By Katie Marks, Networx
Interested in adopting the Mediterranean Diet? Fresh whole foods can make you feel more energized, and they're a great way to fuel your body for whatever exercise you fancy, whether it's mountain biking or rowing crew. Plus, they're delicious: hard to beat a fantastic tomato salad on a hot summer day! (We know, hot summer days feel like they're a long way away, but they're returning, we promise.)
Did you know that you can totally grow your own Mediterranean Garden, even if you're in a relatively cool climate? People through Zone Six, which covers much of the Midwest, can join on the bandwagon just as easily as those of us who live on the temperate California coast or in warm Southern climes.
So let's get started, shall we? The cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet is fresh, whole fruits, vegetables, and nuts. And you can produce most of those at home, instead of hitting the grocery store.
Get started with tomatoes (technically fruits, actually, but we'll call them veggies since they're used like vegetables in most cooking), artichokes, carrots, arugula, melons, asparagus, peas, potatoes, squash, okra, garlic, onions, leeks, eggplants, fennel, beets, chickpeas, chard, broccoli, beans (fava beans are especially wonderful), celery, spinach and other greens, peppers, and peas.
Many of these plants can comfortably be grown outdoors starting in early spring and running through late fall. Take advantage of big summer crops to dry and can so you'll have goodies for the winter, and don't underestimate the power of the freezer, either: consider packaging up some meals so that on long dark days, you have a burst of summer at your fingertips.
Peaches, olives, dates, figs, and grapes are all big in the Mediterranean Diet. You might think you can't grow these, but you'd be surprised: many can in fact thrive in colder climes, especially when they are grafted onto hardy rootstock. Others can be grown in containers that get wheeled indoors for winter and put back out in summer. Or, consider building a greenhouse to shelter some of your favorites. Picking fresh fruit is tons of fun, and you'll love having your own source.
Like fruit trees, nut trees are a long-term investment, because they take a while to start producing, but they're worth it. Walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and pine nuts are all commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine, and you can grow them! Talk to a local nursery about which varietals will do best in your garden, and plant away. Be aware that walnuts secrete a highly specialized herbicide to discourage competing plants, so don't plant them too close to anything else or store container plants under them!
Fresh herbs are a key component of so many dishes in Mediterranean cuisine and beyond. Oregano, chives, parsley, rosemary, coriander, thyme, sage, tarragon, marjoram, chervil, dill, mint, basil, and bay are great things to include in the garden. (Since bay is a tree, you might have a little trouble fitting it in the veggie garden, but it's also quite pretty to look at, and it could spill over into your ornamental garden.)
Grains including wheat, barley, and rice take up space, and might not fit easily in your garden. However, you may be able to find a local grain exchange that will provide you with fresh, local grains and flours that you can use for things like making your own pasta (your hens will be happy to provide eggs!), creating grain salads, and making amazing pastries.
Bonus Round: Mushrooms
Mushrooms are another wonderful element of cuisine from places like Italy, Spain, and Greece. And you can make your own mushroom log to grow any variety you like, as long as you have a nice dim, moist place for it. Mushroom logs can be amazingly productive, so get ready to dry some mushrooms this year!
Does all this sound like a lot of food and a huge garden? Well, you're right: if you grew everything on this list, you'd need a lot of space. However, it makes a good starting point. Think about the Mediterranean dishes you love the most or browse some cookbooks, and make some grocery lists. Take note of what appears most commonly, and try starting with that. Tomatoes, for example, are an absolute must, because fresh garden tomatoes make meals so much better. But maybe you can skip the artichokes, because they take up a lot of space and aren't used in as many dishes. Meanwhile, a single peach tree could provide garden-fresh peaches...but you could pick up olives and olive oil at the grocery store.
And remember: consider companion planting to manage pests, or consult an exterminator about eco-friendly pest management options.
Don't be afraid to get creative with container gardening on the porch, deck, or patio, or in the sunroom. Lots of herbs do well in containers and they'll keep producing year round if you give them some love!