I had waited two long years for this moment. My husband and children sat next to me at the dinner table, oblivious to my anticipation.
Two years ago, I planted my first asparagus crowns in a newly built raised bed garden. Unlike other vegetables in the garden, the first harvest wouldn’t come for a few years. But I wanted to try growing this crop that, when established, would provide a spring harvest for decades.
I had heard stories about the flavor of homegrown asparagus, but I shrugged it off. I mean, it’s asparagus. Strawberries and tomatoes I understand. But asparagus?
Seemingly in slow motion (I wanted to savor this moment), I ate the first bite of my homegrown roasted asparagus — seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, olive oil, and a sprinkle of goat cheese (my personal indulgence).
My skepticism ended when the burst of flavor exploded in my mouth like a healthy version of Pop Rocks, and in a millisecond I understood the hype. You have to taste it to believe it.
I think we’ve all tasted the difference in homegrown strawberries, blueberries, melons, and tomatoes. But what is it about homegrown everything that really does taste better?
Recently I had the pleasure of sharing this very topic with the sixth grade science classes at my son’s school. When I posed this question to them, their thoughtful and knowledgeable answers surprised and delighted me. But one young lady offered an answer beyond her years. “When you put hard work into something, it’s just naturally going to taste better.”
But there’s more. Science is also showing us why homegrown and locally sourced produce do, in fact, taste better.
Hybridization. In order for the produce that line our grocery store shelves to maintain the long shelf life needed for transportation and storage until we consume it, many of those fruits and vegetables have been specifically bred for traits conducive to such shelf life. Much of the time, this breeding comes at the cost of flavor and even nutrition.
Fruit and vegetables we grow locally do not require a long shelf life; therefore, we can choose varieties for flavor instead of resilience.
Artificial Ripening. With sixty percent of America’s tomatoes transported from Florida farms, these vegetables are harvested long before optimum ripeness. During transport they receive a dose of ethylene gas to ripen the tomatoes to the red color we see in grocery stores.
In contrast, true “vine-ripened” tomatoes burst with flavor only nature can produce.
Sugar Conversion. Upon harvest, natural sugars in fruits and vegetables begin converting to starch. The most well-known example is sweet corn. Have you ever been told to get the water boiling before harvesting corn? It may seem like an old practice, but it’s based on fact. Standard sweet corn loses up to fifty percent of its sugars within twelve hours of harvest.
If you ever pick a fruit or vegetable in your garden and then eat it right there in the garden, you know the sooner you can consume a fruit or vegetable, the sweeter — and tastier — it will be. The longer our produce sits away from the garden or farm, the more sweetness and flavor it loses.
Soil Nutrients. In a small home garden, we can take special care to add organic matter to our soils year after year in the form of compost, mulch, manures, and more. As these organic materials break down into the soil, both major and minor nutrients become available to subsequent crops. Minor nutrients like calcium, sulfur, manganese, magnesium, copper, iron, boron and zinc — largely ignored in commercial operations — contribute significantly to both the nutritional value and flavor of fruits and vegetables.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the vast availability of fruits and vegetables lining our produce departments, especially in the winter and early spring when the garden harvest is scarce. But I believe the more we can grow and consume homegrown and locally-sourced fruits and vegetables, the healthier we’ll be and the more we’ll come to appreciate all that the garden has to offer us.
Most of us can grow something, even if it’s a pepper plant in a pot. But all of us can support local growers through U-pick farms, farmer’s markets, and other local growers, right here in the River Valley.
Whether we grow our own or buy from local farmers and gardeners, we’ll enjoy all the flavor that true homegrown has to offer us.
Because homegrown and local always tastes better. Even if it’s asparagus.