For Western North Carolina gardeners who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, GIY (grow-it-yourself) protein can present a satisfying challenge
Some protein-producing plants, such as some legumes and grains, require much more space than a typical homeowner has. But others, like squash, peas and beans, are easy to grow and yield high amounts of protein, experts say.
Denise Barratt, a local dietitian and nutritionist at Vine Ripe Nutrition, says the best protein source that can be produced in a home garden is dried beans. In her garden, she just planted black beans, white lima beans, cow peas, fava beans and greasy beans, an Appalachian native pole bean that’s so-named for its shiny appearance.
“When beans are dried for cooking, there is about 7 grams of protein per half cup of beans. Most other vegetables have about 2 grams of protein,” says Barratt. “So, if you eat a cup of beans with a kale salad and a side of carrots, you’re looking at about 18 grams of protein.”
Barratt recommends that people eat 1 gram of protein per day for every kilogram they weigh. So, for a 165-pound man, that translates to roughly 75 kilograms, she says, which would mean eating about 75 grams of protein daily.
“Most of us get the majority of our protein from meat,” she says. “But you can get a lot of protein from dried beans, nuts and nut butters, as well as cheese and dairy. If you were to have beans with cornbread — which has 5 grams of protein — and some vegetables on the side, you’re at 23 grams, which is getting close to the 25 grams per meal that you need.”
Sunflowers are a protein option for WNC gardens that’s both beautiful and productive. Although Barratt says she has trouble cultivating them in her current Asheville plot, she has raised them in the past, and they make for a great source of homegrown protein — about 8 grams of it per 1/4 cup. “They are also rich in polyunsaturated fats,” she adds.
Barratt notes that squash and pumpkins can provide a double benefit, since protein can be found in both the flesh and seeds. But for those who have small growing areas, those crops may not be the best solution, says Alan Israel, nursery manager with Jesse Israel and Sons Garden Center in Asheville. The plants take up a lot of space for a relatively small yield.
“With squash, you’re going to pick them in their younger stages, and that’s before the plant and its seeds have time to mature,” he says. “Really mature summer squash, for instance, is not really palatable. And you’re not going to get that high of yield of seeds after all of that.”
However, ripe pumpkins do have matured seeds that are especially delicious roasted. “A lot of times, people will grow the competition pumpkins, if they’ve got the space for it,” he says. “Those larger pumpkins have larger seeds, which have more meat to them, which means more protein.”
But probably the easiest protein home producers can grow are beans, says Israel. “You can devote a space to beans and grow them on poles or on trellises where they won’t take up much space,” he says. “But you can also find bush varieties that are more compact and don’t require staking them up.”
Peas, he notes, are another good source and are simple to grow. “They’re fairly easy, but they’re going to be more for your colder months,” he says. “Right now you should be harvesting them, but you would be able to put in another crop in fall.”
Peas can be eaten fresh or dried and eaten as split peas. The dried versions have more protein, Barratt says.
Peanuts are another protein-rich crop that can be grown in WNC, but Israel says that, taking into account the cost of seed peanuts and all the materials needed for them to grow, it may make more sense to just buy them already roasted. “As low as the price is on peanuts [at the store], it’s just not worth the cost and trouble,” he says.