Celebrating North Carolina’s Healthful Fall Bounty

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Fall is here once again, a long awaited relief from our hot, humid summers. As temperatures start to drop, days shorten, and leaves turn, we are surrounded by the colorful fall bounty of our local farms. When I say “fall crops,” I bet pumpkins come to mind, with all the pumpkin-products on parade everywhere in grocery stores, coffee shops, bakeries, even breweries! Apples are also a commonly celebrated fruit of the season, with cider and pies decorating many store shelves and menus. Yet there are so many more crops that are available during fall, and many of these less well-known fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers are powerhouses for flavor and nutrition. Today we will learn about the diversity and health benefits of fall crops that grow here in North Carolina and gain some tips for preparing them in the kitchen. I might even convince you to anticipate these crops as much as your summer favorites!

Meet Our Autumn Produce Lineup

Crops that grow in the fall and spring are known as cool-season crops. These plants grow best during cooler months of the year and often have some tolerance to frost (to a limit!). What is provided here is not an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to research the bountiful variety of cool-season crops that can be grown across our state!

Okay, ready to be blown away? The myriad of produce that is harvested during the fall includes the following: apples, asian greens (ex. bok choy), beets, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery root, collards, garlic, grapes, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, parsnips, plums, pumpkins, rutabagas, spaghetti squash, spinach, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, turnips, and winter squash like acorn and butternut. Also with season extension techniques (ex. using greenhouses or tunnels to protect crops from cold temperatures), farmers can continue to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and summer squash throughout the cooler months.

To be ready for harvest in the fall, cool-season crops need to be planted in late summer (July-September, depending on the plant), even as early as May or June for winter squash, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes! You can reference our Central North Carolina Planting Calendar for Annual Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs to learn more about specific planting dates if you want to grow them yourself. Many of these crops are ready to harvest starting in September and wrapping up in December.

Powerhouse Produce: Health Benefits of Fall Produce

Not only are fall produce diverse, they can also be powerhouses for nutrition! Research has shown that fruits and vegetables naturally contain compounds known as “phytochemicals” or “phytonutrients” which provide nutrition as well as enhance our body’s ability to protect itself against chronic disease. The color of produce can indicate what phytonutrients they contain; for example, fruits and vegetables that are red, orange or yellow often contain carotenoid plant pigments like beta carotene, which supports eye and skin health. Some of the phytochemicals that are associated with our fall crops include anthocyanins (beets, red cabbage, and red or black grapes), carotenoids (carrots, kale, spinach, and sweet potatoes), citrulline (pumpkins and other squash), delphinidin (grapes), flavonoids (dark leafy greens), and lignans (broccoli, cabbage, and kale). The PhytoMedicine program of NC State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute is actively conducting research to learn more about the effects of phytochemicals on our health and wellness, and has examined over 20 different fruits, vegetables, herbs, and even seaweed so far! More research is in the pipeline, and we are excited to share information as it becomes available on the health superpowers of produce!

Inspiration for Cooking Fall Produce

There are many ways to prepare fall produce! Roasting, which involves tossing vegetables with a small amount of oil and seasoning and cooking in the oven at high heat, is a great way to prepare winter squash, beets, carrots and sweet potatoes. How about cooking methods on those weeknights when you need to make a quick dinner? Microwaving can be an effective method to cook carrots or sweet potatoes which need a longer cooking time. Steaming using a basket over boiling water can be a great technique for cooking greens, and foods retain more of their nutrients compared to other cooking methods. Shredding raw produce with a hand grater or food processor for salads and sandwiches is another way to handle leafy greens like cabbage, carrots, swiss chard, and turnip greens. There are many other ways to prepare fall produce, so give them a try and see which methods you like best and rotate to provide variety to your meals.

For more information on fall produce available in our county, their health benefits and how to prepare them, contact North Carolina Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.