a built-in pest deterrent and maximizing use of space … two crops in the space of one!
Another well-known example of polycultures is the three sisters garden, a Native American farming method of planting corn, beans and squash together, each helping the others grow. The corn provides a trellis for the beans, which fix nitrogen in the ground, while the squash occupies the lower growing strata, preventing weeds, holding on to soil moisture, and, with their prickly leaves and stems, providing a deterrent to raccoons and other critters.
At Heifer Farm, we grow more than 50 different types of vegetables and plant multiple varieties of each of those crops; for example, we grow more than 20 varieties of tomatoes alone! Some withstand disease and others produce well in cool, wet summers. Some are best for tomato sauce and others for eating fresh. There are red, purple, black, green yellow, orange and variegated fruits. Some are round but others are oblong, lumpy, heart-shaped or bite-sized. The garden peach variety is even fuzzy! Two dozen tomato varieties just scratch the surface when it comes to biodiversity, though; indigenous farmers in Peru, for example, grow more than 3,000 types of potatoes!
Crop diversity also ensures economic security for farmers and food security for consumers in the event of a crop failure. The Irish potato famine is perhaps the most well-known and devastating example of a dependency on a single crop and crop variety. Diversity safeguards against the unpredictability of nature in the present and preserves genetic variations for yet unforeseen challenges and environmental conditions in the future.
All of this diversity is most welcome for all of us eaters as well, adding a cornucopia of nutrients, flavors, textures and colors to our plates. The produce aisle of a good grocery store may seem like it has everything to off er, but peruse a seed catalog sometime to see just how many options are missing from the shelves—purple caulifl ower, fractal Romanesco, a rainbow of carrots and beets, heirloom tomatoes, yin yang beans, pointed cabbage heads, brilliant-tasting melons and celery, lemon-shaped cucumbers, pink and white eggplants, and a tremendous assortment of greens … just to name a few.
While this sampling of what is missing from produce aisles may be significant, it does not represent the 75 percent of genetic plant diversity lost since 1900. The good news is there is still time to preserve what’s left. You can plant new varieties in your own garden, support small-scale farmers who grow heirloom varieties or ask the produce buyers at your grocery store to stock more varieties that are untraditional. Diversity and varieties of food can also jumpstart curiosity and excitement at mealtime for fussy eaters, both children and adults! The response is the same every time groups gather to pull carrots from the ground at Heifer Farm: everyone digs right in and smiles abound. One after the next, triumphant hands hoist their carrot into the air, and there are gasps of surprise when the root isn’t orange as expected, but instead white, yellow, pink, red or purple (their original color).
We live in a world filled with diversity—people, cultures, climates, geography, animals, plants, fields and food—that’s definitely worth celebrating with a carrot raised into the air!
Garden Patch Cake
A cake that’s also a vegetable? OK, we admit, it’s a bit of a hard sell. But try it! You’ll like it! And so will the children, as long as you don’t mention the squash and beets until afterward.
• 1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, melted
• 6 eggs
• 2 ½ cups sugar
• 1/2 tbsp vanilla
• 5 cups shredded vegetables*
• 3 cups flour
• 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
• 1/2 tspn salt
• 1 tspn baking soda
• 1 tbsp baking powder
*The shredded vegetables can be any combination of carrots, parsnips, beets, zucchini or summer squash.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and oil a baking sheet or cupcake pan. Melt butter. In a large bowl, mix together the melted butter, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Mix shredded vegetables in with wet ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Pour batter into pan, spreading it all the way out into each corner or filling each cupcake 3/4 full. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until cake is golden and springy and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting. This cake is good with cream cheese frosting or just with a dusting of powdered sugar over the top.