When I was revamping my PowerPoint presentation for MASTER GARDENER training the other day, I came across a slide that I’d entitled “What can you grow in a garden?”.

The slide was a picture of the USDA “MyPlate”. That graphic is a plate divided into sections of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins, with dairy off to the side. This graphic replaces the old food pyramids you might have seen – including the one that advised us to eat between nine and 11 servings of starch daily.  Which is not to say that you can’t eat between nine and 11 servings of bread, rice, pasta, whatever – if you’re an Olympic runner, or getting ready for the Iron Man competition!

This new graphic gives a much clearer indication of a decent diet. The MyPlate.gov website has lots of information.

For my purposes, though, I was interested in how much of that MyPlate we could actually produce in our own home gardens. Surprising just how much we can!

First, of course, would be the vegetable section. The graphic indicates that our plate should contain 40% vegetables. When we decide to start a garden aren’t vegetables number one? Here in the great American Southwest, we can grow many vegetables, as long as we pay attention. Leafy greens, tubers and roots are what we call “cool season crops”. You’d plant these when nighttime temperatures are above 40° Fahrenheit but not much above 60°. Once it gets warm, these tend to produce inedible flower parts.

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Since there are cool season crops, you probably won’t be stunned to learn that there are warm season ones, as well.  All those tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, they grow just fine in decent soil with ample watering, but tomatoes will suffer when temperatures go above 90°. On the other hand, okra, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes, they continue growing merrily even when temperatures are in the low hundreds!

So vegetables are obvious choices for a MyPlate garden.

Fruits? We generally don’t have much room for an orchard in a tiny yard or on a patio, but we have enough space for a few things.

MyPlate indicates that about 10% of it should be fruit. It doesn’t say if that fruit could be baked into a pie, but I’d be willing to bet not.

Quite a number of fruits can tolerate our temperatures most of the year. I have a ½ whiskey barrel in my back yard, with a grapefruit tree planted in it. And I get grapefruit! Granted, it’s only five or six in a year, but what a sense of accomplishment.

Melons can grow in that kind of a container, too. It’s best if they’re trained up a trellis; otherwise they’ll take over all the space they can reach. Berries do well here, too.  All these things require a lot of sun, especially morning to early afternoon light. Late afternoon light gets scorching.

When I saw “grains”, I thought “well, we’re not growing wheat or barley” here. But we do grow corn, and that’s a grain. There are so many kinds and colors of corn, and it’s not all sweet corn. Popcorn; corn for polenta; corn for corn bread – we can grow them.

When the MyPlate guide was published, they recommended about 20% protein. That doesn’t just mean meat or fish, though. Beans, particularly soybeans, are a terrific protein source, and you can grow them in a raised bed or a large pot. Most beans don’t do all that well growing in our soil, because we have so much of the essential nutrient boron, which is why I suggest putting them in a container.

Here in the great American Southwest, we face environmental challenges in food growing, but it’s definitely not impossible. And with a little extra attention, we can decorate MyPlate with our own home grown, highly nutritious foods. Who wouldn’t want that!

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Extension.


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