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As athletes, we love control—and that can extend into the foods we put into our bodies. Sure, buying organic at the grocery store is great—the produce has obviously met certain standards that control the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. But you can reap even more benefits out of your greens by growing them yourself, says Kim Schwabenbauer, R.D., a board-certified sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel Your Passion Sports Nutrition Counseling & Endurance Coaching.
“Beyond just knowing how they were grown,” she says, “you control when you harvest the food. Those plants that have enough time to ripen in the garden and then are eaten shortly after retain more nutrients than those that have to be picked early and then travel to your local grocery store.” Both light and heat can degrade some of the nutrient content when your fruits and veggies make that trip to the shop.
In addition to the health benefits, having a garden can be a budget saver. “It’s cheaper in that you don’t spend time, energy, gas traveling to the grocery store,” she says, though she notes you will be paying with your time in weeding and watering. Also, if you find ways to can or freeze excess veggies, she says, you save money when those foods are out of season while still reaping their nutritional benefits.
And with today’s exciting food science tech, those without the space (or the skills) to be a regular Farmer Joe can use modern magic to become a digital Johnny Appleseed. The large-scale technology that’s helping to create vertical farming in dense urban areas like New York City is also available to consumers hoping to make their own return to nature. (See our picks at the bottom for creative modern solutions to age-old farming problems.)
Growing your own food can be especially helpful for endurance athletes, says Schwabenbauer, an Ironman athlete herself. “If you eat more produce because you grew it, you include more antioxidants, nutrients, and phytochemicals in your diet,” she says. “All of these things are incredibly important for endurance athletes because of the amount of oxidative stress we produce through exercise. We have more damage than most due to our activity, but we can help recover faster [through what we eat].”
If you’re new to gardening, Schwabenbauer, who grows her own food in the summer months, recommends finding a local farm to source your plants. Not only will you be supporting a local small business, but you’ll also be set up for success. “Talking to a regular grower can clue you in as to mistakes first-time growers make and save you time, money, and frustration,” she says. “It’s also good to talk to them about how many plants you need.” In one of her first years gardening, she bought 30 tomato plants, not realizing each one could produce more than 10 pounds of tomatoes over a season. “Needless to say, every one of our friends, neighbors, and family got tomatoes that year!”
The best starter plants for runners—as in ones that will be easy to grow while giving you the most nutritional “bang for your buck”—are kale and tomatoes, Schwabenbauer says. Kale is hardy (the “dinosaur kale” variety can last into November in her experience), and it has excellent nutrients—vitamins A, K, C, and calcium. Tomatoes are full of nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K, and they can be grown from plant or seed—just make sure you have a wire cage to support them.
Gardening for Athletes: Genius Solutions
Want to grow your own food? You don’t need a green thumb (or a giant yard) to grow healthful veggies and herbs with these clever space-saving ideas.
Back to the Roots Water Garden $82
Experience a scaled-down hydroponics system (and a fun family project) right on your counter—the fish waste fertilizes the plants while the plants clean the water. It comes with three months’ supply of microgreens and wheatgrass (and a fish coupon), and this self-cleaning system could also work for growing herbs.
Mr. Stacky Smart Farm $246
By going vertical, you can grow up to 20 plants in just a few square feet of a porch or patio. With a 16-gallon water reservoir and no need for soil, once it’s set up, this hydroponic system requires minimal effort.
Grow Duo $200
This outdoor planter makes growing veggies practically foolproof, thanks to automatic watering as well as its coordinating app, which uses environmental data to give you custom recommendations on what to grow and how to take care of it (and will send reminders to your phone).
Back to the Roots Organic Mushroom Farm $20
Fungi fans can enjoy home-grown oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days. Yielding 1–2 crops, this box simply requires you to mist the kit with water, then watch the mushrooms grow.
EarthBox Planter $59
This container can make your gardening simpler and your harvest more plentiful. It uses a specific mix of fertilizer and dolomite, a self-watering system, and mulch covers to keep help your plants thrive.