Growing a Gourmet Garden
When you put in the time and hard work to grow your own food, you want to make sure it tastes good. Not much is better than snacking on strawberries that taste like candy. And nothing is worse than breaking your back in the garden for months, only to bite into a bland tomato come summer. Fortunately, there are steps you can take throughout the growing season to ensure a sweet and flavorful harvest fit for the finest gourmet restaurant.
Choose the Right Variety
Although the grocery store only offers us a few options, most fruits and vegetables come in hundreds of varieties. One of the greatest joys of gardening is eating food you can’t get anywhere else. Some of these varieties are inherently sweeter and more flavorful than others.
You won’t get to know your favorites until you try growing them, however, certain strains are well-known for their sweetness. You can’t go wrong with Super Sweet 100 tomatoes, Alpine strawberries, Scarlet Nantes carrots, and Sugar Snap peas.
A Little Stress is Good
It turns out a little bit of stress is good for your plants. When a plant’s immune system is under attack, it produces defense chemicals that also enhance its flavor. For example, when garlic is wounded, it produces allicin, the chemical responsible for garlic’s intoxicating aroma.
Plants will even emit chemicals to warn their neighbors that an attack is underway so they can get ready to defend themselves. You can use methyl jasmonate, a defense chemical originally detected in jasmine, to create this effect in your own garden. By spraying jasmine floral water on your plants, you will trigger their own defense chemicals, which enhance their flavor and antioxidant content.
Build Healthy Soil
The healthier your soil is, the healthier and tastier your plants are. It is a simple formula, but one that can be overlooked when relying too much on simple fertilizers for plant nutrition.
They will do the job, but they often focus on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and lack the micronutrients and trace minerals that give plants their flavor. In fact, studies have shown that excessive nitrogen reduces the sugars, acids, and antioxidants in plants—the very compounds that give plants their flavor.
Conversely, this may actually be a good thing when growing bitter greens. If you want to decrease their bitterness and grow a milder salad, grow them in a container so they have access to fewer trace minerals. However, for most fruiting plants, you’ll want more trace minerals, which means healthier soil is a better choice.
Healthy soil is full of organic matter and beneficial microbes. As organic matter is broken down by members of the soil food web, they are taken up by the plant. The plant uses what it needs and then gets rid of the waste through their root systems.
Beneficial microbes that live in the plant’s rhizosphere will consume the root exudates, digest them, and then expel them in a form the plant can use. It is a perfect nutrient cycling system. Without microbes to hold onto them, most nutrients would wash out into the ground water and plants would be dependent on additional fertilizers.
It takes a few years to build up poor soil with organic matter. During this time, be sure to use compost tea, seaweed, and molasses in your garden. Compost tea will start growing your garden’s population of beneficial microbes, while the seaweed and molasses are full of trace minerals that will boost flavor. The molasses also contains sugars that will feed your growing microbe population.
Sunlight is Key
Sunlight is a key ingredient for flavor. The amount of light plants receive can be the difference between tasteless and tasty.
Studies have shown that strawberries grown in full sun have twice the amount of flavor compounds as those grown in half the light. This effect happens across the board in the garden. (When it come to some greens, you may want to cut down on the light to reduce their bitter flavor.)
You can increase the amount of light your plants receive by choosing the right spot for your garden, pruning so light reaches lower fruit, and making sure greenhouse glass is as clean as possible. For indoor growers, be sure that the glass panes covering your grow lights are clean or remove them altogether. Removing the glass is usually helpful in the winter to increase the temperature in your grow room, but it may not be feasible in the hot summer months when air-cooled reflectors earn their keep.
Light spectrum also plays a role in producing gourmet results. In fact, growing with red plastic mulch mimics the far red part of the light spectrum and has been shown to drastically improve the flavor of strawberries and tomatoes. Growing basil on a green surface, such as a painted shelf, has been shown to increase its flavor compounds.
The amount of water your plants receive is crucial to how they taste. If you water too much, you will dilute the sugars and flavor compounds in your crops. This can actually be a good thing for salad greens, as they can be bitter and pungent, but your tomatoes may not appreciate it.
Trials have shown that watering the bare minimum is best for taste. When water is not readily available, roots are forced to search for it by growing deeper into the soil. This gives them access to more trace minerals. Your yield may be a bit less, but your flavor will be more intense.
When using this method, be careful not to go so long without water that your plants start to wilt. Covering the soil with mulch is a great help, as it will hold water and give it to your plants as necessary, buffering the damage if you do miss a day with the hose. The week before harvest, water as little as you can get away with for the best flavor in the kitchen. Also note that this method works well with tree fruits, fruiting vegetables, and root crops, but it hinders the vegetative growth necessary for herbs and leafy greens.
Harvest at the Right Time
Fruits and veggies in your garden actually fluctuate quite a bit during the course of a day. Get to know the plants you grow and when the best conditions are for picking.
For example, morning is the ideal time to harvest your lettuces, as their moisture content will be at their highest and will dilute the harsh bitter flavor they tend to have. It is also a good time to pick herbs such as lavender and basil, before the essential oils they created the night before evaporate in the day’s sun.
A warm afternoon is the best time to pick carrots, apples, and grapes if you want intense flavor. This is when their sugar content is high and moisture content is low. The lower water content—meaning less dilution—allows the sugars to take center stage.
Store for Sweetness
Many crops are best eaten freshly picked, however, there are some that taste better with age. Strawberries and winter squash taste better after they have been sitting on the counter for a few days, while butternut squash reaches its full flavor potential about three months after harvest.
Storage temperature can have a profound effect on flavor. Many of us put most of our produce in the fridge, but that can mean flavor death for some of our favorite fruits and veggies. Strawberries, tomatoes, peaches, sweet potatoes, onions, and melons should all sit at room temperature if you want to enjoy them.
Test Your Brix
If you want to track your flavor progress, do yourself a favor and buy a refractometer. You can get one for under $30 and it will measure the total dissolved solids, including sugars, of your crops. Squeeze a little of the plant’s juice onto the refractometer and look through the lens to see its value.
The Refractive Index of Crop Juices chart gives you the range of measurements for each fruit and vegetable. You’ll find most produce from the grocery store scores pretty low, while produce grown in healthy soil and ideal conditions will score higher. Your taste buds can guide you just as well, but it is always nice to have concrete numbers to chart your progress.
As gardeners, we put a lot of hard work and time into our gardens. With these tips and tricks, your work won’t be in vain and you can grow gourmet food right in your backyard.