Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Heart-Healthy Garden

 The Heart Healthy Garden is a topic that is close to my heart, literally. After being diagnosed with four cholesterol-jammed heart arteries in March 2012, I underwent quadruple coronary artery bypass graft surgery in April. At the same time, I was told I had full-blown Type 2 Diabetes (A1C of 10.4).

The surgery went well and the long road to healing from heart disease and diabetes began...including doctors' orders that a gardener does not want to hear: no lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk for 3 months! After all, when surgeons slice open your sternum to work on your heart, it takes a long while for that bone to heal, despite being held together with wires.

Now, thanks to regular exercise and a healthier diet, I have lost over 60 pounds, the arteries that now service my heart are still cholesterol-free, the blood sugar levels are back to normal (A1C = 5.9), and I no longer need to take any prescription medications for either of these ailments. With the doctors' blessings, of course. Part of the secret? Growing, and eating, heart-healthy fruits and vegetables, loaded with fiber.

Most people are familiar with fiber. Fiber is a component of all plant-based foods which cannot be absorbed or digested. It travels relatively intact through your body and out. This is the role of  insoluble fiber, the roughage found in many fruits, vegetables and grains that passes through your digestive system and helps promote regularity.

Fiber is also composed of  soluble fiber,  a type of fiber that dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. Studies at the Mayo Clinic and other institutions have shown that soluble fiber may help lower blood cholesterol levels by reducing low-density lipoprotein, or "bad," cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber may have other heart-health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, blood glucose levels (important for Type 2 diabetes patients) and inflammation.

After learning that, consuming foods rich in soluble fiber became one of my nutritional  keystones for recovery. And it worked! If battling high cholesterol levels and diabetes are part of your life, ask your doctor if a high fiber diet (30 or more grams a day of fiber) is right for you. Better yet, ask a registered dietician. Doctors know pills. Dieticians know food. Which do you want to consume for the rest of your life?

If you cast your vote for "food", what are the top five fruits and vegetables with the most soluble fiber that should be part of a heart-healthy backyard garden? At the end of this report, there is a more complete list of the soluble fiber content of fruits and vegetables. You can grow that!

Artichokes (3.2 grams soluble fiber per 100 grams). According to the UC Davis Vegetable Research and Information Center website, the globe artichoke is a perennial, cool-season vegetable that yields and produces best when grown near or along the California coast where cool to mild climates prevail.  Production starts about a year after planting, although some buds usually develop the first spring after early fall plantings.

Once the plant is in normal cycle, bud production starts in the fall. A small number of buds develop during the winter, but cold temperatures limit the amount of plant growth. The edible parts are the immature, scaly flower buds, bracts (leaves), and heart. 

The buds are said to contain a chemical that makes food eaten after them taste sweet. 

 Mature artichoke flowers are a brilliant sky blue color, but they are not edible.

 To harvest, cut the bud together with 2 to 3 inches of stem. This length of stem is usually tender and edible. A mature plant produces ten or more stems during a season; each stem can provide four to five buds.

Unfortunately, perennial plantings of artichokes are not recommended in areas where warm to hot temperatures are common. However, it is possible to grow high-quality artichokes in inland valleys and low desert regions of southern California by handling the crop as a direct-seeded or transplanted annual crop. Until recently, it was believed that artichoke buds produced from seed-propagated plants were of inferior quality to those produced by vegetative propagation. Recent research at the University of California has shown that seed-initiated artichokes looked and tasted great. Moreover, annual cropping makes growing artichokes feasible in gardens with limited space because the crop does not require long-term space allocation. Quicker rotation with other vegetables is also possible.

To grow artichokes in warm climates, plant seeds or transplants of 'Imperial Star’ in July for inland valley locations or in September for the low deserts.

Artichoke plant, flanked by Tower of Jewels

Warning: they can get big!

Blueberries (3.0 grams soluble fiber per 100 grams).
Up until about 15 years ago, commercial highbush blueberry production was relegated to the cooler, more humid climates, especially in the northern tier of states. The development of southern highbush blueberry varieties meant we could start growing this tasty fruit here in warmer climates.

According to the UC Cooperative Extension, rabbiteye blueberries grow in the southeastern part of the country and thrive in hot, humid weather but are not cold hardy. Lowbush blueberries grow in the northeastern states and Canada. Northern highbush blueberries grow from Florida to Maine and the northern tier states and have a high chilling requirement that limits their adaptability.

Southern highbush blueberry varieties have a low-chill requirement and are heat tolerant. Although they are self-pollinating, blueberry fruit set will increase and berries will be larger if two varieties are planted together. Most varieties grow 4 to 6 feet tall here. A few, such as Sunshine Blue (3'), are more compact.

A UC Master Gardener variety trial in Santa Clara found that the following varieties grew the best in Northern California, produced the biggest crops, and had good to excellent flavor: ‘Reveille’, ‘Misty’, ‘Sunshine Blue’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Georgia Gem’ and ‘O’Neal’. Other varieties that may also work well include ‘Blue Ray’, ‘Cape Fear’, ‘North Blue’, ‘Ozark Blue’, and ‘Sharp Blue’. 

In our yard, we have had success with Sharp Blue, Jubilee, South Moon, Blue Ray,  Sunshine Blue and Misty.

The southern highbush blueberries will thrive in containers, as long as you keep a few basics in mind:

• Plant blueberries in a good-sized container. You can start them off in five gallon containers, but a 15-gallon or larger is preferable. We use watering troughs from the local farm supply store. With holes cut in the bottom, of course.

• Give them acidic soil. Use a one-third mix of potting soil intended for camellias and azaleas, peat moss, and small pathway bark, along with a handful of soil sulfur. This will give the blueberries their ideal pH growing range of 5.5.

• Blueberries need consistently moist soil, but be sure the pot has good drainage.

Blueberry flowers
• Because containers can heat up here in the summer, place them where they can get some afternoon shade.

• Feed blueberries with an organic fertilizer. Apply during the blueberry-growing season, late winter through summer. Organic fertilizers such as blood meal, cottonseed meal, fish meal, and alfalfa meal can be applied at a rate of 1 pound per plant.

• Having several containers with different varieties will improve pollination and give you an extended harvesting season. If you want a sure choice, go with Sunshine Blue. Although a smaller shrub (about three feet tall), it has very low winter chill requirements and tolerates higher pH soils better than other varieties.

Ripening Dates for San Joaquin Valley (source: UC ANR)

• The University of California advises growers of blueberries in containers to replace the soil with fresh potting mix as well as root prune the plant every 3 to 4 years.

Shell Beans (1.6-2.2 grams soluble fiber per 100 grams). 
California Buckeye 46
This easy-to-grow summertime garden staple should be included in every yard. The horticultural bean (shell bean), is widely grown in many parts of the state. The colorful pods and beans of the horticultural bean make it an attractive addition to the garden and kitchen. The seeds of pinto beans look similar to those of the horticultural beans, but are smaller. They are used widely as brown beans and as refried beans in Mexican dishes. Black beans or black turtle beans make an unusual, delicious black-colored soup. They are easy to grow if given plenty of air movement to prevent the disease problems to which they are susceptible. Kidney beans are the popular chili and baking bean, available in deep red or white types. Navy pea and Great Northern beans are used in soups and as baked beans. Plantings of beans should be made after danger of frost is past in the spring and soil is warmed, since seeds planted in cold soils germinate slowly and are susceptible to rotting. One old nurseryman offers this tip to avoid rotting bean seeds: water the day you plant the seeds; don't water the soil again until you see the bean emerge from the ground.

Photo Courtesy Dave Wilson Nursery
Apricots (1.8 grams soluble fiber per 100 grams). In the winter here in California, apricot - as well as other deciduous fruit and nut trees - are available inexpensively as bare root trees. 
Tips when planting bare root fruit trees:
• Soak the roots overnight in water before planting. If the tree is not going to be planted within 24 hours after purchase, "heel" the tree into a pile of soil or a big bucket of soil mix. Cover the entire root area of the tree so they don't dry out. Keep the soil moist until the tree is planted.

• Dig the planting hole for the fruit tree wide, not deep. It's not necessary to dig a hole any deeper than the length of the rootstock, usually about a foot. However, if drainage is a problem, be sure to break up any layers of hardpan that may exist in the current soil. Planting in raised beds can solve this easily. Dig out an area at least as wide as the spread-out roots of the tree, about two and a half feet.
• Place the tree on a slight mound in the middle of the hole, and then spread out the roots; don't let them encircle the tree. Face the bud union of the fruit tree (where the root stock and fruiting section have been grafted, you'll see the bump) to the north east, away from the direction of the sun. Use just the native soil to fill in the hole. Wait until growth begins on the tree in the spring before adding any fertilizer; for it's first two years of growth, dilute the fertilizer by half the recommended dosage, to keep from burning the young roots.
• When you're done planting, cut the tree at knee level. This will give you a good start to keeping the fruit within easy reach.

• Paint the tree with a diluted mix of white interior latex paint and 50% water. This will protect the bark of the young tree from sunburn.
• Don't forget to add an irrigation system for the fruit trees!
Check out this blog for more information on the planting and care of bare root fruit trees. 
According to the annual taste test surveys conducted by Dave Wilson Nursery, the top-rated apricot varieties include the Blenheim, Canadian White Blenheim, Tomcot, Early Autumn, Autumn Glow, and a couple of Apricot-Plum crosses: the Flavor Delight Aprium and the Cot-n-Candy Aprium.

Green Peas. (1.7 grams soluble fiber per 100 grams). According to the UC Davis Vegetable Research and Information Center website, peas do best when grown during cool weather; warm weather shortens the harvest season. In the Central Valley, low foothills and East Bay, plant peas from September through March.

Bush types grow in most areas of California; vine types do best when planted along the coast. It is essential to provide support for the climbing vine types. Do not use overhead irrigation; it increases the incidence of mildew.
Harvest peas when the seeds and pods are well-developed, but tender enough so they may be crushed between the fingers without separating into halves. Harvest edible pod types at the first sign of seed development. The sugar content of peas readily transfers into starch. Peas overmature quickly and starch conversion continues after picking. Therefore, cook or process (can or freeze) peas soon after shelling.

Bush peas have a shorter, earlier production period than the pole types. However, the pole types require extra work, but yield more and produce for a longer time.

Recommended varieties include: China, snow, or sugar Dwarf Grey; Sugar Mammoth; Melting Sugar; Cowpeas (Southern peas, blackeye peas); Snap (thick, edible pods); Sugar Ann (dwarf); Sweet Snap (semi-dwarf); Sugar Rae (dwarf); Sugar Daddy (stringless, dwarf); Sugar Snap.

And finally, listed from greatest to least, the soluble fiber content (grams of soluble fiber per 100 grams of food) of the most commonly grown garden fruits and vegetables:

From: Handbook of Dietary Fiber  by Sungsoo Cho & Mark L. Drehe

artichokes 3.2
blueberries 3.0
pinto beans 2.2
apricots 1.8
green peas 1.7
kidney beans/white beans 1.6
raisins 1.3
avocado 1.3
carrots 1.3
eggplant 1.3
oranges 1.1
pears 1.1
peaches 0.9
strawberries 0.9
leeks 0.9
green beans 0.7
cabbage 0.7
cauliflower 0.7
peppers 0.7
potatoes 0.6
peanuts 0.5
asparagus 0.5
celery 0.5
spinach 0.5
sweet potatoes 0.5
turnips 0.5
tomatoes 0.4
apple 0.3
melons 0.3
broccoli 0.3
corn 0.2
lettuce 0.2
walnuts 0.1
olives 0.1
cucumbers 0.1
onions 0.1
radish 0.1
zucchini 0.1


  1. The tip on keeping blueberries moist and in late afternoon shade is definitely spot on. My blueberries suffered from inconsistent watering, and too much sun. They had more leaf burn than berries.

    I'm hoping to try again with blueberries this year, and get them in a good spot where they can actually provide me with some fruit.

  2. Other possible causes of leaf burn on blueberries: too high a pH; using a nitrate-based fertilizer; poor drainage. Blueberries love organic fertilizers.

  3. Good info on the nutrient requirements for blueberries:

  4. Love this post. Love your broadcasts (I heart radio). Love your podcasts. Love your Facebook.
    Sunshine Blue is now potted up in the garden. Now I need a recommendation for a 2nd variety (to be potted) to help with increased polinization.
    Can you recommend another variety for zone 8-9 in Bakersfield, Ca.

    PS - Go Niners!

    1. Other southern highbush blueberries with low chill requirements that would go with Sunshine Blue for an extended harvest & pollenizing include: Sharp Blue, Misty and O'Neal. All have 200 hours or less of chill hour requirements. Chill hour = an hour between 32 and 45 degrees, from November through February. Currently, Chill Hours in the Kern Co. area total appx. 700-800 hrs. Based on that, you can grow more varieties than those l just listed.

  5. Good for you! I mean, literally, good for you. I love seeing people turn their lives towards the better with changes to their diet. Very inspiring, thanks!

  6. Well Fred, we followed your advice and got two blueberries. Bountiful Blue and some other cultivar for pollination, BUT you never did say that finding some of the berries was like an Easter Egg hunt. They were delicious though and growing like weeds. Thanks for the heads up on these.

  7. Would dried apricots have as much soluble fiber as fresh apricots?

  8. Very informative article! Thanks for sharing.