Plan ahead to preserve the harvest

Eating fresh produce from the garden is truly one of the pleasures of the season. Fresh salads, tomatoes, peppers and onions highlight the summer table. I can still remember the first big Sunday dinner of the summer at my grandparents’ house — a table full of nothing but corn on the cob, green beans cooked with new potatoes (with, of course, some form of pork), onions and cucumbers in vinegar, fresh tomatoes (and maybe even fried green ones) and corn bread. That was all that was needed. No main course, just the bounty of the garden.

But another important part of the garden was planning ahead to grow enough produce to “put food by” for the winter. Canning was always an important part of our summer and fall life at home and at my grandparents’ farm. Tomatoes, green beans, pickled beets, kraut and apple butter fill many fond memories of my time growing up. But aside from more traditional Appalachian families, canning and other preserving methods had been in decline over the past few decades. The convenience of the grocery store and a lack of connection to the farm or to food led to fewer and fewer home canners.

But that trend has reversed. Not only is home food gardening at the highest level it has been in years, home food preservation is also. People of all ages are starting to can, whether they did it years ago and are finding their way back to home preservation or are learning for the first time. Fermenting and drying are also becoming popular means of preservation. Some people are even planning out their home preservation to reduce or eliminate the need to purchase certain produce items from the grocery store year-round.

Growing for preservation

Home gardeners have a leg up when it comes to fresh ingredients, since they get to grow their own. Sure, you can buy fresh produce at the farmers market for canning, but the beauty of preserving what you grow at home comes in the cost — home-canned foods are pretty economical (after a few reuses of your jars). But planning is needed! Make sure you have what you want to preserve, in the right quantities, and at the right time.

Planning for what you want to preserve is the first part of the process. The most commonly canned goods are tomatoes and jams and jellies, mostly because they can be processed with a hot-water bath and do not require pressure canning. I would suggest a tomato like roma for canning, as they have less water than slicing-type tomatoes. Beans, pickles and corn are also popular candidates.

A friend recently suggested planting a “theme” garden around a certain end product. The example he used was a salsa garden, which would include tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and cilantro. This certainly would be a great idea — having all homegrown goodness in one jar. You could do something similar for tomato sauce by adding herbs like basil and oregano and bell peppers.

Planting the right amount is also a good practice to adopt. Planting too little means either not enough for canning or for fresh eating. Of course, there is no set-in-stone answer as to how much you should plant, but a good estimate would be to double the number of plants for what you would plant for fresh consumption. And hey, if you have extra, can up some great gifts or make friends and earn good karma by giving away some produce.

Planning for harvest time

Another issue I have been guilty of is one of timing, or rather, scheduling when things are ripe. Most people plant everything at the same time, which usually means that most of the produce ripens or is in full production at the same time. I know that I’ve found myself standing in a stupor over a hot stove at 1 a.m. canning the 10th batch of something or other.

This is a good lesson for all vegetable gardeners — a practice called relay planting is key. Rather than planting, say, 10 tomato plants at the same time, plant two sets of five plants a few weeks apart to stagger the harvest. Heck, you could probably still get a good tomato harvest if you planted them this late in the year. This will give you more time to process the harvest without everything ripening — and demanding attention — all at once.

You can also plant different varieties that have different maturity times to stagger the harvest. This can also be done in fruits, where you pick different varieties to ripen at different times so that you are canning what seems like your millionth batch of blueberry jam at midnight one hot summer night.

And for goodness’ sake, use a tested and approved recipe! For information on canning, and for tested safe canning recipes, visit the Center for Home Food Preservation at or contact your county extension office for approved recipes. Be aware that recommendations for recipes and canning times and pressures changed around 1998, so recipes published before that may not be considered safe.

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