Store bought produce isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. Showing a steady decline since the 1950s, modern farming practices have valued the size, yield, growth rate, and pest resistance of fruits and vegetables over and above basic nutrition. You would need to eat eight oranges today to obtain the same amount of vitamin A as a single orange would have provided just two generations ago.

The main causes of nutrient loss are growing foods in soil that is depleted in nutrients, cultivating fast growing varieties that are harvested before maturity, as well as the “dilution effect” – a phenomenon where the larger the fruit and the more produce the plant itself yields, the less protein, amino acids, minerals, and vitamins are available in the harvested food. Sadly, the average vegetable purchased in the supermarket today contains anywhere from 5% to 40% less nutrition.

When we grow our own food, however, we have much more control over the process. We can enrich the soil with organic matter, we can harvest food when it reaches peak maturity, and we can choose to grow cultivars that give us the most nutritional bang for our buck.

How Is Nutrient Density Measured?

Before all else, foods should be functional and provide us with the micro and macro nutrients we need to keep us alive, create and repair cells and tissue, and prevent or reduce the instances of chronic disease.

Nutrient dense foods are defined as those that have the fewest amount of calories for the most nutrition. A nutrient score is calculated by determining the mean percent of the daily value (DV) for 17 nutrients (such as fiber, potassium, vitamin C, etc.) per each 100 grams of food. If a food was particularly rich in one nutrient but contained little else, its DV was capped at 100 to prevent skewing the overall results.

According to the 2014 study Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables, researchers analyzed the nutritional values for 47 foods and assigned scores to each. The results are pretty surprising…

12 Most Nutrient Dense Garden Crops

1. Watercress – 100 / 100


Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a fast growing, semi-aquatic plant that forms bushy colonies in flowing streams. Its green rounded leaves and hollow stems have a peppery taste.

With a perfect nutrient density score, watercress is very low calorie but provides an insane amount of nutrients per cup:

  • Calories – 3.7
  • Vitamin K – 106% of the DV.
  • Vitamin C – 24% of the DV.
  • Vitamin A – 22% of the DV.
  • Calcium – 4% of the DV.
  • Manganese – 4% of the DV.
  • Potassium – 3% of the DV.

Watercress also contains smaller amounts of B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron, and zinc.

Although watercress is an aquatic plant, it can be easily adapted to home gardening setups. If you have a water feature in your yard – such as a running stream – that would be a perfect spot. If not, there are plenty of options for enjoying fresh watercress. You can create a bog in your backyard by digging a shallow hole and covering with pond liner. Or you can grow them in pots using a soilless mix and ensuring the soil is always moist. Watercress is a great micro green, which can be grown indoors and harvested while they are young sprouts.

2. Bok Choy – 91 /100

Bok Choy

A type of Chinese cabbage, bok choy (Brassica rapa var. chinensis) is a cruciferous vegetable within the mustard family. It is mild in flavor, with crisp white stalks and tender green leaves that are a wonderful addition to soups, salads, and stir fries.

Bok choy is an excellent source of several important nutrients.

  • Calories – 9.1
  • Vitamin A – 63% of the DV.
  • Vitamin C – 52% of the DV.
  • Vitamin K – 40% of the DV.
  • Folate – 12% of the DV.
  • Calcium – 7% of the DV.
  • Vitamin B6 – 7% of the DV.

Bok choy is a biennial crop that can tolerate cooler temperatures to USDA zone 4. It grows best in a partially shaded spot that receives 3 to 5 hours of sunlight each day. There are many varieties of bok choy, but most are ready to harvest in 45 to 60 days.

3. Swiss Chard – 89 / 100

Swiss Chard

Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris) is a leafy green vegetable with vibrant stems that range in color from white to yellow to red, depending on the cultivar.

Each cup of Swiss chard is rich in micronutrients:

  • Calories – 6.8
  • Vitamin K – 374% of the DV.
  • Vitamin A – 44% of the DV.
  • Vitamin C – 18% of the DV.
  • Magnesium – 7% of the DV.
  • Manganese – 7% of the DV.
  • Potassium – 4% of the DV.
  • Iron – 4% of the DV.
  • Copper – 3% of the DV.

Requiring full sun to part shade, Swiss chard is a cut and come again plant that can be harvested continually throughout the season.

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