Try something new in your garden this spring

If you like to grow a garden, you're probably thinking now about the best items to plant that will weather Florida's spring and summer heat. Why not try some unique items that will bring more nutrition to your plate and more natural health to your home?

During a recent visit to North Ft. Myers' ECHO - or Educational Concern for Hunger Organization - tour guide Russ Luther showed us how ECHO helps to fight hunger worldwide by sharing innovative and sustainable farming methods with farmers around the globe.

ECHO experiments with the best way to grow nutritious crops according to the world's various climates. It also grows the largest collection of tropical fruits and vegetables in the United States. ECHO became an unintentional tourist destination after it opened as more people wanted to discover what ECHO does to fight hunger, said Luther.

Many of the items that ECHO helps farmers to grow are particularly nutritious or helpful in some other way; for example, they can be used for first aid or for water treatment in addition to food. What's interesting for you and me is that the plants at ECHO are proven to grow in Southwest Florida's challenging heat and summer rains. In turn, Floridians who tour ECHO sometimes end up purchasing the plants I describe below from its nursery and bookstore.

While I recommend a visit to ECHO - it's a fascinating place - you don't have to trek there to buy these items. I was able to find them for sale online, either as seeds or small trees. ECHO is working on selling seeds for these items online as well.

Here are my recommendations:

1. Moringa. Looking for a new green to serve tonight as an alternative to trendy kale and Swiss chard - or heaven forbid, lettuce or spinach? Then moringa is the item for you. The edible leaves from a moringa tree are rich in vitamin C, A, potassium, and calcium. A serving of moringa is said to have more protein than eggs and more iron than spinach. You can throw the leaves in items like casseroles or salads.

Luther explained that moringa seed powder can purify water - a great reason that someone in an impoverished country might grow it.

Bradenton resident Bob Fowinkle recently visited ECHO for a tour and purchased a small moringa tree, which is now a foot high and growing. He likes the idea of having something so nutritious right on his property. Moringa is also part of the Edible Community Garden on Pine Avenue in Anna Maria. The edible plants grown on Pine Avenue all come from ECHO and are available for the community to use.

2. Cranberry hibiscus. If you're looking for an attractive flowering plant that can double as an addition to your lunchtime salad, then cranberry hibiscus is a good choice. This is an edible hibiscus that garnered the cranberry name because of its deep red color. The plant's leaves and flowers have vitamin C and various antioxidants. Fowinkle said he also purchased cranberry hibiscus seeds that he plans to plant soon.

If you buy this cranberry hibiscus, make sure you plant it once it's hot out. I tried to plant it in November (silly me) and had no success. It would have helped had I read the seed packet recommendation to plant it between May and September.

3. Neem. Originally grown in India, neem's nickname is "the tree of 40 cures," said Luther. "It's anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic," said Luther. Neem leaves and neem oil are used to make various products such as toothpaste and lotion. Now I don't expect you to grow neem and make your own toothpaste, but it still sounds like a handy tree to have around.

4. Prickly pear cactus. Last year, I wrote a column about prickly pear cactus, also known in Spanish as the nopal. You can use this item like a filler vegetable, similar to mushrooms or peppers. However, the cactus has a good amount of fiber and vitamin C. Sure enough, at ECHO, Luther showed us the prickly pear cactus and described its functional uses.

ECHO will have a Farm Day on March 22 that will feature hands-on activities. Attendees will be able to press peanut butter, tour ECHO's seed bank, attend a tropical rainforest demonstration, and taste tropical fruits and foods, among other activities.