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Tanks to the green leaf, tender and mighty.

You sleep with the wind all night,
make love with the morning light,
and turn the big crank that feeds all our friends.
Twenty-First Century Greens
Leaf Vegetables in Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture
David Kennedy
Leaf for Life
Twenty-First Century Greens
Leaf Vegetables in Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture
Copyright 2011 by David Kennedy
All rights reserved
Published by
Leaf for Life
260 Radford Hollow Rd.
Berea, KY 40403 USA
ISBN: 978-0-98355436-0-2
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011905841
Second printing: 2012
Design by Dan Feather and Molly Schoenhof
Drawings and diagrams by Morgan Durfee, Dan Feather, Keith Wilde, and Molly Schoenhof
Photographs by Dan Feather, Katy Kropf, and Molly Schoenhof
Editing by Terese Hildebrand and Joanna Juzwik
Special thanks to John Hepler, Jim and Lois Hanko, and Walter Bray for their
consistent support; to Dan Feather for going beyond the call of duty; and to my
dear partner, Terese Hildebrand, for being there through thick and thin.
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Appendix 1
Appendix 2
Appendix 3
Appendix 4
Appendix 5
Appendix 6

A Perspective On Our Food Supply . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Core Food System Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Te Potential and Limitations of Leaf Vegetables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Leaf Vegetables and Diseases Related to the Industrialized Diet . 39
Cooking Greens to Maximize Nutrition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
Leaf Concentrate . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
Drying Leaf Vegetables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
Fermented Leaf Vegetables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
Leaf Vegetables In Sustainable Agriculture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
Growing Leaf Vegetables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Eating Cover Crops . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difcult Conditions . . . . . . . . . 181
Te Future of Leaf Vegetables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203
Epilogue . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208
Leaf Vegetable Recipes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 231
Useful Latin Words for Leaf Vegetables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 241
Seeds and Supplies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 242
Useful Websites . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 244
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 251
Leaf for Life is one of the few groups in the world that
focuses on the use of leaf vegetables. My work with
that organization over the past 30 years has taken
me to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, India,
Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Swaziland; and has
fundamentally changed the way I look at the world.
One small incident that deeply altered my perspective took
place in rural Nicaragua. I was speaking with a worried
mother who was holding a sick and obviously malnourished
young child. She was standing at the foot of a moringa tree.
Te leaves of moringa are extraordinarily rich in protein,
iron, and vitamin A, three essential nutrients that she and her
family were almost certainly lacking. Yet she was completely
unaware of the value of the tree in her front yard to her familys
health. Te insight from that moment compelled me to learn
what I could about green leaves and to look for ways to use
that information to help people in tough circumstances.
Tis book builds on that efort. It is about green leafy
vegetables in the broadest sense, proposing an enlarged role
for greens in both nutrition and sustainable agriculture.
Finding information on leaf vegetables is not easy.
Afer lettuce, spinach, and a few other relatively well-
known greens, one quickly enters a world of obscure
and dated books and nearly incomprehensible articles in
academic and professional journals. Tis book provides
useful information about leaf vegetables and ofers
suggestions for delving deeper into the subject.
Te frst chapters of this book take a quick look at how
our global food system developed and at some of the basic
shortcomings of this system that need to be repaired if
not redesigned. Te rest of the book looks at ways that
leaf vegetables can contribute to building a more durable
food system that better meets our nutritional needs.
Te basic ideas are simple. Green leaves make up a
large category of underutilized food for humans. Over
1,000 species of plants have edible leaves. Most of leaves
properties as food derive from their primary function
as solar energy collectors for plants. In order to gather
sunlight and convert it into simple foods, green leaves need
to be very bio-chemically dynamic and rich in minerals,
vitamins, proteins, and protective antioxidants. Because
green leaves form the base of all terrestrial food webs,
or food chains, they can produce more food in a given
area or in a given time than any other food sources.
Unfortunately most green leaves also share several traits that
limit their value as human foods. To do their primary job,
green leaves need to expose a large thin surface to sunlight. To
extend this surface they use stif cell walls held in place with
water pressure. As a result, green leaves have a fbrous matrix
formed by the plants cell walls and a high moisture content
(7595%). Te fber from the cell walls can make leaves tough,
and it reduces our ability to absorb the valuable nutrients in the
leaves. In addition, the moisture content makes green leaves
highly perishable, so they are not easily stored or transported.
Another limitation of green leaves as a source of food comes
from bitter or strongly favored compounds that many
plants use to discourage insects and larger animals from
eating their leaves. Children have an inborn resistance to
bitter favors to protect them from accidental poisoning.
Most food preferences are formed in childhood, so many
people develop lifelong aversion to strongly favored
greens. Taken together these factors have restricted the
use of leafy greens in the diet to the point where very
few people eat a serving of leaf vegetables every day.
Green leaves are naturally low in calories. Tis is great if you
are trying to lose weight, but it also means that they wont ever
become your primary energy food. Dark green leafy vegetables
are not a miracle food. Tey wont cure all your ills, make you
young again, or improve your I.Q. Te premise of this book,
however, is that everyones health can beneft signifcantly
from eating a serving of greens once a day instead of once a
week. Its notoriously difcult to change your eating habits.
Tis book ofers practical help for making this change.
You will fnd out how to eliminate tough textures and unlock
the nutrients in leaf vegetables. You will learn how to make
leaf concentrate--a food made from just green leaves--that
actually contains as much protein (and several times more
iron, calcium, and vitamin A) as in beef steak, scrambled eggs,
powdered milk, or pinto beans. You will discover some simple
secrets to get vegetable avoiders, including children, to start
happily eating greens. You will learn the best ways to preserve
greens at the peak of their freshness for use the whole year.
You will be introduced to some impressive new leaf crops
from all over the world and to some new aspects of crops that
are already familiar. You will be able to start producing an
abundance of nutritious greens for your family, no matter
where you live. Whats more, you will learn ways to integrate
edible greens into your homes and gardens in ways that are
ecologically sound. Sustainably grown leaf vegetables can
help protect our natural environments as well as our health.
David Kennedy
Beets (Beta vulgaris)
A Perspective On Our Food Supply
All food for people and other land-based
creatures originates in
a uniform way. A continuous wave of light leaves the surface of
the sun, races across 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) of
swirling empty space in less than 9 minutes, and touches down
on the green leaf of a living plant. A fraction of a second later, the
chlorophyll in the leaf has used that energy to combine carbon,
hydrogen, and oxygen from earths abundant air and water into
glucose, the sweet fuel of life. Tere are several intermediate steps
and there are numerous variations on the theme, but basically it is
this process, called photosynthesis, that begins all of our land-
based food chains.
Glucose is a simple sugar that can then be converted into
more complex sugars, starches, and fbers. It can also combine
with nitrogen and minerals from the soil to make thousands of
diferent protein, fat, vitamin, and other molecules that make up
To function well as solar energy collectors, leaves usually take
the form of a thin sheet or lamina that is light enough and strong
enough to expose a large surface to the sunlight. Storing the food
molecules formed during photosynthesis in the leaf itself would
make it too thick and heavy for efcient sunlight harvesting.
1 Aquatic food chains usually begin with algae. These are leafless, usually
floating plants that are able to perform photosynthesis using chlorophyll.
Because of this, plants generally translocate the foods that are
formed in the leaf to be stored in their stems, roots, seeds, and
Moving food out of the leaves and into the roots and seeds
requires energy (shipping and handling costs), which is drawn
from the carbohydrates formed by photosynthesis. Because of this
additional energy cost, the maximum potential food energy is
always in the leaves. Tis is a relatively simple concept, although it
runs counter to our usual preconceptions about food. To grasp the
basics of nutrition, it is important to understand how food systems
actually work. It might help to think of a grain of wheat as a place
where wheat leaves have stored the food they made from sunlight.
Similarly a potato tuber is a place where potato leaves do their
banking. An apple is a stash of food that the leaves of the apple
tree made by harvesting sunlight.
Te word trophic comes from the Greek word for food. Trophic
levels are the feeding positions in a food chain. Green plants are
the producers and form the frst trophic level. Herbivores are
consumers of green plants and form the second trophic level.
Carnivores as secondary and tertiary consumers form the third
and sometimes even the fourth trophic levels. All of the levels end
in decay and recycling back to the primary producers as compost.
Te energy that is lost moving from one
trophic level to the next is much greater
than the translocation losses that result
from moving food out of leaves where it
is originally formed to the plants storage
organs. In fact, the energy lost moving
from one trophic level to the next is gener-
ally around 90%. Te 90% that is lost is
mostly expended as heat and movement:
staying warm and moving around. So 1,000
kg of grass becomes 100 kg of grasshop-
pers, which becomes 10 kg of frogs, which
becomes 1 kg of hawk. Or to make it more
relevant to the human condition, 1000 kg
of corn becomes 100 kg of pig, and 100
kg of pig becomes 10 kg of human. Te
much simplifed trophic pyramid demon-
strates why there is always more grass than
hamburgers and why animal products, such
as meat, milk, and eggs, usually cost more
than vegetable products.
As a general rule, moving toward the
base of the pyramid increases the quantity
of food available; while moving toward the
top of the pyramid increases the quality
of the food, while decreasing the quantity
available. Tis is because food is normally
upgraded by being eaten. A cow eats grass
and converts the grass into meat, milk,
and manure. Its digestive process sorts out
and reorganizes the molecules in the grass
into patterns that are more useful to cows,
and eliminates those that are useless to
them. Because people are more similar to
cows than grass, the new cow-processed
molecules tend to be more useful to us
than the original grass molecules. Another
way of saying this is that the cow has pre-
digested or at least begun the digestion
process for us. Because of this pre-diges-
tion several nutrients that are critical to
human healthnotably protein, iron, and
vitaminAare more readily utilized when
they come from animal-based foods.
So not only are animal-based foods
less prevalent in nature due to the trophic
pyramid, they are generally more valuable
nutritionally due to pre-digestion. Taken
together, these two basic ecological reali-
ties account for the almost universally high
social status accorded the eating of animal
products. Tis can be seen clearly in the
tendency to increase meat consumption
when family income goes up. On a larger
scale we can see that whole societies, such
as China and Brazil, typically produce
and consume more meat as their economy
Two fundamental strategies are employed
in an efort to improve the human food
supply. We try to increase the quantity of
high-quality animal-based foods at the
top of the trophic pyramid, and we try to
improve the quality of the plentiful plant-
based food available near the wide base of
the pyramid. Feeding rough plant food to
meat animals is an attempt to do both these
things simultaneously.
Hunters in early cultures were rewarded
for bringing nutritionally valuable meat to
their clan. Tey could increase the supply of
meat somewhat by becoming better hunters,
and there was high value placed on making
the best spears and bows. Te limitation
that they encountered was that of the game
animal population. If they became too skilled
at hunting they could decimate the popula-
tion of deer or whatever the game of choice
was. Tis is essentially the situation with
modern fshing. Tere is little point in devel-
oping more sophisticated fshing techniques
as the limiting factor is increasingly the lack
of fsh, not the fshermans skill.
Te domestication of animals turned
hunters into herdsmen and ranchers, and
allowed for more control over the production
of meat. Competing carnivorous animals
such as wolves and coyotes were killed and
100 kg Plants; 10 kg Herbivores; 1 kg Carnivore
A Perspective On Our Food Supply
competition for the best grazing land became
intense. Cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens,
turkeys, and other animals were selectively
bred for their efciency in converting plant
foods to meat, milk, and eggs.
By the mid-twentieth century ingenious
humans had proven themselves remarkably
adept at increasing the previously limited
amount of animal foods available. Afer
the Second World War the mechanization
of agriculture accelerated rapidly with the
lions share of the efort going to stream-
lining animal husbandry and increasing
the yield of feed crops, especially corn
(maize) and soybeans. Improved farm
machinery, soluble fertilizers, insecticides,
herbicides, and high-yielding hybrid seeds
combined to push corn yields up six-fold
over prewar levels. Te vast bulk of the corn
and soybeans grown, along with a consider-
able percentage of the wheat, barley, oats,
sorghum, and cassava are fed to animals
rather than being eaten directly by humans.
Te industrialized economies of the
United States, along with much of Europe,
Japan, and Australia were productive
enough to satisfy their citizens deep
longing for animal products. As expected,
malnutrition became a rarity where the diet
was now so rich in easily absorbed nutri-
ents. Wasting, stunting, anemia, and infec-
tious diseases were increasingly viewed as
the difculties of people too poor to eat
meat regularly.
Feeding plants to meat and milk animals is
one of the basic ways in which we upgrade
the value of plants as food. Tere are at
least three other strategies that we employ
to improve the quality of food from plants.
Tey are ofen combined.
In most hunter and gatherer societies
women did most of the gathering, and
the gathering accounted for more food
than the hunting. Gathering is not like
harvesting row crops. Te most successful
gatherers were not only hard-working but
highly skilled at recognizing which parts
of which plants to pick. Tis was no mean
feat. In some tropical areas there might be
100,000 plant species to choose among.
Some looked very similar and some were
poisonous. Gatherers had to possess a keen
working knowledge of where the most
nutritious plants were growing and when
they were at their nutritional peak.
Gatherers also upgraded the plant-based food
they brought home by processing it. Te most
basic processing was likely stripping leaves
from stems. Stems invariably have more
crude fber and fewer nutrients than leaves,
so the more carefully the stems are removed,
the higher the quality of the leaves.
Over time more sophisticated food
processes were developed. Drying food,
boiling hard seeds, making soups and stews
to sofen leaves and roots, and grinding
and sifing four, were all techniques that
upgraded the quality of plant foods. Pressing
oil, fermenting greens into sauerkraut,
making pasta, and making tofu, or soybean
curd, were more sophisticated processes
that came a bit later in our history. Most
processes were eforts to sofen or remove
the fbrous cell walls of the plants in order
to decrease the energy required to digest the
plant foods and thereby increase their net
food value. Most anthropologists believe that
this increase in net food value allowed early
humans to allocate fewer resources to our
digestive system and more to our energy-
demanding brains.
Many early food processes focused on
removing water to extend the foods useful
life and to reduce its weight and volume for
easier storage and transport. Sun drying
was likely the frst food preservation tech-
nique employed.
Modern food processing deconstructs
inexpensive plant foods from near the
trophic pyramids base and turns them
into ingredients for manufactured foods.
Pure white four, crystal clear corn syrup
and soy oil can be mixed together with
a bit of favoring and coloring, to make
a thousand diferent foods. Because
the fbrous cell walls have been largely
removed by processing, these foods are
very easily digested. In a very real sense
the processing is akin to a mechanical
cow, predigesting the plants and making
the energy in them more accessible to the
human digestive tract.
Almost all plant foods have been modifed
to make them better human foods by a
gradual process called selective breeding.
Most people would have difculty enjoying
a salad made from the wild predecessors
of lettuce or carrots. Compared to todays
version of these vegetables, the wild ones
were small, harsh favored and tough
textured. With the start of the Neolithic
Revolution, some 10,000 years ago, people
began to understand that saving and
planting seed from the biggest and best
tasting specimens year afer year improved
their food plants.
Over many generations of preferential
seed planting, these plants changed to
more closely refect our will and our tastes.
Since selective breeding requires a great
deal of efort and patience, annual plants
that produced a good supply of seeds in a
relatively short time were ofen favored for
these early genetic modifcation eforts.
Over the past hundred years the
domestication of plants has become much
more systematic as the principles of genetic
heredity became clearer. Moving beyond
simple selection of the most promising
plants for reproduction, we began cross-
breeding two varieties to bring traits from
one to the other. In this way we were able
to cross-breed a variety of spinach that had
a desirable color with a variety that had
poor color but higher yield. Ten by back-
crossing the new hybrid spinach variety
with the well-colored variety the undesir-
able trait of poor color could be gradually
Despite this dramatic development of
humans being able to change the nature
of plants, what we are looking for in leaf
crops has remained pretty much the same
for millennia. Like our Paleolithic ancestors
we are still looking for leaves that are easily
harvested with mild favor, tender texture,
vigorous growth, resistance to disease, and
a favorable ratio of edible leaf to fbrous
Commercial agriculture has added a
couple of traits that help make leaf crops
proftable. A predictable and uniform
harvest time is very important to the
biggest growers because harvest is by far
the most expensive labor component of
production. Te idea is to bring in the crews
of pickers and pass once through the feld
harvesting everything in one fell swoop.
Tey have little use for cut-and-come-
again crops that provide a steady fow of
edible greens over a long period.
Other important traits for proftable
production of leaf crops are the ability to
withstand long-distance shipping and a
long shelf life. Crops that ship and store
well can be grown on a large scale where
the conditions are optimal in terms of
climate, land prices and labor costs.
While most everyone was happier
eating the new tender mild favored lettuce
breeds, there were some problems. Te
old lettuce was a tough scrappy plant,
able to hold its own and to reproduce in
the wild. Te new lettuce needed to be
pampered: watered and protected from
insects. Modern iceberg lettuce requires far
more water and more pesticide per unit of
nutrition produced than hardier vegetables,
such as cress or mustard greens, that have
undergone less intensive breeding.
Te impact of plant breeding eforts can
hardly be overstated. Te Green Revolution
of the 1970s began with the breeding of
much higher-yielding varieties of wheat and
rice. Tese new grain seeds turned much
of Asia from food defcient countries into
grain exporters, and supported a rapidly
growing world population. Te new vari-
eties had shorter stems than the traditional
strains. Tis enabled them to produce more
grain when the level of soluble nitrogen
fertilizer was increased to spur growth. Te
older, long-stemmed varieties would get so
tall they fell over or lodged when given
additional fertilizer.
With the start of the twenty-frst
century the rules of the game of plant
domestication were rewritten by the advent
of commercial genetic engineering. Crop
scientists are now able to directly manipu-
late the genes of plants to create varieties
with the traits we desire most. Tis means
that undesirable genes can be almost
A Perspective On Our Food Supply
instantly replaced with more desirable
ones. It also enables, for the frst time, the
possibility of using genes from one species
to alter the plants from another species,
fast-forwarding the evolution of the plant.
Te possibilities are nearly endless, limited
largely by the fnancial motivations of the
companies and institutions capable of
doing this work.
To say that genetic engineering is
controversial would be an understatement.
Proponents claim it can safely provide
larger yields of more nutritious food with
less environmental damage. Opponents
fear it may be a biological Faustian bargain.
Some of the objections have to do with
the manifest possibility of modifed genes
escaping and commingling with non-GM
(genetically modifed) plants. Some people
have ethical and even spiritual concerns
that bio-tech companies are being allowed
to patent and claim exclusive ownership
over life forms. Much of the concern stems
from how quickly the technology is being
deployed and how little oversight or public
input is involved in decisions that could
have very signifcant long term conse-
quences. It is not a huge conceptual jump
from genetically manipulating rice to have
more beta-carotene, to genetically manipu-
lating people so that they absorb beta-
carotene more efciently, or to make them
smarter, more athletic or more attractive.
In the middle of the twentieth century the
biggest question facing the world was who
could most quickly bring about something
called progress. In the realm of food,
progress was called for to close the Protein
Gap. Tis was the gap between the protein
people in developing societies were getting
and the protein they needed in order to
reach their full physical and mental poten-
tial. Te question of how to best close this
gap was essentially reduced to How can
the poor, unsuccessful, plant-eating soci-
eties be transformed into rich, successful,
meat-eating societies, or at least moder-
ately prosperous societies eating upgraded
refned plant foods?
Before the end of the century, before
most people had gotten even a whif of
broiling sirloin, two small cracks appeared
in this progress-oriented view of food.
Te frst fssure in the monolithic view
was largely nutritional in nature and the
second one agricultural. Wealthier people
were experiencing historically high rates
of a cluster of illnesses: heart disease,
high blood pressure, stroke, cancers, and
diabetes. Antibiotics had infectious diseases
under control, and heart disease and cancer
became the new leading causes of death.
At frst, public health ofcials were
bafed. However, it gradually became
evident that something good was removed
when plant foods were upgraded by
refning them to remove fber. Without
the fber from the cell walls slowing things
down, refned sugars and starches are ofen
digested too quickly for the body to process
properly. Te rapid absorption of refned
carbohydrates causes large fuctuations
in the blood sugar level. Tis can lead to
insulin resistance, which can trigger the
onset of diabetes in people with a genetic
predisposition to that disease. A great many
of the people eating these foods were taking
in more calories than their increasingly
sedentary lifestyles required, and they were
storing the excess as body fat. A grotesque
mirror image of the wasting and stunting
caused by too little food was emerging. An
epidemic of obesity had begun within the
industrialized nations.
Fiber removal was not the only
problem. Te push for longer shelf life was
also contributing to the new health crisis.
In order to make standardized products
with a long enough shelf life to be marketed
all over the globe, manufacturers needed
to remove all the volatile or perishable
components in the food. So along with
the fber, the nutritious germ was removed
from grains, the complex of minerals from
sugar and corn syrup, and essential fatty
acids from purifed oils.
Some investigators began to wonder if
the increased consumption of meat, milk,
and eggs might also be involved. Tere had
long been a somewhat marginal movement
of vegetarians in the United States and
Europe who campaigned against meat-
eating largely on moral grounds involving
just treatment of animals. Researchers
found unexpected support for the vege-
tarian diet when looking into careful
records kept by the Dutch people during
the Nazi blockade. Te health of the people
actually seemed to improve when the war
reduced their access to meat, milk, and
While animal-based foods in the diet
did indeed provide protection against
stunting, iron defciency anemia, and
vitaminA defciency; it was becoming clear
that too much of these foods could clog
our arteries and predispose us to several
diet-related chronic degenerative diseases.
Several indicators were beginning to point
toward fat from animals being a culprit in
the new health problems, particularly the
cholesterol in that fat. Tis was bad news
to the meat packers and to the dairy lobby,
who responded by lobbying and advertising
vigorously to blunt the fnancial impact of
this information.
In 1972 the World Health Organization
declared the Protein Gap over by cutting
the daily recommendation for protein by
half. Tis new position, based on consider-
able research, maintained that if people
were getting enough calories they were
probably getting enough protein. While this
premise has proven true in most instances,
it doesnt take into account low-protein
foods like cassava. Neither does it address
the rapid increase in empty calorie foods
like soda that supply plenty of calories, but
no protein or other nutrients.
A fascinating exception to the pattern of
animal-based foods leading to heart disease
and cancer was found in France. Although
the French diet was rich in meat, eggs,
and cheese, and thus high in animal fats
and cholesterol, they had much less heart
disease and cancer than the Americans.
Tis French paradox was thought to be
linked to compounds called antioxidants

2 The human body has developed an evolutionary
defense against short-term food scarcity. We are
able to store extra calories from periods with
plentiful food as insurance against temporary
shortfalls. The extra calories are stored as fat,
because it holds much more energy per kilo than
sugars or starches. The weight of the average
American adult has increased 10.4 kg (23 lbs)
from 1980 to 2007. This represents about 82,000
calories worth of extra stored energy. If we had
stored the excess as carbohydrates rather than fat
we would have increased in weight by 23.6 kg
(52 lbs) rather than 10.4 kg (23 lbs).
3 Antioxidants are compounds, commonly found
in fruits and vegetables, which protect our
A Perspective On Our Food Supply
in the vegetables, garlic, and red wine so
popular in France.
Initially scientists tried to isolate the
active antioxidant ingredients that were
responsible for reducing the risk of cancers.
Tey focused on beta-carotene, the pigment
that gives carrots their orange color. Tey
were surprised when three studies showed
that beta-carotene alone did not reduce
cancer risk. Gradually, they came to believe
the beneft was coming from a wide variety
of compounds working together in whole
fruits and vegetables.
Tis was a powerful blow to the
dominant view of both nutritional and
medical science. Te prevailing approach
in these felds had been reductionist. First
a protective mechanism in the human
body would be studied, and the key active
ingredient isolated. Finally the results
would be reduced to a powder that could be
distributed as a dietary supplement. It was a
strategy that had proven efective (and prof-
itable) with vitamin and mineral supple-
ments as well as a slew of pharmaceuticals.
Te fndings from research into antioxi-
dants simply suggested that we should eat a
greater amount of diferent kinds of fruits
and vegetables. Tis was not a message that
could be easily reduced to a product and
was obviously not a message that enhanced
bodies cells from destructive oxygen reactions.
Although we would die quickly without oxygen,
four types of destructive oxygen reactions have
been linked to over fifty human diseases.
Hyacinth Bean (Lablab purpureus)
the mystique of modern science or its
spokesperson, the guy in a white lab coat.
Te second fault line in the progress-
oriented approach to food supply issues
appeared in 1955 with the publication of
Silent Spring. Rachel Carson, a well-known
American biologist, wrote this popular
book describing her investigation into
agricultural pesticides. Te gist of the book
was that pesticides, in particular the insec-
ticide DDT, were ending up in unintended
places, setting of chains of unforeseen
consequences and killing non-target beings,
especially birds and amphibians.
Te rationale for using pesticides is
straightforward. Insects, say Mexican bean
beetles, are ruining $500 worth of my bean
crop. I can buy $100 worth of insecticide to
kill the beetles, and save $400. Tere is a lot
of competition for our food crops. Insects,
nematodes, bacterial wilts and viruses are
all looking for lunch in our crop felds. Te
agro-chemical industry has approached
the problem with a simplistic military
approach: identify the enemys weakness
and kill it as cheaply as possible.
Carson and the many other biolo-
gists that helped sound the alarm were
not calling for surrender to the crop
pests as much as diplomacy. In addition
to killing innocent bystanders such as
birds and frogs, insecticides were ofen
creating secondary or rebound infesta-
tions. Continuing the above illustration,
while Mexican bean beetles are eating my
bean plants, to a much lesser extent so
are aphids. Te aphid population is being
kept at a modest level by ladybugs. I spray
for the bean beetles, killing them and the
ladybugs. Afer a surprisingly short interval
I am looking for something to spray on the
aphids, whose population and resulting
damage have increased rapidly in the
absence of the ladybugs predation.
An even more disturbing phenomenon
was the development of genetic resistance.
Any trait in any naturally occurring popu-
lation can be plotted along a bell-shaped
curve. In this example the trait is resistance
to a pesticide and the population is the
Mexican bean beetles in a bean feld. Te
ones falling on the lef-hand side of the
curve are the least resistant; they all die in
the frst spraying.
Te vast majority, in the hump of the
bell, have intermediate or average resis-
tance. Te poison is very potent and kills all
the beetles with average resistance as well.
At the extreme right of the curve are the
beetles with the greatest genetic resistance
to the pesticide. Only 90% of the most
resistant beetles are killed. Assuming there
were a total of 100,000 bean beetles in the
feld before the pesticide was sprayed, the
pesticide killed 99,900 or 99.9% of them.
While in the short term I have protected
my beans, in the long term I have made
sure that only those beetles with the highest
level of genetic resistance to the pesticide
Mexican Bean Beetle
Natural Selection for
Pesticide Resistance
Year Ten
Year One
most resistance
least resistance
90% die from
10% survive
average resistance
most resistance
average resistance
10% die from
90% survive
A Perspective On Our Food Supply
will be able to reproduce and pass on their
Pesticides have been widely used since
about 1950. During that time humans
have had about three generations to begin
adapting to their presence in our envi-
ronment. However, an insect pest might
have 180 generations in the same time
frame as our three, during which they can
genetically adapt to the pesticide. Tis
combination of many generations, with
lots of ofspring (some insects have 30,000
ofspring) and extreme environmental
pressure from the fatal spray creates a
Darwinian incubator. Within 60 years
of use at least 500 species of insects have
developed signifcant if not complete
genetic resistance to a pesticide that had
previously been efective against them. A
parallel occurrence has been increasing
genetic resistance to herbicide showing
up in weed populations. An even more
accelerated version of this sort of natural
selection at work has occurred with genetic
resistance to antibiotics in bacteria. For
instance, it is now assumed that most
staphylococcus bacteria in the United States
have synthesized penicillinase, an enzyme
that neutralizes penicillin, rendering that
antibiotic nearly useless against staphylo-
coccus infections.
Te importance of Silent Spring went far
beyond rousing public concern about
indiscriminate pesticide use and getting
DDT banned. It was about biology trying to
tell chemistry something important. Tat
something was that life takes place within
very complex, dynamic, and interconnected
systems. Te science of ecology was begin-
ning to take root.
Tere are a lot of possible defnitions of
ecology, but it is basically the study of how
living beings interact with their environ-
ments. Viewing life in terms of networks,
nested systems, feedback loops, fows,
resource recycling and dynamic balance
doesnt seem like it would be threatening.
However, the ecological viewpoint stands in
sharp contrast to the reductionist deci-
sion-making process of business and the
military. A culture focused on simplistic,
linear cause and efect wants results and
wants them quickly. Te ecological perspec-
tive is inherently more conservative, always
taking into account longer-term efects
and possible unintended consequences of
Ecology has struggled to gain legiti-
macy in the world of academia, repeatedly
having to distance itself from emotional
environmentalist movements. But ulti-
mately the power of ecology comes from
the essential realization that despite our
remarkable achievements, human beings
are just one thread in a great web of life: a
web that we did not weave. Tis is a more
profound change of perspective than that
brought about by Copernicus and Galileo,
when they demonstrated that the sun,
not the Earth, was the center of the solar
Applied Ecology is the feld of using
ecological principles and observations to
make management decisions. Chief among
applied ecology management guidelines is
the precautionary principle. Tis is simply
the common sense warning to avoid taking
actions that may have negative consequences
out of proportion to the beneft of the action.
In other words, if there is a slight chance that
an artifcial colorant might cause allergic
shock or long-term liver damage in some
people and the beneft is a minor cosmetic
improvement in the appearance of a product,
the precautionary principle would suggest
leaving the colorant out.
With food systems the precautionary
principle encourages us to hedge our bets.
For instance, we might choose to maintain
the genetic capability of older food plants
even if they have been replaced by more
economical varieties, because something
unforeseen might attack and destroy the
new varieties. We would probably never
need the old seed stock, but because the
consequences of not having either the new
or the old varieties could be catastrophic,
we maintain the seeds. Or as Aldo Leopold
put it, To keep every cog and wheel is the
frst precaution of intelligent tinkering.
Core Food System Problems
Te overall patterns by which we produce, process, distribute,
and eat food can be called food systems. An ideal food system
would provide all of the people it served with a diet that supported
optimal health, without diminishing dietary prospects for future
generations. Te current global food system falls well short of this
ideal in both nutritional support and sustainability. It is neither
supporting optimal health for all the people nor protecting the
natural resource base so that future generations can produce their
Tere are about 6.7 billion humans on the planet and it is widely
assumed that we will reach a peak population of around 9 billion
by the middle of the 21st century. We each need about 1.8 kg (4
lb) of food a day. Typically that food contains small amounts
of several minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, plus the major
components shown in Chart 21 on page 12.
Traditional malnutrition
Approximately half of the worlds people experience serious health
problems tied to their diet. Roughly one billion sufer directly
from simple hunger or under-nutrition, the lack of enough food to
meet the physical demands of life. Despite the Green Revolution,
genetically modifed crops, and several decades of large-scale
well-intentioned programs to eradicate hunger, in some ways the
problem may actually be getting worse. While the percentage of
people who are undernourished may be declining somewhat, the
overall number of hungry people in the world is not. Te roughly
one billion people who are chronically hungry in 2010 exceed the
entire number of humans alive in 1800.
A far larger number of people, perhaps 2 to 2 billion, live
with a dietary shortage of one or more vital nutrients. While
they may have an adequate intake of calories, these people sufer
from the hidden hunger of micronutrient defciencies. Te most
common and troubling of these are iron defciency anemia, and
defciencies of vitaminA, folate, iodine, and zinc. A shortfall of
tiny amounts of these essential micronutrients deprives people of
the energy required to work, play, or learn to their potential, and
leaves them far more vulnerable to a range of debilitating illnesses
and birth defects.
Hunger, whether visible or hidden, afects mainly people who
live in the tropics. Tey typically earn less than two dollars a day
and spend most of that on cheap starchy staple foods in order to
subsist. Tese cheap staples by themselves dont have an adequate
range of nutrients to support good mental and physical health.
Increases in the price of rice, wheat, and corn have pushed many
of these people into even more desperate situations. According to
the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization global food prices
hit a new record high in February, 2011, more than two and a half
times higher than in 1990 when they began keeping these records.
Alongside those who are under-
nourished or micronutrient defcient is
the multitude of people whose access to
adequate food is not secure. Food security
for a family means that all of the members
always have access to enough food for an
active healthy life. People with low or inter-
mittent income are the most likely to lack
food security. Ofen a slight shif in circum-
stances, such as an injury or illness, a new
child, or some sort of economic or political
disruption is enough to push them into the
ranks of the undernourished.
Industrial food malnutrition
Te other face of the human nutrition
problem is the new improved malnutri-
tion brought on by the global industrialized
corporate food system. With few excep-
tions, wherever modern industrial foods
have supplanted traditional diets, the rates
of several diet-related chronic diseases have
soared. Te new problem of malnutrition
in many societies expresses itself in the
increasing prevalence of coronary disease,
obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure,
stroke, and many types of cancer, rather
than as a shortage of food or suscepti-
bility to infection. Tese tend to be mainly
problems related to poor food choices.
Tose poor food choices typically amount
to eating too many calorie-dense foods with
refned fats and carbohydrates, and too few
nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
It is tempting to view other people as
simply too weak-willed to resist that extra
chocolate bar. Te sheer numbers, however,
suggest a more fundamental food system
problem. Te number of overweight people
now stands at about 1.1 billion, about the
same as the number of undernourished
people. Tis problem is getting increasingly
serious, and is damaging the health and
long-term prospects of younger people each
year. Even in China one child in ten is now
A system that is robust enough to provide
food for at least 10,000 years could be
called durable or sustainable. We are still a
relatively young species, far from matching
the dinosaurs impressive run of hundreds
of millions of years. Among all the various
human activities, maintaining our food
system has by far the greatest impact on
natural environments. Functioning food
systems are perhaps the top priority of
any society. When one fails it needs to be
repaired or replaced quickly or there is
trouble. Ours is currently under stress.
Obviously, providing secure access to a
well-balanced diet for billions of people is
a prodigious undertaking. It is estimated
that the current world food production
is sufcient to provide each person with
2,700 calories per day. Tis would be more
than adequate if distribution were equi-
table. In practice a great many people are
consuming less than 1,800 calories a day;
barely enough to stay alive. In addition to
the issue of uneven distribution, it is not

Chart 21
Typical daily food consumption
nutrient daily consumption
Water 1.4 kg (3 pounds)
Starch 255 g (9 ounces)
Protein 85 g (3 ounces)
Fat 85 g (3 ounces)
Sugars 57 g (2 ounces)
Fiber 28 g (1 ounce)
Core Food System Problems
clear that we can continue producing this
much food without incurring irreparable
damage to our food producing ecosystems.
Not only are there now more people
alive than ever before, but they are living
much longer and they are demanding more
foods higher up the trophic pyramid. It is
very difcult to imagine that the current
global food system will be able to meet the
dietary demands of nine billion people
without profound damage to the Earths
natural resource base. Below are six impor-
tant trends that need to be addressed, if not
resolved, in order to make a graceful transi-
tion to a more sustainable food system.
Rising energy costs
Te modern food system uses phenomenal
amounts of energy, mainly from non-
renewable petroleum and natural gas, to
produce, process, and distribute our food.
Most of the fertilizer and other agrichemi-
cals on which our industrialized food
system depends are manufactured from
fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas). Te
tractors that work the land and the trucks
that transport the food burn gasoline and
diesel fuel derived from oil. Te reserves of
petroleum are rapidly being drawn down
and are not being replaced. Te crude oil
that was most convenient to exploit has
been exploited. Increasingly we will be
drilling deeper for lower grade oil in more
difcult circumstances. Te low-hanging
fruit has already been picked. Te catas-
trophe of crude oil gushing for months into
the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010
was one of the costs of drilling deeper in
more difcult circumstances. Te demand
for concentrated supplies of energy is
growing, and expanding economies are
competing for the dwindling resources. All
of these factors are combining to drive up
the price of petroleum-based products and
services. Industrial foods are petroleum-
based products.
Te impact of rising oil prices on the
food system is ofen made worse, not better,
when people try to substitute bio-fuels
for petroleum. Bio-fuels are derived from
living plants and could in theory become
renewable energy resources. Unfortunately,
bio-fuel crops are generally grown unsus-
tainably as commercial monocrops.
Bio-fuel crops are also competing for
land with food crops. Tis is especially
troubling in sub-Saharan Africa where a
massive land grab by wealthier foreigners
is well underway. Tis threatens to further
diminish the food resource available to the
worlds most malnourished population.
Climate Change
Te problem of fossil energy costs is greatly
exacerbated by the impact burning these
fuels is having on the global climate. Oil,
coal, and natural gas are ancient reserves
of concentrated carbon captured from
the air by green plants millions of years
ago. Burning them now is adding enough
carbon to the air to change the atmo-
spheres chemistry. Tis relatively sudden
2011 AD
10,000 BC
Human Population Growth
addition of carbon increases the green-
house efect of our atmosphere, trapping
more solar energy and raising the Earths
temperature. Large climate systems are
extraordinarily complex, and accurately
projecting changing climate patterns for an
entire planet is beyond our capacity.
Despite some regrettable fumbling,
the best available science is nearly unani-
mously expecting big trouble. While
some temperate-zone agriculture may see
a temporary beneft from the changing
climate, overall the changes will likely
be disruptive, especially in the tropics.
Warmer temperatures may well cause the
fooding of low-lying land as polar ice
melts. Tese coastal lands are among the
most populated and the most productive in
terms of food production. Beyond coastal
fooding, global warming is expected to
destabilize weather patterns, spawning
more frequent and powerful storms and
making agriculture a much less predictable
and more difcult endeavor. Tis is not a
good weather forecast if we need to double
our food production in ffy years.
Water is even more critical to food produc-
tion than oil, though it is not consumed in
the way that oil is burned. It is constantly
recycled through evaporation and rainfall.
Te value of water can be greatly dimin-
ished by contamination; and underground
aquifers can be depleted by withdrawing
water faster than they are recharged by
rainfall. According to the World Bank,
worldwide demand for fresh water is
doubling every 21 years and more than half
the worlds population resides in areas with
water shortages.
Nearly 70% of the water we use is for
irrigating food crops. A lack of water is now
or will soon be the factor most limiting
food production in much of the world.
Again, the growing demand for meat, milk,
and eggs intensifes the problem, since
their production requires far more water
than an equal amount of plant-based foods
(mainly for irrigating feed crops). Te very
high levels of food production required by
the middle of the twenty-frst century will
necessitate large increases in irrigation, but
most of the convenient sources of ground
and surface water are already being used at
rates that are not sustainable. Desalinating
sea water is not a good option since it is
energy intensive.
We live on a ball that is roughly 13,000 km
(8,000 mi) in diameter. Two-thirds of the
balls surface is covered with salt water. On
the remaining portion is a remarkably thin
skin of soil upon which almost all terres-
trial life depends. Te most important layer,
composed of broken-down rock, organic
matter, air, and water is called topsoil and
ranges from only a few centimeters up to a
meter or so thick. Soil physically supports
plants and is the matrix from which most
water and nutrients are derived. Modern
Core Food System Problems
agriculture, with its focus on vast mono-
crops of annual plants, has contributed to
the erosion or degradation of about half
of all of the Earths best food-growing
land. Where the soil has not been literally
washed into the sea, it has ofen lost much
of its organic matter and with it, important
structural properties. Soluble synthetic
fertilizers and frequent plowing have
reduced the topsoils ability to absorb and
to retain water. Much of the soil that we
will need to produce bumper crops for the
next ffy years is already depleted in one or
more minerals essential to plant growth.
Human beings currently make up less than
one percent of the animal biomass on the
planet, yet we use between thirty two and
forty percent of the net photosynthetic
productivity of the Earths plants. Tis
disproportionate pattern of use doesnt
leave enough resources available for the
millions of other species with whom we
share the Earth. In his book Te Future
of Life, biologist E. O. Wilson predicted
that half of all species will sufer extinc-
tion within ffy years if current land use
patterns continue. Te cost of doubling
the food supply available to humans would
likely be dire in terms of biodiversity. Not
only is it unethical to drive so many fellow
species to extinction, but the rich mosaic
of diverse species provides many ecologi cal
services that are essential to support human
Roughly 50% of the worlds population now
lives in urban areas. Both the percentage
and absolute numbers of city dwellers are
growing. Much of the push for urbaniza-
tion comes from the rapid mechanization
of agriculture. Many countries have tried to
emulate the agricultural development of the
United States, with its emphasis on huge,
highly-mechanized monoculture farms.
Capital, machinery, and agri-chemicals
are used to replace expensive labor. Tis
strategy has been so successful that there
are now fewer than 1 million full-time
farmers in the US, a country with over
300 million people. In fact, there are more
prisoners than farmers in the US. Food has
become cheap and plentiful but the skills
required to grow it are quickly being lost.
As the opportunity to make a living on the
land disappears, the pressure to create jobs
and infrastructure for hundreds of millions
of new urbanites intensifes. Te world only
needs so many sofware engineers.
Taken together these six factors make
it impossible for the worlds human popu-
lation to continue feeding itself using the
same systems that are currently being
employed. Te next section of this book
will look at the role that leaf vegetables
might play in addressing some of these
thorny nutritional and ecological problems
and helping to make the transition to a new
food system.
Capturing solar energy as electricity
Capturing solar energy as food
Te Potential and Limitations
of Leaf Vegetables
Ones nutritional status is largely determined by economics and
culture. People with very little income spend most of it on food,
and they tend to buy the cheapest calories available. Usually this
means corn, rice, wheat, cassava, potatoes, plantains, and sugar.
Increasingly the cheapest form of these staple foods is not in their
crude unprocessed state, but afer they have been refned for ease
of shipping and marketing. Te result is people sitting down to
plates of white rice with cassava four sprinkled over it in Brazil,
to white corn meal pap in Swaziland, and to bowls of refned rice
in south Asia. Tey will likely get barely enough calories; have a
marginal or slightly inadequate supply of protein; and a decided
shortfall of vitaminA, iron, and calcium as well as many other
vitamins, minerals, and protective antioxidants.
For these people, green leaves could make a real diference.
Why? Because they can be produced cheaplycheaply enough to
be available to even the poorest among us. Over two billion people
live on two dollars or less a day. Tey ofen spend over half of their
income on food. Food prices have been going up rapidly: staple
foods like rice and wheat more than doubled in price from 2000
to 2009. You dont need a degree in economics to see the hunger in
the math.
Green leaves can serve as a nutritional complement to staple
foods at a very low cost. For example, adding 20% dried moringa
leaf to white rice will increase its protein content from six percent
to ten percent. Adding it to cassava will increase the protein from
1% to 6%. VitaminA activity in food is most commonly measured
in retinol activity equivalents (RAE). Applied to green leaves,
we observe that a 100-gram (3 oz) serving of cassava has the
equivalent of one microgram of RAE; white corn meal and white
rice have none. Easily grown vine spinach (Basella alba and B.
rubra) leaves each contain 400 micrograms of RAE; kale has 768.
Raw broccoli and grape leaves, which are ofen discarded, have,
respectively, 800 and over 1,000 mcg RAE.
Iron defciency anemia is considered to be the most common
nutritional disorder in the world. It prevents the blood from
carrying enough oxygen to fully energize bodily functions.
Anemic people lack physical, mental, and emotional energy. Teir
span of attention is shorter and their memory and concentration
worse than people with adequate iron. Where do people with
minimal income fnd iron? Not in corn meal, rice, plantains, or
cassava. A hundred grams (3 oz) of each of these foods contains,
respectively, 1.1 mg, 0.8 mg, 0.6 mg, and 0.3 mg iron. On the
other hand, 100 grams of dried Chinese
boxthorn, moringa, parsley, or chaya leaves
all have over 20 mg of iron.
Greens can produce the missing iron
quickly and cheaply. A study in Taiwan
showed that Chinese cabbage produced 13
times more iron than grains in the same
space over the same time. Te same study
showed that the cabbage was 11 times more
cost-efcient than chicken as a source of
dietary iron.
What about people who arent in such
desperate economic situations? What do
leafy greens have to ofer them? Leaf vege-
tables have high nutrient densities. Nutrient
density describes the nutritional value of
a food relative to its calories. So by eating
foods that are low in calorie density but
high in nutrient density, one can keep ones
weight under control while ensuring good
nutrition. Leafy vegetables are good sources
of several of the minerals and vitamins
sometimes lacking in modern diets as well
as fber and antioxidants that are notori-
ously lacking in industrialized diets.
Tere are at least three areas in which
greater use of leaf crops could help build
sustainability into our food systems.
1 The integrated research approach of the Asian
Vegetable Research and Development Center
(AVRDC) to enhance micronutrient availability;
Mubarik Ali and Samson Tsou;
Food and Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 4 2000,
The United Nations University
Increasing the biodiversity
of our food supply
Human beings by their nature are highly
adaptable omnivores. We can thrive on
a wide variety of diferent foods. Tis is
obviously a huge survival advantage over
specialists like koala bears who eat only
eucalyptus leaves, or pandas that specialize
in bamboo leaves. However, as our popu-
lation has grown to 6 billion we have
become extremely dependent on fewer than
10 of the roughly 350,000 known fow-
ering plants. Corn, rice, wheat, potatoes,
cassava, and soybeans supply the majority
of the calories eaten by humans on earth.
Stable ecosystems on the other hand are
characterized by a large number of species
linked together in mutually benefcial webs.
Over 1,000 species of plants have leaves
that are edible to humans. Using more
of them in our food system could widen
the base and ofer alternative means of
meeting our requirements for several key
nutrients. Growing a wider range of food
plants would spread our risk, ofering some
protection against catastrophic insect or
virus attacks on any of the big six staple
Reducing energy costs of producing,
processing, and distributing food
Leafy green vegetables will grow almost
anywhere, and with a little help they can
be grown year round in all but the harshest
conditions. Growing leaf crops closer
to where and when we eat them would
save a signifcant amount of energy while
providing fresher and more nutritious food.
Solar drying of leaf vegetables is another
energy saver. Because leaves form in thin
sheets they are easy to dry. Simple inexpen-
sive dryers using only the free energy of the
sun can easily preserve them for later use.
One of the most important ways that
leaf crops could reduce energy use is by
substituting them for some of the animal-
based food in the Westernized diet. Animal
products almost invariably require more
energy to produce than vegetable-based
foods. Because of this most attempts to cut
the energy used in the food system begin
by trying to reduce the amount of animal
products produced. Techniques exist
that can greatly improve the nutritional
quality of green leaves. Tese techniques
make it possible to obtain more proteins,
vitamins, and minerals with much less
reliance on energy-intensive industrial meat
Better integration of food
crops into ecosystems
Stable or mature ecosystems are complex
and largely self-regulating biological
communities. Tey are frugal with the
sunlight that powers them and the rain that
falls on them and they recycle nutrients
efciently. Tey have a large number of
interdependent species held together in a
dynamic balance of competition and coop-
eration. Sustainable food systems will need
The Potential and Limitations of Leaf Vegetables
to look and act more like ecosystems than
biological factories.
Te great variety of plant types that
produce edible leaves will be very useful in
making a transition to a more ecologically
stable food system. Leaf crops can take the
forms of twining climbers, annual herbs,
perennial shrubs, even trees. Amaranth
can be harvested in thirty days; barley and
Austrian winter peas can be planted afer
the frst frost. Cowpeas and fenugreek are
nitrogen-fxing legumes that can be inter-
cropped with plants that are heavy nitrogen
feeders. Watercress and kangkong can be
grown in water. Tender tropical leaf crops
like soko and basella laugh at heat that
sends spinach and lettuce bolting (prema-
turely producing a seed stalk). Siberian
kale shrugs of temperatures down to
minus 17 degrees Celsius (or zero degrees
Fahrenheit). Te atriplex family has several
edible leaf members that are among the
most salt tolerant of all land plants. Leaf
crops are ideal for growing in containers
or roofops where space is at a premium or
weight must be kept at a minimum.
Leaf crops display an amazing range of
attributes. Many of the best leaf vegetables
come from multi-use crops. Onions,
garlic, beans, sweet potatoes, wheat, barley,
cassava, peas, okra, and pumpkins are
among the many plants that produce edible
leaves as well as other valuable foods. Once
we know the plants and their growth habits
we can invariably get more total food by
making informed partial leaf harvests.
You cant use 16-row planters or giant
harvesting combines to grow food this way,
but you can grow it with less oil energy,
less soil erosion, and fewer insect and
disease problems. Working in an ecologi-
cally sustainable way requires maintaining
a population of possible solutions, not
just producing bumper crops of one or
two plants. A thousand leaf crops are a
thousand possible solutions.
While many cultures have developed
intriguing recipes and processing tech-
niques for using their greens, they still play
a relatively unimportant role in the diet.
Even this limited role is diminishing as
the human population rapidly urbanizes.
What is it that is keeping leafy vegetables
from taking on more of the responsibility
for feeding the worlds people? Tree things
stand out; high fber content, high moisture
content and strong favors.
High Fiber Content
To do their primary job of photosynthesis
green leaves need to expose a large thin
surface to sunlight. In order to extend
the leaf into the light plants rely on stif
cell walls comprised mainly of cellulose,
the fbrous material that makes up most
of cotton and paper, and water pressure.
When the leaf cells are full of water, they
exert pressure on the next cell. When the
plant has adequate water the entire leaf is
held in place with this water pressure. If
the water pressure drops, the leaf quickly
wilts and loses it crispness. As a result of
this basic structural architecture, when
green leaves become food they have a
high moisture and fber content. Water
usually makes up between 8095% of leafy
vegetables weight. Of the remaining dry
matter, fber typically accounts for 1040%.
Teir high water and fber content seriously
curtail how much we use leaves as food.
Te fber from the cell walls, especially
along the veins of many leaves, can make
them difcult to chew and to swallow. Tis
Cell wall ruptured, nutrients released
is especially true for young children whose
teeth and digestive tract muscles have not
yet fully developed. Elderly people also
ofen have dental limitations that afect
their ability to eat tough or stringy foods.
As the leaf matures the amount and rigidity
of the fber normally increases. Young
immature leaves typically have lower fber
content, are easier to chew and are almost
uniformly preferred for foods.
Te fbrous cell walls impact not only
the texture but also the nutritional value
of the leaf vegetables. Acting like minia-
ture cardboard boxes, they enclose much
of the protein, vitamins, and minerals
in the leaf, and make it difcult for our
digestive enzymes to reach these nutri-
ents. Even when the cell walls are broken
open the fber tends to entangle with the
nutrient rich chloroplasts in green leaves.
Tis makes it more difcult for our bodies
to absorb and utilize these valuable nutri-
ents. So while green leaves contain large
amounts of important nutrients, they are
ofen in forms that are difcult for us to
access. It is this problem of low bioavail-
ability of nutrients, especially of iron and
vitaminA, that has led some international
nutritionists to discount leaf vegetables
as a realistic solution to the anemia and
vitaminA defciency that are rampant in
developing countries.
High Moisture Content
Te high moisture content of leaf vegetables
makes them very perishable. As soon as
they are separated from the plant leaves
begin wilting, losing both eye appeal and
nutritional value. To be shipped, most
greens need to be cooled with ice in the
feld and packed in refrigerated trucks
with no delays. Over 90% of leaf vegetables
sold in the US are grown in California and
Arizona. Te cost of shipping them across
the country is rising fast with the price
of gasoline. It takes more fuel to run the
refrigerated trucks than regular trucks, and
these costs are always transferred to the
Even with this treatment leafy vegetables
have a very short shelf life compared to beans
or four or potato chips or corn fakes or even
apples. For retailers, greens are a lot of trouble.
If they dont sell within a couple of days they
start looking like limp dishrags and someone
must assume the loss. Tis is why you wont
fnd greens in convenience stores. Tese are
stores that have become popular primarily in
urbanized parts of the world that have taken
the most popular, most proftable and least
labor-demanding products from grocery
stores. Tey make a growing percentage of
the total retail food business profts with this
simple scheme, and there is no room for leafy
vegetables in it.
Most people in the world dont have
refrigerators in their homes. Vendors
selling greens to people without refrigera-
tors normally have one day to do so, and
the people buying greens need to cook
them the day of purchase. As more mothers
throughout the world look for employment,
convenience of preparing meals grows
in importance and the short shelf life of
greens is decidedly inconvenient.
Strong Flavors
Te third limitation of green leaves as
a source of food comes from bitter or
strongly-favored compounds. Because
of the vast number of plant species and
the dynamic biochemical environment of
green leaves, there are many thousands of
chemical compounds in green leaves. Not
all are delicious and not all are helpful to
Fresh harvested leaves Wilted leaves
The Potential and Limitations of Leaf Vegetables
the human body. Tere is a good reason
that plants ofen have delicious fruit but
harsh-tasting leaves. Since plants cant
move, they ofen enlist the aid of mobile
animals to distribute their seed. Packaging
the seed within a tempting fruit convinces
the animal to eat the seed whole without
damaging it. Pectin and other soluble fbers
in the fruit also encourage the animal to
deposit the seed along with some manure to
fertilize the new plant.
Plants do not have a similar motive
to make delicious leaves. Anticipating a
certain amount of feeding on them, they
universally can produce more leaves than
they need to survive, but they also usually
have some strategy to reduce or control
animals feeding on their leaves. Plants ofen
use harsh-tasting and bitter compounds
to accomplish this end. Some are binary
weapons, as with members of the onion
family. Te action of something eating
or cutting the onion plant tissue brings
together two compounds that are stored
slightly apart and releases a dilute mist of
sulfuric acid. Tese various plant defense
mechanisms present a challenge to human
Te next section of this book will look
at some of the ways that these limitations
can be overcome and both the nutritional
and ecological potential of green leafy
vegetables can be realized.
Plants have common names as well as scientific or
botanical names. Most of the time the common
name suffices. Sometimes, however, we need
more clarity between two similar plants or between two plants with similar common names.
Additionally, common names are in local languages so the common name of a plant in Indonesia
is probably useless in Spain.
The universal system science uses for naming species is called binominalor binarynomen-
clature. The binomial system originated with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (170778), who
ambitiously attempted to describe the entire natural world. To name every organism, he used
a seven-category system that places living beings in progressively smaller groupings: kingdom,
phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.
Generally only the Latin genus and species names are used, giving every species a two-word
name. The first is always capitalized and refers to the genus of the plant or animal. The second name
is not capitalized and refers to the species within the genus. Scientific names are usually italicized.
While it may seem overly formal, the binomial system comes in handy when discussing leaf
crops from around the globe, even when using the same language. For example, the common
name pigweed may refer to Amaranthus retroflexus or any number of other amaranth species,
or to lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). Common names like spinach or cabbage are used to
refer to all sorts of plants including New Zealand spinach, water spinach, and Malabar spinach.
Cabbage is even trickier, with Chinese cabbage, deer cabbage, dog cabbage, skunk cabbage,
Maori cabbage, poor mans cabbage, and others. Not all of them make decent coleslaw.
Sometimes a group, subspecies, variety, or cultivar name follows the species name. Varieties
are subdivisions of species. They refer to naturally occurring changes or mutations which create
a distinctive appearance, such as variations in flower color or growing habits. Cultivars refer to
varieties which, although they may occur naturally, can only be reproduced by human inter-
vention. Hybrids refer to new varieties of plants, which were created by humans through cross
pollination of separate varieties. When spp. follows a genus name, such as Amaranthus spp., it is
referring to more than one species within that genus.
Common cabbage is Brassica oleracea capitata, while kale and collards are Brassica oleracea
acephala. They are varieties of the same species: capitata, with head, and acephala, without
head. If your Latin is rusty or worse you can still sometimes derive information from the scien-
tific names. Berseem or Egyptian clover is Trifolium alexandrinum. Trifolium means three-leafed
and alexandrinum refers to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Occasionally botanical names, like
Calopogonium mucunoides or Crotolaria spectabulis, dance poetically off the tongue. With more
people traveling around the world and sharing plants and foods with each other, the universal
language of binomial nomenclature will become ever more useful. A short list of some botani-
cally helpful Latin words can be found in Appendix 3.
Micronutrients Minerals needed
in larger quantities
Minerals: Calcium
Boron Chloride
Chromium Magnesium
Cobalt Phosphorus
Copper Potassium
Fluoride Sodium
Iodine Sulfur
A (retinol)
B complex (folate)
Boldface indicates
the nutrients most ofen
lacking in the diets
of people with marginal
incomes. Defciencies
of these 5 micronutrients
afect the health of
roughly 1/3 of the
worlds population.
Of the eleven Bvitamins,
folate is most likely to be
Leaf Vegetables and
Traditional Malnutrition
Leaf vegetables can potentially contribute signifcant amounts of
most nutrients to a diet, depending on the type of leaf and the way
it is prepared. Leaves are not usually good sources of zinc, iodine,
or calories and they cannot provide vitamin B-12
. Where green
leafy vegetables can make a profound nutritional improvement
quickly for millions of people is in addressing the global problem
of hidden hunger or micronutrient malnutrition.
Micronutrients are substances that we require in very small
quantities throughout our lives. They include both minerals and
vitamins needed for good health, that cannot be synthesized by our
bodies, and so must be secured from our diet. Minerals consid-
ered to be micronutrients are: Boron, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper,
Fluoride, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Selenium, and
1 Vitamin B-12 is made by bacteria; it is not synthesized by plants or animals.
Trace amounts of B-12 in plants comes from contamination with B-12
producing bacteria. Animals, including insects, concentrate B-12 from the
food they eat. Bacteria in the digestive system of some grazing animals
produce biologically active B-12. Because animal foods are the only reliable
food sources for B-12, the use of B-12 supplements (or fortified foods, e.g.,
nutritional yeast) is recommended for pure vegetarians by most nutrition
Some minerals are essential but are needed in larger amounts
and so arent micronutrients. These are: Calcium, Chloride,
Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, and Sulfur.
Vitamins, all of which are considered micronutrients, are:
vitamin A (retinol); vitamin B complex (biotin, choline, cobal-
amin, folate, inositol, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, ribo-
favin, thiamin); vitamin D; vitamin E (tocopherol); and vitamin K.
(See chart, opposite page.)
While an adequate supply of all the micronutrients is essential
to good health, fve stand out. These are the minerals iron, iodine,
and zinc, along with vitamin A and folate. They are the nutrients
most often in short supply in the diets of people with marginal
incomes. Defciencies of these fve micronutrients affect the health
of roughly one-third of the worlds population. These fve are the
focus of the World Health Organizations micronutrient initiatives.

Ensuring that everyone has access to adequate dietary sources
of these fve micronutrients is the worlds top nutritional priority.
Green leafy vegetables are potentially the least expensive and
most readily available food source for three of these fve target
micronutrients: iron, vitamin A, and folate.
2 Investing in the future: A United Call to Action on Vitamin and Mineral
Deficiencies. GLOBAL REPORT 2009 Micronutrient Initiative, Ottawa,
CANADA. ISBN: 978-1-894217-31-6
When a person doesnt get enough iron
in their diet they develop iron defciency
anemia. Iron defciency anemia is the
most common nutritional disease in the
world. Especially at risk are women of
childbearing age, who need extra iron for
menstruation, pregnancies, and lactation;
and young children, who need extra iron
for rapid growth. Whenever blood is lost, as
with wounds, hookworm, malaria, internal
bleeding from ulcers, menstruation, or
childbirth, iron needs go up signifcantly.
UNICEF estimates 50% of the children in
developing countries (about 500 million
children) and 60% of the pregnant women
in these countries suffer from iron def-
ciency anemia. Several countries, primarily
in sub-Saharan Africa, have childhood
anemia rates over 80%.
The most universal symptom of anemia
is tiredness. Iron is needed to make hemo-
globin, the key protein in the red blood
cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the
body. Not having enough hemoglobin in the
blood causes fatigue because not enough
oxygen is carried to the bodys cells. Every
cell requires oxygen to burn food in order
to have energy in the same way that a fre
needs a supply of oxygen to burn fuel.
In addition to general tiredness, anemia
can cause shortness of breath; dizziness,
especially when standing up; headache; and
chest pain. The heart has to pump harder
to circulate the reduced amount of oxygen
in the blood. This can lead to a number of
heart problems including an enlarged heart
and even heart failure. Anemic children are
smaller and grow more slowly than those
with normal hemoglobin levels. They have
poor appetites and less energy for playing or
3 Investing in the future: A United Call to Action on
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies. GLOBAL
REPORT 2009 Micronutrient Initiative, Ottawa,
CANADA. ISBN: 978-1-894217-31-6
Chart 41
Iron in Selected Leafy Vegetables
Iron Leaf crop
mg 100 g fresh, edible portion
1 Composition charts show the huge differences in the iron content of leafy vegetables. Especially with leafy
vegetables there can be significant differences between analyses of the same food. For example mature
moringa leaves had more than double the iron, calcium, and vitamin A of young moringa shoots in the
Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) samples, but the USDA samples didnt specify
maturity of the leafy tips. The proportion of stem remaining in the sample could also have a significant
effect on the numbers. The composition numbers should thus be considered useful estimates.
9.5 Wolferry
8.7 Toona (Toona sinensis)
6.7 Moringa, mature leaf
6.2 Parsley
5.8 Chaya
4.0 Moringa, young leaf
4.0 Winged bean leaves
3.1 Dandelion
2.7 Spinach
2.3 Amaranth
2.3 Taro leaves
2.2 Pumpkin leaves
2.0 Purslane
1.9 Cowpea leaves
1.8 Swiss chard
1.8 Cilantro
1.7 Kale
1.5 Vine spinach
1.5 Mustard greens
1.2 Lambsquarters
1.1 Turnip greens
1.0 Sweet potato leaves
0.9 Broccoli leaves
0.8 Red cabbage
0.6 Cabbage
0.4 Lettuce, crisp head
0.2 Watercress
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
learning. Their mental development may be
retarded and their attention span reduced.
Their immune response is depressed, which
leaves them more vulnerable to infections.
When women are anemic during their
pregnancies, as the majority of women
in developing countries are, they are far
more likely to die during childbirth, and
their babies are far more likely to be born
prematurely or underweight. A woman
whose diet is marginal in iron intake and
who has children closely spaced in years
will often suffer from severe anemia. This
can make her lethargic and apathetic, and
less able to care for her children. Anemic
women have babies born with low iron
stores in their livers, who often become
very anemic before they are old enough to
absorb adequate iron from the food they eat.
These families have a high risk of severe
health problems and should be a top priority
in nutrition improvement efforts.
Anemia in adults lowers productivity
and capacity to do work. This, of course,
affects their ability to earn an adequate
income and increases the likelihood
that their children will be malnourished.
Increasingly we see that anemia is impli-
cated in a vicious cycle of malnutrition and
Iron Absorption
As with proteins, both the quantity and the
quality of iron in the diet are important.
Animal-based foods tend to be richer in
both the quantity and quality of iron than
plant-based foods. However, as is the case
with protein, it is defnitely possible to
get an excellent supply of iron from plant
sources if one has a little information.
Even poor diets often contain more iron
than the body needs. The problem is that
most of the iron is poorly absorbed. Some
of the iron in meat, fsh, and poultry (heme
iron) is relatively well utilized. However,
meat products are usually too expensive
for poor families in developing countries to
buy. The iron in grains, beans, and vege-
tables, and the remaining iron in animal-
based foods (non-heme iron) is in chemical
forms that are poorly absorbed by our
bodies. The small, but potentially useful,
amount of iron that comes from cooking
acidic foods in cast iron cookware is also in
a poorly absorbed form.
The absorption of non-heme (plant)
iron is even worse when a meal contains
phytates, which are concentrated in the
fbrous parts of grains and nuts. Similarly
tannin, which is found in beans (especially
dark colored beans), tea, coffee, and several
other foods and spices, makes non-heme
iron more diffcult to absorb. Defciencies of
other nutrients can also aggravate anemia.
The most important of these are folate,
protein, vitamin A, vitamin B-6, ribofavin,
and copper.
There are several ways to address these
problems. For instance, the presence of even
a small amount of meat in a meal makes
the non-heme iron much more usable; but
Chart 42
Recommendations for
Daily Iron Intake
Iron Stage of life
11 mg 612 months
7 mg 13 years
10 mg 48 years
8 mg 813 years
11 mg Boys 1418 years
15 mg Girls 1418 years

18 mg 1950 years
27 mg Pregnant
1 Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) are set to
meet the needs of almost all (9798%) individuals in
a group. 2004 US National Academy of Sciences.
Looking at the problem of
malnutrition one is struck
almost immediately by the
hugely disproportionate number of malnourished people
living in the tropics. The tropics refer formally to the part of
the earth between the latitudes of 23 degrees north and 23
degrees south. Because of the tilt in the polar axis, this part of
the earth has the sun directly overhead at least once a year. In
popular usage the tropics is the part of the world where it is
warm year round and seldom experiences freezes.
At first glance it would seem that being able to grow food year
round, rather than just in the summer, would be an enormous
advantage; and that tropical people would be less likely to suffer
from food shortages. All sorts of anthropological, historical,
and even medical explanations have been offered to explain
this seeming contradiction. These range from the heat makes
people lazy to cold climates force people to plan ahead and
get more organized for the winter. Some have argued that the
grim presence of malaria and other tropical diseases takes its toll
on productive activities. The explanation that European colonial
powers dominated and exploited the tropical societies and left a
legacy of endemic poverty has a ring of truth to it. The situation
has been exacerbated in many tropical nations by inefficient and
often corrupt governments, and by factional warfare.
For the most part, the political and historical explanations
are outside the scope of this book. There are, however a few
basic geophysical factors that have serious impacts on tropical
nutrition that are sometimes overlooked.
1) Tropical soils tend to be thin with very low levels of organic
matter. This means they have little ability to hold water
or nutrients for growing plants. In warmer climates the
nitrogen in rotting organic matter is more quickly lost to
the air (volatilized) as ammonia gas than in cooler climates.
As a result, less soil nitrogen is available to stimulate plant
growth or to be built into proteins. In addition, laterite soils
with low levels of essential phosphorus and high levels of
toxic aluminum are prevalent in the tropics. This type of soil
makes better building material (adobe) than food-growing
2) Rainfall in the warm tropics is lost more quickly from tropical
than temperate soils because of the higher evaporation rate.
Tropical rains are more often hard rains than drizzles. These
are less useful to plants and cause greater soil erosion. Also,
because plant growth is year round there is no recharging of
ground water over the winter. In contrast temperate zones
get rain over the winter but little vegetative growth to tran-
spire it and little heat to evaporate it.
3) The yield of fish in tropical oceans is much lower than in
colder waters. Big seasonal temperature changes affect the
waters density and bring an upwelling of nutrients from the
deep ocean to surface water, where sunlight can penetrate
and make food for fish.
4) There are no hard winter freezes to dampen the populations
of insect and microorganism pests.
5) Many important food plants are better adapted to the longer
hours of diffused sunlight of temperate summers than to the
shorter days and more intense sunlight of the tropics.
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
as mentioned above, meat is usually too
expensive to be eaten by the poor. Ascorbic
acid (vitamin C) also makes non-heme iron
more useful to the human body. Basically,
the absorption of non-heme iron is consid-
ered to be about four times as great in a
daily diet containing 90 g of meat or 75 mg
of vitamin C, as it is in a diet with less than
30 g of meat or 25 mg of vitamin C.
This is a very important consider-
ation. It is often easier, cheaper, and more
effective to add vitamin C, than to add
more iron to the diet. Roughly speaking, a
woman consuming over 75 mg of vitamin C
will need only a fourth as much iron as
a woman consuming less than 30 mg of
vitamin C, if the iron is from non-animal
sources. Good sources of vitamin C are
guavas, citrus fruits, fresh leafy vegetables,
fresh tomatoes, and other fruits and fruit
juices. Some leaf vegetables, such as bush
okra (Corchorus olitorius) are very good
sources of vitamin C as well as iron. Some
vitamin C is always lost in processing leaf
vegetables. With the leaf concentrate the
loss is nearly complete, while carefully
dried or lightly cooked leaf vegetables typi-
cally retain about one-half of their original
vitamin C. Beta-carotene has also recently
been shown to improve the absorption of
non-heme iron.
How green leaves can help
Leaf concentrate, which is discussed in
Chapter 7, could be the ideal cure for iron
defciency anemia. Just ten grams (about a
third of an ounce) of dried leaf concentrate
can supply about half the iron requirement
of children and adult men, and nearly one-
third of the requirement for women of child-
bearing age. It is well-absorbed and can be
easily mixed with vitamin Crich foods to
further enhance its absorption. The problem
with leaf concentrate is that it is not avail-
able in many places yet. Until more progress
is made in the manufacture and distribution
of leaf concentrate, anemic people will need
to look elsewhere.
It is unlikely that the price of meat will
drop suffciently to become a dependable
source of high quality dietary iron for the
vast anemic masses, the majority of whom
have $2 a day or less to meet all their
expenses. Beans and peas are relatively
inexpensive sources of iron, though their
tannins limit absorption somewhat. Nuts,
dried fruit, and green leafy vegetables are
the other iron sources. Like meat, nuts and
dried fruit are too expensive. Green leafy
vegetables are our best shot at a food that
is cheap, widely available and rich enough
in iron to actually meet the iron require-
ments of the worlds anemic people. Greens
like chaya and parsley that are extremely
rich in both iron and vitamin C, even after
cooking, are especially promising.
The amount of iron in leafy vegetables
varies a great deal, mainly from differences
between species, and secondly from differ-
ences between varieties or cultivars within
a species. The amount of iron in the soil has
relatively little impact on the iron content
of the leaves. If the soil is defcient in iron
the effect is more on the yield and overall
health of the plants than on the iron content
in the leaves. Soil defciencies of iron are
relatively rare and very little iron is actually
needed. Where soils are highly alkaline or
have had an excess of soluble phosphorus
fertilizer added, the iron is often not readily
absorbed by plants. Compost or incorpo-
rated cover crops will usually buffer the pH
enough and add suffcient iron to resolve
this problem on a garden scale.
Obviously, if you are trying to cure or
prevent anemia, the leaf vegetables at the
top of the chart (Chart 41 on page 24)
will be much more useful than those at the
Strategies for eliminating anemia
Most of the worlds estimated 2 billion
people with iron defciency anemia are
already getting most of their iron needs
met from their diets. The vast majority of
anemic people are mildly or moderately
anemic. Unlike the very small percentage of
people with severe anemia, what they need
is a few milligrams of extra iron every day
to cover the shortfall. The US recommenda-
tions for daily iron intake for key groups are
indicated in Chart 42 on page 25.
Eliminating anemia will necessitate
getting low-cost, iron rich foods to women
and children in the tropics as well as
improving the bioavailability of the iron in
those foods. Solar-dried, high-iron leaf
crops could easily become the cheapest
source of dietary iron in most communities.
Unlike some vitamins, iron is not lost when
leaf crops are solar dried.
The bioavailability of the iron in solar-
dried leaf vegetables can be improved in
several ways. Studies at the Asian Vegetable
Research and Development Center
(AVRDC) showed that simple cooking
improved the bioavailability of the iron
in dried moringa leaves three-fold over
uncooked dried leaves. This likely holds
true for other dried leaves as well. Adding
foods rich in vitamin C greatly improves the
absorption of the non-heme iron in any dried
leaf. Very fne grinding increases the iron
absorption rate by providing more surface
area to contact with digestive enzymes.
Vitamin A is essential to iron absorp-
tion and a large proportion of anemic
people also have inadequate or marginal
amounts of vitamin A in their diets. Adding
a small amount of oil or fat to dried leaf
dishes increases the bodys absorption of
vitamin A. Folate is also helpful in utilizing
non-heme iron. Fortunately most of the
leaves that are good iron sources are also
good sources of both folate and vitamin A.
If we estimate that most anemic people
are getting 75% of the iron that they need
from their diet, we need a strategy to
provide the missing 25%. To provide 25% of
the recommended iron for all the high risk
anemia groups (except for pregnant women)
would only require 4.5 milligrams per day,
per person. Pregnant women would need
about 7 milligrams to meet one-fourth of
their recommendation. Three tablespoons of
fnely ground dried leaf powder from any of
the top twelve leaf crops listed in Chart 41
on page 24 would provide 4.5 milligrams
of iron. A system to grow the leaves, dry,
and grind them can be set up cheaply and
relatively quickly almost anywhere. Once
in place it could provide a dependable and
inexpensive local source of dietary iron, and
signifcantly improve the quality of life.
Reversing anemia is a sound invest-
ment. A study in Indonesia, reported in the
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
4 SS Basta, Soekirman , D Karyadi, and NS
Scrimshaw. Iron deficiency anemia and the
productivity of adult males in Indonesia. Am. J.
Clinical Nutrition, Apr 1979; 32: 916925
showed than an iron supplement to anemic
workers improved productivity an average
of 1525%. This meant a return of $260
for each dollar spent on the supplements.
Similarly, more educational beneft can
often be had with one dollar of additional
iron in the childrens diets than with $100 of
new school construction. Using local green
leaf crops as the source of lacking iron is an
investment with several multiplier effects.
It is estimated that one-third of the children
under fve years old in developing coun-
tries are defcient in vitamin A. In some
countries, such as India with 62% and
Kenya with 84%, the percentage of children
suffering from vitamin A defciency is a
public health catastrophe.
This micronu-
trient is essential for everyone, but children
are especially vulnerable when it is not
adequately supplied in the diet.
Vitamin A participates in dozens of
important activities in the human body. It is
critical to vision and helps us especially to
see in dim light. It maintains the integrity
of the epithelial cells that line the interior
surfaces of our respiratory and digestive
systems. It stimulates the production of white
blood cells, takes part in repairing damaged
bone, aids in the making of hemoglobin, and
regulates cell growth and division.
5 Investing in the future: A United Call to Action on
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies. GLOBAL
REPORT 2009 Micronutrient Initiative, Ottawa,
CANADA. ISBN: 978-1-894217-31-6
Bush okra (Corchorus olitorius)
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
What happens when vitamin A is in
short supply? The defciency is often frst
recognized as night blindness, when dusk
settles in and some children cant see
well enough to play. A relatively common
symptom is xeropthalmia, a drying of the
cornea of the eye which greatly impairs
vision. A severe lack of vitamin A can
cause permanent blindness, as it does with
thousands of children.
As horrible as children losing some
or all of their sight is, the greatest price
exacted by the failure to supply children
with an adequate supply of this micronu-
trient is their reduced resistance to infec-
tion. Both the innate and the adaptive
immune systems of children with insuf-
fcient vitamin A are suppressed, leaving
them much more susceptible to infectious
diseases, especially diarrhea, respiratory
infections, and measles.
Vitamin A defcient children get more
infections, the infections are more severe,
and they recuperate more slowly than
6 There are two basic branches of the human
immune system: innate and adaptive. Innate, or
inborn, immunity provides very rapid identifica-
tion and response to common microbial threats.
All living beings have some form of this ancient
protective system. The other component is the
adaptive immune system. This evolved much later
and is shared only with other vertebrates. The
adaptive immune system allows us to identify and
remember new threats and to create specific anti-
bodies that will attack them. It is the adaptive
immune system that enables vaccines to work by
offering weakened versions of pathogens that
trigger the creation of specific antibodies.
The wild card in vitamin A nutrition is red
palm oil. The oil from the tropical palm
(Elaeis guineensis) has been used for centu-
ries in its native West Africa. The relatively unprocessed form of the oil is orange-reddish
in color due to extremely high beta-carotene content. With about 3,000 mcg RAE per
100 g red palm oil is the richest commonly available source of this nutrient. The carotene
is well absorbed because of the oil matrix, and it is being enthusiastically proposed as a
solution to vitamin A deficiencies in many tropical countries, especially India.
There is also considerable resistance to palm oil, both for nutritional and for environ-
mental reasons. Nutritionally, the minimally processed red palm oil traditionally used
in West Africa has little in common with the refined, bleached, and deodorized palm oil
of global commerce. Significantly, industrial palm oil has no beta-carotene. However it
is cheap and stable with a long shelf life. Because of these attributes it is increasingly
entering international commerce as a source of fat in processed margarines, cookies,
crackers, and snack foods.
This combination of high levels of saturated fat and zero beta-carotene hasnt won
over many nutritionists. In fact, the World Health Organization and several other nutrition
advisory groups have recommended limiting consumption of palm oil. Their recommen-
dations cite recent research showing that the saturated fats in palm oil may contribute to
heart problems if eaten in large quantities. It is worth noting that the amount of traditional
red palm oil that would be needed to amend a dietary shortfall of vitamin A would not
be enough to increase the risk of heart disease.
Many environmental groups advise against consuming palm oil because the bulk of
it is now grown in vast monocultures that are replacing diverse tropical forests, espe-
cially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. Oil palm monocultures are being blamed for
loss of habitat for critically endangered orangutans and other wildlife. The problem is
intensifying because of rapidly growing demand for bio-diesel made from the palm oil
to replace gasoline as a vehicular fuel.
The problems with palm oil are really the generalized problems of monocultures
and industrialized foods. In fact, palms can be easily grown in environmentally stable
polycultures and the oil can be lightly processed by local businesses. Red palm oil could
greatly reduce vitamin A deficiency in the tropics without serious collateral health or
environmental problems.
children with adequate vitamin A in their
diet. As a result, lack of vitamin A in the
diet causes the death of about 670,000
children under the age of fve every year.

Around one-fourth of all the deaths of
7 Black, RE et al., Maternal and child undernutri-
tion: global and regional exposures and health
children less than fve years old can be
attributed to low levels of vitamin A.
Pregnant women are also vulnerable
to vitamin A defciency. Like children,
they have an increased demand because
consequences. The Lancet 2008, 371 (9608) p.
they are rapidly building new tissue, and
additional vitamin A is needed for regu-
lating cell division. Women with low
stores of vitamin A in their livers have
much higher rates of complications during
childbirth. Over half a million women die
from complications in childbirth every
year. Vitamin A defciency is one of the
most common factors in these unneces-
sary deaths. Furthermore, pregnant women
with low levels of vitamin A give birth to
children who also have low levels, putting
them at great risk for fatal infections in their
frst two years.
Getting enough vitamin A
Because vitamin A is stored in our livers
we dont need to eat it every day if we are
getting an adequate amount. The recom-
mended dietary allowances are based
on maintaining a four day supply. In our
bodies vitamin A is in the form of retinal or
retinol, two fat soluble compounds. When
we get vitamin A from plants what we
actually are getting is carotenoids (some-
times called pro-vitamin A) that can be
converted to vitamin A in our bodies. When
we get vitamin A from animal sources, such
as meat, milk, and eggs (sometimes called
pre-formed vitamin A), the animals have
carried out the process of converting the
plant carotenoids to vitamin A for us, and
so it is more readily usable. Beta-carotene
is the most commonly occurring and best
absorbed of the pro-vitamin A compounds.
The other carotenoids that can be converted
Chart 43
Vitamin A in Selected Leafy Vegetables
Vitamin A Leaf crop
mcg rae 100 g fresh, edible portion
1550 Toona (Toona sinensis)
1376 Grape Leaves
800 Broccoli Leaves
769 Kale
590 Molokhaya (Corchorus olitorius)
580 Lambsquarters
579 Turnip Greens
525 Mustard Greens
508 Dandelion
469 Spinach
421 Parsley
405 Winged bean leaves
400 Vine spinach
378 Moringa
375 Red Leaf Lettuce
375 Garland chrysanthemum
337 Cilantro
306 Swiss chard
241 Taro leaves
223 Bok choy (Chinese Cabbage)
200 Dock
160 Watercress
150 Spanish needles (Bidens pilosa)
146 Amaranth
97 Pumpkin Leaves
87 Bitter gourd leaves
66 Purslane
56 Red cabbage
51 Sweet Potato leaves
36 Cowpea leaves
25 Lettuce, crisp head
6 Cabbage
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
to vitamin A are usually found in associa-
tion with beta-carotene. Because of this,
nutritionists often consider only beta-caro-
tene when speaking of pro-vitamin A.
As with iron, people who eat meat
and other animal products normally get
enough vitamin A, but people with very low
incomes cant afford meat and other animal
products. People who cant afford meat are
the people whose children become defcient
and the people who would most beneft
from lower cost sources of vitamin A. The
focus should be on getting more beta-
carotene in the diet and on fnding ways
to improve its bioavailability so that the
conversion rate to retinol is far better than
12 to 1.
Beta-carotene is a very common
compound in nature. It is a pigment that
colors many foods orange. Carrots, canta-
loupe, mangos, pumpkins, papaya, and
sweet potatoes are examples of common
foods that are orange colored and good
8 In order to make nutritional comparisons and
recommendations, vitamin A values are now
described as Retinol Activity Equivalents (RAEs). 1
microgram (1/1,000,000 of a gram or
1/28,000,000 of an ounce) of retinol equals 1
RAE. 2 mcg of beta-carotene in oil equals 1RAE
but it takes 12 mcg of beta-carotene in food to
equal 1 RAE because the matrix of food makes it
more difficult to absorb. Two other carotenoids
that are often converted to vitamin A in the
human body are alpha-carotene and beta-cryp-
toxanthin. Twenty-four mcg of either of these are
required to equal 1 RAE. An older unit of
measurement for vitamin A activity that is now
discredited as inaccurate, but unfortunately is still
sometimes used, is the International Unit (IU).
sources of beta-carotene. As a rule, the
deeper the orange color the more beta-caro-
tene. So sweet potatoes or winter squash
with deep orange fesh are better sources
than those with a paler color. This is espe-
cially important for sweet potatoes because
in many cultures there is a marked prefer-
ence for white or nearly white cultivars.
Switching to deep orange varieties would be
a major dietary improvement. Some fruits,
notably mango, papaya, and cantaloupes
are good sources of vitamin A but tend
to be too expensive for the most vulner-
able families and are available only during
certain seasons.
How green leaves can help
Ironically the largest source of dietary beta-
carotene is not in the orange colored fruits
and roots but in green leaves, where the
green chlorophyll pigment overwhelms the
orange color.
Like many other nutrients,
the beta-carotene in green leafy vegetables
is diffcult to absorb because it is trapped
in a matrix of fbrous cell walls and other
compounds. The beta-carotene in storage
organs like roots and fruits is also bound in
a matrix of cellulose, starches, and pectins,
but it is typically less tightly bound and
therefore more easily absorbed than the
beta-carotene in green leaves. Especially for
9 When maple and other deciduous tree leaves
change color in the fall, it is because the green
chlorophyll pigment that dominated all summer
is lost and as a result the orange carotenes and
red anthocyanins that were present all along
become much more visible.
Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
children less than 18 months old, the beta-
carotene from orange colored fruit is easier
to absorb than the beta-carotene from leaf
Once again leaf concentrate bypasses
most of the problems of poor absorption by
separating the fber from the rest of the leaf.
With over 3,800 mcg RAE per 100 g, dried
alfalfa leaf concentrate tops even red palm
oil as a source of vitamin A. Combining
high levels of beta-carotene in a readily
absorbed form along with a full spectrum
of the other nutrients that are frequently
defcient in the diets of vulnerable children
makes leaf concentrate an excellent solution
to vitamin A defciency. However, until
many more communities have access to
leaf concentrate, other low cost sources of
vitamin A need to be developed.
Meeting the bodys need for vitamin A
from inexpensive leafy vegetables requires
three things:
1. Choosing species and varieties that
are naturally rich in beta-carotene.
2. Growing them in abundance within
communities where vitamin A
defciency is prevalent.
3. Preparing them in ways that maximize
absorption of beta-carotene.
Chart 43 on page 30 lists some of the
best leaf sources of vitamin A and shows
the importance of choosing ones near the
top of the list. It is, of course, far from
After choosing leaf crops with ample
beta-carotene there are still several neces-
sary measures to ensure the maximum
vitamin A beneft. Typically leaves grown
in hot wet weather have more beta-carotene
than those grown in cool dry weather. As
a rule, leaves harvested in the morning are
richer in vitamin A activity than afternoon
harvested leaves. Mature leaves usually
have more beta-carotene than either
immature or senescent (old, senile) leaves.
Post-harvest loss of vitamin A can be
minimized by using the leaf as soon as
possible after harvest. Refrigerating the leaf
vegetables will slow their loss of vitamin A,
as will keeping them in a dark place. Losses
are much faster when vegetables are sliced
or chopped, so wait until the last minute
before cooking to cut them up.
Temperatures above 180 C (350 F),
such as those used in deep frying or baking,
quickly damage beta-carotene. Prolonged
exposure to boiling water also destroys
much of the beta-carotene. For example,
canned grape leaves have only one-ffth
the vitamin A activity of raw grape leaves.
However, quickly steaming or stir-frying
often has the opposite effect, optimizing the
vitamin A value in leafy vegetables by soft-
ening and rupturing cell walls. This makes
almost all the nutrients in the leaf more
available. Liquefying leaves in a household
blender does an even better job of liber-
ating beta-carotene from fbrous cell walls,
effectively doubling the bioavailability of
the vitamin A. Chewing accomplishes some
of the same cell rupture, and thoroughly
chewed greens provide more vitamin A
than quickly gulped ones. Absorption
of beta-carotene and its conversion to
retinol requires some oil. Adding a small
amount of cooking oil or fat to green leaves
increases the availability of beta-carotene
signifcantly. The addition of ten percent oil
or ten grams of oil for 100 grams of leafy
greens is thought to be optimal. A teaspoon
of oil for a half-cup serving of greens would
be a reasonable guideline. This is especially
important with low-income families that
tend to have low consumption of oils as
well as vitamin A. Adding a bit of red palm
oil does double duty, improving absorption
and supplying additional beta-carotene.
The minerals iron and zinc are also essen-
tial to vitamin A metabolism. Assuring an
adequate intake of iron and zinc is impor-
tant for this as well as for other reasons.
The greatest payoffs come from
combining these techniques. Start with
freshly picked carotene rich greens. Steam
them lightly, then blend with a bit of oil
and add to soups, stews, or sauces. This
unleashes the maximum potential of green
leaves to prevent or reverse vitamin A
Iron defciency anemia and vitamin A
defciency are very often are found in the
same children. Beta-carotene helps with
the absorption of non-heme iron. Low iron
levels inhibit the release of vitamin A stores
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
from the liver. Low vitamin A levels inhibit
the release of iron stores in the liver. In
many ways it makes sense to deal with them
as a single combined defciency.
10, 11
Folate, folic acid, and folacin are function-
ally similar compounds sometimes referred
to as vitamin B-9. Folate is the form that
occurs naturally in foods while folic acid
is a synthetic form used in supplements
and in fortifying grain products. The term
folate derives from the Latin word folium
for leaf. This is not surprising since it was
frst isolated in spinach in 1941, and green
leafy vegetables are among the best natural
sources of the vitamin. Children and adults
both need folate to make healthy red and
10 Unfortunately most of the vitamin C in the
leaves is destroyed when the leaf juice is heated,
so leaf concentrate (LC) contains very little of
this vitamin. We can compensate for this,
however, by adding lemon juice or other sources
of vitamin C. Leaf concentrate lemonade is
therefore an extremely useful food for women
and children suffering from anemia. The French
cooperative France Lucerne compensates for
this by adding 60 mg of ascorbic acid per 100 g
of dried alfalfa LC.
11 In a five-month-long study of children in Bolivia
anemia was quickly reversed with leaf concen-
trate and even more quickly reversed with leaf
concentrate plus vitamin C. The leaf concentrate
costs about five cents per serving, or about five
dollars per child for the entire twenty weeks.
This study shows the value of vitamin C in
improving iron absorption. The Effect of a Leaf
Concentrate Supplement on Haemoglobin
Levels in Malnourished Bolivian Children: A Pilot
Study, by Lowe, C.A. 1991. (www.leafforlife.org/
Golden Rice is a genetically engineered
variety of rice that was developed in
Switzerland in 2000. Genes from daffo-
dils and a soil bacterium (Erwinia uredovora) give the rice the ability to produce more beta-
carotene. The genetically modified rice was trumpeted by the biotechnology industry as a
brilliant solution to the persistent problem of vitamin A deficiency.
The cover of the August 2009 issue of Time magazine proclaimed This rice could save a
million kids a year. Since poor people are eating mainly rice, doesnt it make sense to put the
micronutrients they lack into their rice? Probably not.
When people become deficient in vitamin A it is usually because their diets lack the variety
of naturally occurring foods necessary to ensure good health. In much of Asia, low-income
families already spend over half their food budget on rice and derive over half their calories
from it. This over-dependence on rice is a prime cause of malnutrition. Diversification of the
agriculture and diet of cultures overly dependent on rice is necessary to provide for the sustain-
able health of the people and their natural environments.
The world is full of beta-carotene. In fact, it is made by all green plants to protect chloro-
phyll from destruction by short wavelength radiation.
Introducing patented seed that cant
be reproduced by farmers in order to produce a ubiquitous biological compound is unnec-
essary at best. To imagine that further reducing that dangerously shrunken agricultural and
dietary diversity to focus on a single variety of genetically modified rice seems short-sighted.
The brief history of the biotechnology industry does not warrant Time magazines level of
confidence in Monsanto and Syngenta and their intellectual property rights perspective on
the worlds food supply.
1 Carotenoids absorb some of the unusable short wavelength radiation in sunlight and re-emit it at longer
wavelengths that can then be absorbed by chlorophyll and converted to usable carbohydrates. They also
have several other functions in plants.
white blood cells and to prevent anemia.
Since folate is essential for the creation of
new cells it is critically important during
pregnancy and during the frst years of life
when there is rapid cell division and growth.
It is not entirely clear how many people
are defcient in folate, but among pregnant
women who are the most vulnerable to
this micronutrient defciency, the rates are
high. While folate defciency is not quite
as common as that of iron, some estimates
suggest that 4050% of pregnant women
may suffer from some degree of defciency.
Folate defciency has traditionally been
strongly linked to poverty, as are most nutri-
tional defciencies.
A shortage of folate in the frst month
of pregnancy has been conclusively linked
to birth defects involving the neural tube.
These are among the most common of birth
defects, occurring in about 1 in every 1,000
births. Neural tube problems can cause
the brain of a fetus to be underdeveloped,
prevent the skull from closing completely,
or cause the spine to be malformed. Neural
tube defects usually occur in the frst month
of pregnancy so women need to have a
good supply of folate before conception.
The gravity of this problem led the US
government in 1998 to require all enriched
grain products to be fortifed with folate in
order to increase the intake for women of
childbearing age. The governments of many
developed countries have taken similar
Recent investigations have implicated
folate defciency in a number of other
serious health problems as well. The focus
of most of this research is the relation-
ship between folate and homocysteine.
Homocysteine is an amino acid that circu-
lates in the blood. High homocysteine levels
correlate with increased risk of cardio-
vascular disease, stroke, poor cognitive
function, depression, colorectal, and larynx
tumors, and osteoporosis. Folate breaks
down homocysteine, thereby lowering blood
levels. At this point there isnt conclusive
proof for some of these connections, but the
pile of circumstantial evidence that folate
defciency increases risk of these diseases is
just too great to ignore.
In addition to poor dietary intake of
folate itself, defcient intake of other B
vitamins can contribute to folate def-
ciency. These vitamins include B-1, B-2,
and B-3, which are all involved in folate
recycling. Inadequate intake of protein is
also a contributing factor in folate def-
ciency as is heavy use of alcohol, tobacco,
and coffee. During pregnancy folate goes
preferentially to the fetus which can quickly
lead to problems for a mother whose diet
is marginal in this micronutrient. Yet
another contributor to folate defciency is
tropical sprue. This is a relatively common
ailment, probably caused by a bacterial or
Chart 44
Folate in Selected Leafy Vegetables and other foods
Folate Leaf crop
mcg 100 g fresh, edible portion
260 Beef liver
194 Turnip greens
194 Spinach
187 Mustard greens
166 Collard greens
152 Parsley
149 Black beans
140 Vine spinach
136 Lettuce (romaine)
126 Taro leaves
101 Cowpea leaves
98 Walnuts
85 Amaranth
80 Sweet potato leaves
71 Broccoli leaves
62 Cilantro
57 Cabbage
40 Moringa
30 Lambsquarters
30 Orange juice
29 Kale
29 Lettuce (iceberg)
27 Dandelion
26 Pumpkin leaves
21 Hamburger
18 Red cabbage
16 Winged bean leaves
14 Swiss chard
12 Purslane
9 Watercress
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
viral infection that mainly affects people
who live in or have recently traveled to the
tropics. It attacks the lining of the intestinal
walls and causes the poor absorption of
several nutrients, including folate.
The US-recommended daily intake of
folate for adults not pregnant or lactating is
400 mcg a day. Half an ounce could meet
your requirement for one hundred years, so
the term micronutrient is accurate. There
are many good food sources of folate,
including liver, nuts, beans, and orange
juice. However, green leafy vegetables are
the greatest underutilized source of this
micronutrient. Chart 44 on page 34 lists
many of the best food sources of folate from
the highest down. Other than liver, which
is usually too expensive for low-income
families, the list is dominated by leafy vege-
tables. Again, the importance of choosing
vegetables near the top of the chart is clear.
Folate is water soluble and somewhat
sensitive to high temperatures. To get the
most folate from your greens they should
be eaten raw when appropriate or cooked as
briefy as possible. If the greens are boiled
the residual water (pot liquor) will retain
much of this vitamin and can be consumed
to maximize the folate value of the food.
Iodine is present only in foods grown
on land with iodine in the soil and from
seaweed and seafood. Although very little
iodine is needed by the body, defciencies
are still relatively common. While only
about one teaspoonful is needed over an
average lifetime, your body cannot store
it over long periods of time and so needs
a regular supply. Defciency of iodine can
cause goiter, a disfguring thyroid disorder,
fetal growth deformities and mental retar-
dation in children. The defciency is most
common in isolated highlands where most
food is produced locally, far from any
There is a growing consensus among
international nutritionists that iodine def-
ciency is best addressed with iodized salt.
Fortifying salt is a relatively simple inex-
pensive option. Still, it is worth knowing
that a small amount of seaweed or kelp
meal or fsh or shrimp waste added to the
soil in vegetable gardens could address
this problem from an agricultural perspec-
tive. Greens, such as spinach and Chinese
cabbage, are good at picking up the iodine
in the soil and incorporating it into food.
Zinc is an essential mineral that plays a
key role in the immune system. Zinc is
also required for dozens of enzymes and is
essential to wound healing, normal growth,
sexual development, and our senses of taste
and smell. Children who are defcient in
this mineral suffer from more frequent and
severe infections, especially diarrhea. Of
Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
course, diarrhea worsens zinc defciency, so
this is a vicious cycle that ends in premature
death for many thousands of children in
developing nations.
Seafood, red meat and eggs are among
the best sources of dietary zinc, while
nuts, beans, and peas are relatively good
plant sources. Insects are one of the richest
potential sources of dietary zinc. They are
still utilized as a traditional food in many
tropical rural areas, and there is serious
interest, especially in China, in systematic
breeding and raising of insects for human
As with iron, the bioavailability of zinc
from animal-based foods is higher than
from plant foods. This is largely due to
the presence of phytic acid, which hinders
absorption of zinc from grains and beans.
Enzymes in active yeast break down phytic
acid so that yeast breads are much better
sources of zinc than unleavened breads.
People who cant afford meats, seafood,
and eggs are much more prone to zinc
Unfortunately green leafy vegetables are
generally not good sources of zinc. They
can make a modest contribution to our zinc
requirements if they are grown on soil with
abundant zinc. Usually these are organic
soils, as soil zinc that is removed with crops
is rarely replaced in commercial agriculture.
Roughly two-thirds of the people in the
world dont have micronutrient defcien-
cies. This is primarily because they eat a
diet suffciently varied to provide the full
range of substances that are essential to
their health. Ideally hidden hunger would
be eliminated by providing malnourished
people access to food suffciently varied to
provide the full range of substances that are
essential to their health.
Unfortunately the captains of govern-
ment, industry, and fnance seem to have
settled on an easier and cheaper means
of meeting the basic nutritional needs
of the poor. They buy the missing nutri-
entsmainly iron, vitamin A, vitamin D,
B vitamins, iodine, and zincin bulk from
chemical manufacturers and spike sugar,
four, salt, and oil with these nutrients. A
few global chemical companies, notably
Hoffman-LaRoche and BASF, are cornering
the world market for micronutrients.
Fortifcation has certainly done a lot
of good. Iodine-fortifed salt has greatly
diminished the incidence of goiters, and
folic acid fortifcation of cereals has helped
reduce neural tube birth defects dramati-
cally. There are situations where fortifca-
tion and supplements are the best solutions,
such as in civil wars and natural disasters.
It is obviously far better to give a child a
vitamin A palmitate capsule than to have
him go blind.
Likewise it is also obviously better
to develop local systems that provide the
vitamin A he needs in the food he eats, than
to create an ongoing dependency on the
capsules. While fortifcation can provide
relief from the symptoms of micronutrient
defciencies, it often obscures the causes of
the problem that are further upstream. This
makes fundamental dietary corrections
more diffcult.
There are several reasons to prefer
improving the patterns of eating whole
foods to simply fortifying staple foods
with the missing nutrients. For instance,
researchers repeatedly fnd a correlation
between a diet high in fruits and vegetables
and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease
and several other diseases. The relation-
ship is much less clear for the many trials
looking at single nutrients or even combi-
nations of nutrients rather than dietary
patterns. The ecological viewpoint fully
Leaf Vegetables and Traditional Malnutrition
accepts that the whole is greater than the
sum of its parts. In nutrition this signifes
that foods are more than nutrients, and diets
are more than foods. There are many bene-
fcial synergies in our complex relationship
with food, that are lost in the reductionist
approach of identifying a missing nutrient
and supplying it as cheaply (or as proftably)
as possible.
The case of zinc defciency illustrates
how different a problem might look from
a reductionist perspective than from an
ecological one. Zinc defciency is becoming
more common. From a reductionist
outlook, many well-intentioned agencies
and organizations are calling for fortifying
staple foods with zinc as the fastest and
cheapestand therefore most realistic
way to keep children from dying from zinc
From an ecological analysis, it is hard
to not notice that the diet of the poor has
become increasingly dominated by rice
and corn, because they are cheap. They are
cheap because farmers can now grow huge
amounts of them, largely because of soluble
fertilizers. With yields of 200 bushels of
corn an acre replacing yields of 25 or 50
bushels, more soil nutrients such as zinc are
removed from the soil with each harvest.
Usually only nitrogen, phosphorus, and
potassium are replaced. One of the results
of this practice is that roughly half of the
worlds grain-growing land is now zinc def-
cient. Since grain grown on zinc defcient
land has less zinc in it, this contributes to
childhood zinc defciencies. Whats more,
grains grown with high levels of soluble
nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers tend to
have more phytates in them and phytates
inhibit our bodys ability to absorb zinc.
As grain lands become more defcient in
micronutrients, such as zinc or boron, agri-
cultural chemists are beginning to call for
fortifying industrial fertilizers with the
missing micronutrients. This simply echoes
the strategy of fortifying industrial foods
with the missing micronutrients. Rather
than recognizing widespread and persistent
defciencies of essential substances in both
our food and our soil as warning lights
on the dashboard of a dysfunctional food
system, they are seen as irritating problems
that can best be patched as a sideline
business for the chemical industry.
The ecological perspective sees diet as
a pattern of eating foods, not a formulation
of nutrients. If that pattern of eating foods
routinely fails to supply essential nutrients,
so that they need to be forever added by
fortifcation, enrichment, or supplements,
that diet needs to be revised. By the same
token agricultural soil is seen as an essen-
tial part of the dietary pattern, not as an
industrial substrate for producing food
commodities. People stay healthy with good
dietary practices, such as eating a variety
of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean
meat, beans, and nuts. Soil stays healthy
with good agricultural practices that include
replacing all the nutrients removed by
harvest or runoff, adding organic matter,
growing legumes and rotating crops.
Reductionist nutrition and agriculture
are tempting short-term approaches. They
get results quickly. In the long run, however,
we will be best served by persisting in the
struggle for social justice, local control
of a diverse food supply, and ecologically
sound agriculture. These three together
can provide all the nourishment, including
micronutrients, that the human race will
need long into the future. Our growing
understanding of nutrition, agriculture, and
ecology and the connections among them
are turning this into a struggle that we can
Leaf Vegetables and Diseases
Related to the Industrialized Diet
Malnutrition is an imbalancea defciency or an excessin a
persons diet that causes health problems. Traditionally malnu-
trition has been seen as chronic hunger (undernutrition) and as
micronutrient defciencies. Poor growth, low physical and mental
energy and susceptibility to infections are the most common
symptoms of traditional malnutrition.
A relatively new form of malnutrition has taken hold mainly
in wealthy societies and in the urban parts of developing coun-
tries. Tis newer type of malnutrition is caused mainly by an
excess of calories and a shortage of fber, antioxidants, and certain
vitamins and minerals. Te new malnutrition manifests itself
primarily through increased risk of several chronic degenerative
diseases. Tese include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer,
and stroke. Tis type of malnutrition closely follows the transition
from a traditional diet to a westernized or industrialized diet.
Te industrialized diet is based on commercial foods that are
manufactured from low cost agricultural commodities, espe-
cially corn, wheat, and soy. Tese agricultural commodities are
converted into refned sugars, starches, and fats that are assembled
into highly processed products with long shelf lives that can be
marketed over long distances. Economies of scale keep the cost of
manufacturing these food products low, while attractive pack-
aging and creative advertising helps keep the selling prices high
enough for a large proft margin. Te combination of consumer
demand for convenient foods and the logistical capabilities of
multi-national food corporations is a powerful force: so powerful
that traditional diets are quickly being replaced by a single indus-
trial diet in much of the world.
Te typical industrial diet is too high in saturated fat, sodium,
and refned carbohydrates. It is characterized by foods with high
calorie density and low nutrient density; food with a high ratio of
calories to other essential nutrients. Tese are sometimes called
empty calorie foods. When the diet includes many empty calorie
foods it becomes very difcult to obtain all the nutrients we need
without overeating.
Overeating, combined with reduced physical activity, cause
people to become overweight and in severe cases obese. Tis has
become a huge global health issue. It is estimated that over one
billion adults are overweight with over 300 million of them being
clinically obese. Obese people have lower overall quality of life
and increased risk of premature death.
While the epidemic of obesity began in wealthy nations, it
is now the emerging market societies that are experiencing the
fastest growth of this health condition. It is especially disturbing
that the percentage of overweight and obese children and adoles-
cents is growing more rapidly than that of adults.
An increasingly common result of
eating an industrialized diet is the meta-
bolic syndrome. Tis is a combination of
large waist circumference, high blood sugar,
high blood pressure, and high triglycerides
or cholesterol in the blood. It is estimated
that over 20% of American adults have
some degree of the metabolic syndrome.
It is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes,
cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure,
stroke, osteoarthritis, and many forms of
Sugars and starches in their natural
state invariably coexist with fber. When
that fber is stripped away during food
processing those carbohydrates are digested
and absorbed much more quickly by our
bodies. Tis leads to an abrupt rise followed
by an abrupt fall in blood sugar levels. Te
repeated rapid rise and fall of blood sugar
levels can lead to insulin resistance. Tis is
a condition in which the pancreas fails to
keep up with the bodys need for insulin
to process carbohydrates properly. Insulin
resistance is a precursor to diabetes. It is
linked to excessive consumption of sugars,
especially fructose which is processed
mainly in the liver.
Diabetes is a major public health
problem and is emerging as a pandemic.
Te World Health Organization estimated
that over 220 million people sufer from
diabetes and that number is likely to double
by 2030. Te biggest increase in diabetes
is coming not from the wealthy countries
but from lower income countries of the
tropics. Tis shif in the demographics is
accompanied by people developing the
disease at a younger age, by about ten
years, than people in wealthy countries.
Diabetes can cause damage to the nervous
system, the circulatory system, eyes, and
kidneys. Te rapidly increasing number of
people afected, coupled with earlier onset,
is making diabetes a major drain on the
productivity and health care resources of
developing countries.
How quickly carbohydrate containing
foods elevate blood sugar levels is gauged
by the glycemic index. Te index is based
on glucose, which has a value of 100. High
glycemic index foods have numbers above
70. Intermediate foods have numbers
between 55 and 70 and low glycemic index
foods are below 55. Processed foods such
as soda, cookies, cakes, white breads, and
crackers generally have high glycemic
indexes. Te glycemic index of potatoes
is also high because much of the starch in
potatoes is rapidly digested amylopectin,
rather than the more slowly digested
amylose starch found in beans. Whole
grains and beans generally have lower
glycemic indexes.
Most vegetables have low glycemic
indexes and leaf vegetables are typically
very low in this ranking. Spinach, for
example, has a glycemic index of 15. Most
leaf crops have not yet been tested for their
glycemic index, but it is safe to assume they
will be low. Not only do greens have low
glycemic indexes, some of them appear to
have blood sugar stabilizing properties. Te
leaves of chaya and bitter gourd, in partic-
ular, have shown great promise in moder-
ating blood sugar, though testing is still at
an early stage.
Obesity and diabetes are a high price
to pay for the convenience of highly
processed food. Tese two diet-related
chronic diseases arise together so ofen that
some health workers have begun using the
somewhat frightening term diabesity.
Te industrial diet is not only over-
loaded with saturated fat, sodium, and
refned carbohydrates, it comes up short
on essential magnesium, calcium, potas-
sium, fber, and antioxidants. Many leaf
vegetables are good sources of all fve of
these missing components of the industrial
diet, and they have extremely high nutrient
Magnesium is the eighth most abundant
chemical element in the Earths crust,
the ninth most abundant in the known
Universe, and the 11th most abundant
element in the human body. More than
300 key biochemical reactions in the body
require magnesium to function. It helps
keeps bones strong, maintain muscle and
nerve function, regulate heart rhythm, and
keep the immune system working ef-
ciently. Magnesium also helps to regulate
our blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
Leaf Vegetables and Diseases Related to the Industrialized Diet
Numerous observational and animal
studies have tied low magnesium intake
with increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Other studies have suggested a link
between low consumption of magnesium
and increased risk of chronic infamma-
tion, asthma, arterial plaque formation,
osteoporosis, colon cancer and memory
loss. Te best dietary sources of magnesium
are seeds and nuts, green leafy vegetables
and whole grains. Te industrialized diet
generally provides little of these foods and
as a result the number of people consuming
inadequate amounts of this essential
mineral is large and growing. It is estimated
that only 32% of Americans take in the
recommended amount of magnesium (420
mg per day for men and 320 mg per day for
Green leafy vegetables such as spinach
and parsley are good sources of magne-
sium because the center of the chlorophyll
molecule (which gives green leaves their
color) contains magnesium. Te amount of
magnesium in leaf vegetables varies greatly
and is generally more available in cooked
than raw vegetables. (See Chart 51.)
Calcium is essential for forming and main-
taining healthy bones and teeth. It also
plays an essential role in blood clotting,
nerve signaling, muscle contraction and
relaxation, use of some key hormones,
and sustaining a normal heartbeat. Dairy
products are an excellent source of dietary
calcium, except that as with most animal-
based foods, they are too expensive for
many to aford on a regular basis. Also
families that dont have refrigerators have
trouble with spoilage of dairy products.
Another drawback to dairy products as a
primary source of calcium is that roughly
75% of the worlds adults dont produce
enough lactase to digest milk properly.
Lactase is an enzyme that infants produce
to digest milk. Lactase production declines
in adulthood, especially in cultures without
a strong tradition of drinking milk.
Among the best plant sources of
calcium are sesame seeds, almonds, soy
products and leaf vegetables. Te leafy
members of the cabbage family, including
kale, collards, turnip, and mustard greens,
as well as many Asian cabbages and
mustards, are exceptionally good sources.
Other excellent leaf vegetables for calcium
include bitter gourd leaves, chaya, grape
leaves, moringa, okra leaves, taro, vine
spinach and wolferry.
Several leaf crops such as spinach, Swiss
chard, beet greens, parsley, and purslane
have high levels of calcium but also have
high levels of oxalic acid. Because the oxalic
acid combines with the calcium and makes
it much more difcult to utilize, these leaf
vegetables should not be considered good
calcium sources.
Fiber is the indigestible part of food plants.
Tere is no fber in animal-based foods.
Chart 51
Magnesium in Selected
Leaf Vegetables
Magnesium Leaf crop
mg 100 g raw leaves per usda
147 Moringa
95 Grape leaves
81 Swiss Chard
79 Spinach
70 Beet greens
68 Purslane
61 Sweet potato leaf
55 Amaranth leaves
50 Parsley
48 Basella
45 Taro leaf
43 Cowpea leaf
39 New Zealand Spinach
38 Pumpkin leaves
36 Dandelion greens
32 Mustard greens
31 Turnip greens
13 Lettuce, Leaf
7 Lettuce, Iceberg
Tere are two types of dietary fber. Both
are benefcial. Insoluble fber comes mainly
from the plant cell walls. Tis type of
fber promotes the movement of material
through your digestive system, improving
intestinal health and reducing the risk of
constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticu-
losis. Whole-wheat four, nuts, and many
vegetables, including leaf vegetables, are
good sources of insoluble fber.
Soluble fber comes mainly from within
the plant cells. Soluble fber dissolves in
water to form a gelatinous or mucilaginous
material. It can help lower blood cholesterol
through a somewhat roundabout means.
Te liver uses cholesterol to make bile,
which our bodies use to break down fats
in our food. It can reabsorb unused bile
to avoid having to synthesize more of it.
Soluble fber binds with bile and takes it out
of the body with the feces. Because of this
the liver must draw more cholesterol from
the bloodstream to make new bile, and
thus the blood cholesterol level is lowered.
Soluble fber is also benefcial because it
slows digestion, which helps to stabilize
blood sugar levels, which reduces the risk
of developing diabetes. Excellent sources
of soluble fber include plums, citrus fruits,
oatmeal, broccoli, carrots, peas, and beans.
Most leaf vegetables are good sources
of both insoluble and soluble fber. Leaf
crops that have a mucilaginous quality,
such as vine spinach (Basella alba), bush
okra (Corchorus olitorius) and okra
(Abelmoschus esculentus) tend to have high
levels of soluble fber. Most people eating an
industrialized diet consume less than half
of the recommended 25 to 35 grams of total
fber per day.
In addition to nutrients, our bodies make
use of many other compounds to maintain
our health. Among these none are more
important than antioxidants. Tere is
strong evidence that antioxidants reduce
the risk of heart disease, age-related
macular degeneration (a common cause
of blindness in the elderly) and many
cancers. Tere is also building evidence
that they may be at least partially protective
against type 2 diabetes, Alzheimers and
Parkinsons disease.
Most antioxidants are found in plant-
based food. Fruits and vegetables, along
with cofee, tea, and chocolate, are the chief
sources of dietary antioxidants. Tey are
molecules that neutralize free radicals and
can prevent all sorts of damage to our cells.
A free radical is an unstable molecule that
is missing at least one electron. It will react
with almost any other molecule it might
bump into, creating biochemical chaos
in the process. As free radicals randomly
react with proteins, carbohydrates, fats,
and DNA, they can disrupt normal cellular
functioning throughout our bodies.
Te seriousness of this random
chemical activity within our carefully orga-
nized biological system can be seen from
the list of ailments thought to be related to
oxygen free radical activity. Tese include
many types of cancers, heart disease,
stroke, arthritis, Parkinsons disease,
Alzheimers disease, cataracts, and emphy-
sema. Free radical damage is even thought
to cause much of the tissue degeneration
that we think of as normal aging. Although
almost all organisms have evolved antioxi-
dant systems to defend against and repair
oxidative damage, these systems cannot
provide total protection from oxidative
Where do these troublesome molecules
come from? Our normal cellular activities
create some free radicals, so there is no way
to avoid all of them. We are also exposed
to varying amounts of external sources of
free radicals, coming from cigarette smoke,
pollutants, some drugs, and ultraviolet light
or radiation.
How can we defend our bodies from
oxygen free radical damage? Some of
the external free radicals can be reduced
through prudent actions, such as quitting
smoking and using sunscreen or shade
in midday sun. However, it has become
increasingly difcult to dodge environ-
mental pollutants. We have introduced
more than 80,000 man-made chemicals
into the environment in the past sixty years
and the long-term impact of most of them
is unknown. Te various combinations of
these synthetic chemicals with each other
and with common, naturally-occurring
Leaf Vegetables and Diseases Related to the Industrialized Diet
Potassium and Sodium are two
essential mineral nutrients in our
diet. Their functions include key
roles in regulating our blood pressure, maintaining the acid/alkaline balance in
our body fluids, and protecting our bones, nervous system, muscle function,
heart and kidneys. The industrial diet tends to include far more sodium, mainly
in the form of salt (sodium chloride) than traditional and primitive diets.
Industrialized diets also provide far less potassium than traditional and primi-
tive diets. These two nutrients are utilized together and the ratio of one to the
other is as important as the total intake.
There is a substantial evidence linking diets that are high in sodium and
low in potassium with increased risk for several chronic degenerative diseases,
including stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis (brittle bones) and kidney
stones. U.S. dietary guidelines call for a daily intake of at least 4.7 grams of
potassium and no more than 2.3 grams of sodium. Americans actually consume
about half the recommended potassium and twice the recommended sodium,
or the reverse of the ideal ratio.
The American diet has unfortunately become the template for most societies
undergoing rapid industrial development. As trends in sodium and potassium
intake follow the American lead, developing countries are beginning to see
similar rates of stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and kidney stones.
About 77% of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed food.
While sodium is added to almost all processed foods, potassium is not. Potassium is
naturally found in fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, meat, and dairy products,
so it is not very difficult to consume enough of it.
Foods that have a large amount of potassium and a small amount of sodium
are especially helpful in correcting this dangerous dietary imbalance. Bananas and
oranges are both very good sources of potassium with very little sodium. Most
green leafy vegetables are also excellent sources of potassium while containing
little sodium.
Chart 52 shows the quantity of potassium and sodium in some foods,
with leaf vegetables in bold. It is easy to see which foods have a ratio of the two
nutrients that is beneficial to your health and which have the opposite.
Chart 52
Best Ratio of Potassium to Sodium is 2:1
potassium sodium food
mg mg 100 g. edible portion
358 1 Banana
200 1 Orange Juice
762 226 Beet Greens
608 11 Bitter Gourd Leaves
455 7 Cowpea Leaves
433 11 Pumpkin Leaves
337 9 Moringa Leaves
558 79 Spinach
246 18 Cabbage
140 189 Cole Slaw
178 602 Cheeseburger
172 633 Pepperoni Pizza
146 1715 Pretzels
Source: United States Department of Agriculture
Nutrient Data Laboratory
compounds create vast permutations of
biochemical activities far beyond our
capacity to understand and monitor. Until
our industries and the environmental
groups that watch over them can signif-
cantly reduce the load of pollutants, nutri-
tion may be our best ally.
Leafy green vegetables as a group are
extraordinary sources of antioxidants.
VitaminA, vitaminC, and vitaminE
(A-C-E) are three essential nutrients that
also happen to be important antioxidants.
All three of these vitamin antioxidants are
present in all leaf crops and plentiful in
most of them.
Other benefcial antioxidants found in
leaf vegetables include the glucosinolates,
found primarily in plants of the cabbage
(or mustard) and onion families. Tese are
converted to isothiocynates
in our bodies
and are very potent anti-cancer agents.
Kale, collards, broccoli, radish, arugula,
mustard, and turnip greens are extremely
rich sources of these compounds, especially
1 Research has recently shown that isothiocyanates
bind to mutant p53 proteins. These defective p53
proteins are found in roughly half of all cancer
types. While normal p53 proteins are found in
healthy human cells and actually prevent
abnormal cell growth, the mutated p53 proteins
create conditions favorable to the growth of
tumors. By binding to the mutant proteins
isothiocyanates prevent them from initiating
abnormal cell growth. (Selective Depletion of
Mutant p53 by Cancer Chemopreventive
Isothiocyanates and Their StructureActivity
Relationships. Wang, X., Di Pasqua, A., Govind, S.
et al. J. Med. Chem., 2011, 54 (3), pp 809816)
when eaten raw or lightly cooked. Te efect
of this class of antioxidants is thought to be
sufciently important to recommend that
everyone eat foods from this family several
times a week. One of the few food plants
outside the cabbage and onion families that
provides isothiocyanates is moringa. A hint
of this shared attribute is found in one of its
common names, the horseradish tree.
Two other important antioxidants we
acquire largely from eating green leaves
are lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein and
zeaxanthin, are closely related carotenoid
pigments that are ofen considered together
as one, because of difculties in separating
them. Tey are present in tissues in the eye,
blood serum, skin, cervix, brain, and breast.
Tey are not produced by the human body
and so must be consumed daily through
food. We know that lutein- and zeaxanthin-
rich foods protect the eyes and the skin
from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Tis
is not too surprising if one considers that
our eyes and skin are exposed to UV radia-
tion from sunlight in much the same way
that the green leaves of plants are. In living
leaves, lutein, and zeaxanthin quench the
free radicals released by the UV radiation
before they can set of chain reactions of
cellular damage. Tis appears to be their
main function in our eyes and skin as well.
We may not be as diferent from plants as
we think, sharing the same biological sun
block and sunglasses.
How much lutein and zeaxanthin is
enough? In one large study, people who
consumed about 14,000 mcg a day had a
signifcantly lower risk of cataracts than
people who ate one-seventh as much. Tere
is also evidence that a diet rich in lutein can
slow or even partially reverse the damaging
efects of age-related macular degenera-
tion (AMD), the leading cause of blindness
in people over age 65 in the United States.
Age-related macular degeneration occurs
when light-sensitive cells in the macula,
the tissue at the center of the retina, break
down, making reading difcult and driving
Te most interesting results from
studies on lutein and the skin come from
Australia where the hole in the ozone
layer and a light-skinned population have
combined to create a ferocious epidemic
of skin cancer. An eleven-year-long study
showed that increased intake of green
leafy vegetables was associated with a 41%
decrease in the occurrence of skin cancer.
Te study, published in the International
Journal of Cancer, involved over 1,000
Australian adults.
One of its more inter-
esting fndings was that, among people
who previously had skin cancer, the rate of
recurrence declined by 55% in those who
had increased their consumption of dark
2 Study published in International Journal of
Cancer, Dr. Jolieke van der Pols, from the
Queensland Institute of Medical Research.
Journal of the National Cancer Institute,
November 3, 2004
Leaf Vegetables and Diseases Related to the Industrialized Diet
green leafy vegetables. Some researchers
hypothesized that the high levels of folic
acid in the greens may have also played a
part in the reduced cancer rate, as folate
plays an important role in the maintenance
of DNA that controls cell replication.
Further evidence of the protection
that lutein and zeaxanthin can provide to
human skin comes from Italy. In one study,
Italian women between the ages of 25 and
50 were given 10 mg of lutein a day, and
they showed improvement in several areas
of skin health. Skin hydration increased
by 38%, skin elasticity by 8%, and the level
of benefcial lipids present in the skin by
33%. Te study also showed that the lutein
decreased oxidation of benefcial lipids by
Beyond their antioxidant activities, it is
suspected that some of the beneft of carot-
enoids, especially lutein, may lie in their
ability to stimulate the immune system,
perhaps infuencing immune cells at the
gene level. How difcult is it to take in the
14,000 mcg of lutein used in the Australian
study or the 10,000 mcg used in the Italian
study, from foods that you eat? Chart 53
gives you a good idea where to start.
Te world of antioxidant research is
fascinating, complex, confusing, expensive,
3 Dr. Pierfrancesco Morganti, professor of applied
cosmetic dermatology at the University of
Naples, Clinical Evidence for Lutein and
Zeaxanthin in Skin Health, Part 1: Comparison of
Placebo, Oral, Topical and Combined Oral/
Topical Xanthophyll Treatments.
and fast-changing. Research gets done
frst on foods of economic importance
to wealthy people. Many of the more
promising tropical leaf crops have not
gotten a glance from the top research
labs because they do not normally
enter into international trade. From
what we know of the patterns of
composition, it is likely that many
more leaf crops will move into the
category of protective super foods,
once the worlds food scientists are able
to test their antioxidant activity.
Meanwhile, the best advice on
antioxidants is to eat a large variety
of fruits and vegetables every day, as
antioxidants from diferent fruits and
vegetables have somewhat diferent
mechanisms of action. Greens of
all types, especially members of the
cabbage family, all kinds of berries,
as well as onions and garlic should
defnitely be included. No one leaf
vegetable or any other plant has all the
attributes that are needed to counter
micronutrient malnutrition and to
ofset the imbalances of the industrial-
ized diet. Only variety can accomplish
Chart 53
Lutein & Zeaxanthin (Cartenoids)
in Selected Foods
cartenoids food
10,270 Kale, cooked ( c)
7,690 Collard greens, cooked ( c)
6,340 Spinach, cooked ( c)
6,080 Turnip greens, cooked ( c)
1,480 Lettuce, romaine (1 c shredded)
1,320 Zucchini, raw ( c)
1,150 Peas, canned ( c)
1,010 Brussels sprouts, cooked ( c)
440 Green beans, cooked ( cup)
340 Orange juice, from concentrate (1 c)
310 Okra, cooked ( c)
290 Baby carrots (8)
240 Orange (1)
190 Lettuce, iceberg (1 c chopped)
190 Squash, crookneck, raw ( c)
80 Tomato, raw ()
50 Cabbage, raw ( c)
Source: United States Department of Agriculture
Cooking Greens to
Maximize Nutrition
Even as some greens are more nutritious than others, some
methods of preparing greens are healthier than others. A
frequently asked question concerning the preparation of leafy
vegetables is whether to cook them or eat them raw. Ordinarily
lettuce is eaten raw, although there are recipes for heat-wilted
lettuce salads. Te Chinese ofen eat their lettuce cooked and the
thick lettuce stem is sometimes cooked as a separate vegetable.
Some leaf vegetables, including spinach and cabbage, can go
either way, raw in salads or cooked in a variety of dishes. Many
greens are eaten raw only when they are very young. Sprigs of
young Mizuna and other Asian mustards, arugula, red kales, and
dandelion are sometimes used to give raw salads bolder favors
and colors. Levels of phytochemicals in cabbage family greens
tend to be very high in young plants that are eaten raw. Tese
compounds have anti-cancer, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial prop-
erties, but they also interfere with our utilization of iodine. Most
people fnd the more mature leaves of these same plants too harsh
for a raw salad. Tere are some greens that are always cooked,
never eaten raw. Cassava, moringa, chaya, and many other
tropical leaf crops fall into this category.
So which is better, raw or cooked? Tere is a perennial
movement of people who advocate only eating raw foods. Tey
claim that cooking debases the natural vitality of foods and that
essential living enzymes are destroyed by cooking. Enzymes are
proteins that are usually catalysts for specifc chemical reactions.
Te metabolic systems of plants are sufciently diferent from
that of humans as to render nearly all plant enzymes useless in
the human body. Most quickly break down in the highly acidic
environment of the human stomach. Generally, like other proteins
we consume, they are broken down into their component amino
acids so that they can be reassembled or synthesized into new
proteins. Tese newly assembled proteins include enzymes that,
unlike the ones from the plants, have specifc functions in the
human body. Raw plant enzymes may be somewhat useful in
the human diet as a source of protein, but no more so than other
dietary proteins.
While the living enzyme argument seems somewhat
misguided, there are good reasons for eating some foods raw.
Some nutrients, especially vitaminC and folate, are easily
damaged by heat, so any cooking at all results in some loss. Most
fruits, which are rich in vitaminC, are nutritionally damaged by
any cooking. Many other nutrients, including essential amino
acids, fatty acids and other vitamins are damaged by very high
temperatures or prolonged heat.
Once a plant food is harvested or separated from the rest of the
plant it gains no further nutrients and begins to lose some of the
Cooks are often disgusted
when the vibrant deep
green of their leaf vegeta-
bles turns an unappealing olive drab when cooked. This is made
more depressing by the phenomenon of the leaves turning a
very bright intense green shortly after being put in boiling water
before sinking to a dull olive color. The brightness is caused by air
bubbles between leaf cells escaping and allowing us to see the
bright green color of the chloroplasts more directly. Shortly after
that happens the heat pushes the magnesium out of its central
position in the chlorophyll molecule. In acidic conditions
hydrogen ions replace the magnesium center, and
the chlorophyll turns grayish-green. Even if the
leaves are fried rather than boiled, heat breaks
open cells, and the leafs own acid will come
into contact with its chlorophyll.
Historically, two solutions to the olive drab
greens were employed. Both have been largely
abandoned because the cure was worse than
the problem. Old British cookbooks often recom-
mended either cooking greens in copper pots or
tossing a copper coin in with the boiling vegetables.
Even in acidic water the copper ions, rather than the
hydrogen ions, will replace the magnesium in the chloro-
phyll and allow the chlorophyll to keep its bright green hue. This
practice has been discontinued because we are now aware that,
beyond the tiny amount that we need, copper can damage both
liver and brain function.
The second trick to keep greens green, still used in much of
Africa, is to make the cooking water alkaline by adding baking
soda or ashes. The alkaline solution restricts the availability of
hydrogen ions and the bright green color is retained. There are
two downsides to the use of ash or bicarbonate of soda, though
neither is as troubling as liver and brain damage. The alkaline
solution breaks down the pectin and hemicellulose in the cell walls
quickly, and this results in a nice green color but an unpleasant
soggy texture. The second problem with the alkaline approach
is that vitamins are lost much more quickly, rendering the greens
significantly less nutritious.
Can anything be done to keep greens green? One piece of
advice that is sometimes offered is to drop the well-chopped
greens into a large pot of boiling water with the lid off. The idea
is to neutralize the enzyme chlorophyllase, which destroys chloro-
phyll once the plants cells are broken open by heat. Chlorophyllase
is most active between 66 and 77C (150 and 170F),
but it is completely neutralized by boiling. If a small
amount of water is used, adding the leaves will
cool the water and they will pass more slowly
through the 6677C temperature range of
maximum chlorophyll loss. The large pot of
boiling water plan also has two downsides.
First, far more nutrients, especially B-vitamins
and vitamin C, are lost to the water. Over twice
as much vitamin C remains in vegetables that
are steamed, microwaved, or cooked in a small
amount of water, compared to vegetables boiled
in a large enough volume of water to cover them
The second drawback to cooking with large volumes of boiling
water is that it requires more fuel and more time to cook. In many
parts of the world shortage of cooking fuel is a serious obstacle
to good nutrition, and it never makes sense to use more fuel than
necessary. Stir-frying uses very hot surface temperatures (well
above the boiling point) and relatively small pieces of leaf that
cook very quickly, so it might be the best compromise between
color and nutrition for leaf crops that need to be cooked. To a
certain degree we are forced to choose between good nutrition
and bright green leaf vegetables.
Cooking Greens to Maximize Nutrition
ones it had. Hence a very good argument
can be made for eating foods as soon afer
harvest as possible. In fact, the unavoidable
delay between harvest and eating is one of
the fundamental weaknesses of a globalized
food system.
Cooking afects food in several ways
that are fundamentally diferent than the
changes brought on by delays between
harvesting and eating. As raw food advo-
cates claim, cooking alters the nature of all
foods. Tat is exactly the point of cooking.
Usually this alteration is benefcial to
our digestive system. Te most obvious
beneft of heating foodincluding leafy
vegetablesis that it kills parasitic micro-
organisms. For instance, the deadly E. coli
O157:H7 that contaminated spinach in 2006
is killed in just ffeen seconds at 71C
(160F). It is thought that the cooking of
food has ancient roots and probably was
well established by about 40,000 years ago.
It has been nearly universally adopted. Te
decline in intestinal parasites must have
been precipitous.
Killing parasites is just one of the
benefts of cooking foods. Cooking sofens
cell walls and starches, and detoxifes
many foods. Raw kidney beans, buckwheat
greens, and potatoes have toxins that are at
least partially destroyed by heat. Trypsin
inhibitors in legumes and phytates in
grains are partially neutralized by heat
making these important foods more edible.
Several nutritious leaf crops, such as chaya
and cassava, are toxic unless cooked.
One of the most important efects of
heating comes from the water within the
cells expanding. Water expands about 4%
when heated from room temperature to
its boiling point. Tis is ofen enough to
rupture the leaves cell walls and that allows
our digestive system much greater access to
the nutrients within the cells. We accom-
plish some of the same cell rupture by
chewing our food, and this makes a good
case for chewing food thoroughly. However,
even careful chewing doesnt achieve the
degree of cell rupture that heat can. Because
of this, steaming a carrot will roughly
double the amount of vitaminA that the
same carrot could provide raw. Tis is true
also with most leaf vegetables.
Blending raw leafy vegetables in liquid
breaks the leaf cell walls and can provide
many of the benefts of cooking without as
much vitamin loss. Te high speed blades
of the blender or liquefer dramatically alter
or obliterate the vegetables texture. Tis
is fne for smoothies, many sauces, and
creamy soups, including raw gazpacho type
soups. It has been estimated that blending
roughly doubles the bioavailability of the
beta-carotene in most leafy vegetables.
Various other means of pulping leaves,
such as food processors, meat grinders
or mortars and pestles, accomplish much
of the same cell rupture, though electric
blenders are the most efective.
As mentioned earlier, adding a small
amount of cooking oil or fat to green leaves
increases the conversion of beta-carotene
to vitaminA signifcantly. Steaming,
liquefying, and adding oil to green leafy
vegetables are three simple measures that,
either separately or taken together, could
dramatically reduce the deadly scourge of
vitaminA defciency among the worlds
Cooking damages some nutrients
and makes others more available. Te
trick is fnding an optimal way to cook
greens for the minimum length of time
that will give the best mix of nutrition,
favor, and texture. For most greens this
means steaming, stir-frying or boiling
for 35 minutes. Younger more tender
greens can be eaten raw or cooked even
more briefy and older tougher ones will of
course require longer cooking. Stir-frying,
steaming, or microwaving result in less
nutrient loss than boiling. Tis is because
B-vitamins and vitaminC are water soluble
and leach out into the boiling water. Some
of this loss can be recovered if the residual
liquid or pot liquor is consumed. In the
southern United States it was common
practice, traced to slaves, to dip corn bread
in the pot liquor in order to capture more
nutrients. Microwaving essentially just
steams the greens with their own moisture,
causing the least loss of nutrients of any
cooking method.
Tere are a few edible leaf crops that
require special preparation. For example,
cassava leaves and chaya, both members
of the euphorbia family, should not be
eaten raw or even cooked for less than fve
minutes. Tey both contain compounds
that can break down and release toxic
hydrocyanic acid. Cassava leaves have far
higher levels of this toxin than chaya and
need to prepared more carefully. Tey are
both valuable vegetables but they need
to be handled diferently than spinach or
Some other leaves, such as quail grass
or soko (Celosia argentea), are usually
boiled, drained, and rinsed and then boiled
a second time. Tis removes much of the
tannin that can give the soko an unap-
pealing dark color. Tere are a few of these
problematic compounds, including nitrates,
hydrocyanic acid and oxalates that are
common enough in leaf crops to deserve
further consideration. Te pot liquor from
leafy vegetables containing high levels of
these compounds is not good to consume.
Actually a great many, if not most,
foods have some toxic or anti-nutritional
compounds in them. Why would anyone
eat something that was toxic or poisonous?
It is a rough-and-tumble world full of
organisms trying to eat and not be eaten.
Plants ofen use toxins to keep from being
eaten. Animals ofen fgure out a way
around these toxins in order to eat. Over
thousands of years humans have learned Okinawan spinach (Guynura crepioides)
Cooking Greens to Maximize Nutrition
how to get around most of the toxins and
gain access to the nutritional value of these
Nitrates are fairly stable nitrogen
compounds that plants absorb from the
soil. Te biggest danger from nitrates is that
they can be degraded into nitrites. Nitrites
are unstable and can combine readily with
other compounds in the digestive tract to
form carcinogenic (cancer-causing) nitro-
samines. Currently, about 65 of the average
73 mg of the nitrates consumed daily in
the U.S. come from vegetables. Te World
Health Organization has established a
standard of 222 mg per day as a maximum
daily nitrate intake.
For the most part soil nitrates are
destined to be built into proteins. Immature
leaves tend to have considerable nitrate
accumulation because the plant has not had
time to incorporate some of the nitrates
into proteins yet. Leafy green vegetables
and some root cropsespecially lettuce,
spinach, celery, beets, and radishes
contain the highest concentrations of
Tere is ofen a tenfold variation in
nitrate levels of the same variety of vege-
tables sampled from supermarkets. Tis is
largely a function of the age of the vegetable
when picked and the amount of nitrate
fertilizer used to grow the crop. Nitrate
levels of vegetables have gone up signif-
cantly in recent years because of increased
use of nitrate fertilizers. Nitrate levels in
carrots, lettuce, and spinach, for example,
have roughly doubled since the 1970s in
the U.S. Leaf crops grown with excessive
nitrogen fertilizer can have dangerously
high levels of nitrate. One study showed
that turnip greens could contain up to
thirteen times more nitrate when oversup-
plied with soluble nitrate fertilizer.
Fertilizer applied shortly before
harvest causes the greatest increase in
leaf nitrate levels and should be avoided.
Slower releasing nitrogen sources such
as compost and leguminous cover crops
can produce vegetables with signifcantly
lower nitrates, and this is an area where
the organic foods movement has led the
way. If non-organic fertilizers are being
used, ammonium nitrogen will grow lower
nitrate vegetables than those fertilized
with nitrate nitrogen. If ammonium-based
fertilizers are to be used, it may be worth
also applying a nitrifcation inhibitor, such
as nitrapyrin, that slows the growth of
the Nitrosomonas bacteria responsible for
converting ammonium to nitrite in the soil.
In small scale production, organic fertiliza-
tion techniques will usually provide the
best combination of good vegetable yields
and lower nitrate levels.
1 Isabel S. Vieira, Ernesto P. Vasconcelos and
Antnio A. Monteiro, Journal of Nutrient Cycling
in Agroecosystems. Springer, Netherlands. ISSN
1385-1314 (Print), 1573-0867 (Online). Volume 51,
Number 3 / July, 1998
If people increase their vegetable
consumption sharply, as they are advised
to do, is there a danger to their health
from the associated increase in nitrates?
And if there is, what steps can be taken to
minimize this increased risk?
Tere are two basic strategies to
reduce the risks of nitrosamine exposure
while greatly increasing consumption of
vegetables, especially leafy vegetables. Te
frst is to reduce the amount of nitrate in
your diet; and the second is to prevent the
nitrate from being converted to nitrites in
the body. Stems, or petioles, tend to be very
high in nitrates and low in nutrients, so
there is a value to carefully trimming of
stems of spinach and other greens. Some
plants such as lettuce are high in nitrates
relative to the nutritional contribution they
make, and it is reasonable to begin substi-
tuting other vegetables in their place. Crisp
head type lettuce tends to accumulate more
nitrate than leaf type lettuce, giving yet
another reason to choose the leaf varieties.
Varietal diferences in nitrate content
can be signifcant, and when possible it
is prudent to choose a low nitrate variety,
such as the smooth-leaved spinach
(Tufegard variety) over a high nitrate
variety, such as the common home garden
spinach (Bloomsdale variety), which typi-
cally has over 3 times as much nitrate. As
a general rule, smooth leaf spinach has less
nitrate than crinkled leaf types. Increased
consumer demand for low nitrate vegetable
varieties could quickly lead to selection
and breeding programs focused toward
this end. Unfortunately the nitrate levels of
diferent varieties are not listed anywhere
that consumers or even researchers can
easily access.
Greens harvested in the afernoon on a
sunny day will contain fewer nitrates than
those picked on a cloudy day or early in
the morning. Generally, low light intensity,
such as that found in cloudy climates, high
latitudes and winter greenhouses, contrib-
utes to higher nitrate levels. Molybdenum
defciency in the soil can also lead to exces-
sive nitrate accumulation in vegetables.
Once nitrate is consumed, vitaminC
(ascorbic acid) is efective at preventing the
conversion of nitrate to nitrite within the
human body. Greens that are very rich in
vitaminC, such as kale, may have enough
vitaminC to protect us completely against
the nitrates they contain. Tere are many
other good reasons to increase vitaminC
intake, besides its role in protecting against
nitrite formation, and it is inexpensive
nutritional insurance.
Two techniques that will be discussed
later in this book can reduce the danger
of nitrite and nitrosamine formation from
increased consumption of greens. Leaf
concentrate is essentially nitrate free, with
an estimated 98% of the nitrates washed out
in the residual liquid. Te second tech-
nique involves drying and grinding of leaf
crops. Because the dried leaves are ground
Belembe (Xanthosoma brasiliense)
Cooking Greens to Maximize Nutrition
to four-like consistency, we can use more
mature plants which are lower in nitrates.
Tese plants may be considered too tough
and stringy to be marketable.
By selecting species and varieties that
are low in nitrates and high in vitaminC,
and by growing them without synthetic
nitrate fertilizer, we can dramatically
reduce the danger from nitrates in vege-
tables. Crops grown in soil with abundant
organic matter and moderate nitrogen
levels will still produce heavily but with far
safer nitrate levels. By making leaf concen-
trate or by drying and fnely grinding more
mature leaf crops, we can reduce the danger
to an absolute minimum.
Oxalic acid is a naturally occurring
organic acid that is commonly made by
plants, animals, and humans. It is plen-
tiful in many leaf crops and it has two
negative impacts on our health. Oxalic
acid combines easily with calcium, making
calcium oxalate salts. Te calcium in these
salts is unavailable to us which lowers
the total amount of available calcium in
our diet. Te second impact is also from
calcium oxalate salts. If urine becomes
overly saturated with these salts, some will
precipitate out as crystals. Tis is akin to
adding sugar to tea until it can hold no
more, then watching sugar precipitate and
settle at the bottom of the glass or pitcher.
Chart 61
Oxalic Acid in Vegetables
oxalic acid vegetable
grams 100 g fresh, edible portion
1.70 Parsley
1.48 Chives
1.31 Purslane
1.26 Cassava
1.09 Amaranth
0.97 Spinach
0.61 Beet leaves
0.50 Carrot
0.48 Radish
0.45 Collards
0.36 Beans, snap
Brussels sprouts
0.33 Lettuce
0.31 Watercress
0.24 Sweet potato
0.21 Chicory, Turnip
0.19 Broccoli, Celery, Eggplant
0.15 Caulifower
0.13 Asparagus
0.11 Endive
0.10 Cabbage
0.05 Moringa leaves
Turnip greens
0.04 Parsnip
0.03 Rutabaga
0.02 Cucumbers
0.01 Coriander
0.01 Corn, sweet
Whether a food is good for you or
bad for you is a surprisingly complex
question. Anything, including water,
can have a negative effect if you overdo
it. When I was growing up whole milk
was promoted as Natures most
nearly perfect food. Nutritionists
now question the wisdom of giving
children that much saturated fat.
Vegetable shortening was seen as
a healthy alternative to lard and butter until the discovery that
the trans-fats created in its hydrogenation process were tied to
increased heart attack risk.
Many foods have naturally occurring compounds that have some
downside for our health. For example, some cheeses contain tyramine,
which can cause headaches and elevated blood pressure in susceptible
individuals. Grains contain phytates that can block absorption of
minerals. Green leaves have their share of these compounds as well.
Nitrates, oxalic acid, hydrocyanic acid, goitrogens, saponins, and
tannins are all found in commonly eaten green leaves and all can
have negative health consequences. Are they toxins? Anti-nutrients?
It usually depends on the amount eaten and the general adequacy
of the diet. For example, members of the cabbage family contain
goitrogens, compounds that interfere with the absorption of iodine.
Increasing iodine consumption offsets the effect of the goitrogens up
to a point. Unless you have a thyroid condition, a very low intake of
iodine, or eat a huge amount of cabbage family greens, the greens
will likely provide far more health benefit than risk.
If you smoke and have a diet low in protein, eating cassava leaves
may do you more harm than good because of the hydrocyanic acid
(HCN) content. Chaya leaves, on the other hand would always do
more good than harm, because they contain significantly less HCN
and are very rich in essential nutrients.
Nitrates from spinach or amaranth leaves can be converted into
carcinogenic nitrosamines in our guts, and high nitrate levels have
been linked with increased risk of some cancers. However, new
research shows that high nitrate vegetables may offer protection
against gastric ulcers and high blood pressure and that they may
significantly improve the efficiency of muscle function.
If you have a genetic predisposition to kidney stones or a very
low intake of water, leaf vegetables containing oxalic acid should be
avoided, while for most of us they are a healthy addition to the diet.
Some substances, such as polyphenols, tannins, and saponins
were seen as purely negative dietary factors a few years ago. Their
negative impacts are still acknowledged but now they are viewed
more favorably, as researchers discover that they also exhibit disease-
protective mechanisms.
Another example is dietary fiber. Too much fiber blocks the absorp-
tion of minerals; too little fiber leads to digestive tract problems.
The average American adult has adequate mineral nutrition, but
consumes less than half of the recommended 25 g [0.9 oz] of fiber
per day. He is better off with more fiber. Young children in the tropics
are commonly deficient in iron and zinc. They may be better off
with less fiber.
You dont need to master organic chemistry to get good nutri-
tion. Complexity is not the same as confusion. The human digestive
system is phenomenally capable of sorting out naturally occurring
chemical compounds in foods. Even as your body can maintain a
nearly constant 37 C (98.6 F) temperature in very different climates,
it can keep you well-nourished on very different diets. The key is
simply to eat in moderation and to eat a wide variety of whole foods.
1 Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans,
Larsen, F., Schiffer T., Bornique, S. et al. Cell Metabolism, 2 February 2011.
Cooking Greens to Maximize Nutrition
A small percentage
of the population has
a genetic anomaly that allows these tiny
calcium oxalate crystals to form together
into extremely painful kidney stones.
Tere is some controversy within the
feld of clinical nutrition over the actual
risk from dietary oxalic acid. It is estimated
that about 85% of the oxalate in our bodies
is from metabolic by-products, and only
1015% is consumed via food. Additionally,
many researchers believe the actual loss
of available calcium from dietary oxalate
is relatively insignifcant. About 75% of
kidney stones formed by adults in the U.S.
are calcium oxalate stones. However, many
experts think that kidney stone formation
is largely genetic and that it is not greatly
afected by dietary oxalates.
If you or any member of your family
has had a kidney stone, it is reasonable to be
very cautious about oxalate content of vege-
tables. Otherwise the beneft of the greens
almost certainly outweighs the problems
cause by the oxalic acid. Chart 61 on page
53 gives a good picture of the oxalic acid
content of many vegetables.
Tere are a few things that we can do,
short of curtailing vegetable consumption,
to reduce the impact of oxalic acid from
greens. Getting enough calcium in our
diets is the best protection against the loss
of available calcium for bones and teeth.
Unless your calcium intake is marginal or
2 In the U.S. the proportion of people prone to
kidney stones appears to have grown from under
4% in the 1970s to over 5% by the mid-1990s.
worse it is very unlikely that oxalic acid
from foods will cause a defciency.
As for kidney stones, the best, simplest,
and surely the cheapest protective measure
is to drink more water. Water dilutes the
urine and reduces the likelihood of calcium
oxalate precipitating and forming painful
crystals. Other beverages, especially cofee,
wine, and beer, are also said to be protec-
tive, perhaps because of polyphenols.
Lemonade is especially efective because of
the high levels of citrates, whereas heavy
tea drinking seems to contribute to the
formation of stones. Cooking doesnt have
much efect on the oxalate content of foods.
A decrease of 515% oxalate content is the
most you are likely to see from cooking
high-oxalate greens.
Tere are two other biological
approaches to lowering the level of oxalates
in our diet, both involving oxidase. Tis is
an enzyme that quickly breaks down oxalic
acid into harmless components. Te frst
technique employs seedlings of rye, wheat,
or barley that are naturally rich in oxidase.
Te seedlings are dried at low temperature,
ground, and added to foods high in oxalic
acid. Tests have shown a 70% decline in
oxalates in less than two hours of contact.
Te second use of the enzyme oxidase
takes place in the feld. Over thirty years
ago it was discovered that spinach leaves,
one of the highest oxalic acid foods, also
contain oxidase, which could neutralize
much of the oxalic acid. It was also
discovered that nitrates deactivate this
enzyme. Once again the most obvious
course of action is to reduce the use of
nitrate-based fertilizers, especially for
growing greens.
If you want to remove all of the oxalic
acid in the leaf crops that you eat, leaf
concentrate is your best option. Essentially
all of the soluble oxalic acid is washed out
with the whey.
Some leaves, such as those of the taro
plant, contain insoluble oxalate crystals
called raphides. Tese dont combine
easily with minerals and dont contribute
to kidney stones or the loss of absorbable
calcium. Te needle-like raphides, however,
can be extremely irritating to your tongue
and throat, so it is imperative that taro
leaves and those of related plants be cooked
well (at least ten minutes) before eating.
Recently, it has been discovered that the
intense irritation is actually due to the
efect of the sharp raphides puncturing the
tissues of the mouth and throat, combined
with proteases (enzymes that break down
proteins) attacking the punctured tissues.
Hydrocyanic acid (HCN) doesnt sound
like something that would be good to eat,
and indeed it is not. In fact, it is closely
related to cyanide gas that is sometimes
used to execute doomed prisoners. Cassava,
Lima beans, and sprouted sorghum are
some of the foods that have caused HCN
poisonings. Te toxins in these plants are
Cassava (Manihot esculenta)
Cooking Greens to Maximize Nutrition
cyanogenic glycosides, compounds that
release HCN when they break down.
Acute HCN poisoning is quite rare.
Te minimum lethal dose is estimated at
0.53.5 mg per kg of body weight. So a
child weighing 20 kg (44 lb) would need to
consume between 10 and 70 mg of HCN
and an adult three or four times that.
Chronic exposure to HCN can damage the
nervous system; especially the optic nerve.
Chronic or long-term toxicity is rare.
Among edible leaf crops, cassava leaves
have the highest concentration of HCN
and are by far the most troubling. HCN
poisoning has been reported mainly where
there is a great dependence on cassava and
low protein intake. Low consumption of
proteinsespecially sulfur-bearing amino
acids, cigarette smoking and air pollution
all intensify the bodys negative reaction to
Tree other leaf crops that contain
HCN are chaya (Cnidosculus chayamansa),
from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico;
futed pumpkin (Telfairia occidentalis); and
bitter leaf (Vernonia amygdalina), from west
Africa. Tey all have much lower and safer
levels of HCN than cassava, but should be
boiled for at least fve minutes for a margin
of safety. 100 g (3 oz) of fresh chaya leaf
will typically have less than 1 mg of HCN
(or 10 parts per million). Afer 5 minutes in
boiling water no detectable HCN remains.
Fluted pumpkin and bitter leaf have only
about one-tenth as much HCN as chaya.
Te HCN content of cassava leaf is quite
variable, but could be 50 times or more as
high as that of chaya. With cassava, like
chaya, the HCN is driven of with boiling
water. Because of the greater content of
HCN it is advised to boil cassava leaves for
15 minutes instead of 5 and to rinse them
before eating. If a large quantity of cassava
leaves are being chopped or pulped at any
given time it is important to ensure good
One would be tempted to steer clear
of cassava leaves altogether to avoid any
toxicity problems, except that the plant
has several important attributes as a leaf
crop. It produces large quantities of leaves
throughout the year in many locations.
Cassava leaves are high in dry matter,
protein, and micronutrients. Cassava
grows in thin, infertile acid soils, where
aluminum toxicity prevents more proftable
crops from thriving. It grows where there is
malnutrition; the prevalence of the cassava
root may be both a symptom and a cause
of that malnutrition. People are currently
eating cassava leaves as a vegetable in much
of Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America.
Te question may not be whether to eat
cassava leaves, but rather how to.
Developing and distributing low-HCN
varieties is critical to this efort. In Brazil
and elsewhere great progress has been
made on selecting and breeding cassava
with low-HCN leaves. Besides prolonged
boiling and rinsing, which eliminates a
substantial portion of its vitamins, there are
techniques for drying cassava leaves that
remove most of the HCN. Te leaves should
be pulped while fresh before drying. Simple
chopping will not rupture enough cells to
allow for sufcient HCN to pass into the
air. To put the pulping and drying tech-
nique in perspective, the Brazilian Ministry
of Agriculture ofered the fgures in Chart
62, in parts per million (ppm) of HCN, for
one variety of cassava leaf (Cigana).
Chart 62
Hydrocyanic Acid in Cigana
variety cassava leaves
hcn (ppm) food
737 Fresh leaf
124 Powder from dried whole leaf
76 Powder from dried shredded leaf
34 Powder from dried pulped leaf
Leaf Concentrate
Leaf concentrate is an extraordinarily nutritious food made by
mechanically breaking down certain green leaf crops into three
components. Tis process is sometimes referred to as leaf fraction-
ation. Although very few people have heard of, much less eaten
leaf concentrate, it is not a new idea or even a new technology. A
French scientist named Hilaire Marin Rouelle (171879) published
two fairly thorough papers on making curd from green leaves in
1773, over 200 years ago. He mashed several diferent species of
leaves with a marble mortar and pestle, then strained the leaf juice
and heated it. A green curd formed and foated to the top before
the leaf juice reached its boiling point. Over the next 150 years
several scientists probed the nature of proteins found in this leaf
Little was done with this information in the way of practical
application until World War II. England, a densely populated
island nation dependent on imported food, was at war with Nazi
Germany. Te German U-boats, armed with torpedoes, were
efectively intercepting supply ships heading to England. Fearing
that the U-boat blockade could endanger their food supplies, the
British began searching for alternative sources of protein. Dr. N.
W. Pirie led a team of scientists at Rothamsted Research Station
in developing equipment and techniques for extracting protein
from the green leaves of alfalfa, wheat, mustard, and several other
Afer the war ended, food and feed shipments mainly from the
US and Canada resumed and the urgency of fnding alternative
protein sources declined. In 1972 the World Health Organization
sharply reduced the recommended amount of daily protein. Tis
further dampened interest in novel protein sources, such as leaf
Work did continue, however, on three diferent fronts. Some of
the work, especially that of the British charity Find Your Feet and
the American non-proft group Leaf for Life, focused on devel-
oping leaf concentrate as a solution to malnutrition in developing
countries. Others including the American company Atlantic
Richfeld and the French cooperative France Lucerne, worked
primarily on using leaf fractionation as an alternative means of
dehydrating forage crops. Drying crops, such as alfalfa, prevents
mold and nutrient loss in the feld and makes them easier to trans-
port to commercial animal feeding centers. In these operations
the fbrous fraction was the most important economically. Te leaf
concentrate was more or less a fringe beneft and was sold mainly
as a high nutrient additive to chicken and pig feeds.
Te third approach, undertaken on a small scale by Michael
Cole and his Leafcyle Farm in Devon, England, and more recently
by Natural Farmworks in western Canada, sought to develop
leaf concentrate for the relatively savvy and afuent health food
market. Tere are numerous similar products, such as algae,
spirolina, and dried barley grass juice, already being proftably
distributed through retail stores, coopera-
tives and websites to health conscious and/
or hypochondriac consumers.
Tese various approaches to leaf
concentrate are not mutually exclusive.
Find Your Feet and Leaf for Life projects
ofen involved micro-enterprise elements,
whereby local groups sold leaf concentrate
enriched products to local health food
stores in the countries where the projects
were located. Retired executives from
France Lucerne established a not-for-proft
organization called APEF (Association
pour la Promotion des Extaits Foliaires en
Nutrition), which has been very active using
leaf concentrate in fghting malnutrition in
Africa, Nicaragua, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Tey have done outstanding work using leaf
concentrate for the nutritional support of
people with AIDS in Africa. Both Leafcycle
and Natural Farmworks have expressed
interest in joining with nutrition interven-
tion projects.
Leaf concentrate has also been called
leaf protein, leaf protein concentrate, leaf
extract, rubisco protein, and leaf nutrient
concentrate. Te process of leaf fraction-
ation begins with mechanically separating
the leaf juice from the leaf fber, followed
by heating the juice to the boiling point,
and then separating the green curd, or leaf
concentrate, that forms from the tea colored
whey on which it foats. Te proportions
of each of the three leaf fractions formed
vary somewhat with the type of green leaf
and the type of equipment used. As a rule,
100 kg of leaf crops should yield about:
~ 5 kg of moist leaf concentrate (at
5060% moisture)
~ 45 kg of fber (at 5060% moisture)
~ 50 kg of whey (at 9398% moisture)
Fractionating leaves to make leaf
concentrate simultaneously resolves several
of the problems that have prevented green
leaves from reaching their potential as a
food source. Separating the fber and the
whey greatly enhances both the concentra-
tion and the bioavailability of the nutrients
in the leaf.
Leaf concentrate is extremely rich in
beta-carotene, iron, calcium and protein. In
fact it is richer in these essential nutrients
than any commonly available foods. Chart
71 compares dried leaf concentrate made
from alfalfa with several other highly nutri-
tious foods.
In addition to the high levels of nutri-
ents, the nutrient bioavailability is very
good compared to other plant-based foods.
Tis is because the fber from the cell walls
has been separated during the process. Tis
combination of high nutrient levels and
good bioavailability makes leaf concentrate
quite efective in combating malnutrition.
Not only are the fber and water separated
Chart 71
Nutrients in Selected High Protein Foods
protein iron calcium vitamin a edible portion
(g) (mg) (mg) (mg) 100 g (3.5 oz)

50.8 54.0 3380 3835 Dried alfalfa leaf concentrate
29.0 1.9 22 0 Beef steak
15.0 2.1 66 182 Scrambled Eggs
26.3 0.5 912 257 Dried whole milk
21.4 5.1 113 0 Dry pinto beans
Leaf concentrate composition from E. Bertin (2009). Composition nutritionelle detaile de lextrait foliaire de luzerne
(EFL). Association pour la Promotion des Extraits Foliaires en Nutrition. All others from USDA.
Leaf Concentrate
in the fractionation, the process also
removes hydrocyanic acid, free oxalic acid
and nitrates that limit the usefulness of
many leaf crops. Because the juice is heated
to the boiling point, E. coli and most other
pathogens are killed.
Leaf concentrate can also minimize the
pesticide residues that we consume with
many leaf crops. Much of the pesticide
applied to lettuce, spinach, and other leaf
crops is protecting not the crop so much as
the appearance of the crop in the market.
Because the leaves are ground to a pulp
immediately afer harvest, no pesticides
need to be used to keep the crop looking
Te astonishing numbers on the
composition table are not just for show.
Numerous studies have shown that leaf
concentrate is able to quickly reverse many
of the symptoms of malnutrition, especially
of anemia and vitaminA defciency. Tese
are two of the most common and most
damaging of nutritional defciencies in the
world. Daily portions of as little as 6 g (0.2
oz) of dried leaf concentrate can efectively
end most anemia and vitaminA defciency
diseases within a few weeks.
Leaf concentrate has been and is being
made on every imaginable scale, from
France Lucernes factory in Aulnay
processing 150 tons of alfalfa an hour, to
peasants pounding leaves with wooden
sticks. Regardless of the scale and the
specifcs of the equipment, for the most part
the basic process of making leaf concentrate
is the same across cultures.
Freshly harvested and washed leaves are
ground or pulped, then pressed to separate
the leaf juice from the fber. Te green juice
is heated quickly to the boiling point. Heat
causes a curd to form that foats to the top.
Te curd is skimmed of and then pressed
to remove as much water as possible. Tis
moist leaf curd or leaf concentrate can
be eaten directly or dried and ground
for later use. If the leaf concentrate has a
harsh favor it is usually the result of not
processing the leaves within an hour or
two of harvest, burning the curd, or not
pressing the whey from the leaf curd thor-
oughly enough.
Te steps in the process are listed on in
Chart 72 and then described more fully
on the pages that follow. Te focus here is
on domestic and small-scale processing.
At the end of this section the benefts and
drawbacks of the three scales of opera-
tion (domestic, village, and industrial) are
summarized. More information on village
or intermediate scale processing is available
at the Leaf for Life website www.leaforlife.
Industrial scale leaf concentrate is a
more specialized feld and is largely beyond
the scope of this book.
Chart 72
Eight Steps to Making Leaf

1. Choose a plant known to be a good
source for leaf concentrate.
2. Harvest fresh green leaves.
3. Wash the leaves in clean water to
remove dust and dirt.
4. Grind the leaves to a pulp.
5. Press as much juice as possible from
the pulped leaves.
6. Heat the juice rapidly to the boiling
7. Separate the curd that forms from
the liquid (whey).
8. Press as much liquid as possible out
of this curd.
Tis pressed curd is leaf concentrate.
1. Choose a plant known to be a good
source for leaf concentrate.
Not all plants have leaves that make good leaf concentrate. Some of
the plants that been used successfully are:
Alfalfa or lucerne - Medicago sativa
Cowpea - Vigna unguiculata
Berseem clover - Trifolium alexandrium
Lablab or hyacinth bean - Lablab purpureus
Butterfy or Kordofan pea - Clitoria ternatea
Collards or kale - Brassica oleracea
Mustard - Brassica juncea
Swiss chard - Beta vulgaris var. cicla
Orach, mountain spinach - Atriplex hortensis
Wheat - Triticum aestivum
Moringa - Moringa oleifera
Lambsquarters - Chenopodium album
In any region there are usually two or three plant species that are
the most productive or the most economical. Alfalfa (Medicago
sativa) has been used far more than any other plant. It is consid-
ered to be the Queen of Forage Crops and is the most widely
grown legume in the world. Generally legumes are the best choices
because they can fx atmospheric nitrogen. Leguminous plants like
beans, peas, clovers, alfalfa, and many tropical trees have nodules
on their roots that can turn the nitrogen in the air into ammonia in
the soil that can be absorbed by plants. As a result legumes usually
have high levels of protein in their leaves.
1 Sometimes different researchers will come to different conclusions about the
suitability of the same crop. For instance, I read a very positive report about
using Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) leaves for making LC, but in
four separate trials I got only harsh-tasting, inedible curd. It is not always easy
to determine how the variety and growing conditions of a leaf crop affect the
quality and yield of leaf concentrate.
Fewer than 1% of the estimated 350,000 species of fowering plants
in the world have been assessed as possible leaf concentrate source
plants. A more systematic evaluation of a larger number of possible
crops may produce some pleasant surprises. Te checklist below
gives an idea what to look for in a crop for making leaf concentrate.
Positive Traits for Leaf Concentrate Crops
known to be edible by humans
produces large yields of leaves (over 30 metric tons
per hectare [27,000 lb per acre] per year)
moisture content of fresh leaves is above 75% and below 90%
protein content in fresh leaves is at least 2.5%
can fx atmospheric nitrogen
erect, non-twining growth habit for ease of harvest
resistance to common tropical virus, insect,
fungus, and nematode problems
Leaf Concentrate
establishes quickly enough to compete with weeds
leaves will re-grow afer harvest for repeated cuttings
seed or cuttings for propagation are readily obtainable
can withstand drought
can tolerate low fertility, aluminum, and acidity in soil
can tolerate salinity and high pH
has multiple purposes (i.e. edible seeds or roots,
cover crop, useful for industrial purposes such as
medicine, paper, or textile manufacture)
Negative Traits for Leaf Concentrate Crops
high concentrations of toxins in leaves
high levels of tannins or phenolic compounds that can bind
with proteins and make them difcult to absorb (ofen indi-
cated when leaf juices coagulate at room temperature)
leaf juice forms bitter or unpleasant-tasting curd
leaf juice that doesnt coagulate readily when heated to boiling or
forms a very fne sof curd that is difcult to separate from whey
foamy or mucilaginous leaf juice that is
difcult to separate from fber
acidic leaf juice
leaves that are difcult to harvest (How long will it real-
istically take to harvest enough leaves from this plant for
economical production? For a point of reference, an experi-
enced Mexican farm worker in a good stand of alfalfa can cut
200 kg (440 lb) of leaf crop in 15 minutes with a scythe.)
2. Harvest fresh green leaves
Usually the best time to harvest crops for leaf concentrate is in the
morning when moisture content is high. Te best leaf concentrate
yields from plants are achieved by harvesting just before fow-
ering. During fowering nutrients are rapidly moved out of the
leaves into reproductive organs. Te most economical crops can be
harvested more than once. It is important to determine the optimal
harvesting schedule and cutting height for regrowth. Obviously
harvesting leaves from very tall plants that require ladders, or from
plants with a tangled twining nature will be too slow for econom-
ical production.
Machetes, scythes, sickle bar mowers and string trimmers have
all been used successfully to harvest leaf crops. Avoid rotary lawn
mowers as they tend to suck dust and dirt into the chopped leaves
that is impossible to remove. If the leaves are chopped during the
harvesting process, some leaf juice will be lost before pulping and
the leaves will spoil more quickly. Tis causes a decline in both
the yield and the quality of the leaf concentrate but may become
unavoidable as the volume of leaves being processed increases
beyond a certain point.
If you are working on a very small scale it may be worthwhile
to strip the leaves from the stems. Tere is very little of nutritional
value in the stems. Simply removing the stems can nearly double
the percentage yield of leaf concentrate. For instance, 100 kg of
cowpea crop as cut in the feld will have about 55 kg of leaf, 45 kg
of stem, and yield about 2 kg or 2% of dry leaf concentrate. If you
start with leaves stripped from their stems you should end up with
about 3.6% of dry leaf concentrate. You wont get any more leaf
concentrate from the area harvested, but stripping leaves from their
stems means far less pulping, pressing, and heating per pound of
leaf concentrate. However, on all but the smallest scale the amount
of labor involved in stripping leaves is prohibitive.
3. Wash the leaves in clean water
to remove dust and dirt.
Rinsing the leaves in cool water as soon as possible afer harvest
will not only remove surface dust and soil but will usually lower the
temperature of the leaves and slow their spoilage. Small amounts
of leaves can be washed by hand then shaken out to remove excess
water before cutting and grinding. For larger quantities of leaves
it is advantageous to use a special tank and handle the leaves with
clean pitchforks or rakes. In either case remove the leaves from the
tank rather than draining the water and then removing the leaves.
When the water is drained much of the dirt gets caught in the
leaves on its way out. Weed leaves usually dont need to be picked
out unless they are known to be poisonous or especially bitter.
Rocks on the other hand tend to be hard on grinders.
Leaf Concentrate
4. Grind the leaves to a pulp.
Grind the leaves to a pulp as soon as possible afer harvesting.
When leaves wilt, the pressure inside the cells is reduced and the
amount of force required before rupturing the cell wall increases;
just as it is harder to burst a half-full water balloon than one that
is completely full. (You might want to experiment outside.) Te
yield of leaf concentrate from most crops will decline 15% in four
hours and 50% afer nine hours. A big pile of fresh leaves will begin
composting within a few hours. You will be able to feel the heat
generated by microbial activity in the center of the pile. It does not
improve yield or favor.
Tere are several ways to grind the leaves to a pulp. Te impor-
tant thing is that they are ground well enough to break open cell
walls. I consider grinding to be the most important step in making
leaf concentrate. Chopping, no matter how fnely, usually wont
rupture enough cell walls. For this reason food processors are
inadequate, unless used as a pre-chopper for some other type of
Household blenders work well for small amounts because the
agitating liquid sloshes proteins and other nutrients free from
the fbrous matrix. Tey are a good starting place for getting the
basic feel of making leaf concentrate. Unfortunately blenders
require adding liquid for processing that must later be heated, thus
increasing the energy requirements of the operation. If you plan
to use a blender, get the most powerful one you can aford. Forget
about how many diferent speeds it has and look at how many watts
the motor uses. Tis is usually posted on the bottom of the blender
base. Any blender with less than 600 watts will likely burn out
quickly from making leaf concentrate.
Home scale meat grinders sometimes work for pulping leaves.
However, leaves that are very wet tend to be messy due to leaf juice
pooling inside the grinder, and leaves with long fbrous stems will
ofen clog up ferociously. Using a meat grinder with a hand crank is
physically demanding. We have rigged old bicycles to meat grinders
with a pulley wheel to lighten the work. Tis makes a passable but
messy exercise bike. Tere are electric meat grinders available for
processing game meat at hunting and outdoor supply stores. You
can also try to rig a 1/2 or 3/4 HP electric motor to a hand cranked
meat grinder. It needs to be slowed down to no more than 60 rpm
with belts and pulleys or a gear motor. I recommend trying the
blender frst because it is the simplest in terms of machinery.
Even under ideal circumstances, it is impossible to rupture all
the cell walls, but some techniques work far better than others. If
you can still recognize pieces of leaf afer pulping, cell rupture is not
adequate. Cell rupture is usually somewhat improved by passing the
leaves through the grinder a second time, but the additional energy
and labor cost may not be justifed.
5. Press as much juice as possible
from the pulped leaves.
Afer the fresh leaves are ground up or pulped, the juice must be
separated from the indigestible fber. Tis is usually accomplished
by pressing the pulp against a fne screen or a strong nylon type flter
cloth, such as are used to strain paint. Tis allows most of the juice
to pass through but holds back the pieces of fber. Te pulp should
be pressed from a layer no more than 4 cm (11/2 in) thick. Tis gets
better results than a thicker layer because when a thicker layer of pulp is
pressed, much of the juice from the center of the layer tends to be reab-
sorbed by the drier pulp at the edge of the layer. Also some of the large
protein molecules are unable to pass through a thick layer of densely
compacted pulp and so are excluded from the leaf juice. Tis lowers the
yield of leaf concentrate.
Very high pressure is unnecessary and can complicate things by
clogging and tearing flters. A pressure of 2 kg per sq cm (30 lb per sq
in) applied over a layer of leaf pulp that is initially 2.5 cm (1 in) thick for
ten seconds is usually adequate. Pressures as low as one-third of this
can be efective if the pulp is repositioned and pressed a second time.
Afer pressing it should not be possible to get more than a drop or two
of liquid from the fber when it is squeezed in your fst.
As any physics student or loan shark can tell you, there are
many possible ways to apply pressure. Levers are simple and work
reasonably well for quantities of leaves less than a few hundred
kilograms. We have used a 3 m (10 f) long, 10 cm (4 in) diameter
steel pipe to apply pressure to a plate about 60 cm (24 in) on a side.
Tis plate presses down on a wire mesh (sometimes called hardware
cloth) tray with a wooden frame that holds the pulped leaves in a
nylon cloth. A stout wooden board could also be the lever. A car
jack can be used to apply pressure with a similar type of plate. Te
seals fail quickly on cheap hydraulic jacks if they are used repeat-
edly to press juice from pulped leaves. Screw type or scissors type
jacks hold up better but are tiring to use.
Centrifuges of various types, including the spin cycle of auto-
matic washing machines, have also been used to separate the leaf
juice from the pulp. Tis is usually more of an exciting mess than
a practical solution. On a domestic scale an extremely simple press
made from the legs of blue jeans from secondhand stores work well.
Other material, such as muslin, will work fne but use fabric strong
enough to hold up to repeated and vigorous wringing. You can add
to the pressure being applied by using a broomstick to help twist the
cloth. It is a variation on the old fashioned wringing post that was
used to wring water from clothes before they were hung to dry.
Afer you have pressed the pulp, you should not be able to
squeeze any more juice out with your bare hand. Te residual fber
should be a lighter shade of green than the original leaves. You can
eke out a little more concentrate by re-wetting the fber and pressing
it a second time. As with a second pulping, a second pressing takes
additional time and energy and may not be worth the efort unless
you have a very limited supply of green leaves or the initial pressing
was not done well.
Te leaf juice should be strained through a screen or cloth
before heating, to remove particles of fber. Tis can be done with
an open weave cloth (such as the nylon used in pressing the pulped
leaves or a thin cotton t-shirt type fabric) inside a sieve or colander.
Leaf Concentrate
6. Heat the juice rapidly to the boiling point.
Leaf concentrate is separated from leaf juice by coagulating the
proteins and lipids into a curd. Many other nutrients are pulled into
this curd. Te most efective way to coagulate the leaf juice is to
heat it rapidly. While most of the leaf curd or concentrate will form
by the time the leaf juice reaches 65C (147F), it is very important
to continue heating the juice to the boiling point. Tis serves several
purposes, including:
Pasteurization of the leaf concentrate to kill most
of the harmful microorganisms that may have been
on the leaves from the soil or from handling.
Neutralization of enzymes in leaf juice. Enzymes,
called lipoxidases, can cause of-favors; more rapid
deterioration of the concentrate; and the forma-
tion of pheophorbides, substances that cause sensi-
tivity to light and allergic reactions in some people.
Formation of a frmer curd that is much easier to
separate from the leaf juice than the sof curd that
forms in juice that is not heated to boiling.
Heating should be as rapid as possible. Heating slowly will
cause a reduction in yield. It can result in curd that is sof and fne
textured. Tis type of curd is undesirable because it seals up flter
cloths that are used to separate the curd from the remaining liquid
or whey. Slow heating also results in greater fuel costs, as more
heat is lost to the air. Te heat should be turned of as soon as the
boiling point is reached. Holding the juice at the boiling point for
more than a few seconds will cause some loss of vitamins as well as
greater fuel costs, without providing any benefts.
Te simplest way to heat leaf juice, and the method used most
ofen in small projects, is to put it in a large shallow pan over a
hot fame. Tis is a familiar process for many women around the
world who bring liquids to a boil over fre several times a week
(i.e. for beans or breakfast porridges). Te pot should have a top to
conserve heat. Heavy gauge stainless steel is the best material for
the cooking pots in terms of cleaning and not contaminating the
juice. Aluminum pots are generally much cheaper and more readily
available than stainless steel and acceptable for this use. Unless
they are very scratched they wont leach an appreciable amount
of aluminum. Light gauge or thin-bottomed pots of any material
should be avoided because there will be more problems with curd
burning on the bottom of the pot. Burning of curd can be greatly
reduced by gently scraping across the bottom of the cook pot a few
times just before the juice reaches the boiling point.
Steam injection is used on large scale leaf concentrate opera-
tions because it generally uses less energy to coagulate the leaf
juice. Steam will instantly coagulate leaf juice, making a good
quality curd with no risk of burning it. To make steam work on
a domestic or village level might require adapting some type of
steamer used for cleaning clothes, carpet, or cars. On a very small
scale a household pressure cooker might be adapted. It is important
that the safety concerns of using very hot water under pressure are
adequately addressed.
Another idea is to trickle leaf juice into a pot of water that is
held near the boiling point.
A curd forms almost immediately and foats to the surface.
Te advantage of this system over heating in a pot is that it is
continuous and that the curd never burns because it doesnt stay
in contact with the bottom of the pan. Te drawbacks are that it is
more difcult to arrange and coordinate and that the juice is not
heated as conclusively to the boiling point, thus pasteurization may
not be as thorough.
Tere are a number of ways to obtain curd from leaf juice
without using heat. Tese include centrifuging, ultra-fltration,
fermentation, and acidifcation. At this point none of these tech-
niques seems to be superior to heat except under specifc laboratory
circumstances. For home or small scale leaf concentrate production
heat is clearly the preferred way to coagulate leaf juice.
7. Separate the curd that forms by filtering
through an open weave cloth.
Afer the leaf juice reaches the boiling point it should be removed
from the heat and allowed to stand for a few minutes to cool.
Leaving the curd in the hot liquid a few minutes assures better
pasteurization with no further fuel costs. Letting the liquid cool
a bit before separating the curd also reduces the chance of being
scalded from hot liquid. Te cook pot should never be flled
completely, especially if it is going to be moved while there is hot
liquid in it.
If the quantity of juice heated at one time is fairly small, it can
be handled by pouring the entire contents of the cook pot through a
flter cloth of nylon type material. Tis cloth can be supported by a
wooden frame that has 62 mm (1/4 in) woven wire mesh (hardware
cloth) fxed to its bottom. Tis can be the same wooden frame that
is used in pressing the juice from the pulped leaves. Tis frame can
Leaf Concentrate
be set on a washtub so that the whey will pass through the cloth and
be collected in the tub below. Te relatively large surface area and
open weave of the cloth will allow the whey to drain freely from the
If the pot is too large to lif comfortably, skim the curd of with
a slotted spoon or a strainer. Te skimmed curd can be put into a
colander lined with a nylon cloth to drain the whey.
8. Press as much liquid as possible
out of the curd.
Te curd is then placed in a stronger, more tightly woven cloth, like
muslin, denim, or cotton-polyester twill, and pressed to remove
as much whey as possible. An easy way to press the whey from the
curd is to spread it in a layer not more than 2.5 cm (1 in) deep on
the muslin or twill cloth and press it gradually with a lever. Tis
process is nearly the same as the pressing of the juice from the fber,
except the pressure must be applied a bit more gradually and held
for a longer time. As with pressing the juice, reorienting, or reposi-
tioning the curd in the flter cloth for a second press usually results
in better pressing. When using a lever, a weight, such as a fve-
gallon bucket of water, can be used to apply steady pressure. Tis
type of steady pressure on the lever for several minutes is ideal for
pressing the whey from the curd.
On the domestic scale we have gotten good results with a
wringing pole approach (see step 5 above). In fact this technique is
the only simple press that consistently results in leaf concentrate
that is below 60% moisture.
Afer being pressed the curd should be crumbly and contain
about 60% moisture. Even with phenomenally strong hands you
cannot get either enough juice from the pulped leaves or enough
whey from the curd by simple hand squeezing.
What remains in the cloth is leaf concentrate.
Fresh leaf concentrate is quite perish-
able. Like tofu or fresh cheese, it will last
one or two days at room temperature or
about a week in a refrigerator. Because of
this, it is ofen advantageous to preserve
leaf concentrate for later use. Preserving it
enables you to make a larger quantity less
frequently. Tis greatly reduces the amount
of set up and clean up work per unit of leaf
concentrate produced. More importantly,
preserving leaf concentrate allows you to
have it year round, even where leaf crops
are plentiful only at certain times of the
Te simplest way to preserve leaf
concentrate is by drying it to below 10%
moisture. Other methods are to mix it with
enough sugar, salt, or acid, or combina-
tion of them to inhibit microbial growth.
Te leaf concentrate should be preserved
as soon as possible afer it cools because
bacteria will quickly begin to multiply on
the surface. Te rich nutrient content that
makes leaf concentrate so benefcial for
humans also promotes rapid growth of
many microorganisms. Leaf concentrate,
whether fresh or preserved, should be
stored in a container that is as airtight as
possible, and it should always be stored in a
location that is cool, dry, and out of direct
Drying leaf concentrate
Drying leaf concentrate is very similar to
drying fresh green leaves. Almost all of the
information on drying leaf vegetables in
Chapter 8 applies to drying leaf concen-
trate as well. Tere are numerous commer-
cial food dryers for sale, and designs for
building your own solar and electric
powered dryers are available and listed in
the appendix. However, the solar leaf dryers
described in the next section of this book
are inexpensive, easy to build and work well
with no fuel costs.
As with leaves, leaf concentrate should
be dried as quickly as possible. Preferably
the concentrate should be completely dried
on the same day that the curd is made.
Like fresh leaves it needs to be protected
from the ultraviolet rays of direct sunlight,
as well as from blowing dust, insects, and
Steps for Drying Leaf Concentrate
1. Start with well pressed curd
(c. 60% moisture)
2. Granulate the curd by rubbing it
through a screen or hardware cloth
to get small, uniformly sized parti-
cles. Tis will increase the ratio of
surface area to weight and ensure
faster and more thorough drying.
3. Heat the granulated curd: 50 C (120 F)
is ideal, 60C (140F) is the maximum.
4. Expose the granulated curd to moving
air to remove the moisture that evapo-
rates from the surface of the concen-
trate. Te solar dryers are designed
to provide enough air movement and
most electric dryers have small fans.
5. Dry to below 10% moisture. If youre not
sure that the concentrate is thoroughly
dry, you can fnish drying it in an oven
set to the lowest possible temperature
for a few minutes then turned of before
the leaf concentrate is put in the oven.
6. Grind as fnely as possible. If the friction
from grinding makes the dried curd
too hot to touch comfortably, grind
it more slowly. Finely ground, dried
leaf concentrate has a less gritty feel in
the mouth than more coarsely ground
concentrate. It also provides more
surface area for digestive enzymes to
work and thus the nutrients are better
utilized. Te information on grinders
and grinding in chapter 8 generally
applies to grinding leaf concentrate
also, although the higher protein
content makes the dried concentrate
harder to grind than dried leaves.
7. Store in thick, well-sealed plastic bags
or other opaque containers with as
much air removed as possible. Keep in
a cool dark place. Use within one year
Preserving fresh leaf concentrate
with sugar or salt
Sugar and salt can preserve food because
their high osmotic pressure kills bacteria by
drawing moisture through the bacterial cell
walls. As a rule of thumb in food preserva-
tion, for each kilogram of water in a food,
Leaf Concentrate
you need 3 kg of sugar or 200 g of salt. Tis
means that 1 kg of fresh leaf concentrate at
60% moisture contains 600 g of water and
needs to be mixed with 1,800 g of sugar or
120 g of salt.
For each kilogram (2.2 lb) of fresh leaf
concentrate, mix with:
2 kg (4.4 lb) sugar + 1 liter (4-1/4
cups) lemon juice
Blend leaf curd and juice together at
high speed, then add sugar to make
lemonade syrup that will keep for
six months or more in a refrigerator.
Te lemon juice compensates for
some of the sugar because it lowers
the pH of the concentrate which
also inhibits microbial growth.
2 kg (4.4 lb) sugar + 1 liter (4-1/4
cups) water or fruit juice + 40 g (1.4
ounces) salt
Salt helps preserve concentrate
and reduces settling when syrup is
mixed with water.
2 kg (4.4 lb) sugar + 1 liter (4-1/4
cups) water or fruit juice + 40 g (1.4
ounces) salt
+ 1,600 mg vitaminC
VitaminC, or ascorbic acid, lowers
pH and is an antioxidant that helps
preserve leaf concentrate. It also
makes the concentrates iron easier
for the body to utilize. Tis formula
provides about 40 mg vitaminC per
10 g serving of dried concentrate.
2 kg (4.4 lb) sugar
Tis makes a paste that can be
added to many sweet foods and
200 g salt
Tis can be mixed and stored in
an airtight plastic bag, or layered
and stored in brine, like sauerkraut
(fermented cabbage leaves). Te
salt needs to be washed of before
it is eaten. Sauerkraut and other
fermented leaf foods are gener-
ally preserved by a combination of
lactic acids lowering the pH and
the osmotic pressure of salt. (See
Chapter 9)
Storing leaf concentrate is not an exact
science. Its shelf life will depend on the
methods used and the percentage of
moisture in the curd, as well as the condi-
tion in which it is stored. No matter how
long it has been stored, it is a good idea to
smell it and examine it closely before using
it. If it smells like rotted vegetation or has
any visible signs of mold on it, do not use it.
Fresh leaf concentrate is a dark-green-
colored food with a texture that ranges
from crumbly to pasty. It can be used in
a wide assortment of dishes, from simply
tossing a spoonful into a blender with some
fruit juice or yogurt, to elaborate casseroles.
It can be added to homemade pasta, used
in sauces, such as pesto or green Mexican
salsa, or baked into cookies. Te favor it
imparts depends on the type of leaf that
was used in making the concentrate. Most
leaf concentrate has a fairly strong, spinach-
like favor. Te texture is easily adaptable
to a variety of recipes. Leaf curd preserved
with sugar or salt is very similar to fresh
leaf curd in how it can be used. Obviously
sugar-preserved curd is easier to incorpo-
rate into sweet recipes, and salt-preserved
concentrate does better with savory dishes.
For the most part dried concentrate
can be used in the same ways as fresh. It
is about 21/2 times more concentrated so
you dont need to use as much to get the
same nutritional beneft. Dried leaf concen-
trate will settle in watery drinks or soups
but will stay held in suspension in thicker
drinks or stews. For example, dried leaf
concentrate powder might sink in apple
cider or orange juice, but not in drinks
with blended banana or other whole fruit.
Because dried curd from some types of
leaves has stronger favor than curd from
others, try to match the dried curd to the
recipe. Use mild favored leaf concentrate in
cookies or pudding for kids but you might
use stronger favored concentrate in a sauce
with chili and garlic.
We have adapted dozens of recipes from
all over the world to include leaf concen-
trate. You will fnd many of the simplest
ones in the recipe section of this book. Be
creative. Try adapting some of your favorite
Chart 73
Selected Nutrients in Alfalfa Leaf Concentrate
Protein Iron Calcium Vitamin A Vitamin E
g mg mg mcg RAE mg
DRI* for 48 year old child 19.0 10.0 800.0 400.0 7.0
10 g (0.35 oz) dried alfalfa leaf concentrate 5.1 5.4 338.0 384.0 9.9
Percentage of DRI for 48 year old child 27% 54% 42% 96% 141%
* Dietary Reference Intake (DRI):Recommended Daily Intakes for
Individuals, US National Academy of Sciences, 2004
A note on dietary guidelines. A set of guidelines called
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) was developed
during World War II by the US National Academy of Sciences.
The standards were to be used for nutrition recommendations
for the armed forces, civilians, and overseas populations who
might need food relief. The allowances were meant to provide
superior nutrition for civilians and military personnel, so they
included a margin of safety. The RDA list was revised every
five to ten years to incorporate new information. In 1997 RDA
became one part of a broader set of dietary guidelines called
the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) used by both the United
States and Canada. The DRI guidelines are meant to represent
the nutrient requirements of some 97% of the population. The
amounts recommended are higher than most people actually
need. There are minor differences in recommendations from
the nutritional authorities in different countries. It is not an
exact science, and political and bureaucratic imperatives add
confusion to the mix.
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
Leaf Concentrate
recipes to include a nutritional boost from
leaf concentrate.
Because leaf concentrate is such a
nutritionally dense food, you dont need
to eat very much of it. Ten grams (about
2 teaspoonfuls) of dried leaf concentrate,
or 25 g (about 4 teaspoonfuls) of fresh
concentrate, is a typical daily portion for
both children and adults. Tis will provide
a signifcant contribution to the recom-
mended allowance of several important
nutrients, notably protein, iron, calcium,
vitaminA and vitaminE. A trial in Bolivia
was able to reverse serious anemia in
children very quickly using just 6 g (0.2 oz)
of dry leaf concentrate a day.

Chart 73 on page 72 gives an indica-
tion of what nutrients small amounts of
leaf concentrate can provide. It is worth
remembering that these nutrients will have
much greater value in our bodies than the
same quantity of the nutrients in other
plant-based foods because of the higher
Economic issues are ofen the biggest
factors in determining how much leaf
concentrate to use. As with any food, when
the cost of leaf concentrate goes up it tends
to be used in smaller portions in order to
save money. Viewed as a commodity, leaf
concentrate is an expensive food. It will
always be more expensive than rice or
2 The Effect of a Leaf Concentrate Supplement on
Haemoglobin Levels in Malnourished Bolivian
Children: A Pilot Study, by Lowe, C.A. 1991.
beans and ofen more expensive than eggs
or cheese. However, when considered as
part of a preventative health care system,
leaf concentrate can be very inexpensive
nutritional insurance. Te French organi-
zation APEF claims that 20 euros or about
30 US dollars will pay for a years supply of
10 g (0.35 oz) portions of leaf concentrate
for one person. Te value of reversing or
preventing anemia and vitaminA def-
ciency in a woman or child is many times
One of the major cost advantages of
using dried leaf concentrate is that it is so
dense nutritionally that very little is needed.
A single 44 kg (100 lb) sack could supply 12
people with a 10 g portion of leaf concen-
trate for every day of the year. Tis means
that shipping and storage costs are low.
Leaf concentrate by-products
When any fresh green leaf crop is fraction-
ated, three products are produced; the
leaf concentrate, the residual fber and the
residual liquid (whey). Neither the residual
fber nor the whey can be consumed by
humans in large quantities. Te fber is too
fbrous and the whey may contain nitrates,
potassium, and other salts at levels higher
than is benefcial for human consump-
tion. However, both of these by-products
are economically important to successful
leaf concentrate operation. While they are
not directly useful as human food, they
can contribute indirectly to improved food
security and food quality as animal feed
and garden fertilizers.
At a domestic level the fber is fed to
rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, sheep, horses,
or cows; and the whey is used as a garden
fertilizer. At a village scale the fber is
almost always used for ruminant animal
feed and the whey can be either used as a
soil amendment or added to the fber to
make silage for cattle. At an industrial scale
the whey is evaporated down to a syrupy
consistency and added to the fber, which is
then dried and made into pellets for sale to
animal feeding operations.
It is important to realize that when
fgured on a dry-weight basis, the fber
lef over from leaf concentrate processing
has approximately the same feeding value
to animals as unprocessed fresh leaf
crop. Although much of the protein has
been removed in the leaf concentrate, the
residual fber still retains adequate protein
for good cattle feed. Grinding the leaves up
well in the process gives the fber far more
surface area than the original leaf crop,
which enables the cows digestive system to
extract nutrients more efectively. Because
fresh alfalfa and other leaf crops are usually
around 20% dry matter, while the residual
fber is around 30% dry matter; the fber
has about 11/2 times the feeding value,
per kilogram, as the leaves that it was made
Considerable experimentation has been
done by many diferent groups to develop
alternative uses of the leaf concentrate
by-products. For example they can be
used to make biogas, which in turn can be
used to heat the leaf juice. Oyster mush-
rooms have been grown on a substrate of
residual fber. Te fber can be used as a
soil enriching organic mulch for intensive
vegetable gardening. Eforts to make paper
and fber board from the fber fraction of
the leaf crop have been more interesting
than economically viable. Ultimately,
feeding the remaining fber to ruminant
animals seems like a good match because of
the high nutritional and economic value of
meat and milk.
Leaf fractionation at three
scales of operations
Leaf concentrate has been made at every
scale, from the domestic 2 kg of fresh
leaves a day, to the industrial with 150 tons
of leaf an hour. Tere are advantages and
drawbacks at each end of the spectrum.
It is relatively easy to scale up a bit from
the domestic level. Five or six families
could get together and rotate responsi-
bility for making curd. On the next level
a school, church orphanage or social club
could make leaf concentrate for up to 100
children, with a modest investment in
equipment. Tis would require processing
about 40 kg (88 lb) of fresh leaf a day.
A small family business or cooperative
micro-enterprise could process 100 kg (220
lb) of leaf crop a day and make market-
able products from the leaf concentrate.
Chart 74
Leaf Concentrate Production at Varying Scales
Domestic Scale
Fresh leaf crop per hour 8 kg
Fresh leaf crop per day (240 days per year, one hour half per day) 4 kg
Dried leaf concentrate per day (3% yield stripped leaves) 120 g
10 g servings per day 12
Residual fber per day 2 kg
Land required (140 tons/hectare yield) 70100 sqm
Estimated # of dairy cows & heifers that can be fed less than 1
Potential milk production 100 liters/year
Village Scale
Fresh leaf crop per hour 200 kg
Fresh leaf crop per day (240 days/year, 5 hours/day) 1,000 kg
Dried leaf concentrate per day (2% yield) 20 kg
10 g servings per day 2,000
Residual fber per day 500 kg
Land required (70 tons/hectare yield) 3.4 hectares
Estimated # of dairy cows & heifers 11
Potential milk production 21,000 liters/year
Semi-Industrial Scale
Fresh leaf crop per hour 2,000 kg
Fresh leaf crop per day (240 days/year, 7 hours/day) 14,000 kg
Dried leaf concentrate per day (2% yield) 280 kg
10 g servings per day 28,000
Residual fber per day 7,000 kg
Land required (70 tons/hectare yield) 48 hectares
Estimated # of dairy cows & heifers 150
Potential milk production 500,000 liters/year
Leaf Concentrate
Tere has been some limited success selling
leaf-concentrate-enriched pasta, lemonade
syrup, snacks, and sweets.
Beyond 1020 kg (2244 lb) a day of
leaf crop, it becomes necessary to use some
sort of external power for pulping leaves.
As the scale increases the business model
generally takes over. Once a business model
is in efect, it generally requires paying
cash for crop, labor, and building space. At
this point the enterprise comes into direct
competition with other food and nutrition
businesses, larger entities that typically
have very low overhead and established
distribution networks. Small is Beautiful
meets Get Big or Get Out. Tis is, not
coincidentally, the point where most of the
possibilities for local control drain out of
leaf concentrate operations.
To be economically feasible leaf concen-
trate operations have three basic require-
ments, whether the scale of operation be
domestic, village, or industrial.
An inexpensive source of appropriate
green leaves for much of the year.
A relatively energy-efcient process.
An economical use for all three
leaf fractionation products.
Chart 74 on page 74 summarizes
the basic math of the three scales of leaf
concentration production. Below is a brief
look at some of the advantages and draw-
backs of each scale.
Domestic or Household Scale
Leaf Concentrate Production
At the smallest scale, leaf concentrate can
be made by a single family, an extended
family or a group of friends or neighbors.
A signifcant advantage of domestic scale
production is that all of the product can be
used fresh. Tis greatly simplifes pack-
aging and storage, as well as eliminating the
steps involved in preserving and marketing
the curd. Te fexibility to use a greater
range of plants, diferent growing systems,
and various work schedules ofers the small
producer some of the economic beneft
that he cant realize in volume discounts
and mechanized processing. Te initial
investment in equipment is small and no
special buildings are required. A family
goat or rabbits and a family vegetable
garden can usually make good use of the
relatively small amounts of residual fber
and whey produced, without any special
Domestic production can make valuable
use of labor that is ofen available outside
the money economy. High rates of unem-
ployment and underemployment increase
the appeal of obtaining some food without
needing cash. Home production can also be
more easily integrated with other activi-
ties. A mother making leaf concentrate can
simultaneously keep an eye on her children
or cook beans with the same fre that heats
the leaf juice. Working at home and not
needing to arrange childcare and trans-
portation to a job can be a major bonus for
low-income families. As the high cost and
environmental impact of shipping food
thousands of miles to our tables becomes
more evident, homemade food begins to
look more reasonable. Another big plus for
domestic scale production is that the health
of the family making the leaf concentrate is
ofen visibly improved.
Te biggest drawback to making leaf
concentrate at home is the signifcant
amount of work required per unit of
production. Domestic scale electrical
equipment is somewhat ill-adapted at best
and prone to mechanical failure. Manually
operated equipment is more reliable but
labor intensive. In addition the time and
efort involved in setting up and cleaning
up aferwards is about the same if making a
small amount or a large amount of concen-
trate. When output is low, labor costs are
high, compared to larger scale operations.
Training of workers can be more
complicated at the domestic scale. Per
person output of domestically produced leaf
concentrate is a small fraction of per person
output at larger scale operations using more
powerful processing equipment. To achieve
the same level of production of concentrate
at the domestic level, many more people
need to be trained. Quality control is also
difcult to maintain when there are many
small-scale producers. When there is no
Leaf concentrate on the household scale has often been written off,
sometimes by me, as economically unrealistic. Too much work for too
little food. Making leaf concentrate at home makes no more sense
within an industrialized food economy than baking bread, growing a
vegetable garden, or raising a few chickens in the yard. Yet all these
activities persist not just from nostalgia, but because of their own
economic logic. In fact, when the worlds financial markets briefly
faltered in the autumn of 2008, the sales of how-to books on backyard
vegetable gardens and chickens increased by 50%. It doesnt take
much insecurity to make you wish you had a back-up plan for getting
If domestic scale leaf concentrate is to play a real role in our food
security it wont be from a smattering of resolute neo-Luddites making
leaf curd in isolation. It will require a distributed network of interested
people sharing the most up-to-date information available. This network
could collectively provide training, test new leaf-growing techniques
and equipment, share recipes, etc. People would be less likely to get
discouraged and many beginners mistakes could be avoided.
Most of us have come to see increasing economic and social consoli-
dation as inevitable if not always desirable. Since the beginning of the
industrial revolution, centralization has appeared to be the only game in
town. Farms get larger, the number of firms competing in most sectors
has gotten smaller, mega-cities swell as villages disappear. However,
all is not well with centralization.
In the fall of 2008 it was deemed necessary for a massive government
bailout of failing US financial and insurance companies to be enacted.
Leaders feared that these corporations were too big to fail without
pulling the entire national and even international economy down with
them. Bernie Sanders, one of the few independent legislators, reasonably
suggested that a company that was too big to fail was just too big.
The tragedy of airplanes smashing into the World Trade Center towers
on September 9, 2001, jolted the world and left us feeling more vulner-
able. Dozens of protective and defensive measures were quickly put
into place to minimize the possibility of something like this happening
again. There seemed to be, however, little attention focused on the
inherent vulnerabilities of highly centralized endeavors. Having those
thousands of office workers work in dozens or hundreds of smaller but
linked buildings might be another route to greater security.
The phenomenal success of the Internet is largely due to the inherent
power of a dynamic organization model called the distributed network.
Although the Internet is continually subject to malicious attacks, it is
able to resist them because it has no single head that can be severed.
Important information is stored in multiple places and quickly shared
through billions of links, any one of which can be broken without
bringing down the system.
There are many successful models that could be drawn from in
creating a distributed network for small scale leaf concentrate. For
example, MoringaNews was established in 2002 to offer people working
with the moringa plant reliable information and a platform to exchange
knowledge, products and services. Within eight years it grew to over
2,100 members in over 100 different countries, and is now a real force
in making moringa an effective tool in fighting malnutrition.
Seed Savers Exchange, Inc. is a non-profit membership organization
that permanently maintains more than 24,000 endangered vegetable
varieties. Its membership functions as a distributed network of people
swapping heirloom vegetable seeds and information.
Another example of the power of distributed, as opposed to central-
ized or decentralized, networks is Wikipedia. Begun in 2001 as a free
online reference encyclopedia, by 2010 Wikipedia had over 65 million
visitors looking up information each month. There are more than 91,000
active contributors working on more than 15,000,000 articles in more
than 270 languages. The encyclopedia is written collaboratively by
largely anonymous Internet volunteers who work without pay.
As the speed of communication increases and the cost of information
decreases, the advantages of distributed networks are becoming clear
to more people every day. For small scale leaf concentrate to reach its
potential a supportive web will be required. It could link people from
all over the world working on different aspects of leaf concentrate.
Leaf Concentrate
boss or cash incentive, production can
become overly casual and excuses for not
doing the work too easy to fnd.
Village or Small Business Scale
Leaf concentrate production can be taken
on by a village or neighborhood social
group, a church group, or a small, perhaps
family-owned or cooperative business.
More leaf concentrate is produced than
can be consumed by the families making
it. Te social support for this scale of
production can be important, especially
if the community feels the health of their
children will beneft. Tis can help with
securing the initial capital required for
processing equipment. Te prospect
of fexible part-time local employment
can be an important motivator. When
leaf concentrate is made at this level,
and enriched products are sold locally,
there can be a multiplier efect. Local
farmers might fnd a new market for
their crops, and money spent on the leaf
concentrate products circulates close to
home. Tis stands in stark contrast to the
prevailing economic pattern of money
spent on processed food quickly leaving
Te small number of workers involved
can be well-trained in the new techniques,
greatly improving quality control over
domestic production. Because the workers
at this scale use powered equipment
they are able to produce much more leaf
concentrate per hour of work than people
working on the domestic scale.
Te promise of village or small business
scale leaf concentrate has so far been
difcult to realize in practice. Efective
processing equipment for this scale is not
available of the shelf, and so needs to be
custom built. Tis is not only initially
more expensive but it is harder to fnd
replacement parts and mechanics capable
of maintaining custom built machinery.
Te fnancial return is ofen not sufcient
to justify constructing or redesigning
a building to meet the specifc needs of
efcient production. Tis is especially true
where good leaf crop is not available at
reasonable cost for a large part of the year.
At this scale it becomes necessary
to market both the leaf concentrate and
the fber. Although the fber is a valuable
feed, it is an unknown and may be seen
as a waste product that local farmers are
unwilling to pay a fair price for. While
the whey is a valuable resource for fertil-
izing soil, it is almost impossible to sell.
If farmland for recycling the whey is not
nearby, it may become a waste disposal
problem. Marketing leaf concentrate
or concentrate-enriched products can
require a complex and sometimes expen-
sive registration process with local health
Bolivian stone grinder
Tis may be more justifed at
the industrial scale, while it is not neces-
sary at the domestic level.
Industrial Scale
By far the biggest advantage of industrial
scale production, and it can hardly be over-
emphasized, is the low cost per unit of leaf
concentrate produced. Whatever beneft
leaf concentrate can bring to malnour-
ished people may be determined by its per
kilogram production cost. Malnourished
people usually dont have enough money to
buy adequate food. Te low unit produc-
tion costs of industrial leaf concentrate can
make it much more readily available to the
people who most need it, rather than just
to wealthier, health conscious people. Tis
is especially important given rising food
prices and the shrinking number of subsi-
dized social food programs.
At the industrial scale, the large initial
investment in specialized equipment and
operating space can be justifed by the
high output. Tis scale can sustain a well-
conceived marketing efort for the large
amounts of residual fber and whey, which
are combined, dried, and pelletized for
confned or concentrated animal feeding
operations (CAFOs). Because industrial
operations buy such large volume of leaf
3 3 The 2009 decision by the European Food
Safety Authority (EFSA) approving alfalfa leaf
concentrate for general human consumption
might make registration easier.
Two-thirds of the estimated 33 million
people suffering from AIDS live in sub-
Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the
world with the highest rates of malnutrition. The rate of infection there is six and a half
times higher than the worlds average infection rate.
Because HIV/AIDS weakens or kills
adults in the prime of their working life, it has a crushing impact on the regions already
shaky economy, engendering more childhood malnutrition and preventable illness.
People infected with HIV have greatly increased nutritional requirements, as they must
fight the infection while trying to rebuild muscle and regain lost weight. People with the
disease remain in better health for much longer if they can gain access to a balanced diet
with plenty of protein. It is a doubly difficult task. Typically income, and with it the ability to
purchase food, declines with the infection, while expenses for medical care go up. Not only
does the disease make far more demands on the body, it often reduces a persons ability to
digest foods and absorb nutrients. Mouth sores, nausea, diarrhea, damage to the intestinal
linings and apathy can make eating arduous. All of these difficulties call for a diet especially
rich in nutrients with high bioavailability.
Where meat, milk, and eggs are inaccessible, and even beans may be too expensive, how
can these people get the nutrient-dense, easily digested food they need? Leaf concentrate
may be part of the solution. With high levels of easily digested protein, vitamins and minerals,
leaf concentrate is a nearly ideal food for people with increased nutritional needs, such as
malnourished children and people with AIDS.
The French NGO APEF (Association pour la Promotion des Extraits Foliaires en Nutrition)
has supplied leaf concentrate made from alfalfa to groups working with AIDS patients in
Burundi and Cameroon. The early results of their studies have been extremely encouraging.
Almost all the patients gained weight, became less anemic, and had fewer problems with
diarrhea, respiratory infections and skin lesions. This was true whether they were receiving
anti-retroviral medicine or not.

1 AIDS epidemic update. December 2009 Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. http://data.unaids.
2 http://www.nutrition-luzerne.org/anglais/pdf/Cameroon%20compte%20rendu%20et%20situation%20
180%20days%2020-8-07%20English.pdf While the leaf concentrate is currently being imported from
France, given some institutional support, there is no reason why Africa could not produce its own leaf
concentrate. This could improve the quality of life for millions who are suffering now. Perhaps it could buy
time until effective measures to cure the disease and prevent its further spread can be found.
Leaf Concentrate
crop they usually pay much less per ton
than smaller processors for their raw
Quality control is good at this scale, and
the consistent dried leaf concentrate can
be registered, incorporated into products,
packaged, and sold more easily than the
more variable products from smaller scale
operations. Te reliable quality, good shelf
life and extraordinary nutritional density
make industrially produced leaf concen-
trate an excellent candidate for use in Ready
to Use Terapeutic Foods (RUTFs)
. Tere
is always a need for RUTFs to nourish
the people in refugee camps, war zones,
droughts, and natural disasters.
Industrial scale leaf concentrate originated
as a by-product of dehydrating alfalfa. Te
leaf concentrate is normally sold to feed
chickens and pigs (monogastric animals),
while the fber and whey are combined
and dried for cattle feed. Te entire forage
dehydration industry is in serious trouble
because of the rising cost of the energy used
to dry the crop. Te large quantities of leaf
crop required greatly limits the number of
potential sites where new industrial opera-
tions could be located. Not many areas
4 Note: RUTFs are high energy, fortified ready to
eat food recommended primarily for the treat-
ment of severely malnourished children. They
should be soft, palatable, and easy for children to
eat without any preparation. They must have a
long shelf-life and resist micro-organism
Alfalfa leaf concentrate processing plant, Aulnay, France
could meet the demand for a steady supply
of 150 tons of good leaf crop per hour that
a factory such as France-Lucerne of Aulnay
requires. Te logistics are daunting. If the
crop is chopped into small pieces in the
feld, leaf juice is lost and yield declines. If
it is not chopped it is harder to handle and
transport. Delay for any reason quickly
leads to enormous piles of leaf crops
beginning to compost, damaging both the
quality and the yield.
Te fxed costs of having an indus-
trial scale processing center and skilled
well-paid workers with benefts are so
high that economically feasibility may
require keeping the machinery running
two shifs for as long a season as possible.
In the tropics (where the malnutrition is)
this usually means having irrigated leaf
crops. Unfortunately the cost of irrigation
is rising, and it is more likely to be reserved
for higher value crops like tomatoes or
In order to attract the investment
capital that is needed, a proftable market
for human grade leaf concentrate will
need to be developed. Tis will require
a quantum shif of focus from the blunt
economics of animal feeds to the complexi-
ties of marketing a relatively unknown food
for human consumption.
Domestic scale leaf concentrate in practice
Since very few readers are likely to begin
industrial or even village scale leaf concen-
trate production it may be useful to take
a more detailed look at the domestic or
household scale.
A person with a hand cranked meat
grinder or a kitchen blender can make 100
g (3.5 oz) of fresh leaf concentrate from
2 kilograms (4.4 lb) of fresh leaves in less
than an hour. Tis can provide the fve
members of their family with a 20 g portion
(equivalent to 8 g dry) each. Te nutritional
value of the concentrate has been described
elsewhere. Te economic value to the family
might include a reduction in the number of
sick days and lower healthcare costs.
To have fresh leaf concentrate daily
over the course of an eight-month growing
season this family would need to obtain
only a total of 500 kg (1,100 lb) of fresh
leaves. Although the yields of leaf crops
vary greatly with climate, soil, variety,
planting density and cultivation techniques,
there are many crops that can produce
over 25 tons of fresh leaf per hectare, and
several that can produce more than double
that. Tis means the entire leaf crop needed
for the year could be raised on less than
200sqm (about 2,000sqf) of land. Put in
perspective, this is about 1/6th the size of
the average American house lot, or about
1/25th the size of a football feld.
Leguminous leaf crops are especially
well suited for leaf concentrate on the
smallest of scales as well as at greater
volume. Legumes lend themselves to
intercropping. For example cowpeas (Vigna
unguiculata) or lablab beans (Lablab
purpureus) can be grown in between
rows of maize, sorghum, millet, cassava,
yams, bananas, or fruit trees. Rather than
hacking down weeds that compete with
these crops, the subsistence farmer could
raise multi-purpose leguminous crops
that fx atmospheric nitrogen and reduce
the need for costly fertilizer. Te intercrop
Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum)
Leaf Concentrate
is mutually benefcial to both crops. Just
600sqm (6,000sqf) of maize, cassava, or
bananas intercropped with cowpeas could
reasonably produce enough cowpea foliage
for this familys leaf concentrate, without
competing with the other crops. Te
tender leaves of the cowpea can be eaten
as a potherb, as they are in much of Africa
and southern Asia. Te immature pods
and mature seeds are valuable foods, and
the foliage and stems make excellent feed
for ruminants. If about 1/30th of the area
planted in cowpeas is allowed to produce
seed for replanting, the farmer can avoid
the ongoing cost of buying seed.
In addition to intercropping, fast-
growing crops for leaf concentrate can
be grown before or afer a grain crop.
Cowpeas, lablabs, bell beans, feld peas and
butterfy peas are excellent because they
fx enough nitrogen to beneft the crop
that follows, or to replace nitrogen used by
the preceding grain crop. In this way the
entire growing season can be economically
utilized. Some non-legume leaf crops such
as amaranth are enormously productive.
Under intensive cultivation leaf amaranth
can be ready to harvest in 30 days and
produce up to 170 metric tons per hectare
(70 tons an acre) of fresh leaf in a year.
Alfalfa and perennial clovers do well as
an undercrop in fruit or nut orchards.
Te multiple uses for many of the best leaf
concentrate crops provide the small grower
or part-time farmer with much appreciated
As the amount of leaf crop required
diminishes, the number of possible sources
increases. Children could gather 2 kg
of pigweed (Amaranthus retrofexus) or
lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) while
weeding a neighbors corn feld. A section
of a garden or feld could be set aside for
growing leaf crop. It is worth noting that
gardens can produce much higher leaf
yields per square meter than feld crops
because they are more intensively cared for.
Tose without adequate land for growing
crops can ofen fnd vendors in the market
selling alfalfa or other good forage for
horses and other animals.
Tere are many potential improve-
ments that could make small scale leaf
concentrate a more attractive option for
fghting malnutrition, especially micro-
nutrient defciencies. Ironically increasing
energy costs could help leaf concentrate.
Lowering energy inputs is essential if we
are to develop a sustainable food system.
Leaf fractionation can reduce the need
for synthetic nitrogen by utilizing more
biological nitrogen fxation and at the same
time reduce the feeding of grain to animals.
Tese are perhaps the two biggest energy
drains in the current global food system.
Small scale leaf concentrate production
could be efectively integrated into both the
agricultural and the nutritional sides of a
more sustainable food system.
Te excellent nutritional value of leaf
concentrate can be seen as a function of
adding energy to leaf crops. In a way it is
very similar to feeding the leaf crops to
cows. A cow will eat alfalfa and convert
it to a smaller amount of nutritionally
valuable meat or milk, and a larger amount
of lower value manure and urine. In the
leaf concentrate process we convert alfalfa
into a relatively small amount of nutrition-
ally valuable leaf concentrate, and a larger
amount of lower value fber and whey. Te
energy required to separate the fber from
the leaves moves leaf concentrate towards
the top of trophic pyramid, increasing its
quality while decreasing its quantity. As
with the production of meat or milk, the
additional energy required to move the
leaves up the trophic pyramid results in a
higher-cost product.
Leaf concentrate is an extraordinary
food but it is not a miracle food. It will very
likely assume a much larger role in the diet
of people throughout the world as kinks
in machinery and process are ironed out.
Tere are some situations where it is already
the most appropriate food choice and there
are other situations where circumstances
may delay it from becoming a viable option.
Drying Leaf Vegetables
Drying is almost certainly the oldest method that humans have
practiced to preserve food for future use. Drying foods in sunlight
reduced the weight and volume of the foods so that they could be
more easily stored and transported by our ancestors. Te baskets,
clay jars and gourds used as early storage containers were likely in
short supply (there was never enough closet space!), so reducing
the volume of stored food was important. Since the primary mode
of transportation was walking, the reduced weight of dried foods
was likely much appreciated on moving day.
Two diferent things cause food to spoil or rot: bacteria, molds,
and fungi eating the food, and enzymes within the food causing
various components of the food to break down. Spoilage microbes
are endemic, that is, they are essentially everywhere. In the nearly
ideal conditions provided by warm moist food, the growth rate
of these microorganisms is geometric. Teir presence in large
numbers changes the favor, texture, and nutritional value of
foods. Some of these microbes, such as salmonella and listeria, can
cause food poisoning.
Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts accelerating
chemical reactions or allowing them to take place with lower
energy inputs. Afer a plant is harvested, many enzymes in the
food speed its rate of spoilage. For example an enzyme called
polyphenol oxidase causes sliced apples and potatoes to turn
brown. Lipoxidases are enzymes that speed up the oxidization of
oils in green leaves, imparting an unpleasant fshy favor.
Drying preserves food by evaporating water until its moisture
content is too low to support the growth of the bacteria, molds,
and fungi that are eating them. Tis generally means below 12%
moisture. Most enzymatic reactions are similarly slowed if not
stopped by a lack of available moisture. Usually at least some of
the microorganisms survive in a state of dormancy, awaiting the
arrival of more water to resume reproducing. Similarly many
enzymes will not be destroyed by low moisture, merely tempo-
rarily deactivated.
Compared to meat or fsh or fruit, green leaves are easy to dry.
Because leaves on living plants usually form themselves into thin
sheets for better sunshine collection, no part of the leaf is far from
the surface and the surface is where the water is evaporated. Four
things speed leaf drying and they are known to anyone who has
dried clothes on a clothes line.
1. Temperature: Clothes dry faster on a warm day.
2. Air Flow: Clothes dry faster on a breezy day.
3. Relative Humidity: Clothes dry faster on a dry day.
4. Surface Area: Clothes dry faster if you spread them out,
increasing their surface area.
Leaves become dry when the water in them is evaporated.
Evaporation rate is mainly a function of temperature and
humidity. Te ideal heat for drying leaves
is about 55 C (130 F). Tere are several
possible sources for the heat needed to dry
leaves (see below).
Air Flow
As air around the dryer is heated it
becomes less dense and rises. Tis draws
more air past the drying leaves. Air fow
is critical because it replaces the saturated
humid air surrounding the leaves with
drier air. If temperature begins to exceed
the optimum of 55 C (130 F) increased
airfow is essential both to speed drying
and to prevent overheating.
Relative Humidity
Relative humidity describes how much
water is in the air compared to how much
it can hold at a given temperature, given
as a percentage. Warmer air can hold
more water than cooler air. Evaporation is
fastest when the relative humidity of the air
around the food is low, because the air can
absorb the moisture from the food easily.
As water evaporates from the food, the air
surrounding it becomes more humid and
the rate of drying slows. Drying is slower at
higher humidity unless the temperature is
raised enough to compensate.
Surface Area
Water evaporates from the surface of
the leaves. As the surface becomes dry,
moisture from deeper in the food migrates
to the surface where it too can evaporate.
Chopping the leaves increases their surface
area and speeds drying time. Spreading the
leaves more thinly on the drying tray is the
simplest way to increase surface area.
Quality Control
Te quality of dried leaves can be improved
by blanching (heating them to the boiling
point for 3 minutes in steam or a micro-
wave oven) before drying. Tis kills most
pathogenic microorganisms and neutral-
izes enzymes that can afect the favor of
dried leaves being stored for more than two
weeks. Make sure dried leaves are crisp
before storing. Bacteria, yeast, and mold
cant thrive below 12% moisture. It is essen-
tial to lower the moisture content of the
leaves below 16% in the frst eight hours of
drying to prevent the growth of molds that
can produce afatoxins.
In practice, efective solar drying of
leaves requires that they be completely
dried in one day. Adjust the load of leaves to
be dried to the conditions, so that single-
day drying can be accomplished. Protect
the drying leaves from insects and dust.
Keep the dried leaves in a tightly sealed
container, away from sunlight and in as
cool a place as possible.
When leaves are dried in direct sunlight
the dark green color quickly fades to a paler
1 Aflatoxins are fairly common naturally occurring
toxins that are produced by many species of
aspergillus fungi. Aflatoxins are toxic to the liver
and among the most carcinogenic substances
known. Damaged peanuts and other oilseeds
and grains are among the foods most frequently
contaminated with aflatoxin.
grayish green. Tis is caused mainly by
high energy ultraviolet rays in the sunlight
breaking apart molecules of the chloro-
phyll and carotenoid pigments that give
the leaves their characteristic color. Tis
is similar to the fading of brightly colored
fabric lef in direct sunshine. Not only is the
color of the faded leaves less appealing but
most of their vitaminA value is destroyed.
Tis is why leaves should not be dried in
direct sunlight.
Tere are many small electric food dehy-
drators or dryers on the market, and plans
for building your own can be easily found
on the Internet. Tey usually have an
electrical resistance heating element and a
fan to increase airfow. Te best ones, like
Excaliber, have thermostats to control the
temperature and horizontal rather than
vertical airfow. Tey cost about $200 and
can dry a kilogram of fresh leaves in 5 or
6 hours. Electric dehydrators are capable
of drying leaves at night and in any sort
of weather. Te big advantages of electric
dehydrators are good quality control and
convenience. Te downside is cost: both
initial costs and ongoing operating costs.
Cheaper electric dehydrators with the
heater and fan at the bottom are much less
Drying Leaf Vegetables
Wood Heat
Tere are many designs for drying food
by burning wood or other fuel. Most have
a frebox of some sort that provides heat
below one or more drying racks. Unlike
solar dehydrators these can be run at night
and during cloudy weather. Wood heat can
also be used in combination with solar food
dehydrators, supplying them with auxiliary
heat so that they can continue drying afer
dark and on cloudy days. Wood fred dehy-
drators are usually more appropriate for
drying large volumes of food such as cofee
or corn than for drying leaves. It is difcult
to control the drying temperature and to
keep wood smoke from afecting the favor
and damaging the quality of the leaves
being dried. In the right circumstances
wood heat can be a free, local, carbon
neutral and renewable energy source.
Too ofen, however, wood is harvested
in unsustainable ways and burned at too
low a temperature, causing pollution of
local air with soot and polycyclic aromatic
Gas Heat
Tere are several designs for using gas heat
to dry food. In general gas, whether natural
gas, liquid petroleum gas or biogas is more
convenient and easier to control than wood
heat but less convenient and controllable
2 Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs are a
group of approximately 10,000 compounds.
Most are by-products of the incomplete burning
of wood, oil, or coal. Many are known or
suspected carcinogens.
than electric heat. Like wood or electric
heat, gas-fred dehydrators can be used
at night and in any weather. Gas burns
cleaner than wood, but unlike wood, it is a
fossil fuel (except for biogas) and increases
climate changing atmospheric carbon.
Solar Heat
Tere are hundreds of designs for solar
powered food dehydrators in all sizes and
levels of complexity. Te main beneft of
solar dehydrators is that they use only the
free non-polluting energy of sunshine.
Teir biggest drawbacks are that they dont
work when the sun isnt shining, and the
sunshine cant usually be turned up or
down. Most solar dehydrators use glass
or plastic to trap heat from the sun. Tey
also use the natural airfow of the heated
air rising to dry food. Some use rocks as a
heat sink to allow drying afer the sun sets.
Some combine solar heat collection with an
electric fan to move air.
For most people the availability of fresh
leafy vegetables was limited for much of the
year especially as we migrated away from
our tropical places of origin. Drying leaves
in the sun was an ancient technique for
preserving produce when it was abundant,
using free energy. Traditionally food was
dried by laying it on mats in the sunshine
or by hanging it to dry more slowly in the
Many traditional cultures, mainly in
Africa and Asia, still dry food, including
green leaves, in the sun. Sometimes leaves
are lef on roofops where they can dry
quickly away from the attention of grazing
animals. In much of Africa cassava leaves
are dried by hanging them to dry in the
shade. Most ofen the leaves are dried until
they are brittle. Tey are then crumbled
by rubbing between the hands and used
to thicken and favor soups and stews and
simple porridges.
Much of the potential beneft of drying
food, unfortunately, was not achieved with
these simple methods. Tere were two
major problems. First of all the valuable
beta-carotene in the leaves was almost
completely destroyed in full sunlight.
Even the indirect sunlight, as found in the
shade, has enough UV radiation to greatly
reduce the vitaminA activity of the leaves.
Secondly, the food produced by this casual
drying was ofen contaminated with exces-
sive bacteria, yeast, or mold growth. Drying
the leaves in the shade lessened the frst
problem, but the longer drying time gave
the microbes and the enzymes more time to
do damage before the leaves were fully dry.
Te drawing in Figure 81 on page 86
shows a common attempt to resolve
the main problems inherent in tradi-
tional drying techniques. Tese solar
food dehydrators became an icon of a
well-intentioned appropriate technology
movement as it tried to wrangle with
extreme poverty.
It is a rather elegant concept. Sunlight
passes through a glass or plastic cover and
the trapped radiation warms the air in a
channel. Te warmer air is lighter so it rises
bringing both heat and air fow to trays of
leaves in the drying chamber. Te warmed
wet air leaves through the top creating a
partial vacuum which draws in more air
at the bottom of the dryer. Tis process
continues until the leaves are dry or the sun
stops shining.
Unfortunately the performance of
most of these dryers is disappointing. Tey
protect the leaves from direct sunlight and
dont require electricity, but rarely do they
supply enough heat or enough airfow for
optimal leaf drying. Tere are two design
problems. First the solar-energy collecting
area is not usually large enough relative to
the surface area of drying trays for adequate
heat. And secondly the arrangement of
drying trays doesnt allow for enough air
speed. Ofen these dryers have twice as
much area of drying trays as area of solar
collector. Except in very hot sunny climates
this is not enough area to collect the solar
energy required for fast drying.
Te bottom drying tray may receive
enough heat for adequate drying but the
top one wont. Te evaporated moisture
from the well-heated bottom tray tends to
be absorbed by the leaves in the tray above
it. Eventually the leaves will dry, but ofen
they have begun to spoil before they do.
In situations where sunshine is plentiful
and the ambient air temperature is warm,
such as exist in much of the tropics or in
long summer days in temperate zones, a
very simple inexpensive solar dryer design
will work fne for drying leaves. It is not
well suited for drying fruit, meat, or fsh,
however. Tis design enlarges the solar
collection area to match the area of the
drying tray. It has a single drying tray that
allows air to pass freely both under and
over the drying leaves.
By enlarging the ratio of collector area
to dryer area and removing obstacles to free
air fow this dryer will normally dry leaves
completely in one day. Tis is very impor-
tant because leaves will usually reabsorb
moisture overnight when the temperature
drops. If leaves need to continue to dry a
second day, there are far more problems
with mold and afatoxins.
Tese dryers are easy to build and to
use. Tey usually cost less than $20 US
and can be built in a couple of hours by
do-it-yourselfers or even by village women
with no carpentry experience. Where it is
available, the most appropriate material
to cover the top of the dryer is greenhouse
grade, 6-mil polyethylene sheeting. Tis lets
the energy in the sunlight heat the leaves,
but blocks out the carotene-damaging UV
Figure 81
Common indirect solar dryer
Drying Leaf Vegetables
radiation. It is inexpensive, tough, and
easy to work with. Te greenhouse plastic
is intended to last four years, though its
useful lifespan may be shortened somewhat
by intense tropical sunshine. Keeping the
dryer out of sunlight when it is not in use
will extend the life of the polyethylene.
A. Dryer Cover
1. Make a square wooden frame about one
meter (39 in) on each side with lumber
approximately 4 cm x 4 cm (1.5 x 1.5
in). Use rot resistant wood if possible.
2. Reinforce the corners to make
sure frame stays square. Tis can
be done with angle braces.
3. Stretch UV treated 6-mil polyethylene
or polyester flm over the frame and
staple securely. Double the plastic
flm over on the frame where it is to
be stapled. Dont use regular poly-
ethylene flm or glass for the dryer
cover. Both will allow ultraviolet rays
to pass through and quickly destroy
the beta-carotene in the leaves. Also
regular 4-mil polyethylene will break
down from sunlight in less than one
year. Wherever there is a greenhouse
industry there will be someone selling
UV treated polyethylene sheeting.
Even in the tropics, where green-
houses arent normally needed, the UV
treated polyethylene is frequently used
in the ornamental plant industry.
4. Staple a 10 cm (4 in) strip of dark
colored, open weave (like insect screen)
cloth around the outside of the cover
frame. Tis will allow air fow but
prevent insects and dust from entering
the dryer. Slit the corners so that it
doesnt prevent the dryer cover from
being easily removed from the base.
B. Dryer Base
1. Make a square wooden frame
identical to the cover frame.
2. Stretch strong insect screen over the
frame and staple securely. Double the
screen over on the frame so that the
staples hold better. Use plastic screen if
possible as leaves wont stick to plastic
as much as to metal screen. You can also
Making dried leaf powder with a simple stone grinder
use metal mesh if you separate the leaves
from the metal with plastic screen.
Food grade polypropylene screen is
ideal for this, but is difcult to fnd.
3. Nail diagonal braces (made from
scraps of the wood used for the frames)
over the screen to stifen the dryer
base and raise it of the ground.
Black Sheet Metal Cover
In parts of the tropics that dont have any
greenhouse industry it is difcult to fnd
UV treated 6-mil polyethylene sheeting
for dryer covers. Old sheet metal roofng,
sanded and then painted a fat black, can
be substituted. Sunshine will heat the black
metal, and some of that heat will pass
through to warm the leaves in the dryer
tray. Te metal will completely block UV
radiation. Tese dryers will perform nearly
as well as those covered in greenhouse
plastic in clear hot climates, but dont do as
well on partially cloudy days.
Adding a shiny refector behind the
dryer will increase the amount of solar
radiation that lands on the cover. Tis will
increase the heat and speed the leaf drying.
Refectors are especially useful on partially
cloudy days and in cooler temperatures.
Old metal roofng painted with chrome
paint from an auto parts store works well. A
piece of this refective roofng roughly the
same size as the dryer can be held behind
the dryer by two fns of the same sheet
metal cut at 45 angles. A bit of testing will
help determine the optimal position for
a refector in your location. Te refector
needs to be stabilized so it doesnt fy of
in the wind. A refector can also make
up for the slight loss of performance in
using a black metal top rather than treated
Ant Traps
Where ants are a major problem you can
protect your drying leaves by raising the
dryer on short legs and putting the legs in
food cans or plastic cups flled with water.
Scraps of plastic plumbing pipe make good
legs because they dont rot in the water.
Adjusting the Size
Tese dryers can be built in a variety of
sizes to ft the specifc needs of the people
using them. For example, women at a
project in Brazil preferred narrow dryers
because they could carry them on bicycles.
Generally if they get more than a meter
wide they are unwieldy. If less than half a
meter wide, they dont heat up well enough
to be efective.
1. Set up the solar dryer. Put the dryer
where it will have full sunshine all day.
Put a sheet of plastic on the ground
below the dryer to block moisture
rising from the soil. Raise the base of
the dryer of the ground with bricks or
sticks to make sure that air can move
below the dryer. Some people prefer
putting the dryer on a table or on a low
roof to protect it from playing children
and animals. Protect your dryer cover
from blowing of in the wind. Raise the
side of the dryer that faces away from
the noon sun (north in the northern
hemisphere) to give the sunlight a
more direct angle. Tis will help the
dryer reach the ideal temperature of
about 55 C (130 F). Raising one side
of the dryer should also allow it to
drain unexpected rain. Do not raise it
so much that the leaves will slide to the
low side as they dry. If the ambient air
temperature is over 32 C (90 F), the
dryer may get too hot. If this is the case,
separate the dryer base and cover with
small wooden blocks to create more
air fow and reduce the temperature.
2. Harvest and wash leaves in clean
water. Remove large stems, roots,
rocks, weeds, etc. Te stems of leaves
have very little nutritional value and
are high in nitrates. Removing them
will speed drying and make a more
nutritionally valuable leaf powder.
3. Cut leaves into pieces no longer
than your thumb. Tis increases
surface area and makes for
faster, more even leaf drying.
Drying Leaf Vegetables
4. Blanch leaves (see *NOTE at the end
of this list) in steam or in a microwave
oven for 3 minutes. Avoid blanching
in boiling water as it causes too much
vitamin loss. Blanching or quickly
heating the leaves accomplishes several
things. It kills harmful microorgan-
isms both on the leaf surface and within
the leaf. It sofens the cell walls and
speeds drying. Blanching also deac-
tivates plant enzymes, such as lipoxi-
dases, that can damage the favor and
the nutritional quality of the leaves.
Tis step is especially important if the
dried leaf powder will be stored for
several months or if the leaves being
dried are in the legume family.
5. Spread leaves evenly in dryer in the
morning so they can dry before reab-
sorbing moisture from cooler night air.
Between 11.5 kg (23 lb) of cut leaves
per square meter of dryer is usually
about the maximum. Too thick a layer of
leaves will keep the dryer too cool and
some leaves could spoil before they dry.
6. Check on the leaves in mid-afer-
noon if possible. Reposition the
leaves so they will dry evenly.
7. Sif leaves. When leaves are dry enough
to be uniformly brittle, carefully remove
them from the dryer and sif them by
rubbing them through a metal screen to
remove additional fbrous stems and leaf
mid-ribs that werent stripped of before

Make sure leaves, especially wild ones,
can be safely eaten. Some leaves that are
normally eaten in small amounts as flavor-
ings may not be safe when eaten in larger
amounts. An example of this is guaje
(Leucaena leucocephala), whose young
leaves are eaten for their garlic-like flavor
in much of Latin America, despite the
presence of the toxin mimosine.
Good favor and texture
Avoid leaves with a strong bitter taste or
with white sap. Leaves that are very dry
and fibrous are usually difficult to digest
properly. Many leaves from trees have this
limitation, as do the leaves from annual
plants after they have flowered.
Some leaves contain far more essential
protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxi-
dants than others. For example, a serving
of kale (Brassica oleracae) contains 4.5 times
more protein, 4 times more iron, 9 times
more calcium, 19 times more vitamin C,
and 26 times more vitamin A than the
same amount of iceberg lettuce. So if your
garden space is limited, kale is the better
choice to grow and to dry for improving
your familys health.
Easy to grow or grow wild
Crops like mustard that quickly produce
dense foliage from inexpensive seed without
any special care are excellent. So are many
common edible weeds and wild plants, such
as nettles and lambsquarters, that dont
require any planting or care at all.
Easy to harvest
It is time consuming to harvest leaves that
grow high in trees, tangled in vines, or
protected by thorns. Plants whose leaves
run very close to the ground can also be
slow to harvest and hard to clean. Time
spent in harvest is often underestimated in
considering costs of foods.
Easy to dry
Some leaves contain much more water
than others. They dry more slowly and
produce less dried leaf powder than leaves
that have more dry matter per kilogram
of fresh leaves, such as moringa. Leaves
that are curly, like parsley, will allow air
to pass through easily and as a result dry
faster than leaves that lie nearly flat, such
as Swiss chard.
Grown in clean soil, air and water
Green leaves should not be eaten from
plants grown in soil contaminated with
trash dumping or burning, sewage, or
paint scraped from buildings. Also avoid
plants along busy roads.
drying. One-quarter inch (6.4 mm)
hardware cloth or mesh works well.
8. Grind the sifed leaves to a fne powder.
Dried leaves can be easily ground in
a hand-cranked corn mill, an electric
grain grinder, a cofee mill, a household
blender, or a traditional stone metate
type grinder. Make sure leaves are very
dry or they will clog the grinders. With
some grinders you will need to grind the
leaves more than once, using progres-
sively fner settings. Grinding dried
leaves too quickly or too fnely can cause
friction to build to the point of burning
the leaves. Temperatures uncomfort-
ably hot to touch are hot enough to
cause some nutrient and favor break-
down in the dried leaf powder.
When dried leaves are ground to a very fne
powder, the consistency of four, our bodies
are better able to absorb the nutrients in
the leaves. Tis is because fnely ground
dried leaves have greater surface area in
contact with digestive enzymes and with
the nutrient-absorbing lining of the diges-
tive tract.
*NOTE: Blanching adds a somewhat
complicated additional step to an other-
wise very simple process. For this reason
it is ofen skipped. Blanching leaves before
drying serves several purposes, but it
may be reasonable to skip this step if the
following conditions exist:
Te leaves are harvested well of the
ground, as with moringa or from an
area not likely to have had contact
with fresh animal manure or human
sewage. Most of the contamina-
tion of leaf crops takes place from
raindrops or irrigation splashing
contaminated soil onto the leaves.
Te dried leaves will always be
used in dishes that are brought up
to the boiling temperature. For
example leaf enriched pasta is never
eaten without frst being boiled.
Te dried leaves will be eaten within a
month or kept in a refrigerated place,
so that the enzymes wont have time
to damage the favor or vitamins.
Te leaves being dried are muci-
laginous, like vine spinach or jute
mallow. Blanching can turn them
into a goopy mess of leaves that
are far more difcult to dry.
Te requirement of blanching would
discourage people and keep them
from drying leaves. Unblanched
dried leaves are far better than
none if that is the choice.
In areas that are cool or cloudy much of
the year, a somewhat more complex and
expensive solar dryer may be more appro-
priate than the simple leaf dryer. Tis dryer
uses a solar collector area three times larger
than the area of the drying tray to increase
the heat fowing to the leaves. It also has
Chart 81
Nutritional Benefit of Moringa Enriched Pasta

Protein Iron Calcium Vitamin A Vitamin E
g mg mg mcg RAE mg
57 g (2 oz) dry unenriched pasta 7.4 0.7 12.0 0.0 0.1
57 g (2 oz) dry pasta with 20% dried moringa leaf 9.0 3.8 238.0 150.0 10.0
Drying Leaf Vegetables
a more complex and efcient mechanism
for capturing solar heat and channeling
it both over and under the drying leaves.
Tis dryer has a thermometer to monitor
the temperature near the drying tray and
adjustable vents at the top and bottom to
better control air fow and heat. It is more
difcult to build and more difcult to move
around than the simple two piece dryer,
but it can sustain higher temperatures. Tis
makes it more useful for drying fruits than
the smaller dryer.
Step-by-step instructions for building
and using this solar leaf dryer can be
found and downloaded from the Leaf for
Life website: www.leaforlife.org/PDFS/
1. Add leaf powder to basic recipes.
Usually about 20% of the four in most
recipes can be replaced with leaf powder
without an unacceptable efect on favor
or texture. Use leaf powder from mild
favored greens in sweet dishes or foods
especially for children, and stronger
favored greens when chili, garlic, curry,
ginger, and other spices will mask
the stronger favor to some degree.
2. If you are using leaf powder to correct
malnutrition or prevent it in vulner-
able people, try to give at least one
tablespoon (about 8 g) or more of leaf
powder to each person most days. Most
children will accept leaf powder better
in their diet if it is introduced slowly
and in a variety of dishes. If recipes are
calculated by weight, fgure one cup of
leaf powder equals about 120 grams.
3. Cookies in the shape of dinosaurs,
frogs, and Christmas treeswhich
are normally greenare great ways
to introduce children to leaf powder
foods. Green birthday cakes have also
been a big hit. Green pasta is another
readily accepted food. A child will ofen
gladly eat 50 g or 2 oz of enriched pasta,
although he might refuse to eat greens.
If the pasta is 20% leaf powder, a 57 g
portion would have 11 g of dried leaf
powder, the equivalent of 80 g or so of
fresh leafy vegetables. (See Chart 81.)
Pasta making can be a fun and educa-
tional activity. Children especially enjoy
eating the pasta that they have made.
4. Keep the leaf powder in a tightly
sealed container, away from
light and in a cool place.
Use within one year.
Unlike leaf concentrate, drying leaves
doesnt much improve the bioavailability of
their nutrients. What it does do is provide
an inexpensive means for us to eat a much
greater quantity of green leafy vegetables. If
green leaves are going to reach their poten-
tial as an important part of an improved
diet for billions of people, we will need to
fnd ways to increase both the quality and
the quantity of the leaves we eat.
Te most obvious thing accomplished
by drying leaves is extending the shelf life,
or the length of time the food remains
good to eat. Freshly picked leafy vegetables
lose much of their eye appeal, favor, and
nutritional value within three days if not
refrigerated, and within a week or ten days
even if kept in a cooler. Te simple process
of drying the leaves extends their useful life
as food for up to one year.
Drying leaves also reduces their weight
and volume greatly. How much the weight
of leafy vegetables decreases with drying is
a function of the original moisture content
of the leaves. For instance, 100 grams of
fresh lettuce will be reduced to 5 or 6 grams
when fully dried, while 100 grams of fresh
cowpea leaves will be reduced to about 15
grams and 100 grams of fresh moringa
leaves will be reduced to about 25 grams.
Assume the dried leaves still contain 10%
moisture. In practice it is hard to get leaves
much drier and keep them that dry. Te
reduction in volume parallels the weight
loss closely.
By processing some or the entire
vegetable crop, producers have an alter-
native or additional means of marketing
their produce. Tis is important given that
post-harvest losses of vegetable crops range
from 30 to 40 percent, and as a result limit
smallholder access to higher value markets
in urban areas.
Te reduced weight and volume,
coupled with a greatly extended shelf
life, could radically alter the logistics of
marketing leafy vegetables. Growers would
have to quickly dry the harvested leaves and
would have the added labor costs of drying.
However, once dried, the desperate urgency
of moving the leaf crop from the feld to
the consumers table would be replaced by
a more relaxed pace. Producers wouldnt be
under such pressure to sell their crops when
they were in over abundant supply. Tey
would have the luxury of looking for the
best price for their produce.
Shipping costs, which are going steadily
up with higher oil prices, would be slashed.
Whats more, dried leaf powder doesnt
need to be shipped in refrigerated trucks.
Retailers could buy the leaf powder and
have a much longer time period in which to
sell it. Unlike the fresh leaves, it would not
require more costly display in a cooler or
the additional labor cost of trimming.
Much of the savings in marketing dried
leaf crops would ultimately be passed on to
the consumer, making green leafy vegetables
a more economical part of our food budget.
Integrating dried leaf powders and products
made with them into our food system might
also allow more producers to participate in
the market. Te critical advantage of selling
out-of-season produce would be leveled and
local growers could better compete for our
leafy vegetable dollars.
Another advantage of drying leaf
crops that would beneft both producer
and consumer is the greater ease with
which they could be grown organically. As
pointed out above, much of the pesticide
used on leaf crops is to enforce a visual
perfection demanded by consumers. Tis
cosmetic use of pesticides could be dropped
because the leaves will be ground to a fne
powder before the customer sees them. Tis
could move leaf vegetables out of the dirty
dozen category of foods most likely to have
pesticide residue.
Tis is a move that most consumers,
even those that dont currently buy organic
produce, would welcome. In addition,
drying leafy vegetables could reduce the
risk of food poisoning. A three minute
blanch before drying reduces bacteria count
nearly 100%, and would have eliminated the
E. coli strain that sickened hundreds and
killed three people who ate fresh spinach in
the US in the fall of 2006.
Drying and grinding leaf crops can
yield a stabilized product and create a
cluster of economic and logistical advan-
tages for producers, distributors, and
consumers of vegetables. Te greatest
advantage to the families that eat leaf
vegetables, however, may be due to their
new texture and their new versatility.
Leaf powders could be integrated into
the diets of young children and the elderly.
Tese are people who ofen fnd the tough
or stringy texture of greens to be a struggle
for their limited dental resources. Children
under fve years old are in the most critical
period of their growth, when good nutri-
tion is most vital. Worldwide, the elderly
are the fastest growing segment of the
human population. Making greens more
useful and acceptable to these two groups is
an important undertaking.
For the creative home cook, restau-
rant, or small bakery, the sheer number of
diferent possibilities with dried leaf meal
could be fun. Finely ground leaf powder
can be mixed with garlic powder and salt
and sprinkled on popcorn. Spaghetti can
be made with 20% leaf powder replacing
Cleome (Cleome gynandra)
Drying Leaf Vegetables
four. A tablespoon of leaf powder can be
added to a fruit juice or yogurt smoothie
in the morning. Mint chip or pistachio
ice cream could have mild favored leaf
powder added. Popsicles and pudding
could be enriched with leaf meal. Green
tortillas could be wrapping burritos and
fajitas. Kids could snack on cookies and
crackers made with leaf powder instead of
artifcial green food coloring, and shaped
like dinosaurs, alligators, turtles, and frogs.
For special occasions leaf powder could
enrich Christmas tree cookies and cakes, or
shamrock crackers to go with green beer on
St. Patricks Day.
It is now possible to buy dried leaf powder
from several diferent sources on the Internet.
Spinach powder is commonly available at
a reasonable price from food ingredient
suppliers, since it is used in spinach pasta
and dips. Green onion and parsley fakes are
widely available in bulk as are many other
leaves normally used for seasoning. Moringa
leaf powder is now being ofered through
several outlets. Kale powder and powder from
wheat and barley leaves are being sold, but
mainly as high-priced supplements through
alternative health sites. (Some dried leaf
powder suppliers are listed in Appendix 4.)
It is still quite difcult to locate dried leaf
powders through ordinary retail food shops.
By extending shelf life, reducing weight
and volume, and eliminating much of
the risk of pesticide and microorganism
contamination, drying leaf crops creates
some new economic possibilities for eating
more greens. Fine grinding removes most
of the texture problems that have restrained
use of greens, especially among children
and the elderly. Te versatility of green leaf
powder enables it to be used in countless
foods that have traditionally been outside
the realm of leaf vegetables.
There is a great deal of confusion, some of it
intentional, around the issue of dry versus wet
weight. For example an impressive graphic that
has been copied by hundreds of groups compares the nutrients in moringa favorably to
those in oranges, carrots, milk, bananas, and yogurt. The problem is that the comparisons
are between dried moringa leaf and other foods that havent been dried. Measuring the
calcium in dried moringa leaf against that in dried milk powder, or the calcium in fresh
moringa versus that in fresh milk, would make for more impartial, if less impressive, compari-
sons. The nutritional value of moringa is excellent without trying to tilt the board in its favor.
It is worth noting that many of the differences in the nutritional values of fresh green
leaves are attributable to differences in the amount of water in them. So, for example, moringa
leaves have about three times as much protein and roughly twice as much iron as pumpkin
leaves. However, if you remove the water, which has no nutritive value, the pumpkin leaves
then have more protein and more iron than the moringa. Fresh moringa leaves are less than
80% water by weight, whereas pumpkin leaves are about 93% water. Edible fresh leaf crops
average about 89% moisture.
What does this mean in practice? It means that the composition of dried leaf powder
from different plants is much more similar than the composition of their fresh leaves. It also
means that fresh leaves that begin with less moisture will usually dry much faster than leaves
with more water in them. It also means that a yield of 30 tons per hectare of moringa will
provide about 6.3 tons of actual food, while 30 tons of fresh pumpkin leaf will supply only
about 2.1 tons of food after the water is removed. This is why the yields of forage crops are
often calculated in terms of dry matter (DM).
It might surprise most people to know that on a dry weight basis, several types of green
leaves have higher protein content than cheddar cheese or raw hamburger, and nearly as
high as eggs. For example, thoroughly dried moringa leaf is about 45% protein, while dried
cheddar cheese is about 40% protein and dried whole milk is about 27% protein.
Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capitata)
Fermented Leaf Vegetables
Te food we eat also becomes food, and a home, for a huge variety
of anaerobic microorganisms. Te physical and chemical changes
brought about by these organisms are called fermentation.
Uncontrolled fermentation is ofen responsible for the spoilage of
our food and can even cause food poisoning. Controlled fermen-
tation, on the other hand, encourages the growth of particular
microorganisms to achieve a desired physical or chemical change
in a food or other material.
In traditional food fermentation processes, control is far from
absolute. Long experience with trial and error has shown us how
to get enough control to exclude most of the destructive or toxin-
producing microbes. Normally several, even hundreds, of species
are involved in fermentation, sometimes working in combination
with each other and sometimes working in sequence. Isolating
a single species of bacteria to use for fermenting foods is usually
only possible in a laboratory or factory setting. It is closely analo-
gous to the practice of raising crop monocultures in farming.
More complex ecosystems with a greater variety of species tend to
be more stable and require less intervention than monocultures,
though the output may be somewhat more variable.
Partially controlled fermentation has been an important
process in preparing and in preserving foods for many centuries.
It is still the basis of several food industries. Bread, beer, wine,
yogurt, cheese, chocolate, pickles, olives, soy sauce, vinegar, and
vanilla are examples of familiar foods processed by fermentation.
Techniques for modifying leaf vegetables through fermenta-
tion have also been used for thousands of years. Te best known
fermented leaf products are sauerkraut and kimchi. Fermenting
green leaves serves three primary purposes: preserving the leafy
vegetables for later use, improving digestibility, and enhancing
Ofen the process of fermentation involves a succession of
microbes, each altering the environment to favor the next in the
sequence. So for example, sauerkraut will typically begin with
coliform bacteria dominating, then leuconostoc, and fnally
lactobacilli. Each increases the acidity of the cabbage until they
are replaced with the next more acid tolerant species. Lactobacilli
are especially important because they efciently convert carbo-
hydrates to lactic acid. Eventually the cabbage reaches a pH of
about 4.0. Tis protects the cabbage, now sauerkraut, from further
bacterial spoilage because most bacteria prefer a pH of about 7.0
and cant reproduce in a medium below 4.6. Te sauerkraut can
be kept for up to several months in a refrigerator. It is sometimes
canned to extend its shelf life even further, though this eliminates
the benefts associated with consuming live bacteria.
Having a relatively simple means of preserving green leaves
has been very useful in situations where fresh food is not avail-
able for long periods, such as temperate zone winters or tropical
dry seasons. Greens preserved by fermentation were ofen the
diference between life and death on long sea voyages, where they
provided enough vitaminC to protect those
on board from dreaded scurvy. Te slang
term kraut was given to German sailors
because of their custom of packing plenty
of sauerkraut for ocean voyages.
Fermenting greens alters their nutri-
tional value in several ways. In a sense,
fermentation moves green leaves up the
trophic pyramid in much the same way
that feeding leaves to meat or milk animals
does. Afer the bacteria have had their fll,
there is less energy, or calories, remaining
in the leaves but many of the nutrients
are pre-digested and easier to absorb in
our intestinal tract. Fibrous cell walls are
sofened, making their contents more
readily available to our digestive enzymes.
While some vitaminC and beta-carotene
is lost, the levels of B-vitamins, especially
vitaminB-1 and B-2, are ofen increased.
Protein quality is also enhanced as the
bacterial enzymes alter the vegetables
amino acid profle.
Fermentation also can break down
some of the compounds that inhibit
nutrient absorption, including phytates,
tannins, oxalic acid and nitrates.
Carcinogenic afatoxins from molds can be
broken down into harmless molecules by
bacterial fermentation. Hydrocyanic acid
yielding compounds, such as linamarin in
cassava, can also be neutralized through
A taste for fermented leaf vegetables
is an acquired thing. In many cultures
that rely heavily on bland starchy staples,
such as, rice, maize, potatoes, and cassava,
the strong tangy favors of fermented
leafy vegetables play an important role in
keeping the diet interesting.
Some of the most interesting and
important fermented greens are sauerkraut,
kimchi, gundruk, and kawal. Sauerkraut
probably arrived in Europe with the
Mongols and other nomads of central
Asia. To many Westerners, sauerkraut, or
choucroute as it is called in French, is the
only familiar fermented green vegetable.
Traditionally served with hot dogs or
other meats, it is ofen available canned
in grocery stores and sometimes avail-
able unpasteurized in health food stores.
Sauerkraut has traditionally been used to
alleviate symptoms of ulcers. Recent studies
in Europe suggest that sauerkraut may be
even more efective at reducing cancer risk
than unfermented cabbage.
Kimchi is the national food of Korea. It
usually is made from some type of cabbage,
favored with garlic, chili, and ginger.
While many North and South Americans
fnd kimchi to be overly strong favored,
Koreans eat it at nearly every meal and miss
it when they travel. Hundreds of varieties
of kimchi are made, refecting regional
preferences and seasonal availability of
Gundruk is a national dish of Nepal
and is popular throughout the Himalayan
region. It is made by fermenting the
Preparing Kimchi
Fermented Leaf Vegetables
partially wilted leaves of vegetables, mainly
from the cabbage family. It is an important
source of vitamins and minerals over the
long Himalayan winter when fresh food is
One of the more unusual fermented
foods is called kawal
. It is made solely from
the fermented leaves of the sickle pod tree
(Cassia obtusifolia) in the Sudan. It has a
strong favor and is used as a meat substi-
tute in soups and sauces by the resourceful
people of this arid region. Once it is fully
dried, kawal is a compact, high protein food
that provides a measure of food security.
Te sickle pod leaves are picked toward
the end of the rainy season. Stems, fowers,
and insects are carefully removed but the
leaves are not washed, so that the benefcial
bacteria and fungi on their surface are not
removed. Te leaves are then pounded to
a pulp that is packed tightly in buried clay
jars. It is allowed to ferment for about two
weeks, then rolled into small balls and sun
While fermented greens play a signif-
cant part in the global diet, that role
could be enlarged
. Te frst step would
be to begin systematic experimentation
with the fermentation of more leaf crops.
Te cabbage (mustard) family, especially
common cabbage and Chinese cabbage,
currently make up the bulk of the worlds
1 http://practicalactionpublishing.org/sudan/docs/
2 The Benefits of Fermenting Fruits and
Vegetables. http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0560e
fermented leaf crops. Tese are nutri-
tious foods but they prefer cooler growing
weather than what is common in many
areas where malnutrition is prevalent. Leafy
varieties of the cabbage family, such as kale,
collards, mustard, and turnip greens, are
denser sources of most nutrients than their
head forming relatives, and so would make
more nutritious fermented greens. Dozens
of other high nutrition leaf crops could be
tested for how well they ferment.
Since minerals are usually not lost
in fermentation, and ofen made more
bioavailable, it makes sense to try
fermenting leaf crops that contain the
highest levels of minerals. Given that iron
defciency anemia is the most common
nutritional problem in the world, we
should look to iron rich leaf crops. Chinese
boxthorn, moringa, parsley, chaya, winged
bean, dandelion, spinach, amaranth, taro,
pumpkin, purslane, cowpea, Swiss chard,
cilantro, vine spinach, lambsquarters, sweet
potato leaves and many other leaf crops
contain far more iron than the commonly
fermented cabbages.
Productive research could be done
to determine if cassava leaves could be
fermented to make a product that was
acceptable in favor. If the fermentation
process sufciently lowered the hydro-
cyanic acid content, fermented cassava
leaves could become an important dietary
source of micronutrients. Cassava leaves are
available and cheap in many areas with the
highest rates of malnutrition.
Te high sodium content in many
fermented foods is a concern to some nutri-
tionists. Half a cup of typical sauerkraut
has about 470 mg of sodium, nearly a third
of what is recommended for daily intake.
Tere are some lower-sodium fermented
leaf products available in big markets, and
much of the sodium can be removed simply
by draining and rinsing. If fermented
greens are used in small amounts as a
garnish it is irrelevant, but if they play an
important role in the diet, as kimchi does
in Korea, it is worth looking at ways to
reduce the sodium in the diet.
Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
Leaf Vegetables In
Sustainable Agriculture
Any discussion of sustainable agriculture has to begin with what
we mean by sustainable, and any discussion of sustainable
has to begin with the question for how long? Tinking about
sustainable agriculture is difcult because we cant get back
far enough to see the subject with an adequate time horizon.
Agriculture itself is only about 10 thousand years old. How long
do we want to be sustainable? Is 100 million years realistic? It
was for dinosaurs. Even 1 million years seems too long to grasp.
Maybe thinking in terms of another 10 thousand years is enough.
Maybe we can consider ourselves roughly halfway through our
experiment with agriculture.
We dont have much to go on. Most of the nations that sign
the international treaties and laws intended to protect the Earths
future are less than one hundred years old. Modern science and
agricultural technology have been enormously impressive in their
ability to increase human food supplies, but they are too new to
the scene for us to know if they will hold up for the long haul.
Teir success may prove to be just a stirring sprint at the start of
an agricultural marathon. Craf agriculture, on the other hand,
has had a limited scientifc basis, but has had the valuable perspec-
tive that can only be gained from centuries of trial and error.
Te best guidance for designing lasting food systems may be
found in the natural ecosystems that support life on our planet.
Mature ecosystems are as close as we can fnd to sustainable
biological systems. Tese are communities of plants and animals
which, through the process of ecological succession, or the
development of vegetation in an area over time, have reached a
near equilibrium or steady state. Tey are largely self-regulating
and self-repairing organizations that appear capable of running
indefnitely on the energy supplied by the sunlight that they inter-
cept. Tey are characterized by a great biodiversity that provides
important checks and balances and redundant services. Frugal
use and thorough recycling of nutrients, water, and energy enables
climax ecosystems to support a large community of living organ-
isms for a very long time.
Agriculture that tries to learn from and emulate ecosystems is
sometimes called agro-ecology or eco-agriculture. It is likely that
an emerging sustainable agriculture will incorporate elements
from modern technology, craf, or traditional agriculture as well
as from close observation of natural ecosystems. Te sophis-
ticated tools of observation that modern science can bring to
this endeavor will probably prove more useful than its powerful
technologies for manipulating biological
Alongside the fundamental question
for how long? sustainable agriculture
will eventually have to consider for how
many? Tis is the question that determines
how much food an agricultural system will
need to produce.
As a species, human beings (Homo
sapiens) have been remarkably successful
at obtaining food. We have a digestive
system adaptive enough to derive nourish-
ment from a huge variety of food, including
leaves, fruits, seeds, roots, meat, fsh,
seaweed, eggs, milk, fungi, and insects.
Weve also developed highly adaptive
brains and sufcient manual dexterity to
develop and use an ever-expanding catalog
of tools. We set out on our evolutionary
journey from east Africa with the digestive
fexibility to adapt to the new environments
we encountered and with the growing capa-
bility to control those environments with
our tools.
Learning to manipulate fre to cook
food signifcantly improved our food
supply by allowing us to sofen and detoxify
many plant foods and to kill parasites in
meat. Archeological evidence from the
Middle East suggests cooking may have
begun something like 700,000 years ago.
Cooked food gradually became universal
in human societies. Heat increased the net
caloric value of our food by reducing the
efort required for chewing and digestion.
Tis increase in food value is ofen cited as
a prerequisite for the development of the
large human brain.
Te second and perhaps most impor-
tant change in how we managed food came
much later with the Neolithic Revolution
and the dawn of agriculture. Rudimentary
farming of wheat and barley is generally
thought to have begun some 1012,000
years ago. Like cooking, agriculture
appears to have spread from its origins
in the Middle East until becoming nearly
universal in human settlements. While
agriculture represented a sharp break from
the old hunting and gathering lifestyle, in
some ways it was simply the application of
gradually increasing levels of control over
those more traditional activities. Hunters
made hunting easier by fencing and eventu-
ally breeding their prey. Gatherers made
gathering more productive by planting
the seeds of the most desirable plants,
protecting them from herbivores and even-
tually modifying those plants to make them
even more desirable for gathering.
Humans have always needed to eat, and
agriculture developed as a response to that
need. It was a means to an end. Ideally, it
would provide a plentiful and secure supply
of food for everyone despite the unpredict-
ability of Nature. Since the beginning of
agriculture humans have been advancing
their food supplies by using a fairly simple
strategy: identify the factor that most
Figure 101
Carrying capacity
Carrying Capacity
Leaf Vegetables In Sustainable Agriculture
limits the food supply and fnd a way to
remove that limitation. When we thought
that lack of land was the most limiting
factor, we cleared more land (afer chasing
of whoever had been previously using
it). When shortage of water limited food
production, we built irrigation systems.
We pushed back the limiting factors of
soil fertility and insect competition with
the invention of synthetic fertilizers and
pesticides. When the nature of a food plant
or animal limited the potential of our food
supply, we altered its fundamental form,
frst with selective breeding and more
recently with direct manipulation of its
genetic make-up.
In many ways this has been a spectacu-
larly successful approach to getting food
and, as we are fond of telling ourselves,
we have been a spectacularly successful
species. Te current human population is
something like 7,000 times greater than it
was at the dawn of agriculture. Te annual
increase in our population, now estimated
at about 77 million, likely exceeds the entire
number of humans in the world at the time
of the Neolithic Revolution. Most projec-
tions now assume that we will reach a peak
population of about 9 billion around the
middle of the twenty-frst century.
Around 1798, when there were still
fewer than one billion people, Tomas
Malthus published the idea that human
population increases at a geometric rate (i.e.
1, 2, 4, 8, 16 . . .), whereas the food-supply
grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
. . .). More disturbingly, he proposed that,
if population growth were unchecked, a
gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the
rear, and with one mighty blow levels the
population with the food of the world.
In ecological terms, Malthus might
have illustrated his grim prediction with
a simplifed growth-overshoot-collapse
graph (Figure 101 on page 100). Tis
describes any very rapidly growing popula-
tion, such as yeast in grape juice, eventu-
ally exceeding the carrying capacity of its
environment and then even more rapidly
declining. Carrying capacity is basically the
population of a given species that can be
maintained indefnitely in an environment.
It is determined mainly by food supply but
also by habitat or physical space and by the
environments ability to absorb the waste
products of the species in question. Tere
is a brief fools paradise called overshoot,
during which the population continues to
grow despite having gone past the point
of equilibrium with its food supply. Tis is
akin to the cartoon character running of a
clif but not falling for a second or two until
he looks down, by which time it is, alas, too
late for any course corrections.
Obviously providing secure access to a
well-balanced diet for billions of people is a
1 An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It
Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with
Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M.
Condorcet, and Other Writers Malthus, Thomas
Robert 1798 London
Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia)
prodigious undertaking. Not only are there
now more people alive than ever before,
but they are living much longer and they
are demanding more foods higher up the
trophic pyramid.
As Malthus and later Paul Ehrlich, of
Te Population Bomb fame, found out,
predicting doom is a tricky business.
Timing is critical. Is it possible that these
of ridiculed projections of population
growth disaster were right in essence and
only the time of the inevitable collapse was
wrong? Tat depends on your viewpoint.
Shrugging of the warning are those
with the cornucopian worldview. Tis is
the belief that human ingenuity is limit-
less and will continue to fnd ways to feed
the growing population as it has in the
past. Tis belief is largely rooted in the
capitalist concept of supply and demand,
which posits that when the demand for
food exceeds the supply, the price will
rise and generate sufcient motivation for
innovators to increase the supply. In this
view resources do not run out, they simply
become more expensive. Tere are some
faws to the logic, such as the difculty
of expressing demand for food when one
has no money; but overall, innovation and
industry do have an impressive record of
increasing food supply to match rising
population. Te rapid advances of the
computer industry are ofen cited as an
example of how innovative an industry can
become when the fnancial motivations are
Tis cornucopian view is countered
by a more constrained belief that we are
approaching some very real limitations
to the continuing growth of human food
supply imposed by fnite natural resources.
Tis view came into public awareness with
great fanfare when Donella H. Meadows
published Te Limits to Growth in 1972.

Te author of this infuential book argued
that at the current rate of usage many
key natural resources would be seriously
depleted within a hundred years, and
economic growth-including the growth of
food supplies-could not be sustained. Tis
opinion is probably most strongly presented
today by the peak oil movement. Tey
argue that industrial agriculture and
global food systems have become totally
dependent on cheap petroleum, and that
dramatically higher oil prices will shrink
economic productivity and shrink the pool
of capital needed to create post-petroleum
agricultural and food distribution infra-
structure. Tis viewpoint certainly became
more compelling with volatile crude oil
prices reaching $150 a barrel and grain
prices tripling between 2000 and 2009,
setting of food riots in dozens of countries.
Te frantic investment in food production
innovations indicates that historically high
2 The Limits to Growth by Donella H. Meadows,
Dennis L. Meadows, Jrgen Randers, and William
W. Behrens III. Signet (October 1, 1972), ISBN-10:
0451136950, ISBN-13: 978-0451136954
food prices are indeed good motivators.
Time will tell how well the cornucopians
rise to this latest challenge.
Wherever one falls along this
continuum of speculation between the
cornucopia and the limits of growth,
it has become very difcult to imagine
that the worlds human population can
continue feeding itself for long using the
same systems that are currently being
employed. Two radically diferent strategies
are confronting the daunting challenge of
re-making the worlds food systems.
Farms would become computerized
biological factories growing a few geneti-
cally engineered crop and animal varieties.
Tese outputs would become the feedstock
for centralized processing operations where
most of the food we eat would be manufac-
tured. Tis strategy stems from a functional
view of Nature as a provider of valuable
goods and services. In its more enlightened
forms it accepts that ecosystem services
should be more accurately accounted for
and protected for their economic value. In
this view food is a commodity that should
be produced efciently, as with any other
commodity business. Labor costs are mini-
mized. Tis basic strategy requires a belief
in human capability to maintain central-
ized control.
Leaf Vegetables In Sustainable Agriculture
Tis approach would have much smaller
farms with many more farmers. Gardening
would also make major contributions to the
food supply. Te biological sciences would
contribute to the craf of local produc-
tion and simple processing of food. Tis
strategy has roots in the recurrent Arcadian
ideal, expressed by Tomas Jeferson and
many others, of harmonious compromise
between Man and Nature or between the
Wilderness and the City. It requires afec-
tion for nature, neighborliness, and modest
material demands. From this perspective
food is the most basic connection between
Nature and people. Labor costs are higher.
Tis basic strategy relies on decentralized
control and adaptation.
Te diferences between these two
basic strategies for adapting our foods
systems are so profound and contentious
that is difcult to discuss the future of food
without further examining the worldview
behind these two camps. Although the
industrialization mode is clearly dominant
at this point, there seems to be increasing
enthusiasm for both approaches as they
wrestle for hearts, minds, and market
share. Te rapid increase of genetically
engineered foods and mega-stores, and the
parallel rapid growth of organically grown
foods and farmers markets illustrate these
alternate views of our food future.
Modern biotechnology and DNA
sequencing have allowed increased speed
and precision in plant and animal breeding
techniques. Where conventional breeding
shaped the somewhat random movement of
thousands of genes within the limitations
of sexual reproduction, genetic engineering
can transfer specifc genes between organ-
isms, even between organisms of very
diferent species.
Proponents of genetically modifed
organisms (GMOs) argue that this
increased level of genetic control will both
increase food supply and be a boon to our
natural environments. Te most important
trait currently inserted into food plants
by genetic engineers is resistance to herbi-
cide in soybeans, corn, and rape (canola).
Tis not only reduces labor cost in food
production, it enables farmers to do less
tilling of their land, which in turn reduces
the amount of soil that is eroded. Another
important GMO trait in food crops is
increased resistance to insect damage. Tis
is usually conferred by inserting genes
from the soil bacteria family of Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt)
. Because these crops have
insecticidal properties from the bacteria,
3 Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring
bacterial disease of insects. It was discovered in
1911, but not commercially available until the
1950s. It is safe for most non target organisms
including humans, and beneficial insects, and
has been widely used by organic agriculture,
especially for protecting vegetables crops.
Dock (Rumex spp.)
they require less insecticide. A genetically
modifed crop that has received consider-
able attention is Golden Rice. It has been
modifed to greatly increase its level of beta-
carotene. Reducing soil erosion, insecticide
use and vitaminA defciency all sound
promising to environmentalists.
Despite the promise, however, the rapid
deployment of genetically modifed food
crops violates several of the key principles
of ecologically sound food systems. While
the public has remained openly suspicious
of genetically modifed foods and many
respected biologists have urged greater
caution, a few multinational corporations
have lobbied vigorously to get sales permits
for their products. Tey have succeeded
to the extent that afer little more than a
decade, over 280 million acres worldwide
were planted in GMO crops in 2007, about
half of them in the United States.
Te core problem with GMO crops
is reductionism. Ecosystems are by their
very nature extremely complex entities
that develop gradually over many genera-
tions. New biological forms are usually
tested slowly in natural systems so that any
potential problems have time to emerge and
to be addressed before wholesale changes
are made. Te history of inadvertently
introduced invasive species such as Asian
chestnut trees and kudzu into the Americas
or cats in Australia should give any reason-
able person pause before assuming millions
of acres of GMO food crops wont have any
unintended consequences.
Although we have not yet identifed any
catastrophic dietary problems, such as new
allergens, we are already seeing numerous
unintended negative consequences to the
food ecosystems upon which we will all
depend for the foreseeable future. Fields
planted in GMOs have signifcantly less
biodiversity than traditional crops.
Neither is it surprising that the big
benefts of the herbicide resistance and
of the Bt insecticide are already begin-
ning to diminish. Proftability and yield
of most current GMO crops are closely
tied to the fact that they can withstand
glyphosate herbicide, and their competing
weeds cannot. An estimated 8590 million
pounds of this herbicide is used each
year in the United States alone, to reduce
competition from weeds and to reduce the
labor costs of keeping crops relatively weed
Worldwide glyphosate use is also
soaring as transgenic soybeans, corn,
canola, and other crops are increasingly
sown. Unfortunately, at least six weeds,
including ragweed and pigweed, have
already developed some degree of genetic
resistance to glyphosate, the key ingredient
4 This is not surprising given that all but the target
plants are generally killed with herbicide. This
leads to fewer birds, bees, butterflies, and other
creatures that pollinate crops and hold pest
populations in check.
5 US EPA 2000-2001 Pesticide Market Estimates
in Monsantos RoundUp herbicide. By the
summer of 2009 this problem was already
reaching catastrophic proportions in the
southeastern US, where herbicide-resistant
Palmer amaranth is making cotton harvest
nearly impossible, and threatening soybean
felds. It is very likely that other weeds will
soon become resistant to RoundUp, in a
manner reminiscent of the development
of antibiotic resistance in many common
disease bacteria.
A similar situation is unfolding with
food plants that have been genetically
modifed for insect resistance, by the
insertion of Bt genes. Now that the Bt gene
is presenting itself in enormous mono-
cultures, insects are quickly beginning to
develop resistant strains through natural
selection. Te diamondback moth, a serious
pest of plants in the cabbage family, has
already shown signifcant resistance, and
no doubt other pests will soon follow that
Tis overuse of Bt in genetically
modifed seeds will likely render one of our
most efective integrated pest management
tools inefective. Tis will be a serious blow
to organic agriculture.
Despite these warning signs, the acreage
planted in GMOs is still increasing by
millions of acres per year. Consumers,
however, do not yet share the farmers
6 Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on
Biodiversity by Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein,
Page 393, Oxford University Press, USA; Ill edition
(June 2, 2008), ISBN-10: 0195175093, ISBN-13:
Leaf Vegetables In Sustainable Agriculture
fervor for the designer foods. Most public
opinion polls, especially in Europe, have
shown that the majority of people would
rather not eat genetically modifed foods.
Rather than convincing the public to
embrace their genetically modifed foods, it
seems that the industry is now trying to get
people to simply accept that much of their
manufactured food already contains GMOs
and there is little they can do about it.
Certainly some of the resistance to
GMOs is generated by the arrogance and
aggressiveness of the handful of corporate
giants currently profting from them. Below
that level there is an instinctive reaction to
the intellectual property aspect of the GMO
industry. While the big bioengineering
companies argue that their investments in
the research must be protected, the idea
that a company can outright own forms of
life does not sit comfortably. Wes Jackson,
of the Land Institute in Kansas, delineated
the diference between the bioengineering
viewpoint and the ecological viewpoint
with this question: Should a crop plant
be regarded more as the property of the
human or as a relative of wild things? Te
question itself acknowledges that most of
the development of crop plants and animals
was evolutionary with no human involve-
ment. Tis critique sees the bioengineers as
tweaking an organisms DNA in a minor
way, then claiming ownership.
Organic agriculture is a term that came
into use in North America, Europe, and
Japan in the 1940s and 50s to describe a
method of growing that avoided the use
of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Initially much of the motive for organic
agriculture came from consumer suspi-
cion about pesticides, a suspicion that has
still not disappeared. By the 1970s several
organizations began programs to certify
food as being organically produced. Tis
was intended to reassure consumers that
they were actually getting the products
they were generally paying a premium
for, and to reassure farmers that the extra
efort they put into growing food organi-
cally would be rewarded. Tere are now
hundreds of organic certifcation programs
throughout the world, including a national
program in the United States overseen by
the Department of Agriculture.
While not quite matching the explosive
growth rate of the GMO acreage, organic
food is nonetheless a dynamic force in
world agriculture, with an estimated 96
million acres planted in organic crops in
2007. Economically it is even more impres-
sive because the organic produce draws
a premium price, while the genetically
modifed crops are usually added to cheap
animal feeds. Sales of organic produce have
been increasing by over 20% a year from
1990 through 2009.
Butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea)
Tere are several diferences between
organically grown food and food grown
with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
(sometimes called conventionally grown,
despite the relatively recent emergence
of this type of agriculture). Organically
grown food, as one would expect, has
lower levels of pesticide residues. Tis is
a critical concern for many consumers,
especially those with children. Because
their bodies are rapidly making new cells,
young children are the most vulnerable to
problems from pesticides. Organic produce
also tends to be somewhat richer in iron
and vitaminC, as well as several phyto-
chemicals that play a benefcial role in
fghting disease.
Flavor diferences between the two
types of agricultural produce are less
pronounced. Most blind taste tests have
shown people have trouble telling which
foods are organically grown and which
arent. On the other hand, people can tell
the diference between varieties of produce,
for instance a red delicious apple and a
Cortland apple, and organic growers tend
to grow more diferent varieties of fruits
and vegetables.
Te biggest diferences between organic
and conventional agriculture, however,
show up not on the table, but in the land.
Organic farms are much more biodiverse
landscapes. Compared to conventional
farms, they typically have much higher
populations and more varied species of
birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals,
insects, and especially soil organisms. Tey
are much more likely to produce a variety
of crops and to use polycultural methods
such as alley cropping, rotations, cover
crops and fallows than their conventional
counterparts. Smaller farm size combined
with greater retention of forested land on
the farm margins, mixed crop and livestock
systems, and the prohibition of most pesti-
cide and soluble fertilizers are thought to be
the primary factors resulting in the greater
Te perception that organic agriculture
is a quaint and outdated way of producing
food is itself quaint and outdated. Cutting
edge organic agricultural research is being
carried out at many research institutions
and on thousands of farms and gardens.
For example, using custom made charcoal
to stabilize soil carbon and help lower
atmospheric carbon levels is an important
area of investigation. Use of microorgan-
isms to stimulate plant growth is another
promising branch of organic research.
Mychorrhizal fungal inoculants, phosphate
solubilizing bacteria, and actively aerated
compost tea are all techniques for using
specifc microbes to make soil nutrients
more available to plants. Very ofen it is
both cheaper and more ecologically sound
to work with microbes to unlock nutrients
already in the soil than to purchase manu-
factured fertilizer.
Red Russian kale (Brassica napus pabularia)
Leaf Vegetables In Sustainable Agriculture
Te energy use on organic farms per
acre and per unit of food produced is typi-
cally 30% lower than conventional farms,
largely because of the high energy demand
in making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Tis could become a bigger factor in the
near future as rising costs are increasingly
driving up world food and fertilizer prices.
Organic farms tend to be smaller and,
in the US, their operators are about ten
years younger on average. Soil erosion is
signifcantly lower on organic farms, as is
contamination of water with pesticides and
nitrates. Te soil on organic farms holds
more water, which reduces the frequency
and severity of fooding and droughts. Tis
gives farmers a degree of protection from
the destructive cycle of boom and bust
Organic soil also locks more atmo-
spheric carbon into stable compounds.
Te amount of carbon in the soil is several
times greater than the carbon in the
atmosphere and in vegetation. Agricultural
practice determines whether the food
producing soil is a source or sink for
atmospheric carbon dioxide. Organic agri-
cultural techniques, including cover crops,
compost, and grass-fed beef tend to greatly
increase the stable carbon compounds,
especially glomalin and humus, in the soil.
According to USDA research the organic
matter increasing and soil building capa-
bility of organic agriculture signifcantly
exceeds even that of the heavily promoted
no-till techniques.
Not only does this improve the soils
water and nutrient holding capacity
and bufer pH and salinity, but it can
also reduce greenhouse gas emissions,
compared to conventional agriculture. Te
increased carbon in organically managed
soil reduces the negative impact of farming
on global warming. Overall the ecological
footprint tends to be smaller with organic
agriculture and the relationship with
the environment more benign than with
conventional agriculture.
What are the downsides to organic
agriculture? Te two problems cited most
ofen are reduced yields and increased
labor requirements. Some studies have
shown that organic farms yield only about
80% of what conventional farms yield
per acre in the United States and other
industrialized countries. With demand for
food rising rapidly, some observers dont
believe organic agriculture will be able
to adequately feed the world. Tese types
of statistics naturally vary a great deal
depending on the motives of those gener-
ating them.
A closer look at yield fgures shows
that switching to organic is actually likely
to increase yields somewhat in developing
countries while decreasing them slightly
7 Teasdale, John R., No Shortcuts in Checking Soil
Health, July 2007 Agricultural Research
magazine, United States Department of
in more industrialized ones. Tis is likely a
function of the improved soil health under
organic regimes in areas where farmers
cant aford large inputs of soluble fertil-
izers. Te increased yields in the less devel-
oped countries might be more important to
actually making sure people get enough to
eat than reduced yields in the rich coun-
tries, where so much of the agricultural
output goes to animal feed. Tere is also
some evidence of yields declining rather
sharply during the transition to organic and
then rebounding to close to conventional
yields afer a few years. Tis is a complex
and politically charged issue and one can
fnd statistics to back either position.
What is not in question is that labor
costs tend to be higher on organic opera-
tions. Tis factor has provided the greatest
motivation for switching away from
traditional organic agricultural methods
as agri-chemicals became available. Te
more complex systems for maintaining
soil fertility and for managing weeds and
pests result in more time demands for
the organic grower. From the consumer
viewpoint, the biggest drawback to organic
agriculture comes at the checkout counter
where prices are consistently higher, up to
50% higher.
Skeptics ofen portray organic agri-
culture as if it were a radical and unreal-
istic fantasy capable only of overpriced
salad greens. Te reality is that our bodies
evolved eating wild organic foods. Humans
have been successfully practicing agricul-
ture for 10,000 years. For 99% of that time
we have used exclusively organic methods.
It is conventional petroleum based agri-
culture and biotechnology that are radical
new techniques.
At the extreme end of the anti-organic
spectrum some people view organic
agriculture as unethical and dangerous,
claiming that 2 billion people would be lef
foodless if we were to stop using synthetic
nitrogen fertilizer. While there would
certainly be some rough patches in making
a transition away from conventional petro-
leum based farming, organic agriculture
covers an enormous spectrum of tech-
niques. Given better research and greater
support for training, these organic tech-
niques could be adapted to incrementally
replace conventional methods.
If we truly are unable to feed the human
population without rapidly destroying
the natural resource base of food produc-
tion and driving half our fellow species
to extinction, we are simply saying that
we have exceeded our carrying capacity.
Populations adjust to food supply. Mainly
through increasing energy inputs from
fossil fuel, food supply has expanded
remarkably over the past sixty years.
Human population more than doubled
during that time to keep pace with the
increased food supplies. Te success of the
industrialized food system in feeding this
growing population has fostered technical
optimism. As fossil fuels, irrigation water
and new farm land become scarcer; the
idea that nine billion humans can be
sustained indefnitely may come to appear
On the other hand, if we are able
to create a sustainable food system, the
human population will no doubt adjust to
it. We are faced with two daunting global
food quandaries: First, how do we quickly
make a transition to a food system that
minimizes damage to natural ecosystems
without undue human sufering? Secondly,
how do we achieve a long lasting equilib-
rium between a sustainable food system
and a relatively stable human population?
Simplistic free market capitalism and
its handmaiden, reductionist science,
may prove to be instruments too blunt
for the creation of a durable and ethical
food system. Perpetual growth and total
control are infantile illusions. We need less
powerful and more elegant solutions to our
food problems. An elegant technology is
one with a high ratio of output to input and
a minimum of unintended consequences.
Tis is where biology shines. Spurred
on by competition for limited energy,
nutrients, water, and space, living beings
have developed an astonishing library of
elegant designs. Tose natural designs
that prove themselves to be sustainable,
usually demonstrate fexibility, adapt-
ability, and creativity; traits that human
food systems will also need to become
more sustainable. Te bio-luminescence of
frefies, the strength of spider webs, and
the beautiful hard fnish of mother-of-pearl
are examples of elegant natural technolo-
gies that use little energy and create little
waste. Bio-mimicry is the hugely promising
new feld of imitating some of these elegant
natural designs to achieve efciencies in
manufacturing products such as bullet-
proof vests, adhesive tape and breathable
waterproof fabrics.
In the long run-and agriculture was
never a sprint-weeds and insects are best
managed with an integrated system that
relies on careful observation and the
least intrusive interventions that will get
adequate results. Fertility is best managed
by maintaining vigorous soil ecology. Tese
strategies take more time to yield results
and require more labor or, if you prefer,
less unemployment. Beyond bio-mimicry
is the realm of eco-mimicry or designing
whole systems that imitate the elegant self-
supporting interplay of species in mature
ecosystems. Tis is the most promising
direction to look for guidance in building a
truly sustainable agriculture.
Tose who are inspired by a model
other than Nature, a mistress
above all masters, are laboring
in vain. Leonardo da Vinci
Leaf Vegetables In Sustainable Agriculture
US-based Monsanto is by far the largest seed company in the
world. It is also the most aggressive and successful promoter of
patented, genetically modified seed. These are seeds that have
been genetically engineered to have new traits. When farmers
or gardeners buy Monsanto genetically modified seed, they
have to sign a contract that forbids them from saving any of the
seed from their crop to plant the next season. Saving seed has
been a common agricultural practice for thousands of years, but
Monsanto requires farmers to buy new seed from the company
every year. An estimated 87% of the total area planted in geneti-
cally engineered crops in 2007 was sown in Monsanto seeds (or
seeds under license from Monsanto).
In addition, Monsanto is the largest producer of herbicides,
chemical compounds that are used to kill weeds, in the world. This
is not just a coincidence. Over 80% of the worlds land planted
in genetically engineered crops has at least one genetic trait for
herbicide tolerance. Herbicide resistant plants so dramatically
reduce the labor costs for producing crops that it is already diffi-
cult for farmers to compete without using them. Selling patented
genetically engineered seed that cant be saved by farmers or
gardeners as well as herbicide that kills everything but the plant
from their seed, Monsanto has profoundly altered the nature of
Closer to your kitchen table, Monsanto and Dole have recently
begun a joint venture to produce genetically modified vegetable
seeds in the US. Dole is the largest producer of fruits and vege-
tables in the world, producing and selling over 200 products in
90 countries. Their joint effort will start with trying to improve
the nutrition, flavor, color, texture, taste and aroma of broccoli,
cauliflower, lettuce and spinach through genetic engineering.
According to David Stark, vice-president of consumer traits at
Monsanto, The consumer wins because Doles market knowledge
combined with our research and development capabilities will
help bring new healthy and flavorful products to consumers.
This is a shift from earlier genetically modified crops that were
mainly used to produce cotton and animal feeds, rather than
familiar garden vegetables.
Consumer is the corporate term for what we used to call
citizens. Consumers shop; citizens participate. To Monsanto the
seeds of our food plants are just another product, like buttons,
cigarette lighters or can openers. Assurances that the genetically
engineered foods are perfectly safe are beside the point. A single
corporation whose sole purpose is to earn money quickly for its
stockholders should not be allowed to usurp thousands of years of
painstaking agricultural work or millions of years of evolutionary
history. Declaring that life forms can be the intellectual property
of corporations is a profoundly bad idea.
Seeds are inherently far too important for Monsanto to monopo-
lize. Wherever people have ventured they brought with them the
seeds of their food plants. Explorers, pilgrims, pioneers, immi-
grants and slaves all traveled with the best of their seeds tucked
away safely. Seeds are both the symbol and the embodiment of
our future. They deserve our deepest respect if not our affection.
Tis was the goal of the leaf and root.
For this did the blossom burn its hour.
Tis little grain is the ultimate fruit.
Tis is the awesome vessel of power.
George Starbuck Galbraith
Growing Leaf Vegetables
Industrial agriculture has become an increasingly secretive and
specialized endeavor, with fewer people working on larger, highly
mechanized farms. One of the best things about sustainable agricul-
ture is that everyone can participate. Te most rewarding place to
participate in sustainable agriculture is ofen in the household vege-
table garden, and leaf vegetables are usually the easiest food to grow.
Tere are several good reasons to grow some of your own leafy
vegetables even if you can easily aford to buy all of them.
Quality Control
Te favor of home grown, fresh picked vegetables is widely expe-
rienced as superior. For example, commercial packers consider
the shelf life of spinach to be 1014 days, but both the favor and
the nutritional value are signifcantly better just afer picking.
Home gardeners can make sure that their vegetables are not only
fresh but free from pesticide residues. Where refrigeration is
limited, the freshness of home garden greens is a big step up from
commercial greens.
Tere are very few commercial leaf vegetable varieties that are
widely available and they are chosen exclusively for proftability.
Traits such as high yield, uniform harvest time, response to herbi-
cides and fertilizers, and the shipping qualities of leaf vegetables
are important to the commercial packers. Tey rarely coincide
with the best favor or nutrition. On the other hand, home growers
have access to a vast array of delicious and nutritious crops and
For many families whose income depends on unemployed,
underemployed, or poorly paid workers, having access to some
food outside the cash economy can be very advantageous. Te
number of families in this situation is high in the tropics and will
likely continue to grow, as will the beneft they derive from home-
grown leaf vegetables. Hard times invariably result in more home
vegetable gardening. In the US the economic hardships brought
on by World War II were partially ofset by the success of the
Victory Gardens campaign, which produced roughly a third of all
American vegetables that were consumed.
Leaf vegetables are generally 8095% water. Growing them in
semi-deserts with irrigation and shipping them thousands of
miles in refrigerated trucks is a bad idea. Locally grown vegetables
are far more environmentally sound, even when grown out of
season in protected hoop houses. Home grown are the most local
of all, eliminating even the drive to the market.
Emotional and aesthetic benefts
Gardens can be beautiful places ofering
enjoyable physical exercise, relaxation, and
connection with creative natural forces.
It is not hard to fnd a place to grow leafy
green vegetables because they will grow
almost anywhere that humans have chosen
to live. Green leafy vegetables can be
grown on any scale from a box in a sunny
window to vast felds of alfalfa. Te best
place to grow greens is usually in a home
garden located as close to family activities
as possible. For several reasons this book
focuses on home gardens. Typically these
range from the size of a couch, or even a
few containers, to about the size of a basket-
ball court (approximately 2500sqm or
Households that dont have own or have
access to any land need not be shut out of
the vegetable growing experience. Tere
are about 1620,000 community gardens
operating in the US as of 2009; and similar
community-based gardening opportuni-
ties exist in many other countries. Most of
them lease vegetable plots at very low cost.
Many ofer beginner classes in gardening
and some have established systems for
exchanging seeds and sharing tools. Te
movement to create community gardens is
growing as urbanites continue to express
their interest in raising food. Te size of
community garden plots varies a great
deal, with an average of about 28sqm
(300sqf), but even the smallest plots have
space enough to grow dozens of servings of
greens for a family. A good resource in the
US for learning more, including help with
fnding a garden near you, is the American
Community Gardening Association.
Another movement that promises
to create thousands of new vegetable
gardens started in 2008 in England. Tis
movement is promoted by the organiza-
tion Land-Share and several other similar
groups. Tese organizations are trying
to expand on the British tradition of the
vegetable plot, by linking people interested
in gardening with people who have some
unused or underused land available. Ofen
this is a win-win situation as property
owners typically beneft from the care that
gardeners give to their vacant land. It is a
popular concept in England where nearly
200,000 people are on long waiting lists for
small garden allotment plots. Land-Share
began as a spin of from a gardening show
on television. By the summer of 2010 it had
more than 54,000 members. Neighborhood
associations and municipal governments
are also becoming more aware that where
land is cared for by gardeners, vandalism
and crime ofen diminish.
On an even smaller scale of operation,
greens can be grown in containers. Tese
can be almost anything that will hold a few
inches of soil and that can be placed in the
sunlight for most of the day. Many greens
are ideally suited to container growing
because they are relatively small plants with
shallow roots that are highly adaptable, fast
growing, and produce more food in a given
space than most other crops.
We currently get almost all our foods
from farms. Farms are primarily agricul-
tural businesses designed to make money.
Tey run along a continuum from large
gardens that produce a surplus that can be
sold at local farmers markets to gigantic,
corporate-owned food production opera-
tions. At the small end of this scale are
subsistence farmers, part-time farmers,
and families trying to supplement of-farm
income by selling some of the extra food
that they grow. Also on this end of the farm
spectrum is the growing phenomenon of
CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).
Tese are generally small farms that
link with consumers who pay an annual
subscription fee and receive weekly boxes of
Tere is growing interest in obtaining
fresh local food that is produced in a
manner that exploits neither the land nor
the farmer. Te small scale growers who,
against all odds, are producing top quality
food at a reasonable cost while truly caring
for their land are a small and heroic lot.
Unfortunately these well-cared-for small
farms are not currently the origin of most
of our food.
Growing Leaf Vegetables
Te bulk of our food is grown on large
farms that sufer from the same reduc-
tionist economic philosophy as other
modern businesses. As a rule, producing
food as cheaply as possible doesnt happen
on Rebeccas Sunnybrook Farm or Old
MacDonalds farm, populated by cheerful
animals. Modern farms are increasingly
brutal biological factories, where beauty
and love of the land, plants, and animals
have no home. No one will have fond
childhood memories of growing up on a
farm with 4,600 hogs or a quarter-million
chickens. No one will pine for the laser-
planed felds of Californias Imperial Valley
and its crews of migrant workers picking
their way down mile-long rows of identical
Compared to big farms, gardens tend to
have much smaller felds but much larger
mandates. Rather than existing solely to
generate cash, one might realistically expect
a garden to provide recreation; beautiful
fowers for the table; a home for songbirds,
frogs, and turtles; physical exercise and
communion with Nature, in addition to
a wide variety of fresh food. Gardens are
typically deeply loved, sorely missed and
fondly remembered. Te smallest of farms
ofen have more in common with gardens
than with large farms.
Gardens can address many of the short-
comings that big commercial farms impose
on our food system. Because gardens are
smaller and rarely a critical source of
income, gardeners can aford to experiment
where farmers ofen cannot. Tey can grow
diferent varieties of crops, not just the
varieties that are the most proftable or that
ship with the least damage. A cornucopia
of heirloom plants, each with distinct taste
and attributes, is kept alive by gardeners,
long afer farmers abandoned them for
more proftable hybrid and genetically
modifed crops. Agricultural biodiversity
is increasingly the domain of the garden
rather than the farm.
While farm yields have increased
dramatically over the past century, much
of the upsurge in food production has
been brought about through increasing the
capital and energy available for farming.
Farmers have been consolidating land
holdings into larger units in order to justify
borrowing the capital to invest in larger
machinery. Cheap energy, mainly in the
form of petroleum and natural gas, runs
the big tractors and produces the synthetic
fertilizers and pesticides that power the
bigger farms. While farm yields are still
increasing, the rate of increase is slowing.
More problematic is that the cost of farm
inputs per each ton of additional yield is
increasing faster than the yield (the Law of
Diminishing Returns), and this drives even
more farmers out of business.
Te Law of Diminishing Returns
describes how a continuing efort toward a
goal tends to decline in efectiveness afer
a certain level of success has been reached.
For instance, installing a sink in a home
that lacks one has a signifcant beneft.
Installing a second sink costs as much
as the frst to install and has a noticeable
but smaller beneft. Te third sink has a
minimal beneft. Te fourth sink has a
negligible beneft. All further sinks are
likely to have no beneft at all, but will have
the negative impact of requiring cleaning
and maintenance, even though each sink
cost the same to install as the frst one.
Another example might be a goal of
saving fuel by making your automobile
more efcient. Assume your car currently
will go 10 km per liter (23 miles per gallon)
and your goal is to go 100 km per liter (230
miles per gallon). Improving efciency
from 10 to 20 kilometers per liter (46 mpg)
will save more fuel than improving ef-
ciency from 20 to 100 kilometers per liter.
Driving 1000 kilometers at 10 km per liter
requires 100 liters of fuel. At 20 km per liter
only 50 liters are required, a savings of 50
liters of fuel. At 100 km per liter only 10
liters are needed, a saving of only 40 more
liters than at 20 km per liter.
Tis principle is critical to making
sound policy decisions towards creating a
sustainable food system. In nutrition, there
is much greater health beneft at a lower
cost providing a child with a poor diet an
adequate one than there is providing a
child with an adequate diet an excellent
one. In agriculture, improving soil fertility
from poor to adequate has greater payof
than improving from adequate to excel-
lent. While excellence remains a worthy
goal, our eforts should start with looking
for ways to bring the poor up to adequate.
Perfect is largely unattainable. Pretty good
is great.
Tere is very little unused good farm
land lef anywhere in the world to be newly
exploited for food production. Land prices
near population centers are too high for
farming, so farms have moved away from
the people, and the food must be shipped
ever longer distances to our tables, as the
energy costs to ship that food steadily
Te situation with gardens is quite
diferent. Gardens are always near where
people are, and towns are most ofen
located on good level coastal and river
valley agricultural land. Tere is still plenty
of land available to be added to the global
gardens. Almost every town has vacant lots
and school yards that could be converted
to community garden plots. Ofen the land
surrounding a home has enough land to
make a productive food garden. In the
US, for example, the average lot size is
nearly 700sqm (7,000sqf) greater than
the average size of the house that sits on it.
A vegetable garden using even one-tenth
of that extra land can produce enough to
improve the health and food security of
most families.
Because gardens are almost always
within walking distance, the food is usually
fresher and requires less energy for trans-
porting than food from farms. Farmers
normally must sell their products at low
wholesale prices to middlemen who receive
the bulk of the price the consumer pays for
food. Gardeners, on the other hand, usually
grow products that replace food purchased
at full retail price. Tis means a tomato
grown by a gardener is ofen worth several
times more than one grown by a farmer.
Gardeners generally get higher yields
per area than farmers because they can
aford more labor-intensive management.
For example, commercial leaf crops are
usually cut just once because of the high
labor cost of harvesting. Gardeners have the
luxury of cut-and-come-again leaf crops
which invariably yield more food from the
same area.
Perhaps the most important advantage
of gardens over farms is an ecological one.
Gardens are typically small polycultures
because families like to eat a variety of
foods. Farms are usually large monocul-
tures because of the cost of specialized
equipment and the economic restraints
of the market. Polycultures are inherently
more complex and stable than mono-
cultures, and more closely resemble a
functional natural ecosystem. Tey have
a far greater biodiversity both above and
below the soil, and this provides for a
wider range of checks and balances against
environmental disruptions such as foods,
droughts, and infestations.
Although we currently get almost all
our food from farms, gardens may actually
ofer more potential benefts to low-income
families and people sufering from malnu-
trition. Food produced in family gardens
is less afected by the political and bureau-
cratic problems and fuctuating prices for
agricultural commodities that ofen accom-
pany malnutrition.
Te price of the land, energy, and
equipment needed to be an economically
competitive farmer has increased to the
point of excluding the poor. On the other
hand, the cost of obtaining the informa-
tion needed to be an efective gardener
has plummeted, thanks in part to the
growth of the Internet. Operating largely
outside the pressures of the marketplace,
the home garden can be targeted to meet
the familys need for missing nutrients
not easily purchased. Fresh foods rich in
iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium,
vitaminA, vitaminC, vitaminK, folate,
dietary fber and a wide range of protective
antioxidants can be easily produced in a
small garden.
Knowledge is power, and knowing more
about nutrition and gardening is power
that low-income families can quickly turn
into better health. Starting gardens can
be very inexpensive. For example, Helen
Keller Internationals Homestead Food
Production program estimates that it
costs them only $9 US to start each home
nutrition garden. Te gardens strengthen
Growing Leaf Vegetables
the role of the women who grow them in
their communities, increase the amount of
vegetables those families eat, and reduce
the incidence of night blindness among the
By now you might be thinking, Fine.
Gardens are swell, but does anyone real-
istically think they can feed nine billion
people? No doubt well still need big farms
for a while; and some crops, such as grains,
may always do better on a larger scale.
Gardens alone may not be able to feed the
billions. However, a major efort to educate
and encourage millions of new gardeners
would do wonders to improve the stability
of food producing environments and the
food security of families and communities.
Tere is a wealth of practical information
on all types of vegetable gardening avail-
able from agricultural extension services,
universities, Master Gardener programs,
books, and websites, some of the best of
which are listed in the appendix. Tis
section briefy explains the basic principles
and techniques of growing leafy greens in a
garden. Much of the information could be
applied to growing other food and orna-
mental plants as well.
Site Selection
Vegetable gardens are a means of turning
sunshine into food, so try to choose a site
that is in the sun all day long. In the tropics,
where sun is intense, partial shade may be
tolerated. For most leaf crops, heavy shade
from buildings or trees will result in weak
spindly plants, increased disease problems
and low yields.
Choose a location that is as level as
possible because level land retains water
and nutrients better than sloping land.
Land that slopes more than 7% is usually
unsuitable for crops because rain can cause
serious soil erosion. Level terraces can be
built to make sloping land acceptable for
gardening, but terrace building is a rather
labor intensive endeavor, except on the
smallest scale.
Select a location for your garden as near
to your home as is feasible. It is far easier
to provide good care to a garden you pass
by several times a day than a more distant
one. Avoid places that are always damp,
where animals roam or children romp, and
where the soil is likely to be contaminated
by sewage, garbage, vehicle exhaust or old
lead paint.
Garden Layout
Perhaps the most efcient garden arrange-
ment uses permanent raised beds. Tese
are garden beds usually about 120 cm (48
in) wide and 20 cm (8 in) high. Te soil
height can be raised by adding dirt dug
from between the beds and by adding
compost and manure. Raised beds can be
planted earlier in the spring because the
soil in them warms earlier and waterlog-
ging from spring rains is less of a danger.
Raised beds allow better soil drainage and
root penetration, because the soil in them
is never compacted by people walking on
it. Te initial investment of labor is quickly
repaid in easier cultivation and better
yields. Tere are numerous variations, but
all raised beds greatly increase the number
of plants that can be grown in a given area
and produce much better yields than tradi-
tional row crops.
In very sandy soil or in very hot and
dry climates it is ofen better to employ
a system of permanent garden beds as
described above, except that the beds are
not raised but are level with the adjacent
ground or even sunken a bit. In these beds
the drainage of rain or irrigation water
through the root zone is slower than in
raised beds making it more available to the
crops. Surface evaporation is also slower in
a sunken bed, conserving scarce moisture.
An important aspect of garden layout
is making sure that your plants have access
to as much sunlight as they need. Te
gardener can improve access to sunlight for
plants with a natural climbing or vining
habit by using trellises. Tese are physical
supports that enable plants to grow verti-
cally and harvest sunshine that might
otherwise be blocked. Crops with edible
leaves that thrive on trellises include vine
spinach, butterfy peas, pole beans, winged
beans, hyacinth beans, yard-long beans,
chayote, sweet potatoes, and most gourds.
One of the simplest steps to ensure
that your plants get enough sunlight is
arranging the garden so that taller plants
are to the north, so that they dont block
the critical midday sun of shorter plants.
Te sunlight of early morning and late
afernoon has much less harvestable energy
than the sunlight between 9:00 a.m. and
3:00 p.m., so shade in the middle of the day
has more negative impact on plants than
shading early and late in the day. Of course,
the situation is reversed in the southern
hemisphere where taller plants should be
on the south side of the garden.
Soil is a critical component of growing
leaf crops and one that the gardener can
exert some control over. While crops can
be grown hydroponically, without any
soil, it is almost always more difcult and
more expensive. Virtually every garden
soil can be improved in such a way as to
beneft the growth of your leaf crops. Tis
is perhaps the most fundamental work of
the gardener or farmer. Tere are some
actions that will speed the improvement of
the soil, but building really excellent garden
soil usually takes ten years or more. As the
soil improves it becomes easier to get better
yields with less work, so there is a built-in
motivator for improving soil. Leaving
agricultural soil in better condition than it
was in when you started growing is an act
of love for the future.
Many growers rely on soluble synthetic
fertilizers to improve their soil. Tey are
easy to apply and ofen provide dramatic
results, but they are expensive, disrupt the
balance of benefcial soil bacteria, and can
ultimately deplete, rather than improve,
the soil. Better choices for improving the
fertility of your garden are composting,
using cover crops and intercropping.
Commercial fertilizers all have a three-
part number, 20-10-10. Tis number
tells us what percentage of the fertilizer
is nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium
(N-P-K), respectively. Although potas-
sium is needed in fairly large amounts by
plants, it is rarely the limiting factor in their
growth. Te availability of nitrogen and
phosphorus in the soil, on the other hand,
ofen determines the health and yield of a
crop. Understanding how these two essen-
tial plant nutrients move through our food
system is essential as we make a transition
to a more ecologically viable way of feeding
Nitrogen is needed by every living cell. It is
the chemical backbone of all proteins and
proteins are at the heart of life. Proteins are
essential to photosynthesis, DNA, RNA,
all of the thousands of enzymes, and all of
the muscles, including the heart. Without
nitrogen there could be no plant growth, no
animals or even bacteria.
Unlike phosphorus, nitrogen is in plen-
tiful supply. Surrounding the entire Earth
is a blanket of air which is mainly nitro-
Te snag is that animals, including
humans, are incapable of using this atmo-
spheric nitrogen for vital proteins
plants have incorporated it into foods.
And plants cannot make use of nitrogen
from the air until it has been converted,
or fxed, to ammonium or nitrate.
Tis conversion requires a great deal of
energy. Tese facts, when taken together,
help explain why foods rich in proteins
are usually expensive and why available
ammonium or nitrate in the soil ofen
limits food production.
Around 1915, two German scientists
invented an industrial process for synthe-
sizing ammonia from natural gas. Called
the Haber-Bosch process, this invention
radically changed how we produce food.
Te industrial nitrogen fertilizer gave a big,
fast boost to plant growth; and yields of
most foods, especially grains, rose quickly.
It also reduced the farm labor required as it
1 The Earths atmosphere is roughly 100 km (62 mi)
thick, though most of its mass is in the bottom 8
km (5 mi). The atmosphere is comprised of c.
78% nitrogen; 21% oxygen; 1% water vapor: 1%
argon; and 0.384% carbon dioxide. It is widely
considered that the carbon dioxide content in the
air should be held at about 350 parts per million
(0.350%) or lower to prevent global warming and
sudden climate change
2 Protein molecules are about 6.25% nitrogen, so
you can calculate how much nitrogen is in a
product such as soy meal or cottonseed meal by
multiplying the crude protein by 0.0625. Soy
meal is about 44% crude protein, or 2.75%
Growing Leaf Vegetables
was much easier to spread the new fertilizer
than to spread the old manure. Industrially
synthesized nitrogen fertilizer has been at
the center of the fourfold increase in the
worlds grain production during the twen-
tieth century, which has kept the worlds
burgeoning population more or less fed.
Before Haber-Bosch, atmospheric
nitrogen had always been fxed by special
bacteria on the roots of legume family
plants, by some primitive blue-green
algae, and by lightning. Lightning is the
traditional crowd favorite, but has proven
difcult to manage for agricultural use.
Once the nitrogen from the air is fxed
it is incorporated into plant tissue, then
eaten by animals, then vigorously recycled
through the ecosystem. Eventually it could
be lost by leaching, run-of or volatilization
(returning to the air as a gas).
Te convenience of industrial nitrogen
fertilizer is increasingly being ofset by
the cost of the energy required to make it.
While leguminous plants and the rhizobia
on their roots fx nitrogen in the
3 Rhizobia bacteria normally exist in a symbiotic
relationship with legumes. Farmers and
gardeners often increase nitrogen fixation by
inoculating or coating their legume seeds with
the type of rhizobia best suited to that legume.
Rhizobia will persist for several years in the soil
after a legume has grown there. However,
nitrogen fixation is often improved 1020% by
inoculating the seed even if that legume has
been grown in the soil recently. This is especially
true in acid soils. A much smaller amount of
nitrogen fixation is done by free soil bacteria (e.g.
azotobacters). Nitrogen-fixing bacteria can also
soil at temperatures between 1032C
(5090F), the Haber-Bosch process
requires temperatures around 500C
(930F) and at 200 times atmospheric
pressure. Because of the roughly 10,000
of energy required to make
and distribute every pound of nitrogen,
synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is the biggest
single energy cost in the entire food system.
Almost all of that energy comes from
non-renewable natural gas. Burning the
gas increases carbon levels in the air and
aggravates global warming.
In addition to the extreme energy
demands of producing industrial nitrogen
fertilizer, there are several drawbacks to
using the fertilizer afer it has been manu-
factured. Although plant growth is visibly
stimulated by the soluble nitrogen, the
organic matter and biodiversity of the soil
that the plant grows in are diminished by
its continual use.
Like the soluble phosphorus fertilizer,
nitrates may be carried by rain, irrigation,
grow symbiotically with a number of non-
legume species. Examples of these are alders
(Alnus spp.), lichens, Casuarina, Myrica, liver-
worts, and Gunnera. These plants also account
for much less nitrogen fixation than legumes.
4 In a scientific context 1 kilocalorie (kcal) = 1,000
calories. This is the amount of energy required to
raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by 1 C. It is
easy to get confused about calories and kilocalo-
ries because, in a nutritional context (what youll
find on food packages), the values given are
actually for the number of kilocalories, but are
referred to simply as calories. With food, calories
and kilocalories are often used interchangeably.
or leaching through the soil into surface
waters or into underground water reser-
voirs. Te excess nitrates contribute to
the over fertilization (eutrophication) of
surface water. Nitrogen fertilizers can
also contaminate wells and cause danger-
ously high nitrate levels in drinking water.
Te elevated nitrate levels can lead to a
potentially fatal blood disorder in infants
called methemoglobinemia, or blue baby
syndrome, in which the bloods capacity to
carry oxygen is diminished.
Even the soluble nitrogen fertilizer
that reaches and is absorbed by the root
of the target crops can have some negative
impacts. Grains grown with high levels of
nitrogen fertilizers tend to be lower in zinc
and higher in zinc-blocking phytates than
grains grown with more modest nitrogen
levels. With leaf vegetables, excess avail-
able soil nitrogen results in higher content
of troubling nitrates and oxalic acid. Many
leaf crops are exceptionally good at soaking
up surplus (luxury) nitrogen in the soil,
leading to dangerously high nitrate levels in
otherwise nutritious greens.
Proponents of synthetic nitrogen fertil-
izers generally claim that these drawbacks
are relatively minor compared to their
enormous beneft of doubling or tripling
food production, and that without them
perhaps another billion people would go
hungry. It is a compelling argument and
no one wants to pose somewhat abstract
and largely future environmental problems
against a hungry child. Te problem is one
of sustainability for the entire human race.
If our heavy dependence on industrial
nitrogen fertilizer for food production cannot
be sustained over a very long time, and most
evidence suggests that it cannot be, then we
need a transition strategy to move towards
another way of growing food. It is a great
challenge of our time to create a transition
to sustainable agriculture quickly enough
to minimize further ecological damage and
with enough grace and compassion to not let
children go hungry.
Tis will mean growing far more
legumes to initially fx nitrogen from the
air, and then carefully recycling that fxed
nitrogen to gain maximum value from it.
A key step in the transition toward sustain-
able agriculture is increasing the organic
content in our food-producing soils. As
organic matter decomposes, nitrogen is
slowly converted to ammonium, which is
absorbed by plant roots. Compared to the
accelerated growth of crops grown with
nitrogen fertilizer, this is slow food. Slow
food can be grown for a much longer time
than fast food.
Phosphorus is a chemical element
commonly found in inorganic phosphate
rock. It is sometimes called the bottleneck
of life, because it is the factor that most
limits the total amount of lifeincluding
bacteria, plants, and animalson earth.
Of all of the elements that are assembled to
make living tissue the demand for phos-
phorus is greatest relative to its supply.
Because of this it is ofen the availability of
phosphorus that governs both the rate of
growth of many organisms and the total
biomass in an ecosystem.
Like nitrogen, phosphorus is essential
to all known forms of life, playing a key role
in the genetic template molecules DNA and
RNA, and in the universal energy transport
molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
It is integral to the phospholipids that are
main structural components of all cellular
membranes. And for good measure it helps
make bones stif enough to support weight.
People get the phosphorus they need
from food. Until recently this phosphorus
all came to us from the slow breakdown of
phosphate contained in rock in the soil, and
the frugal recycling of phosphorus from
organism to organism. Te phosphorus in
our food supply now comes increasingly
from a handful of rock phosphate deposits
that are mined and then synthesized into
commercial fertilizer. Since the 1960s, our
use of phosphorus fertilizer has risen nearly
six-fold, from about 28 million tons to
160 million tons in 2008. Not only are we
putting more phosphorus in the soil, but
it is in a very ready-to-use, soluble form.
Te enormous expansion of global grain
production during these decades would
not have been possible without this huge
increase in the use of mineral phosphorus
We are extracting phosphorus much
faster than we are fnding new deposits.
Similar to crude oil, it requires ever more
energy to recover ever poorer grades of
phosphate. Planners expect that readily-
available phosphorus for fertilizing crop
felds will become seriously depleted within
the next 50 to 100 years, when the human
population is expected to peak.
Te price
of phosphorus fertilizer to farmers has
already climbed sharply and may soon
become a potent constraint to increased
food production. Because nearly 90% of
known phosphate reserves are in just four
countries, control of this critical resource,
for which no substitute exists, will likely
soon become a global political headache.
Tere are other problems associated
with our heavy dependence on mineral
phosphorus for growing our food. Te
poorer grades of phosphate rock that we are
now mining tend to contain high levels of
cadmium. Cadmium is a cumulative toxin
and carcinogen that is increasingly entering
our bodies by way of food grown with
phosphorus fertilizer.
Tis fertilizer is highly soluble, which
makes it immediately available for plants. It
also means that it can leach out or run of
of soils and end up in our waterways. When
this happens, the growth of algae and aquatic
weeds, such as water hyacinth, is greatly
stimulated. Tis over-fertilization of surface
5 Global Phosphorus Research Initiative
Growing Leaf Vegetables
water is called eutrophication and leads to the
rapid die-of of all fsh and shellfsh.
An additional problem is that plants
grown with soluble phosphate fertilizers,
as with soluble nitrogen fertilizer, contain
higher levels of phytates. Phytates are phos-
phorus compounds that inhibit our ability
to absorb iron, calcium, magnesium, and
zinc. Te prevalence and seriousness of iron
and zinc defciencies in developing coun-
tries make high phytate levels in grains a
real problem.
If this sounds hopeless it doesnt need
to be. Unlike petroleum and natural gas,
which are destroyed when they are used,
phosphorus can be recycled indefnitely.
All natural ecosystems recycle phosphorus
efciently from organism to organism.
Current agricultural and waste removal
systems are washing phosphorus into the
oceans where it can remain out of use for
millions of years.
Like the rest of the worlds living crea-
tures, humans need to carefully recapture this
nutrient and use it again and again. Hygienic
and efcient systems for composting agri-
cultural wastes, household food waste and
humanure (safely composted human excre-
ment), are already being rapidly developed;
such systems return phosphorus to our food-
growing soils. Tese composted soil amend-
ments wont give the jolt of rapid growth that
industrial fertilizer does. What they are able
to do well is to feed the soils complex food
web of microbial organisms. Tat soil food
web-especially bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi
and earthworms-makes the existing phos-
phorus in the soil much more readily usable
by plants. Tey also provide a relatively steady
stream of phosphorus over a long period,
rather than the quick spike from industrial
phosphorus fertilizer. Slow and steady is
another way of saying sustainable.
Compost is an all-purpose garden soil
amendment that will improve the texture
and fertility of any soil. Because most life
forms have similar chemical composi-
tions, well-rotted organic material, such as
compost, usually contains all the required
nutrients for plant growth in a relatively
balanced form. In addition compost will
make heavy clay soils looser and easier to
work, and keep sandy soils from draining
so quickly, helping both to hold more
rainwater longer. It tempers the pH of soil,
making acid soils less acidic and alkaline
soils less alkaline. Tis makes the minerals
in the soil more available for plant growth.
Compost provides plants with a much
longer-term supply of nutrients than
chemical fertilizers.
To make a traditional compost pile,
place layers of diferent types of organic
material (manure, plant residues, vegetable
scraps, chopped corn stalks, straw, leaves,
peanut hulls, etc.) in a pile. Add enough
water to make it moist but not wet. Turning
the pile every two weeks or so will supply
more air to the center and speed the process
somewhat, though this is not necessary.
When it is fnished, compost will be black
or dark brown, smell like soil, and you
wont be able to recognize the original
Vermicomposting, using worms to
speed up the composting process, further
improves the quality of the compost. As the
organic material passes through the worms
intestinal tract the nutrients are rendered
far more useful to plant roots. Compost can
also be made by placing the organic mate-
rials in layers directly onto the garden soil,
when it is not in use. Tis is called sheet
Composting is an inherently forgiving
process. When living beings die they are
recycled into the raw materials for new living
beings. Composting speeds the process along,
but the recycling will take place anyway, so a
relaxed attitude works well.
Using simple compost technology to
transform human waste into a safe and
useful soil amendment, sometimes called
humanure, is a practice that may soon be
commonplace. While the idea of using
human excrement and urine to help grow
food is unpleasant in most cultures and
unthinkable in some, there are two serious
problems which humanure can at least
partially address.
Te frst of these is that the worlds
nearly seven billion people generate a great
deal of human waste every day, and there
is no simple way to dispose of it. Industrial
societies generally rely on systems that fush
wastes with purifed water, pump it to large
processing facilities, treat it with chlorine
and other poisons to kill the pathogens,
then treat the remaining sludge as toxic
waste. It is an extremely expensive system
to install and operate efectively. It involves
the difcult task of separating the waste
from the water so that the water can be
made safe to drink again. Toxic by-products
of the chlorination process, such as triha-
lomethane, frequently contaminate the
recycled water.
In much of the world neither the money
nor the water necessary to build and run
modern US-type sewage systems is avail-
able. Tis is especially true in rural areas
in the tropics. Tese tend to be the places
where growers cant aford to buy nitrogen
and phosphorus fertilizers for their
cropland. Safely composting human waste
to make agriculturally useful humanure
could at least partially resolve both the
problem of hygienic disposal of excrement
and the problem of declining soil fertility in
many communities.
Tere are a few key principals to keep
in mind if you want to help develop safe
humanure systems.
1. Study up. Human wastes are vectors for
several infectious diseases caused by
viral, bacterial, and protozoan patho-
gens, as well as parasitic worms, so the
utmost caution is certainly justifed
in dealing with human waste. Learn
the basics of composting and of infec-
tious diseases. Study the work that
has already been done in this feld,
especially the Humanure Handbook
by Joseph Jenkins, and the World
Health Organization Excreta Reuse
Guidelines, both of which can be down-
loaded from the Internet for free.
2. Te simplest way to make sure patho-
gens dont survive is to compost with
thermophilic (heat loving) bacteria,
which generate temperatures high
enough to kill the pathogens.
3. Build in a large margin of safety. Keep
composting material from entering
any waterways or rain run-of. Keep
it out of the garden for at least one
year to allow time for non-pathogen
species to dominate. Grow crops that
are harvested well above the ground
level so that rain wont splash soil
on them. Do not grow crops that are
eaten raw, like lettuce or radishes, in
humanure fertilized beds. Cook any
food grown in humanure. Cooking
provides a wide margin of safety.
If composting human wastes seems too
daunting, you may want to start with recy-
cling just the urine fraction. Fresh urine
is nearly sterile. It contains 7090% of the
nitrogen excreted from the body, 4580% of
6 www.jenkinspublishing.com/humanure.html
and http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publica-
the phosphorus, and 6095% of the potas-
Using urine as a garden fertilizer will
be more successful if a few guidelines are
1. Collect urine in a container with a tight
lid and distribute it daily to your garden,
trees, or compost pile. Stale urine smells
much worse than fresh because nitrogen
is being lost to the air as ammonia. Plans
to build composting toilets that separate
out urine are available on the Internet.
2. Dilute urine with at least fve parts
of water before applying it to plants.
With very young plants a 10:1 dilution
is better to reduce the risk of too
much nitrogen. Put the urine on the
soil, not directly on the plants.
3. Use urine fertilizer in combination with
wood ashes, especially if your garden
soil is acidic. Te two waste products
together can supply essential nitrogen,
phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and
magnesium to your garden. Research
in Finland has shown the combina-
tion of urine and wood ashes to be
comparable to expensive commercial
fertilizer in stimulating plant growth.
7 Milne, Robert (2010) Organic Vegetable Growing:
A Practical, Authoritative Guide to Producing
Nutritious and Flavourful Vegetables from Your
Garden or Allotment, Spring Hill ISBN:
9781905862382 p. 105
8 ecovita.net/news/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/
9 Surendra K. Pradhan (Dept. of Environmental
Science, University of Kuopio, P.O. Box 1627,
Growing Leaf Vegetables
4. Wait at least thirty days to harvest
vegetables afer they have been fertil-
ized with urine, and cook them at least
briefy to add a further margin of safety.
5. Another approach is to use urine to
accelerate the decomposition in your
compost pile, and then use the fnished
compost to fertilize your garden soil.
Ultimately, creating sustainable food
systems will require us to learn how
to recycle all the nutrients that we use,
including our bodily wastes. Our rapidly
growing knowledge of biology will help
ease the transition away from simplistic and
damaging ideas about waste disposal.
Cover crops, or green manure crops, are
plants grown mainly to improve the soil
rather than to provide food. Tey are espe-
cially important anywhere that gardeners
dont have access to enough organic matter
to make sufcient compost. Sometimes the
soil is so degraded and devoid of nutrients
that it wont produce a cover crop. In these
situations it may be necessary to apply
enough manure, compost, or chemical
fertilizers to set crop growth in motion. As
cover crops starts producing more biomass
FI-70211 Kuopio, Finland), Jarmo K. Holopainen,
Janne Weisell, and Helvi Heinonen-Tanski,
Human Urine and Wood Ash as Plant Nutrients
for Beet (Beta vulgaris) Cultivation: Impacts on
Yield Quality, Journal of Agricultural and Food
Chemistry 58(3), February 10, 2010, 2034-2039.
(American Chemical Society, 1155 16th St., N.W.,
Washington, DC 20036)
it will become possible to begin building
up the soil organic matter and fertility for
the long term. Most soils are 16% organic
matter. Some organic gardens and crop
land may contain as much as 10% organic
matter, while conventional crop land is
usually closer to 1%. Te higher level of
organic matter has many agricultural and
environmental benefts.
Tere are several types of plants
that make suitable cover crops. Plants of
the legume (pea) family, such as beans,
pigeon peas, alfalfa, and clover are grown
primarily for their ability to add valuable
nitrogen in a useful form to the soil. Plants
of the grass family, such as barley, wheat,
and rye, produce large amounts of organic
matter. Teir dense mats of roots create
networks of tiny channels for air and water
to move within the soil. Plants with strong
central taproots, like turnips, can punch
holes into heavy subsoil, allowing for better
drainage. Some cover crop plants, such as
mustard and buckwheat, can accumulate
phosphorus, zinc, potassium, copper, and
other essential minerals from deep in the
subsoil and make them available for crops
that follow.
Cover crops can be planted in any
unused garden beds or felds. Tey can be
also be grown before a heat-loving crop,
such as tomatoes or eggplant; or afer an
early crop, like potatoes or spinach. Ofen,
a cold hardy cover crop, such as bell beans,
Austrian winter peas, barley, or turnips,
can be planted afer the summer garden has
fnished producing, and be turned under
before warm weather crops get planted
in late spring. In this way the cover crops
protect the garden soil from erosion all
winter and add fertility without interfering
with garden produce.
Another alternative way to use cover
crops is with intercropping. Tis is the
practice of planting two crops in the same
feld at the same time for their mutual
beneft. Typically intercrops will produce
about 30% more than when the two crops
are grown separately in the same area. Te
classic example of this is corn intercropped
with beans and squash. Tis intercrop,
referred to as three sisters, added stability
and productivity to many Native American
agricultural systems. Low-growing cover
crops, such as clover, can also be under-
sown with corn, broccoli, okra, and other
taller plants. Te timing and seeding rate of
undersown cover crops needs to be adjusted
so that competition with the primary crop
is minimized.
Generally cover crops are cut down
near the ground level when they begin fow-
ering. Tis is the stage of the plant growth
when they will add the most to your soils
fertility. Tey can be cut with a scythe, a
swing blade, a string weed cutter, a lawn-
mower or even a very sharp hoe. Te cover
crop can then be incorporated into the top
few inches of the garden soil with a hoe or
rototiller. It is usually best to wait at least
three weeks before planting the next crop
so the soil biochemistry has time to settle
An increasingly popular technique is to
simply leave the cut cover crop lying on top
of the soil as mulch. Once it has wilted a bit
seedlings can be planted in holes punched
through this mulch. Tis works much
better with plant sets that are large enough
for their leaves to extend above the mulch
layer, than with very small seedlings. It is
not well suited for direct seed planting of
most crops.
Yet another system for improving soil
with cover crops involves setting aside an
area roughly equivalent to the size of your
vegetable garden and using it exclusively
to provide fertility for that garden. Cover
crops are grown in this patch and cut just
before fowering. Te crop is then removed
from this patch and used to make compost
or mulch for the garden. Generally, mixes
of cover crops almost always include a
legume, a grass and sometimes a member
of the mustard family.
If the land is already rich in nitrogen,
legumes will use the existing soil nitrogen
rather than fx it from the air. In fact, a
high level of soil nitrates is considered
the biggest single obstacle to satisfactory
nitrogen fxation from legume cover crops.
Removing the leguminous cover crop, and
hauling it to a nearby garden or compost
pile prevents the soil nitrogen level from
building up and allows efcient nitrogen
fxing to continue for several crops.
Te cover crops can capture carbon
and nitrogen from the air indefnitely,
increasing the fertility and organic matter
content of your vegetable garden. Other
nutrients, especially phosphorus, potas-
sium, calcium, and magnesium, will
eventually become defcient if you keep
removing cover crops, so these nutrients
need to be replaced in the fertility patch.
Switching the garden and cover crop patch
every few years is a good idea for long term
productivity. Tis interrupts the life cycle
of many soil disease organisms and reduces
the likelihood of soil micronutrient def-
ciencies. Tis same system can be employed
on a smaller scale by using alternating
sections of your garden for vegetables and
for growing cover crops to support that
vegetable production.
An especially useful but rarely used
technique is harvesting part of the cover
crop to use as leafy vegetables. Tis involves
growing cover crops with edible leaves,
such as cowpeas, beans, barley, wheat,
mustard, and turnips, and harvesting part
of the leaf crop for food while using the
bulk of it to improve the soil. Edible cover
crops are the subject of Chapter 12.
Improving the structure and fertility of the
soil is an ongoing process that gets progres-
sively easier but is never completed. Once
you are satisfed that your soil will support
Chart 111
Life in Good Garden Soil*

One Acre One Hectare
Mammals 2 lb 2.2 kg
Protozoa 133 lb 150 kg
Earthworms 900 lb 1000 kg
Insects 900 lb 1000 kg
Algae 900 lb 1000 kg
Bacteria 2000 lb 2200 kg
Fungi 2400 lb 2600 kg
*Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardeners Guide to
the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition, by Jeff Lowenfels and
Wayne Lewis page 28, Timber Press 2006, ISBN-13:
Growing Leaf Vegetables
a healthy crop, it is time to start planting
leaf crops. Planting everything during one
weekend afer the weather turns warm
and then thinking the garden is planted is
really folly. All serious gardening cultures
and traditions, such as in Southeast Asia,
use a more complex pattern of sequential
planting that optimizes the growth of the
individual crops and takes advantage of the
entire growing season.
Direct Seeding
Plants with edible leaves can be started
from direct seeding, from transplants
or from vegetative reproduction. Direct
seeding is the most common method, and
adhering to a few principles will improve
the odds of growing healthy plants from the
seeds you plant. Te biggest cause of poor
germination is planting seed too deeply.
For most seeds a depth roughly twice the
diameter or length of the seed is optimal for
planting. When the soil is already warm,
as when starting fall plants in August or
September (in the northern hemisphere),
the planting depth can be doubled so
the germinating seed does not dry out.
Firming, but not tamping, the soil around
newly planted seeds will ensure good
contact with moist soil. Tis can be done
with your hands or with a plank. Most
seeds like to germinate in the dark. Lettuce
seed is an exception and can be planted on
the surface. It is especially important to
press lettuce into contact with the earth.
Seed can be thought of as a living plant
in a state of suspended animation. Planting
seed that has been saved from the previous
years crop is an important traditional agri-
cultural activity and a means of producing
more food for less expense. Tere are
several good books and guidelines from the
Internet to help you get started with seed
saving. Be aware that seed saved in humid
climates is somewhat more prone to trans-
mitting viruses. Tis is why commercial
seeds are usually grown in semi-arid loca-
tions. Also remember that F1 hybrid seeds
will not reproduce plants with the same
traits as their parents.
Leaf crops are typically planted more
densely than crops for seeds, fruits, or
tubers. Ofen the same plant, cowpea for
example, can be grown either for its seeds
or for its leaves. When growing multi-use
crops the planting density can be adjusted
according to what part of the plant is the
most important output. When grown for
leaves the plants are usually grown at least
twice as densely, so much more seed is
needed to sow a given area.
To give an extreme example, moringa
is grown for its pods and seeds, as well
as for its edible leaves. When grown for
pods or seeds the recommended spacing
between plants is about 35 m (1015 f)
apart. When grown for maximum leaf yield
the spacing is more like 1550 cm (620
in) apart. Tis means in a typical 9 sq m
(100sqf) home garden bed you might
plant 3 moringa seeds for pod produc-
tion, or 36 to 400 seeds for maximum leaf
yield. Te leaf yields from the highest density
planting can be dramatic. Tests in Nicaragua
yielded 640 metric tons per hectare (290 tons/
acre) of fresh green matter (leaf with some
stem). Although botanically identical to
moringa grown for pods, from an agricultural
perspective, moringa grown for leaf is a very
diferent crop.
Tis type of extremely high leaf yield
requires heavily fertilized soil, irriga-
tion, and, of course, plenty of available
seed. While there are defnitely benefts
to sharply increasing planting density for
many leaf crops, for most home growers
some compromise between maximum
yield and reduced cost of inputs is optimal.
Cost and availability of seed is an impor-
tant restraint for home growers. Typically,
vegetable seed is purchased in very small
packets at ever-climbing retail prices from
local stores or from seed catalogs. Seed
packets that cost upwards of $3.00 dont
encourage high-density planting or experi-
menting with new crops.
However they obtain their seeds, many
gardeners stretch how far they go by
planting frst in little containers and
transplanting them into the garden only
afer they have become small but healthy
plants. Tis is a good strategy for garden
planting but usually not practical for cover
crops. Because they are started in potting
soil that is very light and porous they
quickly develop vigorous root systems.
Conventional potting soil is based on
peat moss combined with perlite and
vermiculite, two inert volcanic minerals.
Unfortunately peat moss is being mined at
an unsustainable rate, and the two minerals
are heated with a great deal of energy to
expand them like popcorn. More ecologi-
cally sound and nearly as good potting soil
can be made by combining two- or three-
year-old rotted leaves or compost that has
been sifed through quarter-inch hardware
cloth with course sand. Most experts
recommend sterilizing the mixture with
heat to eliminate plant pathogens.
Growing transplants gives the gardener
several benefts. Te most important of
these is being able to extend the growing
season. Tis usually involves starting
transplants in a special structure, such as a
greenhouse or a cold frame, that modifes
the growing climate. Heat loving plants can
be started several weeks earlier than they
could be safely planted outdoors. Tis efec-
tively lengthens the growing season, ofen
by enough to enable gardeners to success-
fully grow tropical and semi-tropical leaf
crops where they would otherwise fail.
Another important function of trans-
plants is to allow more accurate spacing
of plants. Hard rains, birds, mice, insects,
and fungal infections are common factors
that reduce germination of garden seed.
No matter how carefully one plants, seeds
germinate sporadically, leaving overly thick
patches that need to be thinned and bare
patches that need to be replanted. Because
transplants are already successful plants
that have survived their most vulnerable
period they tend to grow well in gardens.
Tey can be set out in the garden beds at
an optimal spacing without wasting seed.
Transplants also allow the gardener to
replace plants that get eaten by pests or fail
to thrive for whatever reason. Tis makes
for the best use of the valuable space in the
garden beds.
It helps to harden of the seedlings by
putting them in a spot outside but protected
from the wind during the day for a couple
of days to get them acclimatized to the
harsher climate of the garden. When setting
out transplants turn the plant upside down
to get it loose from the container. If you
handle the plants, grasp them by the leaves
but not by the stem. Tey can grow new
leaves but if the stem is damaged the plant
wont fully recover. Some roots on the
young plants are always damaged in the
transfer to the garden and the plants are
very vulnerable for about three days until
new rootlets can take hold. Tis transplant
shock is minimized by watering the plants
well and shading them for three days.
Vegetative Reproduction
Some leaf crops, especially tropicals, are not
normally reproduced by seed. For example,
chaya, cassava, and katuk are almost always
planted from stem cuttings. Tese are
generally pieces of actively growing stem,
1530 cm (612 in) long. Te stem cutting
should include several internodes. Tese are
the places where the new branches form.
Stems should be cut with a sharp knife or
snips and the wound kept dry until it is
planted. Stem cuttings are normally planted
with about half their length underground.
Trim of all the leaves with clean cuts. Make
sure the end that was pointing up on the
original plant is still pointing up on the
new one. In shallow soil stem cuttings are
sometimes planted at a slant.
Sweet potatoes, whether grown for
the starchy roots or the leaves, originate
with slips. Slips are miniature plants that
sprout from the tuber. Some crops, such
as moringa or vine spinach, can be started
from either seed or stem cuttings; though
it is generally thought that stronger plants
emerge from seeds than cuttings. Many
herbs, such as mint, rosemary, and thyme,
can be easily reproduced by snipping of
a section of stem about 13 cm (5 in) long,
then stripping the leaves and branchlets of
the lower half of that stem, and planting
it in moist soil up to the frst remaining
leaves. Tropical beans can ofen be repro-
duced from a section of root if some stem is
Some woody plants that are more dif-
cult to reproduce from stem cuttings can be
encouraged to do so by dipping the cut end
of the stem in a powder containing rooting
hormone (ofen sold commercially as
Growing Leaf Vegetables
Root-Tone or Clonex). Tis signals the plant
cells to make more roots instead of leaves
and branches. Tis may be helpful with
chaya, katuk, cassava, or other partially
woody species, especially if older, more
mature stems are used.
Volunteers are civic minded people who
work without pay. On normal days they
take meals to old folks, catalog library
books, and clean up the crap others toss
out along our roads. On bad days they
fll sandbags, put out forest fres, and pull
motorists from snowdrifs.
A volunteer is also the name for a
garden plant that no one planted. It volun-
teers to grow where it will, usually from
self-sown or accidentally dropped seed.
It is almost a weedexcept that someone
wanted it sometime in the past. Some
garden crops produce plentiful seed and
drop it around the parent plant. Some
plants that are prone to volunteering in
vegetable gardens are excellent leaf crops.
Almost without fail I get plenty of free
sets from vine spinach (Basella rubra),
quail grass (Celosia argentea), red Hopi
amaranth, (Amaranthus cruentus), spider
wisp (Cleome gyandra), purslane (Portulaca
oleracae), orach (Atriplex hortensis), shiso
(Perilla fructans), rice beans (Vigna umbel-
lata), hyacinth beans (Lablab purpureus)
and others every spring. In addition to
avoiding the cost of buying new seed, the
volunteers have a couple of advantages over
planted seeds. Tey know when to sprout.
Unlike human gardeners, they are rarely
too impatient to wait until the soil tempera-
ture is adequate, or too busy or forgetful to
plant till optimal conditions have passed.
Volunteers have also gone through at least
one round of Darwinian selection. Tey
are the ofspring of plants that grew well
enough to bear viable seed in the actual
conditions of your garden. Sometimes new
localized varieties of edible plants can arise
through your tolerance, observation, and
choosing of the best candidates.
Because volunteers ofen sprout in
profusion, I am able to further select
the most vigorous individuals to grow. I
transplant the strongest among them to
achieve a desirable spacing. Te others I
let grow until they begin to interfere with
other plantings, then I cut the leafy tops
and either eat them or dry them for later
use. Some of them-notably vine spinach,
amaranth, and soko-can be harvested in
this way two or three times, supplying
me with a large quantity of high quality
organic greens with no cost or efort
other than the harvest. When they begin
impinging on other crops I slice them
of at the ground level with a sharpened
stirrup hoe. It doesnt seem fair, but the
potent reproductive capacity of these
plants doesnt allow for very many to reach
maturity and have families of their own.
Te edges of compost piles are ofen a
good source of volunteers. Fruiting plants
such as tomatoes and squashes will come
up that are ofen crosses bearing poor
quality fruit, but in the case of the squashes
they generally have good quality edible
leaves. Tomato and potato leaves arent
quite edible. At the end of the growing
season, we will go through our lefover
garden seed and separate out seeds that
may be good for next years garden. Te rest
we mix together and toss into the compost.
Tis almost always results in some cabbage
family greens (cabbage, broccoli, kale,
collards, mustard, turnip, radish, etc.) at
the edge of the compost pile at the frst
sign of warming spring weather. Tese can
be transplanted or simply pinched of and
added to salads.
Tere is, alas, some downsides to garden
volunteers. First of all, they dont usually
transplant as nicely as seedlings started in
fufy potting soil, and it is easy to damage
their roots transplanting them from heavier
garden soil.
Secondly, they can become weeds. Te
line between weed and not weed is not
always crisp. Sometimes Ive had my fll of
amaranth, for example, and they just keep
sprouting up everywhere in my garden.
Te earliest volunteers are the least intru-
sive as they are less likely to be competing
with other plants that I am trying to grow.
Generally, annual vegetables dont become
noxious weeds but there are certainly
examples of cultivated plants escaping and
becoming weeds. Tis is more of a problem
in the tropics where harsh winters dont
knock back vegetation.
Several plants that are sometimes
grown for edible leaves have in fact become
invasive in other locations. Water spinach
(Ipomoea aquatica), ivy gourd (Coccinia
grandis) and oyster nut (Telfairia pedata)
come to mind. If volunteers are allowed
to play in the garden, it is important for
the gardener to assume responsibility for
not letting them become pest plants. With
annuals this is a matter of cutting the plants
before they have time to bear seeds.
Not everyone likes working with
volunteers. Te level of control is too low
for most fastidious gardeners, and they can
give an early garden a wild and unkempt
look. For me they are part of the magic of
gardening: the garden expressing itself and
remembering its past. I enjoy surprises and
I have not completely given up on the idea
of a free lunch.
Weeds are basically just plants growing
where you dont want them to grow. Many
of the most common weeds of gardens,
felds, and lawns have edible and nutritious
leaves. Some are prized as spring greens,
rich enough in vitamins and minerals to
kickstart our bodies afer months of the
bland stored foods of winter. Some, like
purslane and dandelion, are even sold in
regional markets.
Many garden weeds are pioneer plants.
Tese are plants whose ecological role is to
quickly reestablish a cover on soil disturbed
by food or fre. Tey are opportunistic
plants that grow quickly and produce a
large quantity of seed in a short time. Afer
a food or a fre these are the frst plants to
grow on the disturbed land. Many weeds,
such as lambsquarters and pigweed, can
barely survive in well established ecosys-
tems like forests or prairies. Tey prefer
to colonize disturbed ground. Because
human activities like gardening, farming,
and construction create far more disturbed
land than natural events, most weeds are
anthropophilic, or human loving, species.
So are cockroaches, cows, dogs, and cold
viruses. Anthropophilic species are those
whose population thrives in association
with human activity.
Controlling weeds is among the most
time consuming of gardening tasks. Ofen
eating them is a reasonable strategy.
Fortunately the garden is an ideal place
to harvest weed leaves. Te soil is ideally
rich and not contaminated. Additionally,
all weeds eaten as greens are much better
tasting as well as better textured before they
fower. Tis works out well for weed control
because it means that the young plants are
eaten before they can reproduce, creating
more weeds. If you start running short of
weeds to eat, just take a nap and they will
be back.
Tere are dozens of weeds with edible
leaves. Here are some of the best, from my
Pigweed - Tere are several plants that
are sometimes called pigweed. Te most
important are probably red root amaranth
(Amaranthus retrofexus), spiny amaranth
(Amaranthus retrofexus espinosa) and
Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri). In
the same family as the ornamentals love-
lies-bleeding and Josephs coat, pigweed
is one of the most universal and one of
the most nutritious weeds. It is best when
quite young, and it should be cooked. Spiny
amaranth requires more caution harvesting
because of the little thorns.
Lambsquarters - (Chenopodium album).
Tis is another very common weed found
in rich soil around barns and compost
heaps, and in gardens and farm felds. It is
in the same family as spinach, beets, and
Swiss chard. It is rich in iron, calcium, and
protein, but like spinach, contains high
levels of oxalic acid. It should be avoided
by people with a history of kidney stones.
Lambsquarters can be eaten raw when
very young, but should be cooked briefy
Dandelion - (Taraxacum ofciale) Perhaps
the best known of all weeds, dandelion
has been used as a spring tonic vegetable
and to make dandelion wine for centu-
ries. Te leaves need to be eaten before
the fower forms or they can be extremely
bitter. Tis is a challenge because ofen we
are only aware of the dandelions presence
afer we see the distinctive bright yellow
fower. Although people go to great lengths
Growing Leaf Vegetables
to exterminate them from lawns, dande-
lion greens are rich in beta-carotene and
vitaminC, and make a good addition to the
Stinging nettles - (Urtica dioica) Famous
for its sting, this plant thrives in rich damp
conditions, such as along creek banks.
When one makes contact with this plant it
defends itself by releasing formic acid and
enzymes from tiny tubes (trichomes) along
its stem and leaves, into the skin of the
intruder. Nettles need an expensive invest-
ment in defense because they are among
the most nutritious of all plants, sought
afer for their rich content of protein, iron,
calcium, and vitamins. Care and gloves
should be used when harvesting stinging
nettles, but afer it has been dried or cooked
it stings no more and becomes a well-
behaved pot herb.
Another plant sometimes called stinging
nettle is a subtropical member of the
Euphorbia family and a close relative
of chaya (Cnidoculus acontifolius). Its
botanical name is Cnidoculus stimulosus
and it is also aptly called tread sofly, as
it is protected by trichomes more painful
and enduring than the unrelated northern
stinging nettle.
Purslane - (Portulaca oleracae) Tis plant
is sometimes cultivated, especially a larger-
leafed, golden colored variety, but is most
ofen encountered as a garden weed. It can
grow most anywhere, even out of a gravel
driveway. It has a low sprawling habit and
reddish succulent stems with small jade
colored leaves. It is one of the few weeds that
can be eaten raw even when fully grown. It
has a tart favor that goes well with salads. It
becomes slightly mucilaginous when cooked
and is sometimes used to thicken soups.
Purslane has attracted some interest lately due
to its relatively high content of alpha-linolenic
acid, an omega-3 oil.
Dock - (Rumex) Tere are several edible
weeds in this family, including curly dock,
yellow dock and sheeps sorrel. Tey are
very common weeds in felds and at the
edge of gardens. Te large drooping leaves
are best eaten when young, and even then
can be a bit tough and chewy. Drying the
leaves and grinding them to a fne powder
is a technique that allows them to be eaten
until they begin fowering.
Plantain - (Plantago major) Plantain is an
easily recognized and very common weed
with wide, tough parallel-veined leaves and
a wiry vertical fower stem. Except when
very young the leaves are tough to chew.
However, plantain leaves dont get bitter as
they grow so it too is an excellent candidate
for drying and grinding.
Chickweed - (Stellaria media) Tis is a
common garden weed, forming a carpet
of foliage in moist rich soil. It is espe-
cially useful as an edible weed because
it is available all winter long in much of
the temperate zone. It can be eaten raw in
Plantain (Plantago major)
salads or on sandwiches, but its stems are a
bit stringy so it is best cut into small pieces.
It is another nutritious, edible weed that
can be easily dried for later use.
A Few Cautions
Dont eat a weed unless you are sure
what it is and know that it is edible.
Eat only the edible part of the plant.
Err on the side of caution, as some
parts of some weeds are toxic.
Dont eat large amounts of any one
weed at one time. Tis is a reason-
able general precaution that ofers
protection against possible toxins,
contamination, or allergens.
Cooking is essential for
many weed greens.
Avoid eating weeds from the
following locations:
Heavily trafcked roadways
Around the base of older buildings
where lead paint scrapings may be
Where there has been heavy use
of herbicides or fertilizers, i.e. golf
Where there is likely to be a
concentration of pet feces
Supplying Water
Afer sunlight, water is the most important
thing in the life of your plants. Most plants
are over 80% water. Most leaf crops need
about 2.5 cm (1 in) of rain per week for
rapid healthy growth. When it is very hot
and dry, more than that is needed, and less
is needed when it is cool and cloudy. You
can compensate for rainfall shortages by
watering deeply once a week. Young plants
with shallow roots may beneft from more
frequent watering, but shallow irrigation
doesnt encourage the growth of strong
deep roots.
Watering in the late afernoon is usually
the most efcient because less moisture
evaporates overnight than in the hot sun of
daytime. When watering is delayed until
evening the risk of plant disease increases,
especially if the leaves remain wet over-
night. Adding water below the soil surface
also results in less water lost to evaporation.
Tis is sometimes called root zone irriga-
tion. Tere are a number of techniques
for getting water to the plants root zone,
including porous soaker hoses and drip
irrigation systems. A simple, small scale
variation on drip irrigation is the Chapin
system. Tis uses a fve gallon plastic
bucket hanging 120150 cm (45 f) of
the ground, from a post or other support.
Te water slowly gravity feeds into thin
gauge plastic tubing with emitter holes near
the plant roots. A larger system uses a 55
gallon drum on a raised platform to gravity
feed water to a larger area. Any irrigation
system that uses soaker hoses, micro-
tubes or emitter holes needs to use water
that contains very little sediment or it will
quickly clog.
An even simpler method of root zone
watering involves sinking an unglazed clay
pot or a bucket with holes punched in the
bottom into the ground, so that only the
rim is above ground. Te pot or bucket,
which is set in the ground before planting,
is flled with water that slowly seeps out
into the root zone.
Another simple root zone irrigation
technique relies on capillary action moving
water through a wick made of discarded
cloth of some sort. Tis system works espe-
cially well with shallow rooted plants that
require a reliable supply of water. A blanket
or other similar cloth is laid in a trench
1525 cm (610 in) deep then covered with
garden soil. Plants are spaced above or
just to the side of the wick. One end of the
wick cloth stays in a bucket of water that is
sunken so that just an inch or two remains
above the ground level. As the root zone
dries out, water is wicked to it along the
buried cloth, providing a steady supply of
water to the plant roots while minimizing
evaporation losses. Synthetic materials
break down much more slowly that natural
fber cloth.
Any irrigation method is made more
efective by using a protective layer of
mulch around the plants. Mulch is usually
compost, straw, leaves, newspaper, card-
board, or other organic material. It keeps
the soil cool, reduces evaporation and
Growing Leaf Vegetables
keeps weeds from sprouting in the garden.
Weeds compete for water resources with
your plants. Sand is another interesting
mulching material. Plastic sheeting is
sometime used as mulch as well with holes
sliced into it for the plants. It is very good at
retaining soil moisture but has a number of
unresolved economic, environmental, and
aesthetic issues.
Controlling Unwanted Weeds
Weeds are plants that are growing where
you dont want them to be growing.
Dealing with weeds is ofen considered the
most onerous part of vegetable gardening.
In addition to soaking up water intended
for your crops, weeds compete with your
garden plants for sunlight and soil nutri-
ents. Some of the weeds that have become
naturalized and common throughout much
of the world are also edible and nutritious
greens. Tese include dandelion, pigweed
(amaranth), lambsquarters, purslane,
dock, plantain, and chickweed. Tese can
be picked and eaten when young, turning
enemies into friends, or at least snacks.
In addition to mulching and eating, a
good way to deal with weeds is to cut them
of just below the soil surface with a hoe. It
is easier and faster to frequently go through
the garden slicing the weeds of at the
ground when they are very young, than to
wait until they are bigger and well rooted.
A hoe with a long handle and a razor sharp
blade makes this process relatively fast and
painless. Cutting any nearby weeds down
before they form seeds will reduce the next
crop of weeds. Medieval agriculturalists
expressed the logic of this strategy as One
year to seed, nine years to weed.
Chemical herbicides are rarely neces-
sary or appropriate for controlling weeds
in small scale leaf growing operations.
Where perennial grasses, nutsedge, or other
persistent weeds are a problem, you might
try smothering them with cover crops until
they are weakened. Densely planted cover
crops such as velvet beans will prevent the
weeds from getting enough sunlight and
eventually they will die out. It is not an
instantaneous solution.
While velvet beans are an excellent
cover crop and an excellent smother crop,
their leaves cannot be eaten by humans.
Tere are, however, several good smother
crops that have edible leaves, including
hyacinth beans, cowpeas, and sweet potato
vines. While they may not be quite as efec-
tive at smothering your weeds as velvet
beans are, their ability to simultaneously
produce edible greens may make them a
better choice.
Another technique for deterring persis-
tent weeds is called solarizing. It is useful
only for relatively small patches. Te soil is
tilled or plowed then wetted, then covered
with a thin (2 mil) black plastic sheet for
2 to 3 weeks. Tis should be done in mid
summer so the soil temperature will rise
quickly to kill most grasses. Deep rooted
perennial weeds might not be completely
killed but should be sufciently weakened
to be more easily controlled. Most of the
troublesome grubs, weed seeds, nematodes,
and pythium fungi (the organisms that
cause damping of) under the plastic will
also be killed.
Controlling Insect and Animal Pests
Almost all plants that humans grow in
order to eat are attractive food for some
insects and animals, and leaf crops are no
exception. Te portion of the total global
food harvest that ends up feeding insects
and animals has been estimated to be as
high as one-third. It is essentially impos-
sible to prevent all insect damage to your
leaf crops, but fortunately there are sound
strategies to limit damage to acceptable
Te best approach to the problem is
ofen called Integrated Pest Management.
Tis means using a mix of diferent tech-
niques starting with the least intrusive,
and going to stronger interventions until
the problem is down to an acceptable level.
Tese techniques, roughly in the order they
should be used, include the following:
Maintain good fertility and good struc-
ture in your garden soil with ample
organic matter. Remember that healthy
plants growing in healthy soil are more
able to withstand insect attacks.
Graciously accept some loss and some
cosmetic damage as unavoidable.
Grow a complex mixture of plants,
including aromatic herbs and fowers, to
confuse the chemical sensing ability that
most insects use to locate their targets.
Time your planting schedule to
avoid peak insect activity.
Create some habitat for animals such
as birds, lizards, frogs, turtles, bats,
and toads, which eat harmful insects.
Small ponds, birdhouses, trellises, and
perches attract bluebirds and other
birds that happily eat moths, cater-
pillars, slugs, and other pests. Make
a couple of toad houses from small
clay pots turned upside down with
an opening chipped into one side.
Plant decoy or trap crops. For example,
rabbits will prefer eating a trap crop
of clover to your beans. Several insect
pests that attack broccoli, cabbage,
and caulifower will be drawn instead
to a nearby crop of mustard.
Use physical barriers such as screen,
mesh, or fencing to separate pests
from your crop. Relatively inexpensive
polypropylene cloth, sometimes called
foating row covers, can be laid directly
on the crops or stretched over a frame.
It makes an especially good barrier
because it allows penetration of most
of the sunlight and water but excludes
even very small insects like fea beetles
from eating your crops. Remay and
Agribon are two popular brands avail-
able from farm stores and catalogs.
Handpick insects. Early morning is
usually when most insects are the
slowest and easiest to catch. Many
insect pests, including Japanese beetles
and harlequin bugs, have a defense
mechanism of dropping from the
plant they are eating at the frst sign
of danger. Lightly shaking plants is
enough to convince them to drop
into a container of water that you are
holding below them. A couple of drops
of detergent in the water will make it
impossible for them to escape. Feed
the Japanese beetles to your chickens;
eat them later as scrambled eggs.
Make repellents by blending, then
steeping any combination of the
following ingredients in water: garlic,
onion, marigolds, chili peppers, tobacco,
pennyroyal, mint, or tansy. Afer they
have soaked for 24 hours, strain out
any solids and spray on afected crops.
Add a drop of soap to help the repel-
lent stick to the leaf surface. Te strong
smells and favors will confuse or
discourage many insects and animals,
and reduce feeding. You will need to
re-spray afer rain or overhead watering.
Use natural insecticides such as neem,
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), rotenone,
or pyrethrums. Try to wait at least a
week afer applying, and wash food well
before eating afer using any repellents
or insecticides, even natural ones.
Avoid powerful synthetic pesticides.
Tey are prone to kill non-target insects
and can disrupt the natural balance of
the garden environment in unexpected
ways. For example, they may alter the
reproductive chemistry of important
crop pollinators or kill of benefcial
ladybugs that are controlling the aphid
population. Ultimately it is almost
always better to plant a bit more in
order to make up for moderate insect
damage than to expose your family to
agricultural poisons in their food.
(See Eating Pests on page 132.)
Controlling Plant Diseases
Not unlike humans, living plants are
subject to diseases caused by infections
from various bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Tere is very little in the way of antibiotics
for plants, so it is essential to focus on
prevention rather than cure. Prevention
is mainly common sense and hygiene.
Strategies for reducing plant disease include
the following:
Dont plant seed that appears moldy.
Remove diseased plant material
from your garden and dont use
it for compost. It is unlikely that
your compost pile will reach a
temperature high enough to kill all
the fungal spores and viruses.
Growing Leaf Vegetables
Use compost, organic mulches and
cover crops freely. A garden soil that
has a vigorous microbial life has many
checks and balances to reduce the like-
lihood of serious disease outbreaks.
When you clean out plant containers
at the end of a growing season, wash
the inside with a 10% solution of
liquid chlorine laundry bleach.
Make sure plant spacing allows for
some air movement. Tis is especially
important in hot humid zones or
areas with little wind. Tis seems to
contradict the dense planting strategy
so an optimal compromise must be
found. Fortunately, leaf crops seem less
prone to disease than fruiting crops.
Rotate your crops so that members
of the same plant family dont follow
each other in the same garden spots.
Some disease organisms slowly build
populations in the soil if the target
plant is present year afer year. Crop
rotation interrupts this buildup.
If your crops show signs of fungal
or virus disease, you can try
drenching them with a tea made
from nettle leaf or horsetail, or an
actively aerated compost tea.
10 Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardeners
Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff
Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, Timber Press;
Revised edition (February 24, 2010), ISBN-10:
1604691131, ISBN-13: 978-1604691139
Cranberry Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella)

From an ecological agricultural viewpoint, eating the insects
that are eating our crops offers a long term strategy for control-
ling their populations, without the toxic cycle of pesticides and
increasing genetic resistance to those pesticides. There are many
cultures that view insects as a source of food. Entomophagy, the
eating of insects, is still practiced in much of the tropics, espe-
cially in rural areas, and it is estimated that at least 1,500 different
insect species are routinely eaten.
There is growing interest in raising insects for food, because it
can be done with very little space and very little start-up capital.
Like fish, insects are not warm-blooded so they dont require
food simply to keep their bodies warm. As a result, they are far
more efficient at converting feeds to protein than beef, pigs, or
chickens. As the price of animal feed rises, the ecological advantage
of raising insects will likely become more obvious.
Systems for efficiently harvesting edible insects from crops
would need to be developed, but the synergistic benefits of
reduced crop damage and an additional source of food, may be
a significant resource for poor gardeners and subsistence farmers.
Most insects that are eaten are rich in protein and essential fatty
acids. What may be more important is that many edible insects
are excellent sources of zinc and iron. Zinc and iron deficien-
cies are widespread public health problems. A low cost source of
dietary zinc is especially significant because plants, including leaf
vegetables, are poor sources of zinc, and animal-based foods are
too expensive for many families.
There are some cautions. Not all insects are edible. Some have
defenses to fend off predators that are toxic to us. It is also impor-
tant to avoid collecting insects to eat in areas where they may
have been exposed to high levels of pesticide. This is already an
issue with honey bees and indiscriminate pesticide use. There is
also some possibility
that people who are
allergic to shrimp or
crab may be allergic
to some insects,
because they are very
similar creatures.
There are some dangers and drawbacks to any source of food.
Being well informed is almost always the best protection. For
adventurous gardeners looking for new ways to defend their
crops, there are several books and websites and even a magazine
devoted to eating insects. In the struggle against hidden hunger,
leaf vegetables and edible insects together could become a formi-
dable force: a dynamic duo of low cost micro-nutrients.
Insects As Food: Why the Western Attitude Is Important
Gene R. DeFoliart
Annual Review of Entomology, January 1999, Vol. 44, Pages
2150 (doi: 10.1146/annurev.ento.44.1.21)
Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects
Peter Menzel and Faith DAluisio
Material World (March 1, 2004)
ISBN-10: 1580080510
ISBN-13: 978-1580080514
Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects
Julieta Ramos-Elorduy February 1, 1998
Park Street Press, Rochester, VT USA
ISBN-10: 089281747X
ISBN-13: 978-0892817474
Growing Leaf Vegetables
You have chosen a site, laid out the garden
beds, improved the soil, made sure your
plants werent thirsty, and overcame or
outlasted the weeds, pests, and diseases.
While most vegetable gardeners will fnd
some deep pleasure in the work that leads
to the harvest, the harvest itself is the
pay-of time. Harvesting green leaf crops is
easy but there is still one important concept
to grasp and a few simple tips.
Te concept: pruning the lead stem
Many plants exhibit apical dominance.
Tey have a lead stem that grows skyward
making the plant taller. When the lead stem
is cut bio-chemical messengers inform the
plant to create new side branches. You may
have seen this efect in the regrowth pattern
of some trees cut back to keep them out of
power lines.
Te ideal system for raising leaf crops
takes advantage of this pattern of pruning
and encouraging new branches. Crops
that lend themselves to this are sometimes
called cut-and-come-again crops. Te
main advantage of these crops over plants
like head lettuce, where the entire plant
is harvested then replanted from seed, is
that the living root system and the stem
remain in place. Tis means that the plant
can immediately put its resources into
producing new edible leaves rather begin-
ning anew building fbrous root and stem
tissue. For plants as varied as quail grass,
basil, and moringa, repeated pruning of the
lead stems can result in the production of
many times more edible leaf per plant.
Te benefts of this approach go well
beyond the large increases in yield. Soil
erosion is greatly diminished by leaving
the plants root system and part of its
above-ground structure intact rather than
removing the whole plant. Pruning allows
the grower to maintain the size and shape
of the plant in a way that makes for easy
harvesting and allows undersown inter-
crops. Repeated pruning keeps the quality
of the edible leaves high because the new
growth generally has less tough cellulose
and lignin fber than older leaves from
older branches.
Miscellaneous tips
Cut the leaves you want to harvest
from the plant with a sharp knife
rather than tearing them. A clean
cut makes a wound with much less
surface of unprotected stem open to
possible infection than a ragged tear.
When thinning young plants that
are too close together, snip, or pinch
them of at the soil level rather
than uprooting them so that you
will not disrupt the root system of
the neighboring plants that you
want to keep growing. Tinnings
make good additions to salads.
Dont harvest during or right afer a rain
or overhead irrigation. When leaves are
wet it is relatively easy to spread viruses
from one plant to another, especially if
you are harvesting and making open
wounds. Tis is especially true for beans,
peas, and other leguminous crops.
Harvest leaves before the plant
fowers. Generally when plants fower
they move nutrients quickly from
their leaves to their reproductive
systems. As a result the protein and
sugar content of the leaves declines
and they become more fbrous.
Harvest as close to when you will eat
the leaves as possible. Truly fresh food
is one of the great joys of gardening.
Leaves and most other vegetables begin
declining in nutritional value as well
as favor as soon as they are separated
from the plant. Try to eat them while
still near their nutritional peak.
Harvest winter greenhouse greens in
the late afernoon if possible. Te low
light intensity results in higher levels
of undesirable nitrates. Late afernoon
harvest allows the thin winter sunlight
its maximum time to convert nitrates to
proteins. VitaminC levels are highest
then as well, although vitaminA activity
tends to be highest in the morning.
Turnip green (Brassica rapa var. rapa)
Eating Cover Crops
Cover crop is a broad term for a crop whose primary purpose is
improving soil. Cover crops are sometimes called green manure
crops, but cover crop may be a more appealing term when we
are advocating eating a portion of them. Of all of the various
techniques proposed to further sustainable agriculture, few have
greater potential than eating a portion of cover crops.
Cover crops have been used to improve agricultural soil for
at least 3,000 years in China and for over 2,000 years in southern
Europe. Agriculturalists have long observed that yields are
enhanced in felds that have been previously occupied by certain
plants, especially plants of the legume or pea family. Over thou-
sands of growing seasons they developed numerous systems for
using plants to improve the vigor of their soil and produce more
bountiful harvests.
Cover crops are the most ecologically realistic way to protect
and improve essential food-producing soils. Tey can maintain
the structure and fertility of good land and make marginal land
more useful. All cover crops are essentially leaf crops, in that they
are normally killed and incorporated into the soil before they can
fower and reproduce. Cover crops can all take carbon dioxide
from the air, where it is driving climate change, and put it into the
soil as benefcial organic matter. Cover crops in the legume family
have the enormous advantage of also taking nitrogen from the air
and turning it into forms that plants can utilize.
Cover crops can serve several other functions. Teir vast
networks of roots open channels in compacted soil, improving
drainage, aeration, and water-holding capacity. Cover crops
create favorable conditions for earthworms and feed benefcial
soil microorganisms, who in turn also improve soil aeration and
nutrient availability.
Te cover and roots of green manure crops protect soils from
wind and rain erosion, especially on sloping land. Deep rooted
cover crops can bring plant nutrients up from deep in the subsoil
and dynamic accumulators can concentrate scarce minerals
into useful quantities for later crops. Cover crops can reduce
aluminum toxicity and interrupt the buildup of disease and
pest organisms in crop land. Some cover crops can form a dense
enough cover to smother out persistent weeds.
Te use of cover crops is a highly adaptable agricultural craf.
Tere are cover crops that can be grown in all of the diferent
seasons in most of the world. Tey can be grown as intercrops
between rows of other crops. Tey can be planted around taller,
faster growing plants. Tis is called undersowing. Tey can be
grown on a separate feld and harvested for use as mulch or to
make compost. All of these methods use plants to improve the
Cover crops are usually the cheapest
and most ecologically sound means avail-
able for farmers and gardeners to improve
and maintain the fertility of their soil.
Purchasing seed for cover crops costs a
small fraction of what farmers would pay
for synthetic fertilizers. Animal manure is
a useful fertilizer, but it must be gathered
and brought to the land and it is most
ofen in very short supply relative to the
fertility demands of the farmer. Compost is
certainly a useful practice for soil building.
However, compost simply decomposes
the organic matter and nitrogen that you
already have on hand, whereas cover crops
can actually create up to 36 metric tons of
organic matter and 225 kg of nitrogen per
hectare (16 tons of organic matter and up to
200 lb of nitrogen per acre).
Whats more,
a cover crop doesnt need to be hauled to a
compost heap or hauled back to the felds
because it can be grown exactly where the
fertility is needed.
With these many advantages you might
assume that cover crops are universally
employed by people growing food. Tis is
hardly the case. Troughout the world the
use of cover crops is the exception rather
than the rule. Farmers who can aford
1 Where does all this matter that is created come
from? About 96% of the dry weight of plants is
comprised of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.
The hydrogen and most of the oxygen come
from water, while the carbon comes from the
carbon dioxide in the air. The cover crop uses
solar energy to combine these three elements
into carbohydrates
commercial fertilizer prefer it because it
requires the least labor. Growers who cant
aford commercial fertilizers ofen are
unaware of the practice, and even when
they are aware of it they ofen believe
that they cant aford to grow a crop just
to improve the soil. Subsistence farmers
usually try to keep every scrap of land busy
growing food for the family or growing
something that can be sold.
Tere is evidence that many more
farmers would adopt green manuring if
there were any secondary benefts to them.
Tis is evident in Honduras where the
farmers most likely to use velvet beans
(Mucuna pruriens) as a cover crop are the
ones who appreciated the roasted beans as
an inexpensive cofee substitute. In Ghana
both velvet beans and jackbeans (Canavalia
ensiformis) are grown as much for the
marginally edible beans
as for the cover
crop beneft.
2 Velvet beans contain levadopa, a compound
used in the treatment of Parkinsons disease that
can sometimes cause vomiting and confusion in
people who consume it. There have been several
reported incidents of toxicity from velvet beans,
though most involve inadequate cooking or over-
consumption. In Ghana the seed coat is removed
and the seeds are boiled for at least 40 minutes,
then the water discarded. Typically they only eat
about 10 seeds each per meal. ILEIA Newsletter
Vol. 12 No. 2 p. 30, Edible cover crops, P Osei_
Bonsu, D Buckles, FR Soza and JY Asibuo,
References, _ Buckles, D. 1995. Velvetbean: a
new plant with a history. In: Economic Botany
An economist would likely explain this
by saying that farmers were not convinced
that the beneft of the cover crop would
ofset the opportunity costs of the loss of
income which could have been earned had
that land and labor been used for another
crop or activity. Tere are many cover crops
that produce edible seeds, including rye,
soybeans, and pigeon peas. Teoretically
these seeds could add a secondary value
to the cover crop, and make the practice
more economically enticing. Te difculty
with this plan is that cover crops are most
efective at improving soil when they are
cut down before they fower, which is neces-
sarily before they can form seeds. Again,
cover crops are essentially leaf crops.
Not all cover crops have edible leaves,
but a surprising number do. Not only that,
but there are edible leaf plants in every
category of cover crop. Within the nitrogen
fxing legume family, cowpeas, Austrian
winter peas, common beans, hyacinth
beans, fenugreek, winged beans, alfalfa,
and many others are good cover crops, as
well as having edible and highly nutritious
leaves. Barley and wheat are two excel-
lent cover crops from the grass family that
can add huge amounts of organic matter
to the soil. Both are also highly nutri-
tious leaf crops when young. Health food
stores ofen feature expensive elixirs made
from the young leaves of these two cover
crops. Turnips, rape, and sugar beets have
powerful tap roots that drill deep into the
Eating Cover Crops
subsoil, opening the way for earthworms,
water, and air. All three have nutrient rich
greens that can be prepared as you would
cook spinach or kale. Mustard plants are
dynamic accumulators of sulfur, zinc, and
phosphorus, bringing these essential plant
nutrients up from the subsoil and concen-
trating them for use by other crops. Alfalfa
does the same with iron. Both of these
plants have leaves that can provide superior
nutrition and that have been used as food
for centuries by various cultures.
Te most realistic secondary economic
beneft of a cover crop may well be the use
of part of the crop as leafy vegetables. For
this to work we will need to slightly alter
our conception of cover crops and radi-
cally redefne leafy vegetables. As discussed
earlier, our limited interest in leafy vege-
tables tends to focus on a very small group
of fast growing, mild-favored plants. Te
market demands that they be cosmetically
perfect, even at the cost of having signif-
cant pesticide residues. Te very small
impact they have on our diet is mainly as
fresh salads, garnishes, and as additions to
soups or stews. Leaf vegetables are poorly
suited for incorporation into the industrial-
ized diet; and the more highly processed a
meal is the less likely it is to include leafy
On the agricultural front the frst task
is to develop a complete list of edible-leaf
cover crops. Tese should then be ranked
for palatability, or favor. Te plants with
the most acceptable favors then need to be
assessed for optimal harvest time, both for
use as soil improvers and as leaf vegetables.
We then need an economic analysis of the
soil-improving value of these edible leaf
crops, compared to the most proftable
cover crops currently in use in a given agri-
cultural situation. Next we need to begin
experimenting with diferent schedules and
intensities of partial leaf harvesting. For
instance several stands of Austrian winter
peas would have 10%, 20%, and 30% of the
leaf harvested. Tese partial harvests could
be timed at fowering and at two weeks
before fowering to get a sense of best times
for intensities of leaf harvest. Tis is the sort
of work that could be done by college agri-
culture students or civic gardening associa-
tions over the course of a few years. Most of
the work could be done on a relatively small
scale to develop a proof of concept.
Te food processing challenges could
be addressed by making leaf concentrate as
well as solar leaf dehydration. Te idea is to
create a means of taking a relatively large
amount of nutritious fresh leaf from a cover
crop and converting it into a stable food
ingredient quickly and at low cost. Both
of these leaf processing techniques might
qualify. No doubt leaf concentrate would be
better suited to larger scale operations, and
solar leaf drying could be more easily put
into practice on the garden and micro-farm
scale. Te success of either would depend
on making economical use of the leaf
concentrate or the dried leaf meal, as well as
by-products. Tat in turn would depend on
assuring people that the nutritional potency
of these products would beneft their
families state of health. Obviously, a great
deal of work needs to be done in several
areas to make this strategy viable. What is
equally obvious is that new food systems
need to be developed in the very near future
that can protect and improve the soil, while
providing some income for the grower, and
nutritious food for consumers. Edible cover
crops certainly deserve a closer look.
How might the system work in practice?
Lets consider this at two diferent scales
of operation: a home vegetable garden
and a micro-farm. Before trying to calcu-
late advantages and drawbacks to these
two diferent agricultural situations, it is
important to point out just how inexact
existing data on cover crops is. Because
they are never sold, cover crops are not
weighed or measured except in institutional
settings. Also, diferences in climate, soil
type, planting dates, plant varieties, and
the point in the plants lifecycle at which it
is turned under, all combine to account for
large diferences, sometimes factors of three
or more, in reported cover crop yields. For
example fresh green crop yields for barley
are reported from 20 to over 110 tons per
hectare (18,000 to over 100,000 pounds per
Tere are a few points to keep in mind.
Generally, cover crops, like any other crops,
will produce much more vegetation on
good soil with adequate moisture. When
they are used to repair seriously depleted
land the yields will be low until the soil is
in better condition. Growers may become
disillusioned with cover crops if they
expect them to produce huge yields on very
poor soil. Legumes will fx less nitrogen
from the air if there is plentiful nitrogen
already available in the soil. Te plants will
use what is in the soil before expending
the energy required to fx atmospheric
nitrogen. Legumes will also perform much
better if there are adequate levels of soil
phosphorus available.
At the time of fowering, the weight of
most cover crop plants will be made up of
about 1520% roots, with the remainder
being roughly half leaves and half stems.
For the sake of simplicity Ive assigned a
somewhat arbitrary, but not entirely unre-
alistic, average yield of 27 tons per hectare
(24,000 lb/acre) of above-ground green
matter for each crop. Tis means about 13.5
tons per hectare (12,000 lb/acre) of edible
green leaf.
Te exercise below is intended to
give some idea how the concept of edible
cover crops might play out in the feld.
Te actual numbers will need to be deter-
mined from years of experience by a wide
range of growers. Tese examples are from
temperate climates. Tropical cover crop
systems share most of the attributes of
temperate systems though they have many
more legumes available for use and they
tend to be more afected by a wet season
and a dry season than by a warm season
and a cold season. Developing efective
systems of mixed vegetable and edible cover
cropping will require both experimentation
and site-specifc analysis of soil, climate,
and market conditions.
A) Home vegetable garden:
15 x 15 m (225 sqm; 1/44 hectare)
or 40 x 60 f (2,400 sqf; 1/18 acre)
In the autumn, afer most of the summer
vegetables were done growing, most of
the garden would be planted in Austrian
winter peas, barley, and mixed members of
the brassica or cabbage family (kale, rape,
mustard, turnips, radish, etc.). Lets say
75sqm (800sqf) each in winter peas and
barley, and 38sqm (400sqf) of brassica
plants. Tese would be mowed down in the
early spring and 38sqm (400sqf) of bell
bean cover crop could be planted before
space was needed for warm season crops
like sweet potatoes and tomatoes. In the
remaining 75sqm (800sqf) of garden,
potatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots, and other
spring and early summer crops would
be planted. When they were harvested
they would be replaced with cover crop
cowpeas. Because the cowpeas grow fast
in the summer heat, 75sqm (800sqf)
of them could be grown by sticking them
in wherever space opened up. When the
cowpeas came out it would be nearly time
for winter cover crops to go in.
By growing cover crops year round this
gardener would produce about 900 kg (2,400
lb) of above-ground cover crop each year.
Assuming half that total was stem, about
450 kg (1,200 lb) of edible leaf crop would
be available. If the gardener took 150 kg
(400 lb) of this as food for the family, 750 kg
(2,000 lb) could still be returned to the soil
as mulch or compost, or turned under as
green manure. Te 150 kg (400 lb) of fresh
greens could provide each member of a
family of fve with nearly an extra serving of
highly nutritious green leafy vegetables per
day for the entire year. Tat extra serving
of greens could move people much closer to
the Word Health Organizations recommen-
dation of eating at least 400 grams of fruits
and vegetables every day. Or even better, it
could get them closer to the daily level of
600 grams of fruits and vegetables that is
considered to minimize the risk of cancers,
heart disease and diabetes. Tis nutritional
bonus could be added to the familys pantry
without the need to add any additional
growing space and while signifcantly
improving the gardens productive capacity.
B) Micro farm:
1.2 hectare (3 acres)
In the autumn, afer the summer vegetables
were done growing, most of the gardens
would be planted in Austrian winter peas,
barley, and mixed members of the brassica
or cabbage family (kale, rape, mustard,
Eating Cover Crops
turnips, radish, etc.). Lets say four-tenths
of a hectare (one acre) is planted in winter
peas and two-tenths of a hectare (half an
acre) each of barley and of mustard cover
crops. Tis still leaves four-tenths of a
hectare (one acre) to be planted in late fall
vegetable crops for sale. Te winter peas,
barley, and mustard would be mowed
before they fowered in the spring. Tey
would be turned under or lef on top of the
soil to serve as mulch for a mix of tomatoes,
peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, okra, and
other heat loving vegetables.
Cool weather vegetable crops, such as
broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, greens, radishes,
potatoes, and beets, can be planted in
early spring (where the late fall crops were)
and followed by a summer cover crops
like cowpeas. In late summer or early fall
the cowpeas can be cut to make way for
another planting of cool weather vegetables.
Tis would mean that a cool weather
cover crop and a hot weather cover crop
would be grown every year on eight-tenths
of a hectare (2 acres), while four-tenths of a
hectare (1 acre) produces vegetables nearly
all year. Tese would be rotated every year
to keep the soil in top condition and to
prevent the buildup of pests.
Te actual yields of cover crops are
highly variable, but these numbers will
give an example of how this system could
work. Te eight-tenths of a hectare (2
acres) planted in both summer and winter
cover crops should yield about 8,000 kg
(18,000 lb) of fresh green leaves, and an
equal weight of stems. If 30% of the leaf is
harvested for edible greens, 78 people could
get one serving a day of leafy vegetables all
year round. Tis could be used in the form
of fresh greens, solar-dried greens or leaf
concentrate. To improve soil structure and
fertility, 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) of leaf and
stem would still be returned to the soil.
A similar plan could be carried out
on larger farms as well, though large farm
systems are outside of the scope of this
book. Tere is obviously a lot of feld testing
to be done in order to work out the best
systems and planting schedules, but the
concept of using part of a cover crop as
leafy green vegetables is an important one.
It could help us improve our health while
rebuilding the health of our food-producing
land. Combining a nutritious leaf crop with
a soil-improving crop is a dynamic oppor-
tunity for innovative growers.
Te vast majority of all cover crops, and
especially of edible-leaf cover crops, are
members of one of three plant families;
the legume family, the grass family or the
mustard family.
Te Legume Family
Te legume family is the third largest
plant family behind the orchid and the
aster families. It is a sprawling clan with
over 19,400 species, including familiar
beans, peas, and clovers. About 185 legume
species have leaves that have been eaten by
humans. Many of these edible leaf legumes
make good cover crops.
Most legumes have evolved symbiotic
relationships with the rhizobia family of
bacteria. Tese bacteria use an enzyme
called nitrogenase to reassemble the
nitrogen in the air, along with hydrogen
from water, into ammonia molecules. We
need to increase our understanding and
use of legume based biological nitrogen
fxation in order to radically trim the
energy requirements of producing our
food. Legume cover crops with edible
leaves could become a key component of
emerging sustainable food systems. Some
of the most promising of these crops are
described below.
Alfalfa - Medicago sativa
Alfalfa, or lucerne, is a perennial forage
plant frst cultivated in Mesopotamia before
the advent of recorded history. Alfalfa is
now grown throughout the world under
extremely varied climatic and soil condi-
tions. It has been an animal feed longer
than any other forage crop, and today is
considered to be the most important fodder
crop in the world.
Alfalfas extremely deep roots (up to 9
m, or 30 f) enable it to access otherwise
inaccessible nutrients from the subsoil,
and to reach water during droughts. Tey
also create channels for air and water to
penetrate the subsoil, creating improved
drainage for future crops. It usually
requires replanting only once every 68
years, which greatly reduces the energy
and labor costs of land preparation, and
more importantly, makes alfalfa the best
of all commercial crops at preventing soil
Alfalfa seeds are very hard and should
be soaked in hot water for an hour or two
before planting. Planting in ridges or rows
5075 cm (1.52 f) apart makes weeding
much easier until cover is established. Leaf
production is much greater if the soil has an
adequate supply of phosphorus.
Alfalfa can produce yields of 75220
metric tons of forage per hectare if it gets
enough water. It is an excellent nitrogen
fxer. It can be harvested up to twelve times
a year in frost-free locations; and it recovers
quickly from cutting. Alfalfa grows well
up to 4,000 meters of elevation, where few
other crops thrive. It has a dense and erect
growth habit ideal for easy harvest with
scythe or sickle bar mower. While it is quite
cold hardy, alfalfa is susceptible to viral
diseases in hot humid climates, and doesnt
do well on acid soils.
Alfalfa sprouts are widely eaten and
very young shoots have been eaten as
potherbs in various cultures. However, the
plants potential as a direct human food has
barely been touched. Of all the crops whose
leaves can be eaten by humans, alfalfa is
easily the most prolifc. Alfalfa production
in the United States is about 680 g (11/2 lb)
per day per person. Unfortunately it is too
tough and stringy and sometimes too bitter
to eat in the way we eat spinach or lettuce.
Alfalfa can be made much more useful
for direct human consumption by drying
and grinding the leaves or especially by
converting the leaves to leaf concentrate.
Cowpea - Vigna unguiculata
Cowpea is an annual legume that was
domesticated in West Africa. Te best
known type of cowpea is probably the
black-eyed pea. In much of Africa and
parts of Asia the cowpea is an important
seed legume and is also an important leaf
vegetable. Cowpea leaves are produced
as a vegetable on a commercial scale in
eighteen African countries and seven Asian
countries. Ofen cowpeas are grown for
their leaves in high rainfall areas, and for
seeds in lower rainfall areas. According to
James Duke in his Handbook of Legumes
of World Economic Importance, growing
cowpeas for leaves can produce, per day, 9
times more calories, 15 times more protein,
90 times more calcium, and thousands of
times more vitaminC and beta-carotene,
than growing the same crop for seed.
Cowpeas are an excellent intercrop
plant to use between rows of corn, cassava,
bananas, or other crops. Two hectares of
corn and cowpeas intercropped will typi-
cally produce about 30% more total food
than one hectare of corn and one hectare of
cowpeas. Both beans and edible greens can
be economically produced from the same
parcel by planting cowpeas in rows 40 cm
Austrian winter pea (Pisum sativa), showing
rhizobia nodules
Eating Cover Crops
(16 in) apart and letting them grow till the
leaves begin to touch. Ten every other row
is harvested for greens without lowering
bean yield. Rather than just killing weeds
between the rows, this technique captures
free nitrogen from the air and ofers a mild-
favored and nutritious leaf vegetable for
Green matter yields of up to 9 metric
tons per hectare (4 tons/acre) in 60 days
are realistic if adequate soil moisture is
provided. Of this, about 45% is stem, and
5 metric tons (2 1/4 tons/acre) is actual
leaf. Tis will yield about 320 kg (700 lb) of
dried cowpea leaf and it is usually possible
to get in at least two crops per year without
reliance on irrigation. Intercropping
cowpeas with corn has roughly the efect of
applying 156 kg per hectare (71 lb/acre) of
nitrogen fertilizer.
Although the losses during drying
are signifcant and the fgures below may
not adequately compensate for the low
bioavailability of some nutrients, dried
cowpea leaves can be a very inexpensive
and nutritionally potent addition to the
diet. 100 grams (3 1/2 oz) of fresh cowpea
leaf will yield about 15 grams (1/2 oz) of
dried leaf. Tis can provide a 48 year old
child with about 20% of his protein needs;
29% of calcium needs; 44% of iron require-
ment; 100% of vitaminA; and 50% of the
vitaminC requirement.
3 Derived from averages from UN FAO 1968, and
Imungi, J. and Potter, N., Nutrient Contents of
Raw and Cooked Cowpea Leaves, Journal of Food
Cowpeas for leaf production should be
sown at least twice as densely as for bean
production. Cowpeas cut at 20 cm (8 in)
above the ground will regrow for a second
cutting but those cut at 5 cm (2 in) will
regrow slowly if at all. Cowpea seed should
be soaked overnight and then inoculated
with EL type rhizobia if cowpeas havent
been grown on the land in the past three
years. Actually evidence suggests that better
nitrogen fxation takes place with inocula-
tion even on land where cowpeas have been
recently grown. Adding a bit of sugar to the
soaked cowpeas aids inoculation by helping
the rhizobia stick to the seeds until they
Cowpea plants turned under at the start
of fowering will add nitrogen and organic
matter and improves soil structure. Up
to 168 kg per hectare of nitrogen (150 lbs/
acre) can be fxed. Incorporating a cowpea
cover crop has the side beneft of lowering
aluminum toxicity, which is a serious
problem in many tropical soils.
Austrian Winter Pea - Pisum sativa
Peas were one of the frst plants to be culti-
vated by humans and are commonly grown
throughout the worlds temperate and sub-
tropical zones. Austrian winter peas are a
variety used as a cold weather cover crop to
add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.
Tey are annual plants that grow about 60
cm (24 in) high and usually have beautiful
Science, Volume 48, Issue 4, pages 1252-1254, July
two-tone purple fowers. Tey dont easily
tolerate acid soil, salinity, waterlogging,
drought, or heat, but they are quite hardy
to cold weather and will usually survive
several freezes. Winter peas are sometimes
killed by periods of rapidly fuctuating
winter temperatures. Tey will produce
the most biomass, soil nitrogen and edible
leaves if planted relatively early in the fall so
that they can utilize some warmer weather
and more intense sunlight. Winter peas
produce nearly as well when planted in
the early spring. However, spring garden
planting then has to be delayed to allow
them the time they need for generating the
maximum nitrogen and biomass.
Before planting, pea seeds should be
treated with pea inoculant or with an
all-purpose garden inoculant. Broadcast
about 3085 g (13 oz) of seeds per 9sqm
(100sqf), or sow every 12 cm (5 in) in rows
60 cm (2 f) apart. Tere are several advan-
tages of using close rows rather than broad-
casting cover crops. Planting in rows allows
you to hoe between them to reduce weed
competition. It is also far easier to harvest
edible leaves from rows and avoid acciden-
tally including weeds that may not be palat-
able or may even be toxic. In addition, rows
allow the gardener to accelerate the soil
building process by combining the cover
crop with organic mulch between the rows.
Te tender young shoots of the pea
plant have a pleasant nut-like favor and
make a good salad green or potherb. Dried
winter pea leaf has one of the best favors of
any dried leaf powder or leaf concentrate.
A cover crop medley that provides your soil
with nitrogen, organic matter and cover
from erosion can be established with the
triple mix of Austrian winter peas, barley,
and white mustard. All three of these plants
have highly nutritious edible leaves as long
as they are picked when fairly young.
Lablab Bean - Lablab purpureus
Lablab, or hyacinth, bean is a short-lived
perennial climber native to Africa and
India. It is used as a forage or cover crop
as well as for its edible beans. It is a strong
nitrogen fxer. Lablab thrives in a range of
soil types. It is relatively drought tolerant
once established but doesnt grow well
in cold weather, saline conditions or in
waterlogged soil. Lablabs are grown much
like cowpeas but are generally more disease
Rows are typically 80130 cm (3250
in) apart with plants every 3050 cm (1220
in) along the row. It can produce up to 220
metric tons per hectare (100 tons/acre) of
green matter and fx 180 kg of nitrogen per
hectare (160 lb/acre) under ideal circum-
stances. Late fowering types like Rongai
produce far more biomass than seed types
such as Highworth or purple hyacinth
beans. Lablab is shade tolerant enough to
be useful when planted under orchards.
Perennial varieties are being developed
in Australia, though they would only be
perennial in frost-free areas. Lablab is
ofen sold for creating wildlife forage and
attracting deer. Seed sold for this purpose is
usually many times cheaper than the seed
sold for home gardens.
Te purple hyacinth varieties are
vigorous climbers and their beautiful
purple fowers and pods make them
attractive plants for garden fences and
trellises. Tis is a good plant for attracting
hummingbirds and butterfies to a garden.
Along with the beans (which must be very
well cooked, with two changes of water),
lablabs have edible leaves, fowers, and even
edible root tubers. Like pigeon peas and
pinto beans, it is rarely used for its edible
leaves but could become a more impor-
tant leaf vegetable. Very young leaves are
occasionally eaten raw in salads. However,
lablab leaves are generally treated as
potherbs and cooked at least briefy before
Bell Bean - Vicia faba
Bell Bean is a small seeded variety of the
fava, Windsor, or horse bean. It is a cool
weather annual native to the Mediterranean
area. Bell beans are normally planted in
the fall or in the very early spring and can
withstand temperatures as low as 9C
(15F). In colder areas, such as much of
Canada, they are grown as a summer crop.
Tey will usually fower within 60 days and
wont regrow well afer close mowing; nor
will they reseed themselves.
Bell beans are not too choosy about
soil type or pH, but are not very drought
tolerant. Tey are shade tolerant enough
to make a good cover crop in orchards.
Tey are normally planted every 15 cm (6
in) along rows that are 74 cm (30 in) apart.
Bell bean seed needs to be treated with
pea/vetch /lentil inoculant or with garden
combination type inoculant. Tey can add
22,00044,000 kg per hectare (20,000
40,000 lb/acre) of green biomass to the soil
and fx up to 44 kg (100 lb) of nitrogen in 45
Young tender bell bean leaves can
be eaten as a potherb or dried. Tey are
usually too tough and strong favored to be
eaten raw.
Common Bean - Phaseolus vulgaris
Te common bean was domesticated
in southern Mexico and in the Andes
Mountains of South America over 6,000
years ago. It has a thousand names and
ten thousand varieties, including kidney
bean, pinto bean, navy bean, cranberry
bean, wax bean, green bean, black bean
and turtle bean. It has become a popular
food throughout the world and is some-
times referred to as Te Poor Mans Meat
because of its high protein content.
Bean cultivars are either climbing pole
types, or dwarf bush type. Te pole beans
grow up to 3 m (10 f) and require some
sort of support or trellis. Te bush varieties
are less than a meter high and produce
fowers and seeds much sooner. Pole beans
generally yield about twice as many beans
as bush beans but take nearly twice as long
Eating Cover Crops
to do so. Bush beans usually have lower
labor costs and are ofen harvested all at
one time for processing. Despite higher
labor requirements, pole beans are ofen
preferred for family gardens because they
will yield enough beans for a meal over a
much longer time.
Te soil should be at least 12C (54F)
before planting beans, and the ideal
growing temperature is between 2226C
(7278F). Te common bean is sensitive
to frost, waterlogging, soil acidity, salinity,
and aluminum toxicity. Seeds are usually
planted every 5 cm (2 in) in rows 6080
cm (2432 in) apart. Pole beans are ofen
planted in groups of 3 or 4 at the base of
whatever support they will be climbing.
Before planting, seeds should be treated
with an inoculant designated for beans.
Tere are several general purpose garden
inoculants that will treat bean seed as well
as many other legumes.
Beans are rarely grown solely as a cover
crop because other plants that are less
susceptible to insect and disease problems
can fx more nitrogen. Tey are still
frequently used as an intercrop with corn,
sorghum, millet, and cassava, and signif-
cantly reduce the fertilizer demand of those
Outside of Africa and Indonesia, few
people realize that beans also produce
highly nutritious and tasty leaves for
potherbs. Bean leaves are grown in two
diferent ways. When grown as a separate
crop for leaves, they are planted more
densely than when grown for beans, and
the plants are usually uprooted at 35
weeks. It can also be cut when about 8
inches tall, like cowpeas, and allowed to
regrow for a second cutting, though beans
in general dont make strong regrowth.
Some varieties of beans have leaves
that are too fbrous to make a good leaf
crop, especially if grown in hot and dry
conditions. Sometimes small farmers and
gardeners try to combine a harvest of leaves
and beans. Tis is best done by harvesting
leaves from the lower third of the plant just
before fowering begins. Bean leaves are
very rich in beta-carotene, vitaminC, iron,
calcium, and protein.
Winged Bean - Psophocarpus
Te winged bean is a vigorous twining
perennial legume with beautiful pale blue
fowers. Te plant is thought to have origi-
nated along the east coast of Africa and is
especially popular in Papua New Guinea.
Used for leafy green potherbs, fresh pods,
dried beans, edible tubers, animal forage
and cover crop, winged beans are the
ultimate multi-purpose crop.
During the 1970s some development
groups went overboard promoting winged
beans as a miracle crop and many people
were disappointed that yields were not
up to the promises. Unfortunately, maxi-
mizing the yield of one of the winged
beans outputs tends to be at the expense
Wheat (Triticum aestivum)
of its other outputs. Tis means that you
cant get a maximum yield of fresh leaves,
mature seeds and edible tubers from the
same plant. Winged beans also are limited
by some specifc day-length requirements
for blooming, though a day-neutral variety
is now available.
Of course, when growing
winged beans for potherbs or cover crops,
delayed blooming is advantageous.
Winged beans wont live in waterlogged
soil but thrive with high rainfall up to 250
cm (100 in) a year if there is good drainage.
Tey are very sensitive to frost but can be
grown as an annual in warmer temperate
climates. Tey are tolerant of high tempera-
tures and acid soil. Like cowpeas, winged
beans use EL type inoculant. Seeds are
hard to germinate, and beneft from being
scratched or soaked in hot water before
planting. Although they are strong nitrogen
fxers, most of the nitrogen is not available
until the following season, so it is helpful to
have some other source of nitrogen for frst-
year growth. Tey are normally planted
every 10 cm (4 in) in rows 80 cm (32 in)
apart, though they will produce more beans
grown with a wider spacing on trellises.
Tey can produce 8,000 kg per hectare
(7,000 lb/acre) of fresh leaves per acre in just
60 days. Winged beans are a beautiful and
interesting home garden plant with brilliant
blue fowers and unique light green beans
with four fns or wings on each.
4 From ECHO http://www.echonet.org
Te tasty, mild favored greens are 57%
protein, which is exceptionally good, and
the quality of that protein is superior to that
found in most other leaves. Tey are also
an excellent dietary source of iron, calcium,
beta-carotene and vitaminC.
Fenugreek - Trigonella foenum-graecum
Fenugreek (translated, Greek hay) is one
of the oldest cultivated food plants. Its seeds
were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. It
is a popular potherb in India called mehti,
and is an important source of iron in that
largely vegetarian country. Te leaf, dried
seeds and sprouted seeds of fenugreek are
all eaten. Te seeds are commonly used
in curry powders and have a complex and
interesting favor sometimes compared to a
cross between maple and celery.
Fenugreek is an annual plant rarely
exceeding 50 cm (20 in) in height. It is
rather drought resistant but doesnt grow
well in acid soils. Fenugreek is best planted
in the spring as soon as the soil has begun
to warm up. In frost-free areas it can be
grown through the winter. Te seedlings
should be thinned to about 10 cm (4 in)
apart. Tey will do best in well drained
soil and full sunlight. Tey dont trans-
plant well, so should be direct seeded.
A mixed garden legume inoculant will
increase nitrogen fxation. It grows quickly
and is best eaten just before fowering.
Fenugreek is an excellent potherb to grow
in containers.
Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata)
Eating Cover Crops
Fenugreek seeds are ofen easier to
get as a favoring from Asian grocery
stores than as garden seed. Tey are also
sometimes sold for sprouting at health
food stores. Caution and good hygiene are
important when growing your own sprouts,
regardless of what type of seed is used.
Sprouts are usually eaten raw and have
been tied to outbreaks of E. coli bacterial
infections, so it is a reasonable precaution
to treat the seeds before sprouting. Soak
the seed for 15 minutes in a disinfectant
solution of 1 teaspoon of household bleach
to 1 cup hot tap water. Rinse the seeds
thoroughly aferwards to remove any trace
of the bleach.
Rice Bean - Vigna umbellata
Rice beans probably originated in the
foothills of the Himalayas and are now
grown throughout much of southern Asia.
Tey thrive in the hot humid tropics where
many legume crops sufer from disease.
Tey prefer 100150 cm (4060 in) of rain
per year and soil that is neutral to slightly
alkaline. Once established, rice beans have
some resistance to drought but are sensitive
to frost or waterlogging.
For a cover crop or forage, the seed is
normally broadcast at a rate of about 60
g per 10sqm (2 oz/100sqf), or about 67
kg per hectare (60 lb/acre). It can also be
planted in narrow rows, one to two feet
apart, or in groups of three seeds clustered
around bamboo pyramids or other such
trellising. Te plant is used as fodder, made
into hay and silage, or grown as a cover
crop. It grows very quickly for a legume and
can sometimes be used as a cover crop just
30 days afer planting. Just before fowering
the plants can be mowed and either incor-
porated into the soil or lef on top as mulch.
It can supply up to 66 metric tons per
hectare (30 tons/acre) of fresh green crop to
enrich the soil. Rice beans are also some-
times grown as an intercrop with maize in
south Asia.
Some varieties grow as small erect
bushes but most are vigorous vining plants.
Te vining forms make great garden trellis
plants with pretty yellow fowers. Te small
mature beans are cooked in many rice
dishes, while the immature pods and young
leaves are eaten as cooked vegetables.
Tere are many other legumes that
could be used as edible-leaf cover crops.
Tese include butterfy pea (Clitoria
ternatea), berseem clover (Trifolium alex-
andrinum), pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) and
scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus).
Te Grass Family
Afer legumes the next most important
family of cover crops is the grass family,
or Poaceae. Annual grasses are commonly
grown to capture carbon dioxide from
the air and build soil organic matter.
Sometimes they are grown alone, but more
ofen with a legume. Te grass family is
the fourth largest of all plant families, with
10,025 known species, and it is perhaps the
most important plant family to humans.
Roughly 30% of the Earths land surface
is dominated by grasslands or prairie.
Grazing (the word derives from the Old
English word for grass) ruminant animals
are able to convert the tough prairie grasses
into highly valued meat and milk. Grasses
grown for their edible seeds are called
cereals. More than half of all the calories
consumed by humans come from the seeds
of just three of these grasses: maize, wheat,
and rice.
A small handful of the grasses have
become multi-purpose agricultural stars,
providing animal feed, edible seeds and
cover crops. Tese include wheat, barley,
oats, and rye, four of the most useful plant
species on Earth. In the temperate zones
these are ofen planted as cover crops in the
fall afer other crops are harvested. Tey are
normally mowed and turned under in the
spring before new crops are sown. Part of
their great value as cover crops comes from
the fact that they can be grown when most
other economic crops cannot.
It is widely presumed that humans can
eat only the dried seed of the cereal grasses
directly, and that the leaves of the cereal
plants need to be digested by ruminant
animals before becoming food for us. It is
true that the relatively high fber content
of grasses prevents us from using them
directly as a major source of calories.
However, since the 1930s, a modest amount
of cereal grass leaves have been eaten by
people as vegetables, adding yet another
potentially valuable use for these plants.
In 1934, an American agricultural
chemist named Charles Schnabel applied
for a patent for processing tender young
wheat, barley, and rye grass shoots, for the
production of an animal and human food
supplement that provided unique health
benefts. He believed the key benefcial
ingredient in the grasses was chlorophyll,
perhaps because of its molecular similarity
to hemoglobin. Since that time considerable
research has been done, primarily in the
United States and Japan, on the benefts of
direct consumption of cereal grasses.
Te nutrient profle of young cereal
grasses is quite similar to that of most
nutritious dark green leafy vegetables, all
of which are rich in chlorophyll, high in
fber, and best eaten before the plant begins
to fower. While fber is indigestible by
humans, the relatively high fber content of
these green leafy foods is actually benefcial
for people eating a modern industrial diet.
For example, Americans typically consume
less than half the recommended plant fber.
Many other cultures, especially in urban
areas, have been rapidly adopting similar
low-fber diets. For these diets, doubling the
average intake of dietary fber would lower
rates of digestive disorders, obesity, some
cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. More
information on dietary fber can be found
in Chapter 5.
Cereal grasses, especially wheat and
barley, have been marketed almost entirely
through health food outlets, more as
supplements than as foods. Exaggerated
claims about their mysterious healing
powers and even more exaggerated prices
have limited their appeal to a small but
growing segment of the populace that is
extremely concerned with nutrition. If
broader markets are developed for dried
cereal grasses the prices should tumble.
Meanwhile, gardeners could easily
incorporate them into their local food
systems. Tey are very productive and
easily grown crops that can provide
substantial amounts of beta-carotene,
vitaminK, folic acid, calcium, iron,
protein, fber, vitaminC, and many of
the Bvitamins at a very low cost. Seed
for wheat and barley greens is very cheap
compared to most other dark green
leafy vegetables; they have relatively few
problems with insect pests; and they can be
grown when the garden is not needed for
other crops.
Tis concept evolves from a good
idea into a truly great one when growing
the young cereal grasses for vegetables
is combined with growing them as a
soil-improving cover crop. With a little
planning and a little work it is possible to
simultaneously improve your diet and the
fertility of your garden soil by growing
cereal grasses over the temperate zone
winter. Te composition of all cereal grasses
is very similar when they are young plants,
but much more research, development,
and marketing work has been done with
wheat and barley grasses than with rye and
oats. For that reason I will focus on wheat
and barley, though the other cereal grasses
certainly deserve further research.
Wheat - Triticum aestivum
and Triticum durum
Barley - Hordeum vulgare
Wheat and barley originated in western
Asia. Teir domestication roughly
1012,000 years ago in the valleys of the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was a corner-
stone in the development of agriculture.
Te cultivation of these two cereals has
spread from the fertile crescent to most of
the worlds temperate regions and sub-trop-
ical zones. Wheat now ranks just behind
maize and just ahead of rice among the
most produced food crops.
Tese cereal grasses are impressive
multi-use plants. Teir fbrous mats of roots
loosen up tough soils and feed earthworms
and soil bacteria, while their copious
production of biomass fxes carbon from
the air as benefcial soil organic matter.
Tey produce huge yields of nutritious
greens with almost no waste. Cereal grasses
make excellent fodder for animals either
fresh or dried as hay. If some of the crop
is allowed to mature it will yield nutri-
tious whole grains. And when the grain is
separated from the stalks, the lefover straw
Eating Cover Crops
makes excellent mulch or animal bedding,
and can even be used to build a house.
Both wheat and barley are tolerant of
most soil types and a fairly wide range of
pH, but wheat is more sensitive to saline
soil. Annual rainfall between 30 cm (12
in) and 100 cm (40 in) is needed for good
growth. While wheat and barley are both
temperate zone crops, varieties have also
been adapted for the higher elevations and
to endure the coolest part of the year in the
tropics as well.
For use as edible cover crops, both
wheat and barley should be planted in very
late summer through mid-autumn at a rate
of about 180g per 10sqm (6 oz/100sqf).
It can be broadcast or sown in narrow rows.
Te rows tend to be easier to harvest but
wont generate as much biomass to add
to the soil. Ordinarily both make some
growth before cold weather sets in, and
then go dormant until temperatures begin
to warm up in the spring, when rapid
growth can resume. Barley can be planted
a week or two afer wheat and will typically
produce more organic matter.
For a cover crop or for leafy vegetables,
wheat should be harvested just before the
reproductive cycle or, the jointing process,
begins. It can be mowed with a heavy duty
lawn mower, a string weed cutter, a scythe
or machete. Like most cover crops, the cut
wheat plants can be incorporated into the
top few inches of the soil with a tiller or
hoe, hauled of to use as mulch or compost
Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus)
elsewhere, or simply allowed to rot in
place. Te rot-in-place option is becoming
popular because it gives the best soil protec-
tion and takes the least work. It works
better when transplants such as tomatoes,
peppers, sweet potatoes or large seeded
crop are planted afer it than when followed
by small seeded crops.
Te ability of the cover crop to improve
the soil will be somewhat diminished when
a portion of the crop is used directly as food
rather than lef in the feld. However, the loss
of soil building can be minimal because only
20% or so of the aboveground crop is used
as food. Furthermore, much of the beneft of
the cereal cover crops comes from the roots
improving soil structure. Te yields of cover
crops can vary considerably depending on
soil and weather conditions, timing, and
density of planting. A typical cover crop of
winter wheat might produce 4,400 kg of dried
wheat grass per hectare (4,000 lb/acre). Tis
comes out to half a kilogram per square meter
of garden bed. If 20% is removed as leaf and
the remaining 80% allowed to enrich the soil,
nearly 1 kilogram of dried wheat grass may be
reaped from an average sized garden bed.
Fresh or cooked wheat grass tends to
make a stringy vegetable, but dried and
powdered wheat grass is a mild favored
and super-nutritious addition to many
dishes. When you consider that it is ofen
sold for over $40/kg ($20/lb) by health
food retailers, this becomes an economical
Te Mustard (Cabbage) Family
Te scientifc name for the mustard, or
cabbage, family is Brassicaceae, or some-
times the older name Cruciferae, meaning
cross-bearing, because their fowers
have four petals arranged like a cross.
Most of the cabbage family is native to the
Mediterranean region. Tere are about
3,700 species of brassicas and some are
widely grown throughout the temperate
zones and the cooler parts of the tropics.
Many members of this family, including
broccoli, caulifower, Brussels sprouts, kale,
kohlrabi, mustard, turnips, radishes, rape,
watercress, and the familiar head cabbage,
are extremely valuable foods. Tey are
rich in beta-carotene, vitaminC, potas-
sium, calcium, and boron (an important
mineral for strong bones). Cabbage juice
contains the compound gefarnate, which
helps protect the stomach lining from acid
and eases the pain of ulcers. Brassicas also
promote the bodys production of gluta-
thione and are the best food sources of
sulphoraphane and indoles. All three of
these compounds are very efective antioxi-
dant cancer fghters.
Varieties of turnip, mustard, radish,
and rape are frequently used as cover crops.
None of these fx nitrogen, as legumes do,
but all four have deep roots that help break
up compacted soil and all four add a signif-
cant amount of organic matter to the soil. A
further advantage of mustard family cover
crops is that they can reduce pest problems
Rice bean (Vigna umbellata)
Eating Cover Crops
for the crops that follow them. Te same
sulfur compounds that provide the snappy
favor and the nutritional protection against
cancer also inhibit the growth of many
crop diseases and nematodes, as they break
down in the soil.
Turnips, mustards, radishes, or rape can
be used alone as cover crops or they can
be combined with legumes and/or grasses
for a more complete green manure. Te
Germans have a favored agricultural system
called Landsberger Gemenge that is used
to provide late grazing for cattle and sheep,
and green manure for maintaining soil
fertility. It involves planting two legume
species, a grass and a mustard family crop
together. Tese can be planted in adjacent
strips but more ofen the seed is mixed and
just broadcast together. Te four together
produce a crop mixture that is very nutri-
tious and well-balanced for feeding both
the livestock and the soil. Furthermore, it
is entirely possible to devise a Landsberger
Gemenge that includes only plants that
have leaves that are edible and nutritious to
humans. Creating a crop that can simul-
taneously provide food and animal feed as
well as rebuild the soil, adds another whole
dimension of stability and productivity to
the food system.
Common mustard family cover crops are:
Turnips - Brassica rapa var. rapa
Rape or Canola - Brassica napus
White mustard - Brassica hirta
Field mustard - Brassica campestris
Brown mustard - Brassica juncea
Black mustard - Brassica nigra
Fodder Radish - Raphanus sativus
All of the mustard family cover crops are
cool weather plants that can be sown in
early spring or in late summer for a fall
crop. All germinate quickly, have strong tap
roots, and reduce the populations of soil-
borne pathogens in the soil when they are
turned under. Seed for turnip and mustard
can be broadcast at about half a kilogram
per 100 square meters (1 lb/1,000 sqf), or
planted in rows 45 cm (18 in) apart and
thinned to every 8 cm (3 in). Fodder radish
requires about twice as much seed, but rape
requires only about one-third as much.
Dragging the back end of a rake lightly over
the seed covers in and assures good soil
Turnips and fodder radishes have espe-
cially strong and deep tap roots, sometimes
drilling 23 meters (69 f) into the soil.
Tis can be very useful in breaking up plow
pans, improving drainage, and bringing up
subsoil nutrients such as calcium and boron
to where shallower-rooted plants can reach
Canola oil is made from rape seed. It
has been bred to produce healthy cooking
oil. Most rape is now genetically modifed,
though the extra price of the seed is not
worthwhile for use as a cover crop. Essex
dwarf is a cheap non-GMO variety of rape
that makes an excellent cover crop with
tasty greens.
Some mustard varieties can produce
up to 26 metric tons per hectare (12,000
lb/acre) of biomass to turn under in just 5
weeks. A cover crop of mustard is consid-
ered to be especially benefcial when
turned in before a crop of potatoes because
it reduces many of the diseases afecting
Tinnings from any of these mustard
family cover crops make good greens.
Turnip greens are a traditional dish in the
southeastern US. Te tiny hairs, techni-
cally trichomes, on the leaves disappear
with cooking. Newer tender leaves can still
be harvested from the center as the plants
begin to mature, but once fowering begins
all the leaves become quite tough and bitter.
Only the very youngest leaves are eaten raw.
Of course, harvesting leaves will somewhat
reduce the amount of biomass returned
to the soil. Optimal proportions of leaf
harvest, root harvest, green manure and
even seed harvest will need to be deter-
mined based on the specifcs of each crop
and each agricultural situation.
Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)
Selecting Leaf Vegetable
Crops for Growing
Tere is no doubt that leaf vegetables could play a bigger role in
improving human nutrition and health. Much less well known
are the potential ecological benefts of growing more leaf crops.
Growing more plant species and varieties, and being able to derive
value from more than one part of most plants requires the grower
to have a greater understanding of botanical patterns. Te mecha-
nization of tasks becomes difcult with more integrated systems,
thus labor costs are higher. Te higher labor costs may be ofset
by the greater fexibility and greater resilience of a more complex
Remember that any one leaf crop, regardless of how it is
prepared, has some potential for ill efects if eaten in large enough
quantities. Te inverse of this is also true. No single crop can
provide the range of positive nutritional attributes that a mix of
diferent leaf crops ofers. What is true of nutrition is equally valid
in sustainable agriculture. A plant that is renowned for its lack of
insect pests will not stay that way if it is repeatedly planted in large
monocultures. Tere are many wonderful leaf crops, but none so
great as to warrant the exclusion of the others.
Eighty plants are listed below to aid in deciding what to plant.
Every one of these plants can provide signifcant nutritional
beneft. Tey are grouped according to the potential ecological
benefts that they can ofer the grower.
Perhaps the most commonly eaten leaf vegetables in the world
are lettuce, spinach, and varieties of cabbage. Te dominance
of these three can be seen in the names of less popular greens.
Samba lettuce, New Zealand and Malabar spinach, skunk cabbage
and sea cabbage are names derived from the popularity of the big
three. It is easy to fnd information about growing and cooking
with these popular vegetables, so they are just touched on lightly
Lettuce - Lactuca sativa
Lettuce is the most popular leaf vegetable in the world. Native to
the area around what is now Turkey; it has been grown in Egypt
for nearly 7,000 years. Cultivation of lettuce spread with the
Greek and Roman Empires and was carried into the tropics with
the European colonial expansion. It is an annual or sometimes a
in the aster (sunfower) family and is generally classifed
as either head lettuce or leaf lettuce.
1 Biennials are plants that usually take two years to complete their lifecycle. In
the first year the plant grows leaves, stems, and roots, and then goes
dormant until the next year when it produce seeds. There are far fewer bien-
nials than either annuals or perennials. Many of them, including carrots,
beets, and cabbage, are actually grown as if they were annuals because we
are mainly interested in their edible leaves, roots, and stems formed in the
Lettuce prefers light, well drained,
slightly acidic soil with plenty of organic
matter. Some varieties are very cold hardy
and most do best with cool weather and
full sun. Lettuce quickly becomes bitter and
bolts in high temperatures, but this can be
delayed considerably by providing partial
shade. Unlike most vegetables, lettuce seed
will germinate in the sunlight and so is
ofen planted on the surface and pressed
into the soil to ensure good contact.
Leaf type lettuces can be sown densely
and harvested repeatedly as the plants
become crowded. Head type lettuce
requires wider spacing to allow for good
head formation. Lettuce seedlings get of to
a strong start when they are started in foat
beds and then transplanted to the garden.
Float beds are Styrofoam planting trays that
are foated in shallow water so the young
lettuce plants can wick up water and never
get too dry. A variety called Queensland
lettuce is adapted to the hotter tropical
regions, though its favor and texture
are not as delicate as the temperate zone
While the whole plant is always
harvested with head type lettuce, leaf
lettuce can be harvested by cutting or
pinching the outer leaves or by cutting the
whole plant at about 2.5 cm (1 in) above the
ground. Given adequate soil moisture the
leaf lettuce will regrow for at least a second
first year, rather than the flower and seed of year
harvest. Because lettuce grows quickly
and then becomes bitter, it is well suited to
planting every 1014 days. Tis succession
planting schedule will provide a continual
supply of high quality lettuce until the
weather gets too warm.
Lettuce is usually eaten raw, although in
China the stems are ofen cooked. It is not
a nutritional giant, but can supply a modest
amount of vitamins, potassium, and
antioxidants. Leaf lettuce is much richer in
nutrients than head lettuce, and red lettuces
have stronger antioxidant properties than
green varieties. Because it is eaten raw, it is
especially important to avoid contamina-
tion of the soil from fresh animal manure
and to wash the lettuce well before eating it.
Spinach - Spinacia oleracea
A member of the Chenopodium family,
spinach originated in the region that is
now Iran and Iraq. It has been cultivated
for at least 2,000 years and is now grown
throughout the worlds temperate zones
and cooler tropical regions. It is an annual
plant grown exclusively for its tender leaves
that can be eaten either raw or cooked.
Spinach grows well on soil with good
drainage and organic matter, as long as
it is not very acidic. Spinach is grown in
the cooler weather of both spring and fall.
Bolting is brought on by lengthening days
and warm weather, so spinach tends to
remain tender for a longer time if planted
in fall rather than spring. Nitrate fertil-
izers should be avoided, especially in
winter-grown spinach, as they can cause
excessive accumulation of nitrates in the
leaves. Because nitrates are concentrated
in the stems, they should be removed if
Like leaf lettuce, spinach can be
harvested by plucking of the outer leaves
or by cutting the whole plant of at 2.5 cm
(1 in) above the ground. It will usually
produce a second and possibly even a third
harvest if soil has plenty of organic matter
and moisture. Succession planting every 2
weeks will provide for a long season of fresh
Spinach is a mild favored green that
has been used in thousands of recipes. It
is an excellent source of vitaminA, folate,
lutein, and potassium. Although it contains
high levels of iron and calcium, spinach is
not a good dietary source of these minerals,
because the oxalic acid in spinach leaves
interferes with the absorption of these
Mustard/Cabbage Family - Brassica spp.
Tere are two important clans in the
mustard family leaf vegetables: one origi-
nating in the Mediterranean and one
in China. Both varieties have spread
throughout most of the world except for
the hotter tropical areas. Although they
take numerous forms, these plants are quite
similar in their agricultural requirements,
nutrition, and usage.
All of the brassicas are heavy feeders
that prefer growing in rich organic soil with
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
a nearly neutral pH. Full sunlight, cool
weather and moderate soil moisture are
ideal. Tey are all grown as annuals and all
propagated by small round seeds. Brassica
plants grown for leaves rather than heads
are almost always direct seeded, whereas
head cabbage, broccoli, and caulifower are
ofen started as sets and later transplanted
into the garden. Temperatures above 25 C
(77 F) slow the growth of brassicas.
Very young brassicas are ofen attacked
by fea beetles, while older ones are subject
to feeding by cabbage worms, cabbage
loopers and diamondback moths. Bt
(Bacillus thuringiensis) based organic insec-
ticides are very efective on cabbage worms.
China, Korea, and Japan lead the
world in the production of both Asian
and European types of brassicas. Tey are
sometimes eaten raw when young, but more
ofen lightly steamed or stir-fried. Brassicas
are among the most nutritious of all foods.
Tey are rich in vitaminA, vitaminC,
vitaminK, calcium, iron, and protein.
Te minerals are generally well-absorbed
because brassicas contain little oxalic acid.
Tey are extraordinary sources of cancer-
fghting antioxidants, especially isocyothio-
nate and lutein.
European Cabbages
Cabbage Brassica oleracea var. capitata
Kale Brassica oleracea var. acephala
Collards Brassica oleracea var. acephala
Mustard Greens Brassica juncea
Turnip Greens Brassica rapa var. rapa
Asian Cabbages
Pak choi Brassica rapa var. chinensis
Pe-tsai Brassica rapa var. pekinensis
Mizuna Brassica rapa var. japonica
Mibuna Brassica rapa var. japonica
Komatsuna Brassica rapa var. perviridis
Multi-use Leaf Crops
Te ability to obtain each of the nutrients
we need from a wide variety of food sources
has been an enormous evolutionary advan-
tage for omnivorous humans. Like a social
insurance program, enlarging the biodiver-
sity of our agricultural systems confers the
beneft of distributing the risk. In highly
specialized farming systems the produc-
tion of specifc commodities may be higher
while the labor costs are almost always
lower. However, more ecologically complex
food growing systems will typically have
higher total output and better protection
against catastrophic crop failures.
Te same diversity principle can be
applied to individual plants. Most plants
that we grow for food have more than one
potential use. While commercial agricul-
ture normally focuses on the single most
proftable output from a plant, a sustainable
system can make use of the whole plant.
For example, we can eat both the sweet
potato and its leaves. Having two nutri-
tious products from a single plant ofers
the grower an important advantage in
food security. Tis fact has not been lost on
NASA, which is investigating both quinoa
and cowpeas, two seed crops with edible
leaves, as possible crops in their Controlled
Ecological Life Support System for manned
space fights of long duration.
Virtually all crops are initially leaf
crops, and ofen fnding additional uses for
food plants simply means fnding a way to
make better use of their leaves. . Te key is
to see the plants in their entirety, not just as
a source of a particular food product. Tis
perspective ofers the creative gardener a
much wider range of botanical options for
supper. Techniques, such as solar drying
and making leaf concentrate, that enable us
to more efectively capture, preserve, and
absorb the nutrients in green leaves, greatly
improve the prospects for these multiple-
use food plants.
Tis section describes how to grow
some of the plants that have edible leaves in
addition to other uses and why they might
be worth growing. Te frst and probably
most important category of multi-use leaf
crops, edible cover crops, was discussed
in chapter 12. Other important categories
of multi-use leaf crops include staple food
crops with edible leaves and traditional
garden vegetables with edible leaves.
Staple Food Crops with Edible Leaves
Te diet of most of the worlds people is
heavily dependent on the availability of
cheap carbohydrates from staple grain and
root crops. Among the grains, wheat and
barley are useful sources of edible green
leaves. Te worlds most important staple
root crops are potatoes, cassava, sweet
potatoes, yam, taro, and tannier. Cassava,
sweet potatoes, taro, and tannier plants can
all supply edible green leaves, though some
precautions need to be taken with cassava,
taro, and tannier leaves.
Regionally important dietary staples
also include several pseudo-grains or
pseudo-cereals. Tese are broad leaf plants,
rather than grasses, that produce large
yields of edible seeds that are used like
grains (seeds of annual grasses). Te most
important of these are amaranth, buck-
wheat, and quinoa. Amaranth and quinoa
both produce edible leaves with long histo-
ries of usage in regional diets. In addition to
three grain amaranths (Amaranthus hypo-
chondriacus, A. cruentus and A. caudatus)
and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) there
are several closely related members of the
amaranth and chenopodium families that
have been used on a more limited scale for
2 Although they are eaten in some cultures, potato
leaves, stems, and green portions of potatoes
contain solanine and chaconine, two related
glycoalkaloid toxins, and should be consumed in
very small quantities if at all. Tomatoes and
eggplants, two other members of the potato
family, also have somewhat toxic leaves. Even the
green tomato fruit contains enough solanine to
be dangerous if consumed raw in large quanti-
ties. Noted food expert Harold McGee argues
that the case against eating tomato leaves is
weak, and that small amounts could be used as
New York Times, Dining & Wine Section, Accused,
Yes, but Probably Not a Killer, By Harold McGee,
July 28, 2009
both their grain-like seed and their edible
Sweet Potato - Ipomoea batatas
Sweet potatoes are sprawling perennial
plants that probably originated in Central
America, where they have been cultivated
for over 5,000 year. Te crop is now grown
throughout the tropics and the warmer
parts of the temperate zone. Sweet potatoes
are among the ten most important food
crops in the world, though much of the
crop is grown by subsistence farmers for
home use.
Sweet potato is an ideal crop for fghting
malnutrition. It is well suited to survive
and to produce crops on infertile tropical
soils, even without fertilizer, irriga-
tion, machinery, or improved genetics.
It is an excellent dual-purpose food crop
because its leaves are nutritious and widely
eaten. Both tuber and leaves are rich in
pro-vitaminA, folate, and calcium. Te
leaves are perhaps the best source of the
antioxidant lutein, which is important in
protecting our skin from sun damage and
our eyes from age-related loss of vision.
Tough ofen grown as an annual,
sweet potato is a perennial vine that can
produce edible tubers and leaves for up
3 Although they contain the toxin fagopyrin, buck-
wheat leaves or sprouts have recently become
part of certain raw foods health regimens. In very
small amounts they probably are harmless;
however, drinking juice from buckwheat greens
can cause the skin to become extremely sensitive
to sunlight.
to six years without replanting in tropical
climates. In a system where both the leaves
and tubers are well managed for good
yield, sweet potatoes can probably produce
more nutrients per acre than any other
crop, including more calories per acre
than cassava. Tey have one of the highest
returns of nutrients-relative to the time and
efort expended-of any crop.
Sweet potato grows best in loose sandy
soil, but will thrive in any well drained
soil. It is a very frost sensitive plant that
requires at least 100 warm days to produce
tubers of reasonable size. In cooler climates
black plastic is sometimes used to warm
the soil, and foating row covers can help
warm the air around the plants. Even
where the growing season is too short to
get good yields of tubers, sweet potatoes
can be grown for their leaves. High levels
of nitrogen will favor foliage growth at the
expense of tuber size. A slightly acid soil
pH is ideal.
Sweet potato plants are usually grown
from slips in the temperate zones and from
stem cuttings in the tropics. Slips are grown
from untreated sweet potatoes by placing
them in a few inches of sand or suspending
the sweet potato in water about six weeks
before the last frost. Tey need to be kept
warm during this time. In the tropics they
are usually started to coincide with the
beginning of the rainy season and can be
grown as short lived perennials.
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
When shoots are 1523 cm (69 in)
high they can be gently twisted and pulled
from the mother sweet potato and planted
in the garden. Slips are usually planted
3046 cm (1218 in) apart. Closer spacing
results in more sweet potatoes but smaller
size, while wider spacing produces a smaller
number of larger tubers. Sweet potatoes can
also be grown closely spaced to smother
weeds. When planted 15 cm (6 in) apart
or closer, they will quickly form a dense
groundcover that is both attractive and
edible. Tis is a realistic way of removing
tough perennial grasses or nutsedge from a
garden or feld without resorting to herbi-
cides. Sweet potatoes are also one of the
best edible greens to grow in containers or
hanging baskets.
Once they are well-established, up to
50% of the leaves can be harvested every
three weeks. Lighter or less frequent leaf
harvests will result in greater tuber yield,
but the maximum total food value will
always come from combination of leaf and
tuber harvesting. Te stems of sweet potato
are ofen eaten along with the leaves, but
they ofer little beyond water and fber.
Given good conditions for growth, up to
55 metric tons per hectare of fresh sweet
potato greens (25 tons/acre) could be
Although it is already one of the worlds
leading food crops, sweet potatoes have
enormous potential that remains to be
tapped. Flexible systems that optimize
combined leaf and tuber yield need
to be developed to realize that poten-
tial. Breeding for varieties that are high
yielding, pest resistant and starchy tasting,
like Irish potato rather than sweet, could
put sweet potatoes at the center of the efort
to feed the huge populations of the tropics
in the near future. Teir ability to produce
good yields with minimal fertilizer will
become more crucial as energy prices inevi-
tably escalate.
Cassava - Manihot esculenta
Cassava is native to the Amazon region
of South America. It is a perennial shrub
that grows up to 4 m (13 f) tall. One of
the worlds ten most important foods, it
is grown primarily for its starchy roots,
which are a staple for nearly one billion
people. Cassava is closely associated with
extreme poverty because it is grown and
eaten mainly by people with few economic
resources in Africa, Asia, and Latin
It will survive long droughts by
shedding its leaves and going dormant
until rains return. It is also a plant capable
of growing in soil that is very acidic, low
in nutrients and high in toxic aluminum
compounds. Tese growing conditions
are increasingly common in the degraded
agricultural ecosystems of the tropics.
Its ability to produce food under such
harsh conditions makes cassava the poor
mans friend. It is intolerant of frost, and
good temperate zone varieties are not yet
available. It prefers slightly acid soil but
doesnt tolerate high salinity.
Cassava is typically grown from stem
cutting roughly 50 cm (20) long. Tese
are pushed about 20 cm (8) deep into the
sof ground afer a good rain. Cuttings are
usually spaced about 1 meter (40) apart
in each direction. Where cassava leaves are
eaten as well as the roots, stem cuttings can
be planted closer together. Closer spacing
and high levels of available nitrogen in the
soil favor rampant leaf growth over edible
Te value of both the leaves and the
roots is limited by the presence of two
glucosides: linamarin and lotaustralin,
compounds that can produce hydrocyanic
acid (HCN) when cassava is eaten without
proper processing. HCN is a common
plant toxin that occurs naturally in lima
beans, sorghum, and many other crops. It is
discussed in Chapter 6. HCN from cassava
rarely causes acute poisoning. However,
in areas where cassava is an important
source of calories, long term or chronic
HCN toxicity can lead to irreversible nerve
damage and other serious health problems.
Chronic HCN toxicity is most common
among people with marginal quantities of
protein in their diet, people with low levels
of dietary iodine, and among smokers.
Processing cassava leaves properly is
essential. Te leaves contain 5 to 20 times
more linamarin than the roots. Fortunately
they also have perhaps 200 times more
of the enzyme linamarase, which breaks
down the linamarin and releases the HCN.
By pounding or shredding the leaves
fnely, the linamarase can release most of
the HCN into the air before the leaves are
cooked. Te pounding or fne shredding
of the leaves should be done outdoors or
with adequate ventilation. Te pounded
cassava leaves should be boiled for at least
15 minutes, and many cultures boil them
for twice that long. Tere is signifcant
loss of nutrients, especially vitaminC and
folate with this method, but the beneft of
removing the HCN more than ofsets these
If the cassava leaves are being dried for
later use, they should be pounded or fnely
shredded before drying. High temperatures
neutralize the linamarase so, unlike most
leaf crops, it is better to not blanch cassava
leaves before pounding, grinding, or shred-
ding them. Much of the HCN that is not
released by pounding or shredding the
leaves will dissipate into the air while they
are drying. As an added precaution it is best
to use the dried cassava leaves in dishes that
will go through further cooking, such as
Cassava exhibits a wide range of toxin
levels, so regional research and extension
agencies throughout the tropics could
screen varieties for HCN content in their
leaves, encouraging people to grow safer
varieties. High HCN levels in cassava leaves
provide the plant protection against insect
attack, but varieties could be developed that
more optimally balance the demands of
insect protection and food safety.
Almost everywhere that cassava is the
chief staple food, there are defciencies of
protein, iron, and vitaminA. Ironically, just
combining the properly processed leaves
of the cassava with the starchy root of the
same plant could go a long way towards
resolving the worlds worst malnutrition.
Harvesting a few leaves every day from
a small household planting of cassava can
provide a great deal of nutritional insurance
without signifcantly lowering the yield of
the starchy roots. Annual yields as high as
176 metric tons per hectare (80 tons/acre)
of fresh cassava leaf have been reported
from three cuttings. However, this sort of
heavy leaf yield greatly lowers the produc-
tion of storage roots. Repeated partial leaf
harvests totaling up to 24 metric tons per
hectare (11 tons/acre) of fresh cassava leaf
can sometimes be obtained without signif-
cantly depressing the yield of roots. Careful
harvesting of the top leaves may actually
increase root yield by encouraging the
growth of side shoots. Partial leaf harvest
should be delayed until the plant is at least
six months old, for the best yields of leaf
and the least loss of tuber yield.
As with sweet potato, a fexible system
for growing and using both the roots and
leaves of cassava has enormous potential for
addressing malnutrition and food security
issues. Getting multiple benefts from a
single plant invariably requires greater
management and labor inputs than conven-
tional cropping. However, learning to tease
more food from multi-use crops is another
path to food security for low-income
growers who can rarely aford more land,
fertilizer, or machinery to increase their
Taro, Dasheen, Cocoyam,
Eddoe - Colocasia esculenta
Tannia, Malanga, New cocoyam,
Yauta - Xanthosoma saggittifolium
Belembe, Tannier spinach
- Xanthosoma brasiliense
Tough ofen grouped together with root
crops, these edible members of the Arum
(elephant ear) family, are actually grown
for the starchy corms and cormels; swollen
underground stems that hold undevel-
oped buds for forming new plants. Tey
are also grown for the secondary value of
their edible leaves. Belembe is the excep-
tion, having small corms and being grown
almost exclusively for its leaves. Te
Colocasias likely originated in wetlands
of southern India, while the Xanthosomas
are native to swampy areas of the Amazon
Although they are not eaten on a scale
approaching potatoes, cassava, sweet
potatoes or yams, taro, and tannia are
important sources of calories throughout
much of the humid tropics, especially in
the Pacifc islands. Like cassava, taro and
tannia have chemical defense systems to
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
discourage animals from eating their roots
and leaves. It is actually a combination
of physical and chemical strategies that
protects the aroids. Needle-sharp raphides,
or oxalate crystals, puncture the skin of
animals and allow an enzyme to react with
sof tissue, causing swelling and soreness
of the tongue, lips, and throat. Fortunately,
thorough cooking defeats this defensive
strategy, giving humans an advantage over
non-cooking animal species.
Taro and tannia are tropical perennials.
Tey prefer average temperatures in the
range of 2127C (7080F), and fail to
grow at temperatures below 15C (60F).
All of the aroids are normally propagated
from corms or cormels, or from sets formed
by cutting the top 3 cm (1 in) of the corm
together with about 12 cm (45 in) of
petiole (leaf stem). Te sets tend to produce
roots more quickly than the corms. Tey
also have the advantage of allowing most of
the corm to be used as food, rather than for
Taro can be grown as an upland crop
or a lowland crop. Lowland taro is grown
in conditions similar to paddy rice and is
normally planted at the start of the rainy
season. It is generally grown more inten-
sively, with higher planting densities and
correspondingly higher yields. Upland
taro needs consistently moist soil but not
fooding. It is more shade tolerant than
lowland taro and is ofen intercropped with
maize or beans. Tannia is always grown
as an upland crop because it wont tolerate
fooding, though it too thrives in consis-
tently moist soil conditions.
Upland taro is ready for harvest in 8
to 9 months, tannier in 9 to 10 months,
and lowland taro in 12 to 15 months. Taro
yields are typically about one and half times
greater than tannier. Tis is partly because
most of the tannier corms are too fbrous to
eat, so only the cormels are eaten. Despite
this, tannier production is replacing taro in
much of the world, especially in Africa. It is
considered easier to grow, more adaptable
to shade and low fertility soils, and more
resistant to drought and disease.
Te leaves and the leaf stems (petioles)
are usually harvested casually with no
noticeable reduction of corm yield. Tere
are likely optimal harvest schedules to
maximize the overall production of both
leaf and corm, but little quantifable
research has been done to develop these
schedules. Both the leaves and petioles
have a mild pleasant favor and, as noted
earlier, both need to be well cooked before
eating. Te petioles are eaten somewhat like
asparagus, though they ofer little in the
way of nutrition.
As with most multi-use crops, the leaves
of taro are far more nutritionally dense
than the starchy storage organs. On a dry
weight basis the corms supply 2025%
more calories than the leaves. However,
taro leaves provide roughly 7 times more
protein, 8 times more iron, 5 times more
calcium, 12 times more folate, 20 times
more vitaminC, and 70 times more
vitaminA activity than an equal weight of
the corms.
For both taro and tannier, leaf produc-
tion is usually very strong until about 16
weeks afer planting when plants focus on
storing energy in their corms and cormels.
In areas that have at least 16 weeks of warm
weather, but not the 32 weeks or longer
required for corm production, taro, and
tannier could probably be grown, like
belembe, as purely leaf crops.
One of the major obstacles to this
strategy is the lack of vegetative planting
stock outside of areas where the crop is
traditionally grown. It is always easier and
cheaper to transport seed to a location with
a limited market than to transport stem
cuttings, tubers, or corms. As gardeners
and consumers become more adventurous,
opportunities for specialty markets may
present themselves to adventurous nursery
businesses or non-profts involved in agri-
culture and nutrition. Propagation stock
for tropicals grown just for their leaf crops
could fall into this category. Teir combina-
tion of mild favor, impressive nutritional
value and high yields make the leaves of
edible aroids attractive targets for further
development as vegetable crops.
Quinoa - Chenopodium quinoa
Quinoa is native to the foothills of the
Andes Mountains, where it has been
grown for over 6,000 years. Considered a
sacred plant by the Incas, quinoa produc-
tion diminished greatly afer the Spanish
invasion. For the last 400 years it has been
a relatively minor regional crop. Recently
quinoa seed has gained popularity in the
international health food market as an
alternative to rice and other true grains
(seeds of annual grasses). It contains more
total protein (1218%) and a better balance
of essential amino acids than true grains,
which are all defcient in lysine. Quinoa
also lacks gluten, a protein in wheat that
many people have an adverse reaction to.
What is more, the starch granules in quinoa
seed are very small and easily digested.
Along with spinach, beets, and
Swiss chard, quinoa is a member of the
Chenopodium family, and thus not a true
grain (edible seed of the grass family).
While the seed is by far the more impor-
tant food, quinoa greens have also been
eaten and appreciated wherever the crop
is grown. Young quinoa leaves make a
potherb nearly indistinguishable from the
greens of the common weed lambsquarters.
Quinoa is a hardy crop, growing at
elevations up to 4,000 meters (13,000 f). It
is tolerant of drought and saline soil, but
produces much better with an even supply
of moisture and deep, well drained soil. Te
seeds sprout very quickly and are protected
from birds and other animals by a coating
of bitter saponins. When the seeds will be
used for eating, these saponins are removed
by rinsing or abrasion before the seeds are
Quinoa greens are rich in protein,
iron, calcium, vitaminA and vitaminC.
Unfortunately, like all the members of this
family, quinoa also has relatively high levels
of oxalic acid in its leaves, which makes
its calcium less readily absorbed in the
human body. Unless someone is genetically
inclined to form kidney stones, a moderate
amount of dietary oxalic acid in an other-
wise adequate diet appears to be harmless.
Leaves for greens should be harvested
before the plant fowers. Andean farmers
thin overcrowded young plants and use
the thinnings for greens. Careful partial
harvest of leaves before seeds form will
result in the highest total nutrient produc-
tion for a given area. Optimizing systems
for combined yield of quinoa leaf and seed
harvest will likely depend on availability of
labor and markets for the greens. Quinoa
greens are usually eaten by the farmers as
a fringe beneft or sold casually in local
Grain Amaranth - Amaranthus
hypochondriacus, A. cruentus,
and A. caudatus
Te name amaranth comes from a
Greek word meaning life everlasting.
Tis seems like an odd name for a plant
family comprised mainly of about 500
fast growing annuals. Most of the worlds
amaranths are used as leafy vegetables or as
ornamentals, but in the western hemisphere
amaranth seeds became important staple
foods. Two of the three amaranth species
that have been grown for their grain,
A. hypochondriacus and A. cruentus,
are native to southern Mexico, while A.
caudatus is native to the Andes region
of South America. Te grain amaranths
were among the very frst plants that were
systematically improved by breeding.
Mesoamerican children were given the task
of sorting through piles of seed and sepa-
rating out the occasional white seeds. Tese
were grown in separate plots until varieties
with only white seeds were developed. Te
white seeded amaranth had lower levels of
tannin, and thus was milder tasting and
more easily digested.
Like quinoa, grain amaranth produc-
tion dropped sharply with the Spanish
invasion of the Americas. It was estimated
that 20,000 tons of grain amaranth were
brought annually in tribute to Moctezuma,
the Aztec Emperor in Tenochtitlan in the
years preceding the conquest by Cortez.
Te Catholic Spanish banned the culti-
vation of amaranth because the ground
amaranth seeds were sometimes mixed
with human blood and shaped into snakes,
birds, mountains, deer, or gods, and eaten
during Aztec religious ceremonies
Grain amaranth is now making a
modest resurgence in Latin America, and
in North America and Europe, where it is
a specialty health food product. Te most
intensive production of grain amaranth,
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
however, has shifed to northern India. Te
amaranth seed pseudo-grain is consider-
ably richer in protein than the true grains,
and the protein has a surplus of the essen-
tial amino acid lysine which is defcient in
corn, wheat, and rice.
All of the amaranths employ the C4
photosynthetic metabolism. Tis is a varia-
tion on the photosynthetic system used by
corn, sugar cane, sorghum, and other plants
to maximize growth in hot dry climates
with intense sunlight. Broadleaf C4 plants
are rare, and this attribute gives amaranth
unusual drought tolerance for a shallow-
rooted plant. Tey will grow in a wide
range of soils but prefer sandy soils with
good drainage and a slight acidic pH. Most
amaranths are sensitive to cold weather, but
among the grain amaranths, A. caudatus,
which developed high in the Andes
Mountains, has some tolerance to cold.
Te leaves of all the grain amaranths
are eaten casually for greens. Sometimes
the seed is over-planted and the thin-
nings are eaten as greens. A. cruentus has
traditionally been grown as a combination
leaf and seed crop. Te Hopis in the US
southwest developed brilliant red varieties
that produced well in that hot dry climate.
It can be planted densely and thinned for
greens but also does well when the growing
tips of the young plants are pinched of.
Tis causes more lateral shoots to form and
these too can be pruned for greens. Leaves
can be harvested at any time until seeds
begin forming, and unless the partial leaf
harvest is too severe, the plants recover to
produce bountiful heads of edible seed.
Enough leaves for a meal can be
harvested from a small patch of A. cruentus
every 2 to 3 weeks, delaying the onset of
seed formation. It is a crop with tremen-
dous potential for gardeners and subsis-
tence farmers because it can be adapted
to so many diferent growing regimens.
It is also easy to save A. cruentus seeds
so that the cost of planting the following
season can be eliminated. Te plant ofen
self-seeds the area where it grows, with
numerous seedlings volunteering in
clusters. Tese can be easily transplanted
to achieve more desirable spacing of the
new crop or allowed to grow until they are
crowded, then harvested as potherbs.
Amaranth leaves are good sources
of protein, calcium, iron, vitaminA,
vitaminC and folate. Although the seeds
are rich in protein-having more than any of
the staple grains on a dry weight basis-the
leaves are richer still, with three times as
much protein as the seeds. Unfortunately,
high levels of oxalic acid somewhat
diminish the absorption of calcium.
Amaranth leaves can also contain uncom-
fortably high amounts of nitrates, espe-
cially when grown with synthetic nitrogen
fertilizers. VitaminC, which is plentiful
in the leaves unless they are overcooked,
helps render the nitrate harmless. Boiling
amaranth leaves, then changing the water
will also remove some of the nitrates.
Traditional Garden Vegetables
with Edible Leaves
Most gardeners are unaware of specifc
leaf crops grown thousands of miles away
in very diferent conditions. What is
surprising is how few gardeners are aware
that many of their traditional garden vege-
table plants also have leaves that are tasty
and nutritious. To make use of these edible
leaves, a somewhat diferent perspective on
gardening is helpful. Rather than viewing
the vegetable garden as simply a place to
produce food, it may be seen as a small but
complex ecosystem. Gardening becomes a
fascinating exercise in guiding the evolu-
tion of that place and integrating oneself
into that miniature ecosystem.
Learning more about the lives of the
plants and the lives in the soil, the gardener
can begin seeing more things of hidden
value within that ecosystem, making the
garden both more productive and more
interesting. Finding multiple uses for
vegetable plants is one of the most impor-
tant discoveries. Tere are no set rules for
determining how the partial harvest of
leaves afects the yield of beetroot, turnips,
pumpkins, or onions. Mastering the inte-
gration of multi-use crops into the garden is
an engaging mix of botanical science, agri-
cultural craf and even a touch of artistry.
Multi-use crops reward the observant and
patient gardener.
Te precautionary principle suggests
that any new food added to the diet be
eaten in small amounts to allow time to
observe any possible allergenic or other
adverse efects. Using younger leaves and
cooking them provides an additional
margin of safety.
Beets - Beta vulgaris
Beets are one of about 150 species of the
Chenopodium family. Originally from
the edges of the Mediterranean Sea, their
coastal origin probably explains their
high tolerance to salt in the soil. Ancient
Romans raised beets mainly for the edible
leaves. Te use of the swollen beetroot
appears later. Swiss chard and sugar beets
are two familiar variations within the same
beet species.
Beets are biennial plants that are almost
always grown as annuals. Tey have deep
taproots that ofer some protection from
drought. What we think of beet seeds are
really hard dried fruits containing up to
eight seeds. Tis accounts for their erratic
germination patterns and the difculty of
getting uniform stands of seedlings. Beets
can tolerate light frosts but grow best at
temperatures between 1620C (6070F).
Tey are somewhat more tolerant of hot
weather than their relative, spinach.
Loose sandy soil is preferred for
production of market quality roots, but
heavier soil is fne for growing beet greens.
A soil pH that is nearly neutral is ideal;
yield is reduced in acid soils. Beets can be
planted every 5 cm (2 in) in rows 2540
cm (1016 in) apart. When they are 58
cm (23 in) tall or when they begin to look
overcrowded, they may be thinned, and the
thinnings eaten in salads or stir-fries. Beets
are a good container plant as long as the
soil is at least 30 cm (12 in) deep. Tey can
be replanted every 3 to 4 weeks throughout
the growing season to maintain a steady
supply of small tender beetroots and greens.
Te strong red color present in most
beets and some beet greens comes from
betacyanin. Tis pigment is thought to
have cancer fghting properties, especially
against colon cancer. Tis anti-cancer efect
likely results from betacyanin increasing
the activity of two powerful antioxidant
enzymes in the liver. Beet juice is some-
times used as a natural food coloring, and
though it is a very healthy food, can cause
alarmingly red urine.
Beet greens can be grown as a separate
crop or as a by-product of growing the
roots. Beetroot yields are usually accept-
able even when up to one-third of the
leaves are carefully harvested for greens.
Cold weather and nitrogen-rich soil favor
production of leaves at the expense of the
edible roots. Compared with their roots,
beet greens contain more than triple the
iron, seven times the calcium, six times the
vitaminC, and 150 times the vitaminA
activity. Beet greens have a slightly coarser
favor and texture than spinach, but they
can be prepared and enjoyed in most of the
same ways.
Squash or Cucurbit family
Summer Squash, Winter Squash,
Pumpkins, Gourds - Cucurbita pepo
Winter Squash, Pumpkins - Cucurbita
mixta, C. maxima, C. moschata,
Cucumber - Cucumis sativus
Chayote - Sechium edule
Bottle Gourd - Lagenaria siceraria
Fluted Pumpkin - Telfaria occidentales
Oyster Nut - Telfaria pedata
Bitter Gourd - Momordica charantia
Lufa - Lufa cylindrica
Wax Gourd - Benincasa hispida
Ivy Gourd - Coccinia grandis
Te squash, or Cucurbitacae, family has
over 800 species originating primarily in
Central and South America and second-
arily in tropical Asia and Africa. Tey
have been useful to humans both as food
and as vessels for at least 10,000 years.
Hard shelled gourds, along with coconuts,
can stay afoat for months and thus were
among the few food plants to have dissemi-
nated across the oceans without human
Most cucurbits are annuals that use
tendrils to climb whatever nearby structure
or plant is handy. Some, like pumpkins,
have more of a low sprawling habit. A few
varieties of edible squash have even been
bred for the plant to have a compact upright
bush form. Oyster nut and ivy gourds
are perennials and can actually become
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
troublesome invasive plants in the tropics.
Tey should be planted with great caution
if at all, and not be introduced into areas
where they are not already grown.
Although tropical in origin, many
members of the squash family are quite
well adapted to the temperate zone. None,
however, have developed signifcant frost
tolerance. Tey grow best with tempera-
tures in the 2530C (7786F) and should
not be planted until the soil is thoroughly
warmed in the spring.
All of the squashes and gourds are
heavy feeders that thrive in rich, well
drained soil. Most do best with about 2.5
cm (1 in) of water a week, although some,
such as bufalo gourd, have more drought
tolerance. Tere are several important
pests of the cucurbit family. Tese include
squash vine borers, which are the larvae
of small grey moths that infest the stems
of squash plants; cucumber beetles and
squash bugs. If the plants can be protected
with foating row covers until they begin
fowering, most of the insect problems can
be avoided. It is difcult to keep climbing
plants covered that long, but even a few
weeks of early protection will greatly lessen
insect damage. Sometimes moving the
sowing date of cucurbits up or back by a
week or two will reduce the intensity of
insect attacks.
Cucurbits are grown for a variety of
useful products. Immature fruits, such
as cucumbers and zucchini, and mature
fruits, such as pumpkins and butternut
squash, are the most familiar. Te hard
shelled gourds are used for ornaments, as
containers of all sorts and even as resona-
tors on stringed instruments. Loofahs
are valued for the strong sponge-like
fber inside mature fruits, and are used
for scrubbers and in flters, as well as for
their immature fruits that are eaten like
zucchinis. Te seeds of many cucurbits are
eaten informally, and pumpkin seeds are
a well known and commercially marketed
food. Tey are rich in oil and protein.
What is not at all well known, especially
in Europe, North, and South America, is
that the leaves of most cucurbit plants are
edible and nutritious. Asian and African
cultures value the leaves of futed pumpkin,
ivy gourd, chayote, oyster nut and bitter
gourd among others and these will ofen
be seen in local markets. Tey are almost
always cooked and typically prepared in
soups or sauces that add favor, vitamins,
and minerals to bland starchy staple foods,
especially rice, maize, sorghum, millet, and
cassava. Generally pumpkin leaves are not
exactly delicious but neither are they unpal-
atable. Te favor of bitter gourd leaves
on the other hand are, as the name would
suggest, very bitter. Leaves that are bitter or
mucilaginous are sometimes cherished in
African and Asian diets.
Tere are several ways to produce edible
leaves from the squash family. Plants grown
just for leaves can be sown much more
densely than when grown for the fruits.
Alternatively, they can be planted densely
and repeatedly thinned until they reach a
good plant density for growing pumpkins
or squash, usually about 120 cm (4 f) apart.
In this case the thinnings are eaten for
greens, leaving space for the few remaining
plants to mature. Tis strategy works best
when seed is cheap or plentiful and espe-
cially if you save your own seeds.
Plants can also be grown as they
normally would be for fruits, with some
limited harvesting of leaves. Light partial
leaf harvest usually wont depress the yield
of fruit. Another technique is to plant
lefover seed late in the season when there
is not sufcient time for fruit to form but
there is still plenty of growing season for a
good crop of leaves.
Turnips - Brassica rapa var. rapa
Turnips are an annual or sometimes
biennial plant with a swollen storage root,
that have long been used for food and
fodder, and as described earlier, as a cover
crop. Turnips are an ancient crop that
traveled with Alexander the Great on his
conquests. Te Irish used them as jack-o-
lanterns long before Americans replaced
them with pumpkins for Halloween. Tey
are one of the easiest of all crops to grow
and they thrive in most climates and soil
types. Tey are temperate zone plants but
also do well in higher elevations in the
Turnips are really two nutritious
vegetables in one: the smooth white or
purple-topped roots and the leafy green
tops. While some cultivars such as Shogoin
are grown mainly as a leaf crop, and others,
like Purple Top, are grown mainly for
roots, most turnip varieties will produce
good yields of both. Tey can be sown in
early spring or in late summer for a fall
crop. Seed is usually cheap, so it is feasible
to broadcast turnips and thin them as they
begin crowding each other, or to grow them
as a cover crop.
Tinnings make excellent greens. While
partial harvesting of leaves can somewhat
reduce the yield of roots, turnips are such
a productive, low maintenance crop that
an abundant harvest of both greens and
roots is within the reach of even novice
Both parts of the turnip are nutri-
tious vegetables, but again the green leaves
outperform the roots. Turnip greens are
one of the best sources of the beta-carotene
that is converted to vitaminA, while the
roots lack this nutrient. Compared to the
roots, turnip greens also have 3 times the
iron and vitaminC, 6 times the calcium,
and 13 times the folate.
Radish - Raphanus sativus
Radishes are annuals in the mustard family,
usually grown for their edible swollen roots,
though some varieties are used for fodder
and cover crops. Tey originated in the area
around the Caspian Sea, and spread rapidly
along trade routes. Radishes are now grown
nearly worldwide, though they favor cooler
locations. Tey range from the size of a
small marble to that of a basketball, and
their shape varies from spherical to long
and slender. Small radishes can be sown
at the frst sign of spring and harvested 3
to 5 weeks later. Te larger Asian varieties
usually take about 8 to 10 weeks from
sowing till harvesting. Radishes must grow
rapidly with abundant soil moisture or the
roots can become tough and harsh favored.
Tey are sometimes interplanted with
lettuce or carrots.
Smaller radishes are usually eaten raw
while the larger ones may be stir-fried or
used in soups. Tey all share the charac-
teristic sharp favor of horseradish and
mustard, derived mainly from sulfur-
bearing compounds called glucosinolates.
Tese are primary cancer fghting phyto-
chemicals and give radishes a potentially
important role in preventive health care.
Tough not nearly as popular as beet or
turnip greens, the leaves of radishes make
a passable potherb. Te raw leaves are a bit
furry but even brief cooking eliminates the
leaf hairs or trichomes. One of the good
things about radishes as a multi-use crop
is that there is little confict between the
use of the leaves and the yield of the roots.
Because the roots are grown more for crisp-
ness than maximum size, the leaves can
just be harvested together with the roots,
and then prepared separately. Radish leaves
have about 6 times more vitaminC than
the roots, and substantially higher levels of
vitaminA, folate, calcium, and protein.
Onion - Allium cepa
Onions are a nearly universal food origi-
nally from Central Asia. While generally
cool season vegetables, some varieties
are adapted to the tropics as well. Onions
and garlic are members of the lily family.
Although there are several perennial
members of the onion family, the common
bulb onion is a biennial almost always
grown as an annual. Onions can be started
from seeds, sets, or bulbs. Te onion bulb
is actually comprised of the swollen bases
of leaves. Above the bulb 3 to 8 leaf blades
form. Tey are hollow and grow nearly
Dry and cool conditions favor optimal
growth of both leaves and bulbs. Onions
grow well on soil pH from 5.6 to 7.0, but
abundant soil calcium is needed to improve
disease tolerance. Rotating the location of
onion planting every year helps prevent
common fungal diseases. Usually the best
quality and longest keeping onion bulbs are
obtained by planting seed, but crops can
develop several weeks faster from planting
sets or tiny bulbs. Onions have shallow
roots and compete poorly with weeds. For
this reason frequent shallow cultivation or a
layer of mulch is benefcial.
Afer fve hollow leaves have formed,
some leaves can be snipped of to use
as greens with little damage to bulb
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
production. Tere is no sure formula for
knowing how much leaf can be harvested
before bulb yield declines unacceptably. It
is relatively easy to experiment with two or
three small onion patches to get a feel for
it. Te total yield of useful vegetables from
combining partial leaf harvest with bulb
harvest will always exceed bulb yield alone.
Cut the leaves cleanly rather than tearing
them of in order to minimize bacterial or
fungal problems.
Lefover onion sets can be planted
densely in containers to provide a nearly
continual supply of onion leaves for
favoring dishes or to spice up salads. Any
surplus of onion leaves can be easily dried
and later used as fakes or powder to add
to sauces and other dishes. Some West
African cultures cut all the leaves that are
still green at bulb harvest and pound them
into a pulp that is then fermented and sun-
dried for use later in seasoning stews and
soups. Drying the leaves quickly but out of
sunlight will preserve much more of the
Recognizing the value of the onions
green leaves increases the already impres-
sive culinary adaptability of this vegetable.
Tey are an excellent source of vitaminA
and supply roughly twice the calcium, iron,
vitaminC and folate as an equal weight of
onion bulbs. Onion leaves stimulate the
bodys production of glutathione, a key
cancer fghting antioxidant.
Garlic - Allium sativum
Garlic is thought to have originated in
semi-arid parts of Central Asia, and
growing garlic in Egypt dates back nearly
4,000 years. It is now grown throughout
most of the world. Garlic is a close relative
of onion, with a distinctive pungent favor
and aroma. China and Korea produce over
70% of the worlds garlic. Tere people eat
enough garlic to consider it a vegetable,
rather than a favoring agent.
While primarily used as a favoring
for a great many dishes, garlic also has a
rich history of use as a botanical medicine.
Unlike many herbal medicines, garlic has
held up well to scientifc investigations.
Among documented efects, garlic inhibits
bacterial and fungal infections, lowers
blood cholesterol, and reduces the risk of
stomach cancer
Garlic forms a bulb, somewhat like
onion, except that it is normally comprised
of a cluster of 5 to 20 cloves. It is propagated
by planting the cloves. Garlic prefers a light
loam soil and, like onion, does not compete
well with weeds. Frequent shallow weeding
or mulch will increase yield. It is susceptible
to soil acidity and aluminum toxicity.
As with onion, the green leaves provide
the garlic grower with a bonus vegetable.
Little is written about the optimal strate-
gies for combining a harvest of leaf and
bulb. Te leaves will have greater nutri-
tional value for the same weight, especially
of vitaminA. Tey contain most of the
compounds that give garlic its character-
istic favor and its medicinal properties.
Garlic leaves are easy to dry, and powdered
garlic leaves make an excellent addition
to the kitchen spice rack. Combining
garlic leaf and bulb harvest is another
productive food strategy waiting for more
Bell and Chili Peppers - Capsicum annuum
Bird Peppers - Capsicum frutescens
Aromatic Hot Peppers - Capsicum chinense
Capsicum annuum is a plant species with
a huge variety of fruits, ranging from
the sweet and bland to fery hot. All of
the Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum
chinense varieties are spicy hot. All three
species along with about 22 other related
pepper species evolved between southern
Mexico and the Amazon region. Te
three primary species have been crossed
numerous times both naturally and
through cultivation. As a result many
intermediate forms occur and the lines
separating species and varieties of peppers
have become blurred. Bell (sweet) peppers
are mild favored vegetables used in salads
and a variety of cooked dishes including
stufed peppers. Sweet pepper is eaten in
large enough quantities to be considered
a vegetable, while the spicier peppers are
eaten in smaller quantities as a condiment
or spice.
Sweet peppers are adapted to somewhat
cooler conditions than hot pepper, but all
the peppers are heat loving, frost sensitive
plants. Tey can be grown in partial shade
though this may delay fruit formation. Tey
prefer slightly acid, well drained soils and
are somewhat sensitive to waterlogging and
to soil salinity.
Te young pepper leaves can be used
in soups and stews. A chicken stew called
tinola in the Philippines is probably the
most famous dish employing pepper leaves.
Only modest amounts of pepper leaves
should be eaten as they contain two mildly
toxic compounds.
Common Okra - Abelmoschus esculentus or
West African Okra - Abelmoschus caillei
Okra is an annual plant in the hibiscus
family. A native of Africa, it came to the
Western Hemisphere with the slave trade
and has now established itself in many
of the worlds tropical and sub-tropical
regions. Okra is particularly popular
in West Africa, India, the Philippines,
Tailand, and Brazil. It is almost always
grown primarily for its mild favored,
famously mucilaginous immature fruit.
However, edible oil has been extracted
from the seeds, and use of okra leaves as a
potherb is fairly common.
Te plant is very tolerant of heat and
drought and is rarely damaged by insect
pests. It adapts to diferent soils but the
ideal is a slightly acidic, well drained, sandy
soil with plenty of organic matter. Okra
usually will thrive as long as it gets full
sunlight and adequate water in its frst few
weeks, but it is a tropical plant that wont
tolerate frost. In Africa growers tend to
prefer common okra in dry areas and West
African okra in wetter climates.
Okra seed has a tough coat and will
germinate much better if it is soaked
overnight before planting. It needs warm
conditions for good germination and early
growth. Seeds can be planted 12 cm (1/2
in) deep and 5 cm (2 in) apart in rows and
thinned two or three times as they begin
to crowd each other. Te thinnings can be
eaten in soups or stews. It is helpful to have
single rows of okra so that it is not neces-
sary to reach across plants to harvest. Tis
is because the okra plant defends itself by
covering all of its parts with trichomes
that contain enzymes that can irritate the
skin of some people. About one third of all
gardeners are sensitive to these enzymes
and do well to wear gloves and long sleeved
shirts when working with okra plants.
Brief cooking neutralizes these defensive
enzymes in both the pods and the leaves.
When growing okra for its edible
leaves, it can be planted more densely
and the leaves continually harvested as
they compete for space. Te most attrac-
tive strategy for gardeners and small
subsistence farmers, however, may be to
partially harvest the leaves for potherbs
but not so aggressively that pod formation
is prevented. As with many multi-purpose
crops a harvest schedule can favor either
leaf or fruit and developing an optimal
combination of leaf and fruit harvests will
require some experimentation. If done
carefully, partial leaf harvesting may delay
fruit harvesting somewhat without signif-
cantly lowering the yield. Te total yield
of protein and most other nutrients will
always be higher from a combination leaf
and fruit harvest than from harvesting only
okra fruits.
Okra leaves are a bit coarser than
spinach but can be used in most any recipe
calling for greens. Tey have a slightly
tangy favor from oxalic acid and are ofen
used to thicken soups and stews. Okra
leaves can be dried and powdered for use
as a nutritious thickening agent. Tey are
extraordinarily rich in calcium and could
be a useful vegetable source of this nutrient
in communities where dairy products are
not widely eaten. Okra is a thrify self-
reliant plant with edible pods and leaves,
and as if that were not enough, dazzling
yellow to reddish fowers.
Bush okra, Jute Mallow, Jews Mallow,
Tossa Jute, Mulukhiyah, Molokhia -
Corchorus olitorius
Bush okra is not related to okra or West
African okra except in name. It is an
annual plant that is probably native to
Africa that is grown as a source of jute fber.
It is also a leading leaf vegetable in much of
Africa and is also widely grown and eaten
in the Caribbean, Brazil, India, Bangladesh,
China, Japan, and the Middle East. It can
grow over 2 meters (6 feet) tall but is usually
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
pruned to keep at a convenient height for
harvesting. Varieties of this plant grown for
jute fber are quite diferent from the leaf
vegetable varieties and can grow up to 5
meters (16 feet) tall.
Bush okra fourishes in hot and humid
conditions. It stops growing at tempera-
tures below 15 C (59 F). Because it is a
fast growing plant good harvests can be
obtained in warmer temperate regions
as well throughout most of the tropics.
In Kentucky, USA, at 37 north latitude,
it thrives especially if started with some
protection a couple of weeks earlier than
other frost sensitive plants. At least 600 mm
(24 inches) but not more than 2000 mm (79
inches) of rainfall is ideal. It prefers sandy
loam soils rich in organic matter and grows
poorly on heavy clay.
Bush okra can be directly seeded in the
garden or grown from transplanted seed-
lings. Typically, transplanted bush okra
is harvested by repeated cuttings, while
direct-sown plants are harvested just once.
Te single harvest can be done either by
uprooting or cutting at ground level when
the plants are 3040 cm (1216 inches) tall.
Transplanted bush okra is usually pruned
at a height of 1020 cm (48 inches) above
the ground. Tis stimulates the develop-
ment of side shoots. Te frst harvest (46
weeks afer transplanting) is taken by
cutting shoots 2030 cm (812 inches) long.
Subsequent harvests may be taken every 3
weeks, up to 8 times.
Bush okra is generally not bothered
much by insect pests but is very susceptible
to root-knot nematodes. Allowing adequate
spacing for good air movement between
plants reduces the likelihood of viral or
fungal attack. Yields depend greatly on the
soil fertility but repeated harvesting consis-
tently out produces the all at once harvest.
Bush okra leaves are very perish-
able and are usually sold the day they are
harvested or dried for later use. Tey have
a slightly bitter favor and are somewhat
mucilaginous, like okra. Te leaves either
fresh or dried are valued for their ability
to thicken soups and stews. It is one of the
most nutritious vegetables, being especially
rich in iron, calcium, beta-carotene, and
Quail Grass, Soko, Lagos Spinach,
Nigerian Spinach Celosia argentea
Quail grass is closely related to the
amaranths. Originally from West and
Central Africa, it is widely grown as a
nutritious potherb and as an ornamental
throughout much of the world. It is espe-
cially popular as a vegetable in West Africa
where it is ofen sold in half kilo bundles in
the markets.
Quail grass prefers a soil rich in organic
matter. Like amaranth it is frost sensitive.
In fact, quail grass grows poorly at temper-
atures below 20 C (68 F) so it is not suited
to most high elevation tropical gardens.
Unlike amaranth, quail grass uses the C-3
photosynthetic pathway which makes it
much better suited for growing in partial
Quail grass seed can be broadcast,
but the seed is tiny and it is difcult to get
an even stand of plants that is not over-
crowded. Transplanting seedlings from
a starting bed or from volunteer plants
results in better yield and easier manage-
ment. Te transplants can be set at about
15 cm (6 inches) apart in all directions.
Te plants can be uprooted 4 weeks afer
transplanting, or pruned to encourage
growth of side shoots. Four or fve harvests
can usually be made at two week intervals
before fowering begins. Yields are generally
lower than those of amaranth.
Quail grass is less bothered by insects
than amaranth. In hot humid conditions it
is somewhat prone to fungal disease. Root
knot nematodes can also be a problem,
although adding organic matter to the soil
reduces the damage.
Quail grass is always cooked and the
favor is better when the cooking water
is discarded. It is a good source of iron,
vitaminA and vitaminC. Unfortunately,
oxalic acid reduces the nutritional value of
the minerals in quail grass. Preliminary
tests with the leaves and the seeds of quail
grass have shown some promising anti-viral
properties as well as potential lowering of
blood sugar. It is extremely easy to grow
and a very attractive plant.
Amaranth, Josephs Coat, Tampala
Amaranthus tricolor
Native to South Asia, Amaranth tricolor
is an annual leaf crop that was domesti-
cated in prehistoric times. It grows quickly
up to a meter high. Varieties with bright
red, yellow, and green leaves are grown
throughout the world as ornamentals. Like
sugar cane, it uses the C-4 photosynthetic
pathway which makes it especially efcient
at producing food in bright sunlight and
high temperatures.
Amaranth grows best in well-drained
soils rich in organic matter. It is frost sensi-
tive and doesnt do well in cool or shady
conditions. It requires a steady supply of
water and may fower prematurely if the soil
is allowed to dry out completely between
rains. Soluble nitrogen fertilizers should
be avoided because amaranth can become
excessively high in nitrates.
Amaranthus tricolor usually germinates
in 35 days and begins fowering in about
5 weeks. Seed is normally either broadcast
thinly over a bed or sown in narrow rows,
1224 cm (510 inches) apart. Seedlings are
very susceptible to damping of and dont
transplant well. Te bed may need to be
weeded once before the amaranth creates
its own cover. It is subject to attack by a
fairly wide range of insects, though nema-
todes and viruses are rarely a problem.
Where it is grown commercially
amaranth is usually uprooted or cut at
ground level afer 34 weeks. Pinching
the lead stems will cause it to branch out
and will increase the number of partial
leaf harvests and the total yield. Yields can
be up to 200 kg of edible greens from a 10
square meter garden bed (440 pounds from
100 square feet).
Amaranthus tricolor is very nutri-
tious as a cooked leaf vegetable. It is
rich in protein, iron, calcium, magne-
sium, vitaminA and vitaminC. Oxalic
acid content can limit the availability of
minerals. Nitrates can be kept lower by
removing stems and not growing with
synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Unless more
than 200 grams (about one half pound) per
day is consumed these anti-nutrients are
unlikely to be a problem.
Spiderplant, Cats Whiskers, Spider
Flower, Bastard Mustard Cleome
Spiderplant or cats whiskers is an annual
herb growing up to 150 cm (60 inches) tall.
It probably originated in south Asia, but is
now grown as a vegetable and as an orna-
mental throughout the world. Te young
leaves are especially popular as a potherb in
southern Africa.
Spiderplant prefers soil that is slightly
acid, well-drained and relatively rich in
organic matter. It wont tolerate frost and
doesnt grow well below 15 C (60 F).
Because it uses the C-4 photosynthetic
system spiderplant thrives on intense
sunlight and high temperature and is not
very shade tolerant.
It is ofen grown from volunteers that
can be transplanted when they are very
young to achieve optimal spacing. When
spiderplant is sown it is usually grown
in rows spaced 3060 cm (1224 inches)
apart. Seeds germinate in 48 days. Tree
weeks later they can be thinned to about
1020 cm (48 inches) between the plants.
Spiderplant is slightly prone to powdery
mildew and is frequently attacked by
aphids, fea beetles, and nematodes. On the
other hand it repels some insects and has
been intercropped with beans and cabbage
family plants to reduce the damage they
sufer from diamond back moth larvae and
Leaves are usually harvested by pruning
the growing tips every two weeks. Tis
encourages more side shoots and increases
the total yield. Harvest can be extended
by supplying plentiful water and shading
the plants. Older leaves develop a strong
bitter favor, so harvest is focused on young
leaves. With careful management a yield of
3 kg of fresh leaf per square meter (7 pound
in 10 square feet) of garden is feasible.
Spiderplant leaves are rich in protein,
iron, and calcium. Tey ofen cooked
with milk, peanuts, or mixed with milder
favored greens to make the favor more
appealing. Te leaves are frequently dried
for use when fresh leaves are hard to fnd.
Most ofen they are blanched or boiled then
formed into small balls before sun drying.
Te balls of dried leaf are soaked for several
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
hours before being added to soups. Much
of the nutritional value is lost in preserving
the leaves this way. An improved, but still
simple, indirect drying process could make
spiderplant a more valuable food. It is very
easy to grow, has attractive fowers and is
an excellent source of dietary iron.
African nightshade, black nightshade,
garden huckleberry Solanum scabrum
African nightshade is an annual plant
in the same family as potato, tomato,
and eggplant. It originated in the humid
lowlands of West Africa where it is a
popular potherb grown mainly in home
gardens. It is most ofen used to favor
starchy staples such as maize, cassava,
plantains, sweet potatoes and yams. It has
a somewhat bitter favor due to alkaloids,
especially the mildly toxic solanine.
African nightshade prefers a warm
humid climate and doesnt tolerate frost.
Germination of seeds is spotty. Because
of this it is ofen started in seed beds and
later transplanted. It can also be propagated
by stem cuttings, although plants started
this way are not as strong. Transplants or
cuttings are typically spaced every 20 cm
(8 inches) in rows about 30 cm (12 inches)
apart. In very humid conditions wider
spacing is sometimes used to reduce the
risk of fungal and bacterial disease.
Nightshade is prone to many of same
diseases as tomato, including early and late
blight. It can also be eaten by ants, grass-
hoppers, aphids, and nematodes. Sifed
wood ashes are ofen used to control insect
damage. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer
should be avoided to prevent high levels of
nitrate in the leaves.
Harvest typically begins 5 weeks
afer transplanting. Shoots are pruned to
encourage the growth of side shoots. Leaves
can be harvested 36 times at an interval
of about ten days. Te shoots and leaves
are very tender and perishable. Sometimes
whole plants are uprooted and the roots put
under water to keep them looking fresh in
the market.
African nightshade is popular in West
and Central Africa, but the reality is that
there are other leaf crops available that
ofer greater beneft. It has good levels of
beta-carotene and calcium but little iron
or other minerals and vitamins. Because of
the bitterness it needs to have its cooking
water refreshed. Difculty in germination
may be another limiting factor in its wider
Glossy nightshade, Hierba Mora
Solanum americanum
Probably native to South America, glossy
nightshade is now widely distributed
throughout the tropics. It is less popular
in West Africa but more popular in Latin
America than African nightshade. Te two
plants are very similar to in most respects.
Te two are ofen mistaken for each other,
as well as for other related members of this
family with edible leaves. Te confusion is
partly due to the casual use of overlapping
common names.
Glossy nightshade is ofen gathered
from wild stands. When it is cultivated
it is mainly grown in coastal lowlands
and around the edges of lakes and rivers.
It prefers hot humid weather and wont
tolerate frost. It will grow in partial shade
but not as vigorously as it does in full
It is normally started from seed in beds
and then transplanted with a spacing of
30 cm (12 inches) in each direction. If it is
kept pruned, side shoots can be harvested
up to 6 times before the plant fowers.
Te bitterness increases as the leaves get
older. Millipedes, snails, locust, and aphids
have been reported to be pests of glossy
Although generally less bitter than
African nightshade, it is still too bitter to
be appealing to children. Changing the
cooking water helps somewhat. Glossy
nightshade is ofen mixed with amaranth
greens, milk, peanuts, or sesame to reduce
the bitterness. Te fruits, especially before
they ripen, are considered inedible due
to high levels of alkaloids. Its nutritional
composition and productivity are similar
to African nightshade. Both of these leaf
crops would have greater potential use in
the diet if stable varieties with lower levels
of solanine were developed and made
commercially available. Most of the work
with breeding that is currently being done
is very casual and local in nature.
Perennial Leaf Vegetable Crops
Most plants are either annuals or peren-
nials. Te bulk of our diet comes from
annuals such as rice, corn, wheat, squash,
and peas that normally live for one year and
need to be replanted the next. Perennial
plants are ones that live for more than two
Every serious attempt at designing
a more durable food system includes a
much larger role for perennial food plants.
Perennial crops ofer several important
ecological advantages. Tey usually have
deeper, more extensive root systems than
annual plants. Tis means they are better
at preventing soil erosion, and better at
securing scarce water and nutrients from
deep in the subsoil. Once established,
perennials are usually able to compete
better with weeds than annuals. Because
their roots and stems are already estab-
lished, perennials spend a much smaller
percentage of their lives in the vulnerable
stage of tender seedlings.
Te biggest advantage of perennial food
crops is that the agricultural soil doesnt
need to be tilled every year to prepare new
seedbeds. In recent years, no till seedbed
preparation techniques have become more
popular for annual crops, but they generally
depend on massive applications of herbi-
cide. Perennial crops can drastically reduce
the cost of seed and the expense of tilling
the land. More importantly perennial crops
protect the farm or garden soil year round
from rain, wind, and sun damage. Soil
erosion must be minimized to ensure long
term food production capacity. Te rate of
loss of prime agricultural soil at the begin-
ning of each cycle of annual food crops is
hundreds or thousands of times faster than
the rate at which that soil is created.
With these signifcant advantages, why
dont perennials play a more important role
in our food systems? Agriculture began
with the collecting and selective breeding
of annual plant seeds. Seeds, especially the
seeds of annual grasses, became the basis
of agricultural civilization because they are
nearly complete nutritionally, they can be
stored for long periods of time, and they are
compact enough to justify transporting.
Because their reproductive cycle is
faster it is generally much easier to breed
new varieties of annual plants than peren-
nials. Centuries of selective breeding have
created annual crops with the humanly
edible portion maximized. Other economi-
cally useful traits, such as lack of bitterness
and uniform height and time of ripening,
have also been bred into annual crops.
Perennials, especially tropical perennials,
have more ofen been lef in a semi-wild
state with larger and more unpredictable
genetic variations. As agriculture became
more mechanized and foods became
international trade commodities, breeding
eforts focused on high yield and suitability
for machine harvest, while soil erosion has
been largely an externalized cost.
Another reason for the dominance
of annual leaf crops comes from colonial
history. While Europeans were quite enthu-
siastic about exotic tropical fruits, even
to the point of trying to raise pineapples
under glass, they were less appreciative of
tropical leaf crops. Much of the breeding
efort with vegetables was aimed at making
familiar temperate zone annual vegetables
more available in the colonies, rather than
testing new possibilities. Te underlying
assumption was that civilized people ate
cabbage, lettuce, and spinach with their
roast beef and potatoes, not exotic peren-
nials like katuk, chaya, and chipilin.
Regrettably this colonial attitude towards
vegetables has been internalized in many
of the tropical cultures, and traditional
European temperate vegetables ofen retain
a higher social status than local perennials.
So what can be done about this now?
Tere are a few things that can be under-
taken on the individual level to enlarge the
role of perennial leaf crops in the temperate
zone. Te frst of these measures is to
acknowledge and make some use of the
good temperate perennial leaf crops that
we already have. Some of these, like nettles,
sorrel, Good King Henry, and watercress
are relatively well known. Others, such
as wolferry, musk mallow and linden,
are eaten mainly by a relatively small
clan of foragers, permaculturalists, and
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
ethno-botanists. Eric Toensmeiers book
Perennial Vegetables is an excellent jumping
of point for learning about temperate zone
perennial leaf crops.
Another strategy for bringing peren-
nial leaf crops to the worlds temperate
zones is to select and breed more cold hardy
varieties of promising tropical crops. Tis
will likely require institutional backing
and patience, but it may be a productive
strategy in the long run. Publicly supported
university departments and government
agencies along the southern edge of the
temperate zone are in a position to do this
work. A good starting place would be to
screen varieties that had naturally adapted
to cooler climates in the higher elevation of
the tropics. Tere is enormous potential in
breeding more cold hardy tropical peren-
nials. Not only are there vastly more plant
species in the tropics, but far greater genetic
variation remains and as a result, more
potential for plant breeding exists.
In addition to attempting to adapt
tropical perennials to cooler climates,
eforts are under way to directly convert
annuals into perennials. Tis means
fnding keys to reverse the process that
transformed perennials into annuals. It is
thought that many annual food crops were
originally perennials, as is likely the case
with teosinte evolving to become maize.
On the molecular biology level, researchers
in Belgium have recently announced the
discovery of two genes in annual plants that
when deactivated transform the plants into
It is far too early to tell what, if
any, impact this breakthrough will have on
leaf crops.
Lets look at some of the best perennial
leaf crops and how to integrate them into
more sustainable local food systems.
Moringa, Horseradish tree, Drumstick
tree - Moringa oleifera, M. stenopetala
Moringa is a multi-use tropical tree that has
attracted attention from groups working
in public health and nutrition. Moringa
oleifera is a native of India but has now
spread to most of the worlds lowland
tropical regions. Moringa stenopetala is
originally from Africa and is much less well
traveled. Tis African native has larger,
somewhat milder favored leaves. It is more
drought resistant but also slower growing
than its Indian cousin. Both plants can
thrive up to about 2,000 m (6,000 f) eleva-
tion, but typically do better with warmer
tropical climates. Tere are several other
moringa species but these two are by far the
most important.
Moringa is quite adaptable to diferent
soil types. Both types are drought resistant
trees but neither will tolerate waterlogging.
4 Siegbert Melzer, et al., Flowering-Time Genes
Modulate Meristem Determinacy and Growth
Form in Arabidopsis thaliana Nature Genetics
Volume 40 Number 12 December 2008 p. 1489
- 1492
Like most plants, moringa will produce
far more foliage when grown in soil with
adequate organic matter, nitrogen, and
Moringa has relatively few problems
with disease and pests, though it can be
attacked by termites and leaf cutter ants.
It usually recovers quickly from having its
leaves eaten by caterpillars or beetles. Its
leaves are palatable to most animals, and
young plants may need protection from
cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats.
If moringa is grown for seeds as well
as for leaves the spacing can be as wide as
every 34.5 m (1015 f). It makes a pretty
yard tree, that lets enough light through
its branches to grow vegetables or herbs
underneath. If the moringa tree is not
pruned it can quickly become too tall for
easy harvesting of leaves or seed pods.
Moringa is grown in India primarily
for its immature triangular seedpods
called drumsticks, but that it just one of
the many valuable products from this tree.
Te mature seeds are the source of ben oil,
a high quality edible oil. Moringa seeds
are also useful in purifying water. Te
crushed seeds act as a focculent, like alum,
that clumps impurities together, greatly
improving the efciency of fltration.
Moringa roots, before they become too
tough and woody, have traditionally been
grated and used as a substitute for horse-
radish. In fact horseradish tree is one of
its most common names. It is one of the
few plants outside the cabbage or mustard
family that contains sulforaphanes, a class
of powerful cancer fghting antioxidants
that impart a sharp horseradish favor. Te
bark covering the roots should always be
discarded before use and horseradish made
from moringa root should only be eaten in
Overriding these many uses is the
enormous nutritional potential of moringa
leaves. Tey are arguably the most nutri-
tious single vegetable on the planet. Tis
would be sufciently impressive except
that moringa leaves can also be one of
the highest yielding and one of the most
easily grown vegetables, especially in those
regions with the highest levels of malnutri-
tion. Although moringa has been known as
a minor food crop for many years it is only
now getting the full attention of interna-
tional development agencies, agricultural
research institutions and food processors.
Te value of a highly adaptable perennial
crop with all these attributes can hardly be
Tere are several approaches to growing
moringa primarily as a leaf crop. It can
be started from seed, from transplants or
from stem cuttings. Most growers think
that starting from seeds results in healthier
plants with deeper root systems than
starting from cuttings. However, stem
cuttings are relatively simple and are a
faster way to get productive moringa plants
growing, especially when seed is limited.
Cuttings should be 2550 cm (1020 in)
long and taken from hardened wood at least
one year old. Te cuttings should be dried
for three days and then planted to a depth
of one-third of their length. Cuttings can
be grown in containers for 2 months before
transplanting into the feld.
If you have plentiful seed, rich soil and
water available for irrigation, moringa can
be planted densely-up to one seed every 10
cm (4 in) in all directions. Tis extremely
high planting density can maximize
yield but may result in more trouble with
fungal and viral disease. Planting one seed
every 20 cm (8 in) in rows 46 cm (18 in)
apart results in a strong stand that can be
harvested for leaves every three weeks,
without requiring quite as much seed.
When grown as an intensive leaf crop the
leading tip (apical meristem) should be
clipped of when the plant gets over three
feet high, and side branches should be
clipped of at a length of 60 cm (2 f). Tis
encourages vigorous branching, maximum
leaf production and easy harvesting.
Te yield of intensively grown
moringa leaf can be impressive. Biomasa,
a European development group working
in Nicaragua, reported yields of about
275 metric tons of green leaf and stem per
hectare (250 tons/acre). Typically yields will
be far lower where soil fertility, irrigation,
or pest control is not optimal, but there is
clearly potential for huge yields. Tese sorts
of yields would allow moringa to be used
not only as a leaf vegetable, but also for
making leaf concentrate. It could also be
used as animal fodder, as a soil-improving
cover crop or for producing biogas.
Moringa leaves are small and easily
stripped of the stem. In addition, they have
lower moisture content than most other
leafy vegetables. All three of these factors
make them easy to dehydrate in solar food
dryers. It is important to sif the stems
from the dried moringa carefully, as any
remaining dried stems are extremely tough
and can be unpleasant in your food.
Dried moringa leaf powder can be
incorporated into hundreds of local foods
throughout the world. A rounded table-
spoon of this powder could supply a young
child with all the vitaminA and more
than half the iron they require each day at
a low cost. Te tablespoon of moringa leaf
powder could also provide a signifcant
contribution to the childs requirement of
calcium, protein, potassium, magnesium,
and vitaminC. Moringa leaves also have
one of the highest ORAC scores of any
vegetable, which indicates efective antioxi-
dant properties.
Chaya, Tree Spinach - Cnidoscolus
aconitifolius, Cnidoscolus chayamansa
Chaya is a perennial shrub native to the
drier part of southern Mexico, Along
with cassava and poinsettia, it is in the
Euphorbia family. Te wild forms of chaya
have stinging trichomes on the leaves and
should only be harvested with gloves.
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
Domesticated varieties have leaves that are
much less irritating.
Cultivated varieties rarely produce
viable seed so they are propagated almost
entirely by stem cuttings. Cuttings should
be taken from hardened woody stems and
be at least 15 cm (6 in) long. Tey are easily
rooted in damp soil. Te stems should be
dried for a few days and planted with the
top of the cutting sticking about two-thirds
of the way out of the soil. Te stem cuttings
can be started directly in the garden or
feld or transplanted out once they have
developed a root system. Once established,
plants are very drought resistant. Tere is
more danger from overwatering and water-
logging than from drought. Chaya is not
much bothered by insect attacks and the
damage is usually repaired quickly by new
leaf growth.
Te yield potential of chaya is high.
When grown intensively, it can produce up
to 24 metric tons per hectare (11 tons/acre)
of dried leaf every year. A single hectare in
intensive chaya could provide about 3,200
children with 20 g (about 2 tablespoons)
of dried leaf powder every day. Despite
its promise as an intensively grown leaf
crop, chayas potential may be greatest as
an attractive yard shrub that can supply a
family with nutritious leaves for meals year
round. Chaya shrubs are ofen pruned back
for easy harvesting and to encourage the
growth of side shoots, which increases leaf
Because raw chaya contains compounds
that release toxic hydrocyanic acid (HCN),
chaya leaves should always be cooked for at
least 5 minutes. Te levels of HCN are far
less than in cassava leaves and chaya leaves
usually have no are detectable HCN afer
boiling for 5 minutes. Shredding or pulping
chaya leaves before drying them will speed
the escape of HCN. Dried chaya leaf is
probably best eaten in dishes such as soup
or pasta, where it is brought to a boil again
to further eliminate any possible danger of
Chaya is one of the most nutritious
of all leafy vegetables, with high levels
of protein, iron, calcium, vitaminA and
vitaminC. Compared to spinach, chaya
contains nearly double the protein and
vitaminA, four times the calcium, and
seven times as much vitaminC. Some
preliminary studies have suggested a
possible role for chaya leaves in combating
Vine Spinach, Malabar Spinach, Ceylon
Spinach - Basella alba, Basella rubra
Vine spinach is a perennial plant with
mild favored, somewhat mucilaginous
leaves. Basella alba refers to green stemmed
varieties and Basella rubra to varieties
with reddish stems and leaves, but they are
essentially the same species of plant. Basella
5 Kuti, J. O. and E. S. Torres. 1996. Potential nutri-
tional and health benefits of tree spinach. p.
516520. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops.
ASHS Press, Arlington, VA.
is native to south Asia, the word apparently
from the Singhalese language of Sri Lanka.
Basella is a heat loving tropical that
grows slowly, if at all, in cool weather and
is easily killed by frost. It shouldnt be
planted outdoors until night temperatures
are consistently warm. Vine spinach can
be grown in the warmer temperate zones,
especially if it is given a head start of a few
weeks in a greenhouse or cold frame. It
tends to start slowly but then grow very
quickly once the weather becomes too
warm for other greens. It will survive in
most soils but does best in rich soil with
high organic matter content.
Vine spinach can be planted as close
together as one inch, depending on how the
trellises are arranged. When planted that
closely it will need to be thinned to allow
one or two strong plants every foot or so.
Te thinnings make good salad greens.
Vine spinach can be propagated by stem
cuttings as well as seed, and will ofen
spontaneously form new roots where the
plant touches soil. A few pieces of stem at
least 15 cm (6 in) long may be started in
potting soil so that some plants are ready
to transplant into the garden when it starts
getting too hot for cool weather crops.
Vine spinach is an attractive plant most
ofen grown on trellises or fences. It can be
grown without a trellis, but it has a strong
vining habit and forms a somewhat tangled
mess if allowed to run freely on the ground.
Leaves grown on trellises are much less
likely to be contaminated by soil bacteria
from splashing rain. Tis is especially
important when the leaves are eaten raw in
salads. A variation is to grow vine spinach
in hanging baskets and harvest the stems
before they reach the ground. It is espe-
cially important that basella growing in
containers be watered regularly.
Afer three or four weeks of growth
basella will beneft from harvesting of
leaves and stem as ofen as every ten days,
as this stimulates the growth of new shoots.
Basella is surprisingly free of insect pests
for a plant with such tender leaves and
stems, though it is prone to nematode
damage in soils that are infested.
In Kentucky, USA, with a six-month
growing season, the smaller leafed B. rubra
reliably produces viable seed and plentiful
volunteers the following spring, but the
larger leafed B. alba is killed by frost before
its seeds are mature. Te red stemmed B.
rubra produces edible leaf in early and
midsummer, while the green stemmed B.
alba does most of its leaf production in late
summer and early fall.
Yields of basella vary a great deal
depending on the climate, the soil, and
cultivation techniques employed. High
yields are possible and yields of 161 metric
tons of greens per hectare (72 tons/acre)
have been recorded in a six-month growing
season. Basella is too mucilaginous to use
as a source of leaf concentrate. It becomes
foamy when pulped and the juice is hard
to separate from the fber. It is certainly
possible to dry vine spinach leaves, but it
is more difcult than drying leaves that
are not mucilaginous and that have lower
moisture content, such as moringa.
Basella is mild favored and even
afer fowering begins, the young leaves
are tender and mild enough to eat raw in
salads. It is ofen cooked with garlic, ginger,
curry, and other strong favored herbs and
spices and is appreciated in many cultures
for its property of thickening soups.
Vine spinach is a nutritious vegetable.
On a dry weight basis it is in the same
elevated category as moringa or chaya.
Moringa leaves are about 79% moisture,
while basella leaves are 93% moisture. Tis
means that 100 g of fresh moringa will have
21 g of dry matter and 100 g of basella will
have only 7. When both are fully dried,
basella leaves will have a very similar
nutritional profle to moringa leaves, with
somewhat less protein and iron but more
calcium, vitaminA, vitaminC, and folate.
Still the real beauty of basella is that it
provides abundant, mild tasting greens
through the heat of the summer when few
others are available.
Katuk, Sweetleaf Bush, Tropical
Asparagus, Chekkurmanis - Sauropus
Katuk is another tropical shrub in the
Euphorbia, or poinsettia, family. It is native
to the humid forests of southern Asia,
perhaps originating in Indonesia. It is a fast
growing and nutritious plant that is not
well known outside of Southeast Asia. Te
tender young leaves of the plant are some-
times eaten raw in salads. Te favor is ofen
compared to fresh peas, nuts, or peanuts.
Older leaves should always be cooked.
Te shoots have been marketed as tropical
Katuk is usually propagated from seeds
but stem cuttings are sometimes available
Katuk (Sauropus androgynus)
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
locally. Stems about 25 cm (10 in) long
are rooted in good quality soil and begin
to produce roots within a week or so. Te
plant grows quickly in fertile, well drained
soil and is normally pruned to keep it from
growing too tall for easy leaf harvest. Te
stems are relatively weak and katuk that is
not pruned back is prone to fall over as it
gets tall. Edible leaves are abundant all year
Harvesting leaves and shoots stimulates
production as long as soil organic matter,
fertility, and water are adequate. It does
well in partial shade and is ofen grown in
orchards of taller trees or in tightly planted
hedge rows. Katuk has few pests, though
slugs are sometimes a problem. It is a purely
tropical plant and wont tolerate freezing
temperatures. It can, however, be grown as
an annual in warmer parts of the temperate
zone. It can also be grown in a container
and brought inside for a short winter.
Katuk leaves are rich in protein for
a vegetable and are an excellent source
of iron, calcium, beta-carotene and
vitaminC. Tere have been incidents where
some people drinking large amounts of
raw Katuk juice as part of a weight loss
scheme sufered serious lung damage.
Te component of the katuk juice respon-
sible, and the biochemical mechanism
that caused the lung damage, are still not
clear. Obviously, it is a sound idea to avoid
drinking large amounts of raw katuk juice
and to avoid eating large amounts of raw
katuk leaves. However, katuk has been a
valuable contributor to the diet of Malaysia,
Indonesia, and southern India for centuries
and is safe when eaten in moderation.
Okinawa Spinach, Gynura, Hung tsoi -
Gynura crepioides, Gynura bicolor
Okinawa spinach is a perennial plant in the
huge aster family. It is native to the humid
tropics of Southeast Asia, and that is still
the region where it is primarily grown and
eaten. Gynura is an excellent yard plant and
is ofen grown as an edible ornamental due
to its striking foliage with green upper sides
and purple lower sides. It grows in clumps
quickly reaching 1 m (3 f) in diameter and
1 m (3 f) in height.
Te leaves are nutritious and regrow
rapidly, making it an exemplary cut-
and-come-again home garden vegetable.
Regular pruning stimulates further leaf
production. It is almost always propagated
by cuttings, which take a week or so to root
and four or fve weeks to reach harvest size.
It prefers well drained soil with plenty of
added organic matter. Once established,
Okinawa spinach grows fast enough and
densely enough to hold its own against
weeds. It is bothered little by pests or
disease. It will not tolerate a hard frost but
it produces edible leaves quickly enough
to be a candidate for growing as an annual
vegetable in temperate areas with a hot
summer, provided that stem cuttings can
be secured. It can produce up to 24 tons
per hectare (11 tons/acre) of leaves annually
from repeated harvesting.
Once harvested, the quality of the
leaves declines rapidly unless refrigerated.
Okinawa spinach is sometime eaten raw in
salads but it is more ofen steamed, stir-
fried, or added to soups and stews. It has a
strong and distinctive favor ofen described
as piney. It is frequently mixed with milder
greens to keep from overwhelming the
favor of prepared dishes.
Brazilian spinach, Samba lettuce, Sissoo
spinach - Alternanthera sissoo
Brazilian or sissoo spinach is one of the
few perennial members of the amaranth or
pigweed family. It is native to Brazil, where
it is a popular garden vegetable. It is a short,
sprawling ground cover that is sometimes
used to smother weeds as well as provide
greens. Brazilians ofen eat tender young
sissoo leaves raw in salads, while more
mature leaves are always cooked to reduce
bitterness. It shares many of the attri-
butes and drawbacks of the more familiar
amaranths. It is easily established, fast
growing, mild favored and highly nutri-
tious. On the negative side it is prone to
insect attack, high in oxalic acid and tends
to accumulate nitrates, especially when
synthetic fertilizers are used.
Brazilian spinach rarely produces
viable seed and so it is propagated from
stem cuttings. It is a purely tropical plant
and wont tolerate freezing. Like most leaf
crops, it grows best in well drained soil
with plenty of organic matter. It grows in a
wide range of soil pH and thrives in partial
shade. Although it will withstand some
drought, a regular supply of soil moisture
is important for dependable yields of high
quality greens. It is a perfect cut-and-come
again vegetable since frequent leaf harvest
stimulates continual growth.
It can be grown as an annual in warmer
parts of the temperate zone and kept over
winter in a container inside a house or in a
greenhouse. It is difcult to obtain cuttings
of Brazilian spinach in most areas where it
is not frequently grown in gardens.
Wolferry, Chinese Boxthorn, Goji,
Matrimony Vine - Lycium barbarum and
Lycium chinense
Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense are
two closely related perennial members of
the nightshade family, which also includes
potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers,
as well as petunias and tobacco. Both are
native to China, where they grow wild
and where they have also been cultivated
for centuries. With bright green foliage,
red or pink fowers, and scarlet berries,
wolferry plants were attractive enough to
be imported as ornamentals into Europe.
Tese plants are mentioned for their health-
promoting properties in a seventh-century
medicinal text. Te fruit has recently been
added to the growing list of miracle foods
by aggressive marketers in the West, who
ofen call it Tibetan or Himalayan Goji
berry. Te berries are rich in vitaminC
and antioxidants, but clinical studies have
shown little in the way of miracles.
Wolferry plants are quite variable in
form, ranging up to about 3 m (10 f) tall,
and ofen rambling from root suckers that
quickly generate new plants. Stems can
form new plants if they fall over and are in
contact with the soil. Tey are usually prop-
agated from stem cuttings or re-rooting
suckers, but thy also produce viable seed.
Twenty cm (8 in) long pieces of hardwood
stem can be started in the spring or fall.
Waiting to harvest leaves until the plant is
well established will lead to a longer harvest
period. Wolferry is usually replanted
every four years.
It is a cold hardy plant but benefts from
the protection of heavy mulch in areas
with hard winters. It can also be grown
as a container plant and brought inside to
winter over until milder weather. It will
survive in most conditions but produces
more greens and fruit if given good
drainage and plenty of organic matter. It is
somewhat prone to powdery mildew.
Wolferry is a true multipurpose crop,
providing both valuable leafy greens and
fruit. Frequent trimming of leaves and
stems keeps it orderly and very produc-
tive. Wolferry is ofen grown as a hedge in
In Asia the leaves are most ofen
stripped from the stem (carefully, to avoid
thorns) and stir-fried, steamed, or added to
soups. Young and tender leaves are occa-
sionally eaten raw in salads, but wolferry
leaves have a somewhat bitter favor and
are generally cooked for a few minutes and
used as potherbs. In extensive testing at the
Asian Vegetable Research and Development
Center in Taiwan, wolferry had by far the
highest content of iron among leaf crops.
Given the global impact of iron defciency
anemia, wolferry leaves may be a crop
with an important future.
Good King Henry, Fat Hen, Lincolnshire
Asparagus, Mercury - Chenopodium
Good King Henry is a perennial member
of the Chenopodium family, which also
includes spinach, beets, Swiss chard,
quinoa, and lambsquarters. A native of
northern Europe, it is one of the more
cold hardy leaf crops. It is a multipur-
pose plant with leaves that are eaten like
spinach, edible shoots that are a substitute
for asparagus, fower heads like minia-
ture broccolis, and high protein seeds that
could replace grains in many dishes. It is
normally propagated by seeds that are quite
slow germinating. It can also be reproduced
from cuttings. It typically is productive for
about 5 years but should be harvested spar-
ingly if at all the frst year until it becomes
well established.
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
Good King Henry is not particular
about soil, though it prefers a slightly
alkaline environment. If it has good
drainage and ample organic matter it will
produce an abundance of nutritious leaves
over a long growing season.
Te leaves are usually added to soups
and stews but the very young leaves are
sometimes eaten raw. Like all members of
the chenopod family they contain fairly
high levels of oxalic acid. People who have
had trouble with kidney stones or gout
would do well to choose other greens.
When the shoots are about 20 cm (8 inches)
high they are sometimes steamed like
asparagus, afer peeling of the outer layer.
Like quinoa, Good King Henry seeds have
bitter tasting saponins on the seed coat and
should be soaked and rinsed well before
Stinging Nettles - Urtica dioica
Te nettles belong to a worldwide family
of plants famous for the thousands of tiny
stinging hairs or trichomes that defend
their nutrient rich leaves from animals.
Urtica dioica, the most well known of the
nettles, has been eaten by humans since at
least the Bronze Age. Nettle lore is evenly
divided between cursing the stinging hairs
and praising the health-giving greens.
Nettle leaf and root have been used by herb-
alists for centuries to treat a wide range of
maladies, and more recent scientifc investi-
gations are showing that our ancestors were
right to respect the irritating weed.
Stinging nettles are usually found
growing in clumps in rich moist soil,
ofen along stream banks. Te plants can
grow up to 2 m (6 f) high but are more
commonly half that tall. Tey are winter
hardy perennials throughout the conti-
nental US and one of the earliest greens
for making spring tonics. Although ofen
foraged as a wild green, stinging nettles are
also cultivated as a market crop, mainly
in Europe. It is normally propagated by
seeds; a few improved varieties are available
from vegetable and herb seed catalogs. Like
most leaf crops, they grow best in rich, well
drained soil and full sunlight, though they
will survive in partial shade. Tey have few
problems with pests and diseases.
Gloves are a good idea when harvesting
stinging nettles. Te sting disappears
completely when the leaves are dried,
steamed briefy or added to soups. Tey
are one of the most nutritious of all foods,
being rich in protein, iron, calcium,
magnesium, vitaminA, and vitaminC.
Te protein content of nettles leaves is
about 7%, qualifying it as a good choice
for making leaf concentrate. In addition
to being a dynamo of nutrition, stinging
nettles are frequently listed as one of the
tastiest of all greens.
Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a
somewhat smaller plant with less-irritating
stinging hairs. It is a common woodland
plant throughout much of North America
and has a similarly high nutritional value.
Walking Stick Kale, Tree Collards, Jersey
Cabbage - Brassica oleracea longata,
Brassica oleracea palmifolia
In the long cool summer days of the British
Isles a cabbage of heroic proportions
evolved. It was called Jersey cabbage, for
the Jersey Islands where it thrived, Walking
stick kale for the strong lightweight walking
sticks that were made from its stalk, or
tree collards, because it could grow up to
6 m (18 f) tall. It is a perennial member
of the cabbage family that can be started
from seeds or from cuttings. It typically
takes two years to reach a height of 23 m
(610 f), though can grow up to 3 m (10
f) tall in just six months. Walking stick
kale has been known to provide greens for
up to twenty years, if it is well cared for
and doesnt experience severe hot or cold
Unless it is being grown as a novelty, it
is practical to prune it back to encourage
branching at a height that can be reasonably
reached without a ladder. At the top of the
stem a cap of large grayish-green collard-
like leaves form. Tese can be harvested
regularly and will regrow. Leaves are picked
from oldest to newest when they are about
15 cm (6 in) long, starting with the lower
ones and moving up. Tis encourages the
plant to grow taller. Side shoots will form
where the leaf stems have been cut.
Seed is ofen started indoors about
fve weeks before the average last frost so
that good growth can be made before hot
summer temperatures set in. Tis plant
prefers fertile soil with plenty of nitrogen
and a pH that is neutral or even slightly
alkaline. It sufers from most of the usual
cabbage family pests (cabbage worms, fea
beetles, club root) and responds to most
of the organic gardening treatments for
them. To prevent the plant from falling or
blowing over, it should be grown with a
strong support pole at least 2 m (6 f) high.
Tese giant members of the cabbage
family were known as excellent feed for
cattle and other livestock, but were some-
times considered a food of the poverty
stricken peasantry. Te stalks, lef to air dry
for ten months, were used as a substitute for
scarce wood in many applications. But the
greatest value of the plants was as a source
of protein; calcium; iron; vitamins A, C,
and K; and protective antioxidants in the
diets of the people of the Jersey Islands. It
provides an abundant and reliable source
of highly nutritious and tasty greens that
can be harvested year round. Afer a long
decline in popularity, it is heartening to see
recent renewed interest in this giant peren-
nial leaf crop.
Perennial Onions
Scallion, Welsh Onion
- Allium fstulosum
Shallot, Potato Onion, Nest Onion
- Allium cepa aggregatum
Egyptian Onion, Walking Onion
- Allium cepa proliferum
Ramps - Allium tricoccum
Onions are among the most popular vege-
tables throughout the world. In the west
they are best known for the bulbs that form
below the ground and make cooks cry on
their way to favoring a thousand diferent
dishes. In most of Asia the leafy tops of
onions are more important food crops than
are the bulbs. Onion greens are much more
nutritious than the bulbs, while imparting
a range of similar favors. Bulb onions have
the beneft of being easy to store, but green
onions have the ofsetting advantage of
being relatively simple to grow year round
in much of the world. While the green tops
of annual bulb onions can certainly be
snipped of and used as green onions, most
of the vegetables specially grown for green
onions are perennials.
Tere are about 500 diferent species
in the onion family, most of them origi-
nating in central Asia. Te names of the
diferent types of perennial onions are
numerous and confusing and the lines
defning the diferent species and cultivars
are ofen blurred. Most of the many vari-
eties of commonly eaten green onions are
botanically either Allium fstulosum or a
cross between A. fstulosum and Allium
Scallions can be started from seed and
are sometimes grown as annuals. At the
end of their frst year of growth they can be
easily divided by gently pulling apart the
clumps at their base. Each scallion sepa-
rated in this way can be transplanted and
will form a new clump of green onions.
Shallots or potato onions are propagated
in a similar way. Te main diference is
that the base of the shoots is larger than
with scallions. Tey are ofen allowed to
dry in storage and planted almost like
small elongated bulb onions in the spring.
Egyptian onions propagate by producing
clusters of very small bulblets at the top
of the scape, or seed shoot. When these
become too heavy to support they fall
over and take root wherever they have
fallen. Tey are also called walking onions
because of this unusual way of walking
across the garden. Ramps are a perennial
relative of leeks that grow wild in many
North American woodlands. Teir favor
is excellent and they can be cultivated in
the garden where they are not available
wild. Chives are very small perennial green
onions usually considered a culinary herb
rather than a vegetable.
Scallions, in particular, are a great crop
where space is at a premium. Tey can be
set out as close as every 8 cm (3 in) in each
direction in a fertile garden bed, though 20
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
cm (8 in) spacing is more common. Teir
frugal use of space makes scallions an
excellent container crop as well. Tey are
very hardy, withstanding moderate freezing
and returning in the spring.
Any type of onion that is densely
planted requires consistent moisture and
soil that drains well. Both waterlogging and
drought dramatically lower yield. Scallions
are heavy feeders and beneft from a side
dressing of compost. Tey are susceptible
to weeds because they grow vertically,
allowing sunlight to reach the ground
around them. Mulch is ideal for controlling
weeds as hoeing tends to damage the roots
growing near the surface. Given good soil
and ample moisture all perennial onions
can produce large yields of greens over long
periods of time in very small spaces.
Flavorful and nutritious green onion
tops can be produced from dozens of types
of onions including wild onions and even
garlic. Tey spice up salads when eaten
raw and are an excellent addition to soups,
sauces, and stir-fries. Dried and fnely
ground onion leaves can add favor, nutri-
tion, and color when shaken over popcorn,
rice, or any starchy bland foods.
Green onions have been used for at least
4,000 years for food, favoring, and tradi-
tional medicines. Tey combine the benefts
of onions and green leafy vegetables. Tey
are an excellent source of vitaminK and
vitaminC, and a good source of vitaminA
and folate. Modern science has confrmed
most of the disease fghting properties
traditionally attributed to green onions.
High levels of antioxidants, especially
quercetin, and sulfur compounds are the
biochemical forces behind the onions.
Green onions have been shown to reduce
the risk of stomach cancer and to have a
benefcial impact on several respiratory,
circulatory, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Many leaf vegetables have strong favors.
Tis is probably the biggest reason that they
are ofen rejected by children. On the other
hand, good cooks in most cultures seek out
foods with intense favors to create dishes
with dynamic and complex tastes. Because
spices and natural favorings tend to be
expensive or not available in many loca-
tions, growing culinary herbs is an attrac-
tive idea for many low-income families.
Especially where the diet revolves around a
few bland starchy staple foods, such as rice,
corn, cassava, taro, plantains, and potatoes,
strongly favored leaf vegetables can help
fend of mealtime boredom.
Leaves eaten in relatively large quanti-
ties are usually called salad greens when
eaten raw and potherbs when cooked.
Leave used in smaller amounts for their
intense favors are sometimes referred
to as culinary herbs. Te lines between
salad greens, potherbs, and culinary herbs
become blurred when strongly favored leaf
vegetables are eaten in larger quantities. For
example, the main ingredient in the classic
Middle Eastern dish tabouli is parsley, an
herb that is used in much smaller amounts
to add favor or color in European and
Latin American cuisine. One of the few
European recipes that calls for more than
a pinch of highly favored leaves is the
sublime Italian sauce pesto Genovese,
that is built around basil. Many African
dishes use bitter leaf (Vernonia amygdalina)
and other strongly favored leaf vegetables
in fairly large quantities.
It is in Asia, however, where leaf
vegetables come into their own as both
potherbs and essential favorings. In China
and much of Asia, green onions (onion
leaves) are eaten in greater quantity than
bulb onions. Te roasted garlic favor
of the toona tree leaves are also used in
quantity. Te Japanese people are partial
to Shungiku, or garland Chrysanthemum
(Chrysanthemum coronarium), and Shiso
(Perilla frutescens), two almost perfumed
favored greens. In India a thick sauce
of the slightly maple favored Methi, or
Fenugreek leaves (Trigonella foenum-
graecum), is commonly served over rice.
In the Philippines and Indonesia the harsh
leaves of the aptly named bitter gourd are
eaten in quantity.
Certainly a part of good nutrition
is creating attractive and interestingly
favored food, but can these leaves used as
favoring help resolve any of our pressing
nutritional problems? If the dose makes
the poison as the Swiss botanist Paracelsus
proclaimed in the sixteenth century, then
the nutrition is also in the dose. Despite
the assertions of health food promoters,
very small amounts of foods tend to have
minimal impact on our health even if
they are indeed very nutritious foods.
Foods rich in micronutrients and antioxi-
dants, because they are used in such small
amounts by the body, may be exceptions to
this generalization.
For instance, shiso is extremely high in
beta-carotene. In Japan it is cooked with
ginger and sesame oil in servings large
enough to provide substantial vitaminA.
Bitter gourd (sometimes called balsam
pear) leaves are rich in folate and have an
extraordinarily benefcial ratio of potas-
sium to sodium. Because it is unusually
rich in iron, the parsley in tabouli could be
a signifcant factor in preventing anemia,
especially because the lemon juice in the
recipe enhances iron absorption.
Antioxidant activity is another area
where favorful leaves or culinary herbs are
uncommonly endowed. Te most widely
used measurement of overall antioxidant
activity is the Oxygen Radical Absorption
Capacity (ORAC) score. ORAC units are
usually measured as Trolox equivalents
(TE). Trolox is a synthetic antioxidant
that serves as a standard for comparison.
Te USDA advised us to consume 3,000
to 5,000 units daily, but most estimates
suggest an average intake of only about
1,200 units, or only about one third of
Chart 131
Total ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance
Capacity) per 100 gram edible portion
Food Trolox equivalents (TE)
Data from Nutrient Data Laboratory, Agriculture Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, Oxygen Radical
Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) of Selected Foods May 2010, http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/12354500/
Leaves used as favorings
Basil, dried 61,063
Basil, raw 4,805
Chives, raw 3,365
Coriander (cilantro) leaves, raw 5,141
Dill leaves, raw 4,392
Lemon balm leaves, raw 5,997
Marjoram, raw 27,297
Oregano, dried 175,295
Oregano, raw 13,970
Parsley, dried 73,670
Parsley, raw 1,301
Peppermint, raw 13,978
Rosemary, dried 165,280
Sage, ground 119,929
Sage, raw 32,004
Savory, raw 9,465
Tarragon, raw 15,542
Tyme, dried 157,380
Tyme, raw 27,426
Blueberries, raw 4,669
Goji berry (wolferry), raw 3,290
Grapes, red, raw 1,837
Pomegranates, raw 4,479
Broccoli, raw 1,510
Carrots, raw 697
Onions, raw 913
Spinach, raw 1,513
Selecting Leaf Vegetable Crops for Growing
the recommended antioxidant intake.
Low-income families are especially
unlikely to reach the recommended levels
because many of the high ORAC foods are
Chart 131 shows the ORAC value
of some favorful leaf crops, along with
a few other fruits and vegetables that are
considered good antioxidant sources, for
Poke - Phytolacca americana
Te leaves of a few plants that were eaten
with gusto by our ancestors are now
considered too toxic to be eaten in even
modest quantities. Tese include the
beloved poke salit or poke salad of the
American southeast. Immortalized in the
song Polk Salad Annie, this plant was
considered an important spring tonic to
stimulate the body afer the long winter
without fresh foods.
Pokeweed contains the alkaloids phyto-
laccatoxin and phytolaccigenin, which are
poisonous to mammals. Some enthusiasts
continue eating young poke leaves afer
boiling them three times to reduce the
toxin and discarding the water afer each
boiling. Some of the toxins remain even
afer this treatment. Eating poke may cause
vomiting afer two hours, followed by
perspiration, spasms, and diarrhea. Tere
have been fatal poisonings from poke.
Unless in a famine situation, a leaf vegetable
with this much downside that requires
this much preparation before eating is best
avoided. Tere are almost always safer wild
greens available wherever poke is eaten.
Comfrey - Symphytum ofcinale
Another leaf vegetable that was formerly
widely promoted for its health benefts
is comfrey. It is a fast growing perennial
herb native to Europe and western Asia.
Comfrey leaves have been eaten for over
2,000 years. Te plant has been used exter-
nally to help heal wounds, sprains, and
fractures. It has also been recommended
at various times to treat ulcers, gallstones,
arthritis, diarrhea, colitis, cough, pneu-
monia, and cancer.
Unfortunately several studies have
shown that comfrey contains chemi-
cals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids which
can cause severe liver damage. Animal
studies have also shown that these chemi-
cals lead to the development of liver
tumors. Te United States Food and Drug
Administration asked supplement manu-
facturers to remove comfrey products from
the market in 2001 because of its potential
to cause liver damage. Germanys regula-
tory agency for herbs has approved comfrey
to be sold only in preparations that supply
no more than 100 micrograms per day if
applied to the skin, and no more than one
microgram of pyrrolizidine alkaloids if
taken by mouth. One microgram is one
millionth of a gram and there are 28 grams
to an ounce, so these are potent toxins.
It is frequently assumed that a food that
has been eaten for a long time by many
people must be safe. While this is generally
the case, sometimes the negative impact
of a cumulative or long term toxin such
pyrrolizidine alkaloids will be noticed so
long afer the food is eaten, that no associa-
tion is made.
Growing Leaf Vegetables
Under Difcult Conditions
In an ideal world all vegetables gardeners would have plenty of
space; deep, well drained fertile soil; a long warm growing season
in full sunlight; an inch of rain every week; enough money to
buy the best seeds and tools; and enough time and energy to get
to know the plants that are providing them with delicious and
nourishing food. In the real world most gardeners face at least a
few hurdles between the sowing and reaping. Frequent obstacles
to growing greens include conditions that are too hot, too cold,
too wet, too dry or too shady, as well as too little time or money
for gardening, too little space or saline soil. Ofen a gardener faces
combinations of difculties. He might have a cold shady spot with
little time for gardening, or a small corner of the yard in a hot
climate and with saline soil.
If conditions are sufciently difcult, a household may decide
to forego gardening entirely and buy all its vegetables. Leaf crops
present such a range of options and growing techniques, however,
that it is usually possible to successfully grow some type of greens
despite the various obstacles. Below are some of the general tech-
niques that can help overcome less-than-optimal growing condi-
tions with some of the best leaf crops for those conditions.
Too Hot
Very few food plants thrive when the temperature get above 32 C
(90 F). Te increasingly long and hot days of summer can cause
bolting. When plants begin to fower their leaves normally donate
protein and sugars to the reproductive process, and consequently
develop harsher favors and tougher textures. High tempera-
tures can also cause cellular membranes to breakdown, allowing
electrolytes to fow out of cells too freely and thus damaging the
health of the plant.
A study published in Science in 2001
suggests that heat injury
to vegetable crops is likely to become a more serious problem
as a consequence of global temperatures rising. Te impact on
gardeners in the US or Europe may not be severe, at least in the
short term, but much of the tropics could be hard hit. Several
important crops are already approaching the limit of their heat
tolerance in Africa and Latin America, so that even a small
temperature increase could reduce yields drastically. Tis will be
especially true where water for irrigation is restricted and in the
vast areas that are already classifed as semi-arid and marginal for
intensive agriculture.
1 Science, 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report
Te most obvious approach to excessive
heat in the garden is shading. Planting heat-
sensitive greens to the north side of taller
plants will provide shading. In the northern
hemisphere plants on a north- or east-
facing slope will receive less direct sunlight
and remain cooler than ones on south- or
west-facing slopes. As mentioned earlier,
sunken growing beds and thick mulch also
help to keep the soil temperature down in
the hottest months.
Cool weather leaf crops such as lettuce,
spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens
can ofen be grown successfully in the
midsummer heat in hoop houses or cold
frames by using shade cloth. A study in
where summer heat severely limits
production of greens from June through
August, showed that high tunnels covered
with 40% shade cloth combined with drip
irrigation were able to produce good crops
of lettuce (10 cultivars) and Asian greens (5
types) throughout the summer.
Transplants can be gradually acclima-
tized to hot weather in the same manner
that fall crops can be hardened of for cold
weather. Plants progressively exposed to hot
weather will ofen survive whereas more
sudden exposure will lead to wilting and
death. Water has a moderating efect on
temperature, so plants grown near bodies
2 Organic Farming Research Foundation Project
Report, Katherine Kelly, Full Circle Farm, Kansas
City, Kansas, http://ofrf.org/funded/reports/
kelly_01s36.pdf, Shade-covered high tunnels for
summer production of lettuce and leafy greens
of water actually may stay cooler and grow
better through the summer heat.
Choosing heat tolerant leaf crops
can ofen provide even more beneft
than shading. For example, amaranth
(Amaranthus spp.), purslane, (Portulaca
oleracea) quail grass (Celosia argentea) and
waterleaf (Talinum triangulare) use the
more efcient C4 photosynthetic process
that developed in hot dry climates. C4
plants have a competitive advantage over
more common C3 plants during hot and
dry conditions. Tey can continue photo-
synthesizing afer the leaf stomata have
closed, to conserve moisture, and they are
able to operate at higher light saturations.
Although C4 plants make up only 1% of all
plant species and only 5% of plant biomass,
they are estimated to assimilate 30% of all
the carbon that is fxed by plants on land.
Not surprisingly, plants that evolved
in hot tropical climates are generally more
heat tolerant than plants from cooler
climates. Te plants below are all easily
grown and all can produce nutritious
greens long afer the summer heat wilts
spinach and lettuce. Of these, vine spinach
(basella) is my favorite hot weather green.
A beautiful plant, it is easy to grow, produc-
tive, nutritious, and mild enough tasting to
eat raw in salads.

Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
Amaranth - Amaranthus spp.
Vine spinach - Basella alba
Bunching onions - Allium fstulosum
Cowpeas - Vigna unguiculata
Cranberry hibiscus - Hibiscus acetosella
New Zealand spinach - Tetragonia
Okra - Abelmoschus esculentus
Quail grass - Celosia argentea
Purslane - Portulaca oleracea
Roselle - Hibiscus sabdarifa
Sweet potato - Ipomoea batatas
Too Cold
Te length of the growing season in
temperate zones is the number of days
between the average last frost in the spring
and the average frst frost in the fall.
Much of the tropical world never experi-
ences frost, but in the temperate zone
cold weather usually spells an end to food
growing each year.
When water freezes, it increases in
volume by about 9%. Tis expansion is
enough to cause ruptures in plant cell
tissues, ofen killing the plant. Cold hardy
greens try to protect their leaf tissues from
freezing by converting some of their stored
starch into soluble sugars. Te presence of
the dissolved sugar lowers the tempera-
ture at which the plant sap will freeze by
several degrees. Tis is why greens are ofen
described as sweeter afer a frost.
Ofen it is not the intensity of the cold
weather but the dramatic fuctuation of
temperature that kills plants. It is well known
that hardening a plant started in a green-
house or cold frame before transplanting it
will increase its resistance to cold weather by
several degrees. Hardening is the process of
gradually reducing the water and fertilizer
the plant is given and exposing it to colder
than optimum temperatures for progressively
longer times for up to a week. Hardening
slows the growth rate, toughens the leaf
surface, and reduces the amount of water that
can freeze in the plant. A thick (1015 cm;
46 in) layer of mulch can temper the ground
temperature a few degrees and can sometimes
mean the diference between survival and
death for a plant exposed to cold weather.
Te best way to protect your leaf crops
against damage from cold weather is ofen
to create a microclimate for the plants that
provides warmer and more stable tempera-
tures. Tis can be done in several ways, most
of which employ a greenhouse efect similar
to the one that is responsible for the Earths
rising temperature. Te short wavelengths
of visible light from the sun pass through a
transparent or translucent covering and are
absorbed by whatever is inside the covering,
heating it up. Tat heat is radiated back
from the warmed surfaces in the form of
longer infrared waves that are less able to
pass through the transparent cover. Tis
causes some of the heat to be trapped, which
raises the temperature of everything under
the transparent cover. In the case of global
warming, it is the Earth itself heating up
under its transparent atmospheric skin. In the
garden it is plants staying warm in a green-
house or cold frame.
Cold frames are simply boxes with a
removable transparent or translucent top.
Tey are traditionally used for starting
vegetable plants early. Small cold frames tend
to overheat unless they have a good means of
venting the warmed air, in which case they
tend to overcool at night. Te problem is that
the small volume of air doesnt hold the heat
very long, so the beneft of warming is ofset
by the fuctuating temperature. A container
of water inside the cold frame will increase its
heat-holding capacity greatly and moderate
the temperature between a sunny day and
a cold clear night. Of course, the water
container complicates the cold frame design.
Hot beds are an old-fashioned variation
on cold frames that use a layer of fresh animal
manure to provide a little heat and give the
plants a jump on spring. Usually the earth is
dug out about 60 cm (24 in) down and flled
with about 45 cm (18 in) of fresh manure
covered with 15 cm (6 in) of good garden
soil. An ordinary cold frame using plastic
or old windows for glazing is framed over
the manure and topsoil bed. As the manure
composts it creates a small but steady heat
which warms the soil above it and the roots of
the plants growing in that soil.
Bigger cold frames tend to work better
than smaller ones, as long as it is still
convenient to reach the plants. In recent
years, long cold frames with 6-mil polyeth-
ylene sheeting stretched over hoops have
become popular as inexpensive season
extenders. Te least expensive are only 2
to 4 feet high and cover a single wide or
sometimes two narrow garden beds. Ofen
referred to as low tunnels, they can be
as long as is convenient for the gardener.
Greens usually dont need more heat
protection or headroom than these low
tunnels provide. Te downside is that they
can overheat quickly and that opening and
closing the tunnels to control the tempera-
ture requires some labor and vigilance.
Larger versions of these tunnels tall
enough to walk in have also become
popular for growing commercial quanti-
ties of winter greens. Tese are called high
tunnels or hoop houses and are basi-
cally unheated greenhouses covered with
the same 6-mil polyethylene sheeting.
Unlike the rolls of plastic from a hardware
store, the greenhouse grade polyethylene
sheeting has been treated to resist the
ultraviolet radiation in sunlight for four
years. Ordinary plastic will photodegrade
into little fakes within a year if lef in full
sunlight. Te high tunnels can be built
from pipe kits in widths from 3.5 to 10
meters (1232 f) and to any length. High
tunnels are several times more expensive
than low tunnels per square foot of growing
bed, but they can accommodate taller
plants and are far easier to work in.
In very cold climates the metal pipe
hoops can be covered with two layers of
polyethylene with air blown between the
layers to increase the insulation. Usually
a more cost efective approach to growing
greens in very cold weather is a single layer
of polyethylene over the hoops and a layer
of row-cover material over the plants. Row
covers are light fabrics, usually polypro-
pylene, used to cover rows of plants. Tey
are available from garden and farm supply
houses in a variety of weights. Heavier
covers provide greater protection against
the cold but block out more sunlight, which
is always in short supply in winter gardens.
If free sunshine is your only heat source and
you need maximum protection from the cold,
the best combination may be a hoop house or
high tunnel enclosing low tunnels that further
protect the plant beds with polypropylene
row covers. Tis provides the needed warmth,
stable temperatures and fexibility to produce
abundant greens at relatively low cost even
in harsh winter weather. Tere is a great deal
of information available on cold frames and
hoop houses on the Internet. Many university
agriculture departments cover the topic, but the
best sources of information on growing cold
weather greens are probably Elliott Colemans
two books, Four-Season Harvest and Winter
Harvest Handbook.
Two other types of greenhouses deserve
to be in the cold weather greens conversa-
tion. Tese are attached greenhouses and
pit green houses. Attached greenhouses,
as one might guess, are attached to the
south side of a building in the northern
hemisphere, or to the north side in the
southern hemisphere. Te building serves
to block the wind and provides a warmed
north wall. If they are brilliantly designed,
attached greenhouses can supply surplus
heat to help heat the attached building and
draw heat from the building if the plants
are in danger of a sudden freeze. When
attached to homes these are sometimes
called sunrooms. Tey are conveniently
located for the kitchen gardener.
Because they are architecturally part
of the house, attached greenhouses tend
to be built with greater permanence and
aesthetics in mind than are high tunnels.
Tey ofen use glass rather than plastic
sheeting to allow light in. Of course, this
means they are far more expensive for the
same enclosed area. Although the winter
sunlight never comes directly from the
north, the attached building blocks difused
and refected light from the north. As a
result the plants in attached greenhouses
are more prone to lean toward the south
and the light (phototropism). Some people
quickly lose their enthusiasm for attached
greenhouses. Tough they may truly love
their plants, the dirt, tools, fertilizers, water,
soil fungi and bacteria that are central to
the greenhouse, are rarely welcome in the
house to which it is attached.
Te pit greenhouse is an ingenious way
to use the vast thermal mass and insula-
tion value of the earth to moderate the
temperature of your growing environment.
Digging down 1.21.6 meters (45 feet)
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
reaches a zone where temperature changes
very little from day to night. Even the
summer to winter fuctuation is minimal.
Te underground temperature remains
very steady, usually somewhere near the
average temperature of the Earths surface
or about 15 C (59 F). Locations with a
colder year round average temperature will
be colder underground. For example, in
central Kentucky, USA, latitude 38 north,
the annual average temperature is 13 C
(55 F) and this is about the temperature
in Kentucky caves or fve feet under-
ground. Tis means that on a 32 C (90
F) day the pit greenhouse provides plenty
of free cooling, and on a 7 C (20 F) day
it provides abundant free heat-simply by
digging down into the earth.
Most pit greenhouses have all their
sides underground and some sort of glazing
on the roof to allow sunlight to reach the
plants. Normally the inside of the green-
house is painted white to refect light back
onto the plant leaves. Sometimes moveable
insulation is used at night to slow the heat
loss through the glazing. Pit greenhouses
need to be a minimum size of about
100sqf (10sqm) to get much beneft from
earth tempering. A typical confguration
for a home pit greenhouse is two planting
beds about one meter (3 f) wide separated
by a 0.6 meter (2 f) wide walkway.
Te pit greenhouse elegantly addresses
two of the key problems with growing greens
in winter, creating both warmer and more
stable conditions for plants. Te cost of pit
greenhouses is always greater than high
tunnels because, unless the builder is enthu-
siastic about shoveling, it is usually necessary
to hire a backhoe to dig a hole that large.
Drainage is a critical consideration in any
underground structure and it is difcult to
improve upon afer construction is fnished.
Providing adequate ventilation for the plants
and the people working with them is a bit
more challenging in a pit greenhouse. Two
useful guides for building pit greenhouses are
Building a Solar Heated Pit Greenhouse by
Greg Stone, and Home Solar Gardening: Solar
Greenhouses for Your House, Backyard or
Apartment by John H. Pierce.
Except in emergency cold snaps, it is
almost always unrealistic in both economic
and environmental terms to use a commer-
cial source of heat to keep winter greens
warm. Tere are many possible ways to
increase and stabilize the winter tempera-
tures a bit using cold frames, hot beds and
high and low tunnels, or building attached
or pit greenhouses. Each of these has some
cost to build and maintain. A cheaper
and ofen adequate alternative is to simply
grow cold hardy greens unprotected in
the fall and spring and do without in the
heart of the winter when temperatures and
light intensity are at their lowest point.
Ofen greens will grow through late fall,
go dormant, but not die during the coldest
months, then come back to life with the
Quail grass (Celosia argentea)
frst warm days of spring. Te crops below
are good choices for cold hardy greens.
Kale - Brassica oleracea Acephala group
Collards - Brassica oleracea
Acephala group
Turnips - Brassica rapa var. rapa
Mustard - Brassica juncea
Garden cress - Lepidium sativum
Beets - Beta vulgaris
Bell beans - Vicia faba
Austrian winter peas - Pisum
sativum arvense
Wheat - Triticum spp
Barley - Hordeum vulgare
Mache (corn salad) -
Valerianella locusta
Miners lettuce (claytonia)
- Montia perfoliata
Too Dry
Almost all green leafy vegetables are
between 80% and 95% water. Good yields of
high quality greens require a steady supply
of soil moisture during the entire time they
are growing. Except in very hot and dry
conditions, this means about 25 mm (1
in) of water per week. When the amount
of water available to a plant, from either
rainfall or irrigation, is inadequate the
stomata (small openings) on the leaves close
in order to conserve moisture. Tis prevents
the plant from continuing to absorb carbon
dioxide from the air, and stops photosyn-
thesis and any further plant growth until
more water is supplied.
Although the average global precipitation
is about one meter (39 in) a year, the distribu-
tion of that rainfall is extremely uneven in
both place and time. About one-third of the
worlds people live in areas of chronic water
shortages. Most of the others experience
seasonal shortfalls when conditions are too
dry for good growth of leaf crops.
Where it is warm year round people
usually adjust their planting schedule so
that the thirstiest crops are grown during
the rainy season. In the temperate zones,
people need to grow food during the warm
summer regardless of the rain pattern.
Most of the temperate zone has adequate
rain in the spring followed by hot dry
weather in late summer. Getting good
crops of leafy greens is ofen just a matter
of growing them in the spring or capturing
some of the spring rain for later use.
Te frst place to store rainwater is
in the garden soil itself. Whether your
soil is mainly clay, sand, or silt, its water
holding capacity will be greatly improved
by adding organic matter with compost
or cover crops. Organic matter acts like
little sponges in your soil, soaking up water
afer a rain and releasing it slowly when the
weather turns dry. Sandy soil holds the least
water and will beneft the most from adding
3 Over 70% of the Earths surface is covered by
water, so a shortage of water to grow vegetables
would seem unlikely. However, 97.5% of the total
is salt water and most of the remaining fresh
water is frozen in the polar icecaps and in a few
large lakes.
organic matter. Organic matter also reduces
the tendency of clay soil to form an imper-
vious crust that allows rain water to run of
before soaking in.
Rainwater can also be captured in
ponds and tanks. If you can calculate
roughly how many square meters of garden
beds you have and how many weeks
without rain you are likely to experience, it
is possible to calculate how much water you
need to capture to provide the beds with
one inch of water per week.
Urban and suburban gardeners ofen
rely on municipal water supplies to meet
their vegetable irrigation needs. However,
it doesnt make much sense to buy chlo-
rinated water pumped in by the local
water authority while letting the rainwater
landing on your roof run down the storm
As energy prices increase and water
shortages become more frequent, better
understanding and use of the natural
patterns of evaporation, rain, and gravity to
meet our gardens water needs will become
more important.
Gardeners ofen underestimate how
much water a garden needs to thrive.
Catching rainwater in a barrel for the
garden is a worthy gesture, but the reality
is that a 200 liter (55 gal) barrel full of rain
4 The amount of chlorine in household tap water
poses no risk to most plants. Plants in the
dracaena and lily families are more vulnerable to
chlorine damage. Most of the chlorine in tap
water can be eliminated by letting it sit in a
container for 24 hours before using it on plants.
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
wont provide even a weeks worth of water
for a single 10sqm (107sqf) garden bed.
So think big.
Of course, 25 mm (1 in) of rain per
week is just a guideline. Some steps can
be taken to reduce the water demands of
your garden without reducing the harvest.
A good starting point is using perma-
nent growing beds rather than traditional
rows since then only the plants, and not
the pathways, get watered. Another easy
measure for reducing water loss is applying
a thick mulch around your crops. Mulch
shades and insulates the summer soil,
keeping it cooler and greatly reducing the
evaporation of soil moisture. It also keeps
weeds from sprouting and competing with
crops for available water. Planting leaf crops
densely provides some of the same beneft
because the leaves provide shade, and
shaded soil stays cooler than bare ground.
When crops do need to be watered
some irrigation techniques can minimize
water loss. Watering in the late afernoon
allows more time for the soil to soak up
the moisture before the midday sun begins
evaporating it from the surface. Root zone
irrigation-using a drip system, soaker hoses
or wicks-to put the water below the surface
where the plant roots feed, will use much
less water for the same amount of plant
growth. Sprinklers generally are wasteful
because some water usually misses the
target and because water evaporates quickly
as droplets fy through the warm air.
Mulch, harvesting rainwater, and root
zone irrigation will go a long way to relieve
your gardens thirst, but what about growing
leafy greens where it is truly dry? Tere are
plants called xerophytes that have evolved
under arid conditions. Prickly pear, or nopal,
(Opuntia fcus-indica) and baobab (Adansonia
digitata) are among the few xerophytes used
extensively for their edible leaves.
Prickly pear, Nopals - Opuntia fcus-indica
Probably the best known of the xerophytes
are the cacti. Natives of the western hemi-
sphere, they were brought back to Europe by
Columbus. Te Mexican prickly pear is eaten
for its fruit, confusingly called tunas, and
its leaves, called nopals. Te nopals (pads) are
not true leaves but actually cladodes or fat-
tened stems, but they function as leaves and
are eaten as leaves.
Cacti use the CAM (Crassulacean Acid
Metabolism) photosynthetic process, a
special adaptation that makes them several
times more efcient at using water than
any of the C3 or even the C4 plants. Both
wild and cultivated prickly pears are eaten.
Tey are usually planted from stem cuttings
3080 cm (1232 in) apart. Tough they
will survive with very little water, produc-
tion of nopals is best with 3060 cm (1224
in) of rain or irrigation water a year. Prickly
pears are sensitive to even brief waterlog-
ging and are sometimes attacked by insects
or fungal diseases (larger animals avoid
their sharp spines). Fertilizer encourages
nopal production at the expense of fruit.
Despite their desert origin nopals are
about 93% water. Tey contain modest
amounts of vitaminC, folate, and beta-
carotene. Te subtle favor and mucilagi-
nous texture are valued in soups, stews, and
egg dishes.
Baobab - Adansonia digitata
Baobab trees are native to the hot, dry
savannahs of southern Africa, though they
are now also grown in India and some of
the Caribbean Islands. Tey are impressive
trees. One baobab tree in the northeastern
part of South Africa has a circumference of
45 meters (150 f) and an estimated age of
nearly 6,000 years. It can survive on as little
as 8 cm (3 in) of rain but does best with
around 40 cm (16 in).Tey are extremely
sensitive to frost.
Africans have eaten baobab leaves, fruit,
and fowers for at least a thousand years.
Te leaves are cooked as a potherb or dried
for later use. Tey are a good source of
protein, calcium, vitaminA and beta-caro-
tene in areas too dry to raise crops.
Too Wet
Very few food plants thrive when their roots
are submerged in water or in waterlogged
soil for any extended time. When soil is
waterlogged, water flls all the air spaces
between the soil particles, and this prevents
oxygen from reaching the roots, which can
sufocate or drown plants. Many gardeners
have occasional struggles with waterlogged
soil, typically when spring rains come in full
force. For gardeners in low-lying areas around
rivers, lakes, swamps, and estuaries, however,
it can be a permanent condition.
Overly wet or waterlogged agricultural
land is much less common than arid or overly
dry land. Only about 5% of Earths landmass
is considered wetland, compared to 33% that
is considered arid land. Most of the wetlands
are in the tropics or in sparsely populated
northern boreal forests. A signifcant portion
of wetlands in more-populated areas are in
some form of ecological preserve and so are
out of bounds to most agriculture.
If the waterlogging problem is intermit-
tent and not extreme the best solution for
gardeners is usually to make raised beds.
If growing beds can be built up about 40
cm (16 in) above the soggy soil, the most
active roots near the surface will be able to
function normally, and most annual leaf
crops will do fne.
Two ingenious traditional agricultural
systems triumphed over swampy wetlands
by using a variation of raised beds. Te
Aztecs, near present-day Mexico City, grew
amaranth, corn, beans, pumpkins, chilies,
and fowers in chinampas, artifcial islands
in shallow lake beds. Tey were usually about
30 x 2.5 m (100 x 8 f). Tey were built by
fencing of part of the lake with branches
then layering mud from the lake bottom and
rotting vegetation until a fertile planting bed
above the lake level was created.
Roughly half the total land of Bangladesh
is wetlands, a higher percentage than any
other country. An ingenious system of
foating beds developed several hundred years
ago has allowed local people to grow vegeta-
bles in marshland. Te ferce aquatic weed
water hyacinth is gathered around bamboo
frames. Layer by layer water hyacinth, mud,
and other rotting vegetation are built up.
When the bed is complete the bamboo is
removed to use on the next bed. Te beds
foat because of the air trapped in the water
hyacinth. Seeds are planted in little balls of
compost to get them of to a good start. Fast-
growing leaf crops such as basella, kang kong,
and amaranth thrive in this system. When
the monsoons end and the water level drops,
the beds are dragged by boat to the waters
edge and used to fertilize the gardens on the
adjacent land. It is a labor intensive system
but produces abundant food in an area that
normally could not be farmed.
Tere are some environmental chal-
lenges unique to food production in
wetlands and waterlogged soil. Because so
much of our surface water is contaminated
with either sewage or toxic chemicals, it is
important to be cautious in eating foods
grown in wetlands. Cooking greens rather
than eating them raw greatly reduces
biological dangers but does nothing to
remove heavy metals and other chemical
agents that may have entered the vegetables.
Another concern with wetland
gardening is that fertilizers used to promote
vegetable growth, whether organic or not,
can end up increasing the nitrogen and
phosphorus level in nearby waterways.
Over-fertilization of water is called eutro-
phication and typically intensifes algae and
waterweed growth. Tis rapid algae growth
alters the waters oxygen levels, resulting in
the rapid die-of of many fsh and shellfsh.
Eutrophication has afected the health and
productivity of thousands of freshwater
ecosystems as well as an estimated 415
eutrophic and hypoxic (oxygen depleted)
coastal systems worldwide.
In addition, where soil is waterlogged
for much of the growing season, fungal
attacks on the root systems are a serious
problem. Ultimately the most feasible solu-
tions are found in choosing food plants that
have evolved to live in wet conditions. Some
of the best of these are the nutritious leaf
crops listed below.
Water cress - Nasturtium ofcinale
Kang kong - Ipomoea aquatica
Belembe - Xanthosoma brasiliense
Taro - Colocasia esculenta
Leaf celery - Apium graveolens var.
5 World Resources Institute http://www.wri.org/
6 Kang Kong, sometimes called water spinach or
swamp morning glory, is a popular and nutrition-
ally important cultivated green vegetable in China,
India, Malaysia, Africa, Brazil, the West Indies, and
Central America. However, because it can grow up
to four inches a day it has great potential to invade
moist cultivated areas. Its cultivation is prohibited
without a special permit in the US.
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
Too Much Shade
Many gardeners, especially in urban areas,
fnd themselves wondering if their site is too
shady to grow food. Generally, fruits and seeds
need the most sunlight, followed by root crops,
then leaf and stem vegetables. We rarely think
of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squashes,
eggplant, okra, bean pods or corn as fruit, but
botanically they are. Tey need more sunlight
than leaf crops because fruits form and mature
afer the plant fowers, while leaf crops are
almost universally harvested before fowering.
Root crops also usually need more sunlight than
leaf crops because most of the transfer of nutri-
ents to storage in the root or tuber takes place
afer the leaves are full grown.
So your garden may indeed be too shady
for a bumper crop of tomatoes, watermelon,
or even carrots, but you may still be able
to grow some greens. Because plants are
solar energy collectors and converters,
maximum yieldseven of leafy greens
will come from sites with full sunlight. Tis
is especially true in very northern locations
(very southern in the southern hemisphere)
where the sunlight arrives at a lower angle.
However, by organizing your shady spot
to optimize the capture of light and by
choosing shade tolerant leaf crops you can
still have abundant and nutritious home-
grown greens. It is especially important not
to use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer on leafy
greens grown in partial shade, because they
can accumulate unhealthy levels of nitrates.
Actually in much of the tropics and in
the peak of summer in the temperate zone,
there is a combination of high temperature
and high light intensity that can favor sites
with partial shade. Tis is especially true if
water for irrigation is in short supply since
plants growing in partial shade usually
need less water.
Te pattern of sunlight reaching a
garden changes over the year. Spring
and fall sunlight is at a lower angle than
midsummer sun and will be less shaded by
deciduous trees that dont have their full
leaf canopy. Cool weather greens like kale,
collards, lettuce, spinach, and mustard can
make good use of spring and fall sunlight
that is useless to most fruiting crops. Unlike
fruit crops that need long sunny days to
ripen, most leaf crops can be harvested
and eaten at any stage of development until
fowering. Tese same cool-weather greens
will actually grow better through the
summer if they have some shade to keep
them cool.
If your site receives three to six hours of
full sunlight through most of the summer
you should be able to grow dozens of
varieties of greens successfully. Te same is
true if you have dappled or fltered sunlight,
perhaps from tall sparse trees, reaching
your garden for the entire day. When you
choose a garden site consider how it will
evolve over time. People sometimes clear a
spot and then are surprised a few years later
when a sapling near the edge of the garden
is now a tree shading it. Trees tend to grow
quickly at the edge of gardens because their
roots can feed on the rich garden soil and
they dont have the competition of other
trees, at least on the garden side.
You may be able to cheat the shade
by using white or light colored walls or
fences to refect a bit of extra sunlight
towards your garden. You might consider
planting a few containers with greens.
Small containers are light enough to move
out of the shade at least once a day. Tese
are obviously marginal maneuvers. Te
best defense against shade is planting shade
tolerant greens. Generally, Asian members
of the cabbage family tend to be more
shade tolerant than the familiar European
members of that family. Among the better
known garden greens, the ones listed below
will do well with partial sunlight.
Arugula or Rocket - Eruca sativa
Beet greens - Beta vulgaris
Chives - Allium schoenoprasum
Garden cress - Lepidium sativum
Endive - Chichorium endivia
Kale - Brassica oleracea Acephala group
Leaf lettuce - Latuca sativa
Mustard greens - Brassica juncea, B.
Onions - Allium cepa
Pak choy - Brassica rapa Chinensis group
Parsley - Petroselinum crispum
Sorrel - Rumex acetosa
Spinach - Spinacia oleracea
Turnip greens - Brassica rapa
Tere are also several less widely known
tropical plants that can produce nutritious
greens under even shadier conditions.
Tese include:
Katuk - Sauropus androgynus
Belembe - Xanthosoma brasiliense
Gynura - Gynura or Crassocephalum
Gnemon - Gnetum gnemon
Brazilian spinach - Alternanthera sissoo
Too Little Space
In 1960 there were about 3 billion people
on Earth, with enough cropland to average
about half a hectare (just over 1 acre) per
person. Fify years later the population
has more than doubled and the cropland
per person has declined by half. With few
exceptions, land with good food-growing
potential is becoming much more expensive
and people are being forced to learn how to
produce more food in smaller spaces. On
the household level this translates to more
families trying to squeeze some vegetable-
growing into very small areas.
Just over half of the worlds popula-
tion now lives in urban areas and that
percentage is almost certain to rise. Not
only is there less farmland per person, but
increasingly those people are living farther
from the farms. In response to increasing
population density, many European cities
have allotment systems whereby city
dwellers lease tiny vegetable garden plots.
Much of densely populated south Asia has
developed intensive gardening techniques.
Likewise, in Havana, Cuba, the abrupt loss
of diesel fuel for farm tractors with the
collapse of the Soviet Union forced a gener-
ation of urbanites to quickly learn intensive
vegetable gardening techniques. All over
the world a dynamic new urban agriculture
is emerging that is trying to integrate the
traditional craf of gardening with modern
botanical science.
People trying to produce vegetables in
a small space usually beneft most from
learning intensive techniques that have
been adapted for gardening on tiny parcels
of land. Where there is really no land avail-
able, container and roofop gardening may
be solutions. Wherever food growing space
is at a minimum, leaf crops are usually the
best bet. Tey can produce more nutrients
in less space than any other crops. Tis
becomes more important as the available
growing space shrinks but the need for
nutrition doesnt.
When space is very limited it is impor-
tant to minimize how much area is taken
up by pathways. Permanent beds-as wide
as can be comfortably worked from either
side-with narrow pathways will allow a
much higher percentage of the space to
actually grow crops. Tis usually works out
with beds somewhat more than a meter
wide (4048 in) and paths slightly under
half a meter (1618 in). A variation on this
idea is to straddle a more narrow bed with
one foot in each very minimal pathway.
Tis works best with gardeners who are tall
(and perhaps slightly bow-legged), and with
greens that dont get very tall.
Most annual leaf crops have fairly shallow
roots. As a rule of thumb, containers at least
20 cm (8 in) deep can support a good crop
of greens. Te most common difculty with
container growing is getting the water right. Te
smaller the container the more this is a problem.
Because plants in containers cant wick soil
moisture from the surrounding soil they may
need to be watered several times a week. It is
likewise important that containers for growing
greens and other vegetables have drainage holes
near the bottom to prevent accidental waterlog-
ging. Tere are several self-watering planting
containers available at garden stores and on the
Internet, as well as plans for making your own.
Tey dont really water themselves, but wick
water up from reservoirs that hold enough water
for several days.
Inexpensive and serviceable growing
containers can be made from a wide variety
of objects, including discarded fve gallon
buckets, barrels cut in half, storage bins,
tires with plastic liners, plastic kiddie
swimming pools, trays for mixing mortar,
discarded sinks and bathtubs and institu-
tional size food cans.
7 Cans used to leach lead from solder, but in 1995
the US Food and Drug Administration banned
the use of lead solder in the manufacture of food
cans, and required the removal of all lead-
soldered cans from grocery shelves by 1996,
including imported lead-soldered cans. Most
cans worldwide adhere to the new practice.
There is now some concern over Bisphenol A
(BPA), a chemical used in making epoxy linings
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
One of the most innovative aspects of
urban agriculture is the practice of roofop
vegetable gardening. Almost any roof or
balcony that is relatively fat, and strong
enough to walk on is a potential garden
spot. A roofop garden may be the only
way to get above the shade cast by build-
ings and trees, and fnd enough sunlight
for good plant growth. Most roof gardens
use containers rather than beds. In addition
to the issue of vigilant watering, roof
gardeners need to be aware of weight. Te
efort required to get dirt up to the roof is
substantial. Even more important is making
sure the weight of the dirt, especially when
wet, doesnt strain the structural capacity
of the roof. Flat roofs are always strongest
in the corners, near supporting walls, and
over pillars or load bearing interior walls.
Because of the importance of weight,
roof gardens are well suited for shallow
containers and relatively small plants with
shallow root systems. Tere are several
lightweight potting soils and planting
mediums available commercially, most
of them based on mixtures of peat moss,
perlite, and vermiculite. Tese can be
expensive if you have more than a couple
of containers, and there are some envi-
ronmental concerns with the materials
used. Some brilliant low cost and low
weight solutions to these problems have
been worked out by Martin Price and the
for canned food, leaching into foods. Not all cans
have epoxy lining and it is not clear whether BPA
would migrate into vegetables grown in cans.
staf at Educational Concerns for Hunger
Organization (ECHO). Using just beer or
soda cans covered with old socks to wick
water and nutrients to plant roots, they
have been able to grow lush greens with
a fraction of the weight and cost of most
roofop container gardens. Te biggest
problem with this type of low weight
gardening is that all of the plant nutrients
need to be supplied by a liquid fertilizer.
It is possible to buy complete liquid fertil-
izer pre-mixed or to concoct your own
liquid fertilizer. Care must be taken to
assure all of the essential micronutrients
are provided. Price and Meitzners booklet
Above Ground Gardens at www.echonet.org
is an excellent resource for using roofops
and other above-ground spaces to improve
our nutrition.
Whether you are growing greens
intensively in the ground, or in containers
or on the roof, a few things hold true for
gardeners who are short on space. Te
wheelbarrows, rototillers, and lawnmowers
used to speed up work are largely useless in
very small gardens, so all the work is done
by hand. Seeds are usually planted more
densely than in larger gardens. When they
start to crowd each other some seedlings
can be thinned and used as gourmet baby
salad greens. Te ideal crops for cramped
gardens are cut-and-come-again plants that
can be partially harvested several times,
rather than crops that grow to maturity and
then are harvested just once. Te perfect
Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)
crops for miniature gardens are fast-
growing, highly nutritious and beautiful
cut-and-come-again greens.
Some of the best of these are:
Arugula - Eruca sativa
Cress - Lepidium sativum
Endive - Cichorium endivia
Gynura - Gynura bicolor
Leaf lettuce - Lactuca sativa
Mizuna - Brassica rapa nipposinica or B.
juncea var. japonica
Mustard greens - Brassica juncea
Pak choy - Brassica chinensis
Red Russian kale - Brassica napus
Brazilian spinach - Alternathera sissoo
Tatsoi - Brassica narinosa or B. rapa var.
Scallions - Allium fstulosum
Swiss chard - Beta vulgaris var. cicla
Tyfon greens - Brassica rapa var. Tyfon
Perennial trees with edible leaves anchor
one end of the leaf vegetable spectrum. On
the opposite end are sprouts and micro-
greens. Sprouts are seeds of various edible
plants that have been purposely germi-
nated for consumption as salad greens or
for stir-fries. Tey are normally eaten afer
the cotyledon, or seed leaf, has emerged
but before the plants frst true leaves have
come to light. Sprouts are usually grown
without soil, in jars or other containers, and
are periodically rinsed with cool water to
keep the emerging plants moist and remove
surface impurities.
Among the plant seeds commonly used
as salad sprouts are alfalfa, mung beans, peas,
wheat, barley, clover, broccoli, fenugreek,
sunfower, radish, mustard, cress, garbanzo,
and lentil. Teir sprouts are really infantile
whole plants and they are eaten whole with
their roots as well as the shoot.
When seeds sprout several benefcial
changes take place. Te most noticeable
change may be the sofening of the seed as
it takes in water. Tus many seeds that are
hard enough to break teeth are rendered
sof enough to eat raw through sprouting.
However, the most important transforma-
tion brought about by germination may be
the breakdown of phytates. Phytates are
phosphorus compounds commonly found
in grains, beans, nuts, and other seeds,
which interfere with our bodies ability to
absorb iron, zinc, and calcium. Because
iron defciency anemia and zinc defciencies
are widespread and serious public health
problems, sprouting could provide a poten-
tially valuable nutritional service.
Sprouting further aids good nutrition by
synthesizing vitaminC, which is present only
in trace amounts in most seeds. Tis can be
an important function, especially in colder
climates where long winters with little fresh
fruit or vegetables are the norm. VitaminC,
or ascorbic acid, signifcantly improves the
absorption of iron, in addition to being an
important antioxidant. Levels of B-vitamins,
beta-carotene and vitaminK are also usually
enhanced when seeds are sprouted.
Since they are typically eaten raw,
hygiene is critical in growing and eating
sprouts. Several incidences have been
reported of salmonella contaminating
alfalfa and bean sprouts and making people
sick. Because of this, in May 2009 the US
Food and Drug Administration advised
the public not to eat raw alfalfa sprouts, as
over 100 cases of sickness from salmonella
(Saintpaul variant) were linked to contami-
nated alfalfa sprouts. As a result some
health personnel have recommend avoiding
sprouts altogether.
Note: Some nutritionists recommend
not eating large quantities of alfalfa sprouts
because of possible immune system problems,
from canavanine and other components in
the sprouts. Moderate consumption doesnt
seem to warrant concern.
Growing your own sprouts allows
you far more control over sanitation
issues. Because the most likely source of
contamination is pathogenic bacteria that
may be on the seeds themselves, a reason-
able precaution is to soak the seed for 15
minutes in a solution of 1 tsp. bleach to 1
cup hot tap water. Rinse the seeds thor-
oughly aferwards to remove any trace of
the bleach. Make sure your jars and screens
are clean and avoid possible cross-contami-
nation during food preparation.
It is important to start with good seeds.
Some seeds for outdoor planting have been
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
treated with fungicide. Tese are usually
colored pink or purple to avoid accidental
consumption and should obviously not be
used for sprouting. Broken or moldy seeds
should not be used for sprouting. With
larger seeds this will be easily visible and
they can be removed. Smell small seeds,
especially ones that you have saved, for
signs of mold.
Simplifed Sprouting Steps
Tere are several variations on sprouting,
and more thorough instructions are avail-
able on the Internet. Start with a clean
wide-mouth jar that will hold at least one
liter. Ten you will need nylon mesh or
some other screen that can be secured with
a rubber band to cover the top of the jar
while allowing air to enter and water to
drain. Sprouting seeds should be kept out of
the light until they are almost ready to eat.
1. Soak about 2 tablespoons of small
seeds or half a cup of large seeds (i.e.
beans, peas, or sunfower seeds) in
warm water overnight, in the dark.
2. Rinse with warm water at least
twice a day for three days. Afer
each rinse, put the jar on its side
in order to spread out the seeds.
3. Afer three days remove the sprouts and
rinse of the loose seed hulls. Drain well.
4. Most sprouts are better and more
nutritious if they are then exposed
to indirect sunlight for about a day
to allow them to become green (to
develop chlorophyll and carotenoids).
5. Rinse and drain again, and the
sprouts are ready to eat. Tey can
be kept for a few days in an airtight
container in a refrigerator.
NOTE: Dont eat sprouted sorghum seeds!
While sorghum grain has a small, gener-
ally safe amount of hydrocyanic acid (HCN)
producing compounds, the sprouts are not
safe to eat. Te average amount of HCN from
sprouts grown from 100 g of seed exceeds the
average fatal dose for an adult.
Microgreens are plants that have been
allowed to develop a bit further than sprouts.
Tey have recently become fashionable in
upscale restaurants and gourmet food shops.
As consumer tastes become more sophisti-
cated, the traditional salad of head lettuce
may have trouble competing with the more
intense and complex favors and colors of
fresh microgreens. Whether microgreens
become a lasting food trend rather than just
a passing fad will likely depend on how much
their price comes down.
Tey usually take 13 weeks to grow
and have at least one set of true leaves.
Tere are many plants well suited for use
as microgreens. Members of the cabbage
family, including cabbage, mustard,
Chinese cabbages and oriental mustards,
broccoli, radish, kale, and arugula, usually
sprout within three days and dependably
make spicy and nutritious microgreens.
Spinach, lettuces, Swiss chard, sunfower,
clover, alfalfa, and basil are other popular
microgreen crops. Celery, parsley, and
carrots add a distinctive favor to micro-
greens, but they are much slower to germi-
nate and are best grown separately and
mixed with other greens afer harvest.
Deep red colors can be introduced into
your microgreens with red Hopi amaranth
(Amaranthus cruentus) or bulls blood
beets, while purples can be added with
orach (Atriplex hortensis), red cabbage or
purple mizuna.
As with sprouts, there are numerous
variations on the basic technique of raising
microgreens. More information is avail-
able on the Internet and in the book
Microgreens: A Guide To Growing Nutrient-
Packed Greens by Eric Franks and Jasmine
Simplifed Microgreen Steps
1. Fill a shallow tray with at least 2.5
cm (1 in) of sterile potting soil,
vermiculite, or sterilized compost
or garden soil. A sterile growing
medium will help you avoid problems
with damping of and other fungal
and mold problems common with
young seedlings. If possible use
a tray that allows some drainage
through small holes in the bottom.
2. Dampen the planting mix so
that it is moist, like a wrung out
sponge, but not soaking wet.
3. Spread seed evenly over the planting
mix. Sow seeds more thickly than you
would in a garden, but not so close
together that they are touching. Mixing
dry sand with small seeds makes it
easier to sow them evenly. Press the
seeds lightly into the planting mix
with your hands to assure good soil
contact. Cover the seeds with a fne
layer of the planting mixture or cover
with a damp cloth or paper towel until
the frst seeds begin to germinate.
4. Place tray in a warm sunny spot and
keep moist. Misting with a spray bottle
works well for keeping the seedlings
moist without over watering them.
5. Afer the seedlings have developed their
frst true leaves, as opposed to their
seed leaves, they are ready to harvest.
Tis is usually about 714 days afer
sowing. Most microgreens are snipped
of just above the soil level with clean
sharp scissors, and only the above-
ground portion is eaten. Exceptions
are traditional root crops such as
beets, radishes, and carrots, which are
sometimes grown as microgreens. In
their case the entire plant is usually
eaten. Tey are ready to add to salads,
sandwiches, garnishes etc. Tey will
keep for a few days in a refrigerator
afer being rinsed and well drained.
Beyond ofering a nice touch for gener-
ally well fed restaurant diners, can micro-
greens play any part in the grittier struggle
against malnutrition? Growing and
marketing microgreens is more exacting
and more labor intensive than growing
other commercial greens. Microgreens
have almost no shelf life, as they quickly
reach and then pass their peak of favor
and appearance. Tis makes them useless
for agribusiness scale production and long
distance shipping schemes. As a result they
may represent an economic opportunity for
the smallest scale food producers.
Microgreens can be produced in the
extremely small spaces that are ofen all
that the urban poor have available. Tey
can be grown indoors regardless of the
season, providing valuable, fresh, nutrient-
rich food when it is most needed and when
it is most expensive or inaccessible. Because
they dont fower or produce fruit, micro-
greens can be grown where light conditions
are too low for most crops. Microgreens
grow for such a short time that they are
rarely bothered with insect pests, and even
if they are, the small containers can easily
be covered with protective screen or mesh.
Microgreens produce only one very
small plant from each seed and the plant
is rarely strong enough to recover for a
second harvest. Because of this, growing
them for basic nutrition favors sowing
inexpensive seed rather than the high
priced small packets intended for gardens.
Bulk seed for edible cover crops, such as
wheat, barley, mustard, fodder radish, rape,
forage beet, and winter pea is usually many
times less expensive than garden seed. As
with sprouts, it is important to make sure
than any seed used for microgreens has not
been treated with fungicide. A good source
of untreated seeds for microgreens can be
your own garden. One or two amaranth
plants lef to go to seed can provide enough
seeds for dozens of trays of microgreens.
Te same is true for mustard greens
(Chenopodium gigantium), quail grass
(Celosia argentea) and many other garden
For microgreens to play a signifcant
nutritional role for low-income families, a
system of careful succession planting would
be needed to assure a nearly continual
supply of fresh miniature greens. If that
can be accomplished, microgreens could
provide important amounts of vitaminC,
vitaminA, iron, folate, potassium, and
protective antioxidants year round at very
little cost. Best when eaten raw or very
lightly cooked, they can add favor, color,
and variety that are sorely missing from
many bland starchy meals. Microgreens
can also provide restless gardeners with
something to grow in the of-season.
Too Little Time
For those who would like to grow some of
their own vegetables but arent sure you
have enough time, there are a few measures
that can reduce the time required. Some
of these measures are on the front end, in
designing a garden to minimize the labor
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
needed. Some are gardening shortcuts to
help make the most of the time that you
can spare for your garden. Te real heroes
for a time-stressed gardener, however, are
those plants that take care of themselves.
Choose a garden site that is as close to
your home as possible, ideally a spot that
you have to walk by to get to your door.
Tis will let you make good use of little
scraps of time, like the 5 minutes while you
are waiting for a pot of water to boil. It will
also let you see weed or pest problems early
on when they are easiest to deal with.
Make a very small garden spot. It
is usually easier to increase yields by
improving the soil and growing more
intensively than to try to take care of more
garden space. You can enlarge the garden
later if it is warranted. Laying your garden
out in raised beds requires extra labor
initially, but it will make gardening consid-
erably easier from then on. It is a sound
investment of garden labor. Hire a teenager
to help for a day.
Work on your soil frst-adding plenty
of compost-before planting. It is amazing
how much less time and efort is required
to grow vegetables in deep, rich, fertile soil
than in typical yard soil. Again this is labor
on the front end of the operation, but unless
you are only going to garden for one year it
is an investment that will defnitely pay of.
Controlling weeds is almost universally
considered the most time consuming aspect
of vegetable gardening. Using a razor sharp
reciprocating hoe or collinear hoe to slice
weeds of just below the surface is almost
efortless. Frequent quick weeding takes less
time and efort than waiting till weeds are
established. Cutting them of before they
fower and go to seed also reduces the time
spent weeding in next years garden. Tick
organic mulch is very efective at both mini-
mizing weeds and reducing watering needs.
If weeds are really troublesome you can lay
big sheets of cardboard or several layers of
newspaper over your bed, and plant seeds or
sets through slits cut in the cardboard.
Growing plants from sets is more
expensive than sowing seeds, and the
variety available is far less, but it saves
time. Very small or low-growing plants,
such as mache, are hard to thin and mulch
and so take more time to grow than larger
plants for an equal amount of food. Plants
that have a brief window of edibility
before bolting are not well suited for the
busy gardener. Te leaf crops that require
the least time to cultivate are perennials,
because they dont need to be planted anew
every year. Tere are many more low-main-
tenance perennial leaf crops available to
tropical gardeners than to those gardening
in regions prone to freezing. Some of the
best combination low-maintenance and
high nutrition crops are listed below.
Vine spinach (Basella alba)
Easy Perennial Leaf Crops for Tropical
Belembe - Xanthosoma braziliense
Cassava - Manihot esculenta
Chaya - Cnidoscolus acontifolius
Moringa - Moringa oleifera
Okinawan spinach - Gynura crepioides
Sissoo spinach - Alternanthera sissoo
Except for wolferry, the crops below arent
usually perennial in areas that freeze, but
they provide great nutrition for very little
Easy Nutritious Leaf Crops for Temperate
Cowpeas - Vigna unguiculata
Okra - Abelmoschus esculentus
Quail grass - Celosia argentea
Sweet potato - Ipomoea batatas
Turnips - Brassica rapa var. Rapa
Vine Spinach (Malabar spinach) -
Basella rubra
Wheat - Triticum spp.
Wolferry (goji) - Lycium barbarum and
Too Little Money
As of 2005 the median per capita income
in the world was about $1,700.
Half the
8 From Boston Globe October 7, 2007. ~ There is
sometimes confusion between the median
income (the point at which half have greater
income and half have less) and average income
(total income divided by total number of people).
People living in rich countries had an average
income of about $35,000. The high incomes in
these countries make the world average income
four times larger than the world median income.
people, almost three and a half billion of
us, had incomes below that. Tese are the
people most likely to be malnourished
and most likely to beneft from growing
some high nutrition leaf crops. Tey are
not going to be able to garden with $200
compost spinners and garden carts, but
they do still have some possibilities for
improving their health by growing greens.
Most people on the hard side of the
income median live in the tropics. Easily
grown tropical perennial plants with very
nutritious leaves are grossly underutilized
resources for these people. Many of the
best tropical leaf crops dont even require
seed. Moringa, chaya, gynura, katuk, and
sissoo, for example, can all be easily started
by simply taking a piece of stem about 20
cm (8 in) long and sticking the bottom
third of it in the ground. With a little
water, these plants will provide a cheap
source of protein, iron, calcium, vitaminA,
vitaminC, and folate, all of which are likely
to be in short supply in the diet. A single
plant can provide dozens of cuttings to
expand production or share with neighbors.
Chaya in particular stands out as a poor
mans friend. It is rarely attacked by insects
or disease and can survive prolonged
droughts. Because the leaves have a toxic
compound, most animals will avoid it
even if lef unprotected. Unlike the grazing
animals, humans have the advantage of
Economists generally consider the median to
give a more accurate view of a typical persons
being able to boil chaya leaves and elimi-
nate the toxin completely.
Direct competition with animals for leaf
crops is a problem in much of the tropics,
especially in cultures with weak prohibi-
tions about allowing animals to roam.
Tere are dozens of ingenious methods
for making fences to protect gardens that
cost little or nothing. Some of these use
discarded mattress springs, truck hoods
and old metal roofng. Other gardeners
may stack rocks, bind together bamboo or
weave thorny branches together. Among
the more interesting are the living hedges
that create a tight wall of living plants that
grazing animals wont pass through. Te
living hedge can do more than just protect
your garden. Some nitrogen-fxing, legu-
minous perennial species can be grown
closely together to exclude animals, while
enriching the soil with nitrogen. Ideally
these are pruned or coppiced several times
a year to keep them about one meter high.
Te leaves and branches that are pruned
can provide valuable fodder or mulch
depending on the species.
Another way to get the upper hand with
animals is to grow leaves above 2 m (6 f)
tall, where most of the browsing takes place.
Some tree-like plants, such as moringa and
9 Nitrogen Fixing Contour Hedgerows As A
Sustainable Soil And Water Conservation
Practice: The Salt Experience http://www.arldf.
Growing Leaf Vegetables Under Difficult Conditions
chaya, can be pruned in such a way as to
encourage more foliage higher above the
ground. Some plants that produce excellent
greens, including basella, chayote, rice bean
and many others-especially in the legume
and pumpkin families-have aggressive
vines. Tey can easily be trained to climb
nearby walls, fences, or even trees, growing
quickly above the level of most animal
feeding. Of course, this makes harvest a bit
more difcult.
Most malnourished people live in
the tropics, where there is a cornucopia
of perennial leaf crops rich in the very
nutrients they lack. Even where poverty is
severe, lack of money is rarely the biggest
obstacle to making better use of leaf crops.
Te highest hurdles are more ofen the lack
of information, and cultural resistance to
eating green leaves.
Even people well above the worlds
median income may feel like gardening
is an expensive hobby for the rich. People
intending to help out their family budget by
growing some of their own food are ofen
discouraged when they start buying tools,
plants, fertilizer, and packets of seed.
Although they dont usually have the
luxury of a year round growing season,
lower-income people in wealthier societies
have a few advantages over their tropical
counterparts when it comes to growing
their own food. For starters, grazing
animals are almost always confned, so
competition for leaf crops is lessened.
Also, there are a thousand diferent
ways to get the garden tools, soil building
materials, containers, and even the plants
and seeds you need, while by-passing the
daunting price tags at garden stores. A
creative person can get what is needed for
vegetable gardening with very little money.
Need a fve gallon bucket? Look behind
restaurants. Need scrap wood or some
bricks for borders on your raised beds?
Look at construction sites. Need mulch?
Try to gather the straw used for Halloween
or Tanksgiving decorations afer the
holiday or ask the crew trimming trees in
your neighborhood to dump their wood
chips near your garden. Whatever you
need, if you can think outside the box you
can probably fnd it, and fnd a way to haul
it. Gardeners without trucks can sometimes
swap labor for hauling, or rent a truck for
half a day.
Te four tools that I consider indis-
pensable for gardening are a shovel, a rake,
a stirrup hoe, and a fle to keep the hoe
razor sharp. You can ofen fnd all four
of these tools used and cheap at auctions,
fea markets, or yard sales. Farm supply or
hardware stores usually carry bulk seeds
of varieties of basic leaf cropssuch as
spinach, turnips, leaf lettuce, kale, and
mustardproven to do well in that area.
You can sa