Growing protein-rich foods in the WNC garden

SEED PROJECTS: Sunflowers can be an excellent source of homegrown protein, yielding about 8 grams per 1/4 cup of seeds. Photo by Denise Barratt

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.


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About Liz Carey
Liz Carey is a veteran reporter living and working in Upstate SC. For more than 20 years, Liz has covered everything from crooked politicians to quirky characters from Minnesota to Florida and everywhere in between. Currently, she works as a freelance writer. Her latest book, Hidden History of Anderson County, will be released in February 2018. Follow me @lizardcsc

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4 thoughts on “Growing protein-rich foods in the WNC garden

  1. boatrocker

    The Greasy Beans were easily my favorite bluegrass band from WNC ever.
    Some call them leather britches.

    I can’t eat a fava bean without quoting Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

    Doonesbury the comic strip had a character who was ‘zombified’ by the Haitian
    zombie paste named simply Legume.

    Not a big pea fan, but dried peas in trail mix mmm mmm.
    Call me a simpleton, but how exactly does one dry peas?
    I did not grow up in the basement of a yuppie health food store in California.
    When I run them through the dryer, they don’t taste right for all the pocket lint.

    • luther blissett

      “Call me a simpleton, but how exactly does one dry peas?”

      Strip the pods, leave them in the garden, let the sun do what it does. (If rain’s in the forecast, take them somewhere they won’t get rained on.) Or let the pods dry on the plant and then harvest them. But for trail mix, you should take ’em fresh and dry-roast them in a low oven.


      Hi Boat Rocker!
      Lots of food for thought there! I haven’t eaten a lot of fava beans myself, they are a little hard to get around here and this is my first time growing them! I like to get heirloom seed from Sow True Seed. I am also growing White Nantahala Beans & Pink Cow Peas. I love the thought of growing lesser known seeds to keep some diversity in our food system. The beans/peas are easy to dry. Just remove them from their pods and set them on the counter on a cookie sheet. Have a great summer & I look forward to hearing about some of the plants growing in everyone’s gardens!

  2. boatrocker

    You mean drying like just letting them sit on a cookie sheet and doing
    absolutely nothing?
    Can do!

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