The "Weed" That Feeds the World
Why do you garden?
Most people would say for the pleasure of harvesting fresh
vegetables at the peak of maturity. Some would say it's a certain
satisfaction that is derived from growing their own groceries.
Other, purist-types would say they garden for the savings. Regardless
of your reasons for gardening, most of us would agree that it
is very comforting to know that the supermarket is right around
the corner just in case our gardening efforts are not successful.
Most of us do not garden for subsistence, but rather for gratification.
This is not necessarily the case in less developed countries.
Home gardens contribute significantly to the nutritional and
economic well?being of families in less developed countries.
Consumption of vegetables in developed countries is much higher
than in lesser-developed countries, even though our diets are
considered to be high in meat and fats. In developed countries,
87% of consumed vegetables are produced commercially, versus
47% that are commercially produced in lesser-developed countries.
This means that home garden production in lesser-developed countries
plays a very important role in the overall nutritional well?being
of its people.
What do other gardeners of the world grow? A typical Nigerian
(Africa) garden would contain okra, Amaranthus, bitterleaf,
fluted gourd, tomato, eggplant, pumpkin, lima bean, vegetable
jute, yams (not sweet potato), cocoyams, cassava, African breadfruit,
orange, guava, coconut, mango, plantain, banana and pineapple.
If you travel to a Caribbean garden, you would find, in order
of popularity: banana, plantain, pigeon pea, cocoa, coconut,
mango, citrus, sweet potato, yam, taro, cassava, peanut, Amaranthus,
okra, chili pepper, tomato, cabbage, cowpea, cucumber and eggplant.
(I can understand why eggplant came in last with the Caribbean
If you visit an Asian garden, expect to find sword bean, hyacinth
bean, bottle gourd, sponge gourd, bitter melon, winged bean,
Chayote, yard long bean, water spinach, Ming aralia, rice bean,
tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
The families who cultivate gardens in less developed countries
consume more vegetables as a substitute for rice, which reduces
Vitamin A deficiency among their children. In fact, malnutrition
and subsequent starvation can be traced to the demise of gardening
in less developed countries. Studies in southern and eastern
Africa indicate that a change from staple crops to cash crops,
combined with increased population and decreased gardening areas,
reduced the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet, which
then resulted in an increase in malnutrition. For example, the
Zulus traditional diet consisted of grain porridges accompanied
with sauces and relishes prepared with garden-raised or gathered
produce. When they changed their diet to one consisting primarily
of just grain porridge, they developed an increase in the number
of cases of pellagra, which is a niacin deficiency.
As I researched vegetables grown in the different gardens
around the world, one name kept appearing-the Amaranth. The
Amaranthus is a genus that many farmers detest and curse as
"pigweed". Homeowners often plant a beautiful red
selection of Amaranthus as an ornamental. Yet, few of us have
had the courage to eat it. Vegetable amaranth is principally
grown in India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands
and, to a lesser extent, in the West Indies. It is a greens
crop of good nutritional value and adaptability to hot, humid
climates. Iron levels in amaranth are three times more than
those of spinach.
Unlike cool?season greens, amaranth grows during periods of
insect and disease pressures. About 20- 25 % of a 5?week?old
plant is inedible stem, with the exception of young plants,
3 weeks old or less. Seed size is small. It should not be fed
to growing children or to pregnant and lactating mothers whose
dietary calcium is already restricted. However, oxalate levels
in amaranth, which interfere with calcium absorption in humans,
can be reduced by certain methods of food preparation.
Cautions aside, commercializing amaranth for greens has several
merits. It is a highly nutritional edible green, with a short
growing season of 3 to 6 weeks. The generally short midsummer
maturation period could be followed by successive plantings
of cool season crops, thus optimizing available land resources.
Vegetable amaranth is subject to ratooning (growing new shoots
from the root or crown of a plant which has been cut down),
thus multiple harvests made from a single planting can be protracted
over a long period. Fertility requirements seem to be moderate.
The future commercialization of amaranth as a green may depend
upon problems associated with seed establishment, pest management,
harvesting aids, and consumer acceptance. Vegetable amaranth,
if consumed at levels comparable to other greens in the South,
could add favorably to the diversity of the Texas diet.
A fall planting now would be killed by frost. So instead, plant
spinach and plant it now! Amaranth will probably perform best
in the spring because of its heat tolerance. Since spinach does
not do well in the spring heat, amaranth could be used as a
replacement. Seed of the salad types of amaranth is sold on
the internet by Oriental Vegetable Seeds at this website:
This seed source offers this description: "(It) is ready
to harvest 6 to 8 weeks after sowing. Young tender leaves cook
fast; good raw in salads. Stems can be cooked like asparagus.
Marvelous artichoke?like flower." The source bills it as
a "spinach substitute" for summer.
So now you know about a new vegetable crop that can make your
garden more international in scope. Regardless of what you plant,
or why you garden, a purpose is served. In the United States,
gardening may be mainly a hobby, while in other countries of
the world it is the difference between hunger and survival.