The True Explanation of a Medicinal Food Garden

As summer draws to a close and the main harvesting is well underway, I thought I would share my ideas on what I call a “medicinal food garden.” This phrase best describes what I am attempting to do with the Napa garden, and, in some ways, it is the underlying philosophy of Dr. Cowan’s Garden.


My idea for the Napa garden was never to turn it into a “production facility,” churning out mountains of kale or tomatoes or any other crop. Rather, my original concept was to grow “medicinal” foods for our friends and families and then share some with our customers. Although Dr. Cowan’s Garden has grown beyond the capacity of the Napa garden, the idea behind the garden lives on, still inspiring many of the decisions of our company. In the next few weeks, I would like to share a little of what we are doing in Napa and encourage you, in whatever way possible, to start your own medicinal food garden. Growing a medicinal food garden is one of the healthiest, most enjoyable, most productive activities in my life, as I trust it would be for you as well. But first, what do I mean by a medicinal food garden?


The simplest explanation I can give is that I am trying to grow the healthiest food possible without sacrificing ease and flavor. This objective involves many choices and activities, from the proper preparation of the soil, the choice of seeds, the decision of when to harvest each vegetable or fruit, and the cooking method chosen. The twin goals of increasing the valuable nutrients in the food as well as improving the flavor underlie each choice.


As I explained in my short book How (&Why) to Eat More Vegetables, the optimal human diet consists of three parts. The first is animal foods, which provide the fats and proteins needed to build a healthy body. The second is foods from seeds, which include grains, beans, seeds and nuts. These foods provide fiber, carbohydrates for energy and certain valuable nutrients. The third is the vegetable and fruit foods, which are the therapeutic part of the diet. The optimal strategy for using diet to maintain health, or even to treat disease, should seek to optimize the valuable nutrients in this third category.


Let me give one simple example. Every gardener loves to grow tomatoes in the summer. They are easy to grow, prolific, and flavorful additions to almost everyone’s diet. In a medicinal food garden, we look for particular aspects of the tomato to accentuate. The first is that tomatoes concentrate their nutrients and flavor under certain conditions. To thrive, tomatoes need an enormous amount of calcium deep in the soil. Taking my lead from the work of master gardener Alan Chadwick, we bury pounds of eggshells and bone meal in the tomato beds before planting. Second, tomatoes, like many plants, improve their nutrient density if they are stressed right before harvest. With tomatoes, the simplest way to do this is to turn off the irrigation in the days or weeks before the main harvest. Some expert tomato growers even go so far as to pour salt water onto the soil before harvest. Both of these strategies stress the plants, which causes them to increase protective nutrients in their fruits. These same nutrients become the therapeutic part of our diet.


Another aspect of a medicinal food garden is to understand what nutrients from each crop are most important for a therapeutic effect. With the tomato plant, the nutrient we wish to increase is the well-known phytonutrient called lycopene. Lycopene has been show to improve eye health, reduce the risk of prostate cancer and possibly help prevent many other diseases of aging. It turns out that different tomato types produce and concentrate different amounts of lycopene in their fruits. The tomato with the highest lycopene content that I know is called Indigo Apple and is sold by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. So, we grow this variety (in addition to others) because of its nutrient content; however, a medicinal garden should never sacrifice flavor, and, amazingly, Indigo Apple tomatoes have a delicious smoky, bacon-like flavor.


This first medicinal garden blog is meant to give a “taste” of what I will be writing about in the coming weeks, all with the goal of helping you start your own medicinal garden and to help you on your road to robust health.



In health,

Tom Cowan, M.D.

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