Our vegetable gardens offer us beautiful, fresh bounty during the growing season — and they also have the potential to increase our food security the rest of the year. When you craft a plan to put up some of the crops you grow, you’re preparing for the future, simplifying winter meals, reducing waste, and saving money, too.
As you plan your garden with preservation in mind, consider what your family loves to eat versus what they merely tolerate. Talk with your household members about what you want your meals to look like for the following year. If you’re aiming for year-round veggie self-sufficiency, calculate how many times per week on average your family eats a particular crop, and multiply that figure by 52 (number of weeks in a year). Then, use a chart of crop yields to arrive at a rough calculation of how much of that crop to plant. Or, to start smaller, jump in with any of the following ideas, organized from the easiest to grow and preserve to the crops and storage methods that require more expertise or a longer-term commitment.
Easy Crops and Projects
From a preservation perspective, some vegetables are much more flexible to work with than others. I suggest starting with tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, green beans, summer squash, leafy greens, and carrots. With proper variety selection, they’re all easy to grow in most regions, and they lend themselves to a plethora of simple preservation projects, such as freezing, pickling, and water bath canning. Note that water bath canning and pressure canning each require a distinct type of canner and have unique safety guidelines, and most beginners start with water bath canning.
One of my favorite methods is to peel and chop tomatoes and put them in 1-quart freezer bags with several chopped hot peppers and onions. When I want to make a pot of chili in winter, all I have to do is brown some ground meat and add spices and a bag of these frozen veggies. I use tomatoes, sweet peppers, and onions in canned pizza and pasta sauces, and I freeze bags of tomatoes and onions for later use in soups, too.
When deciding what to plant for future preservation projects, you’ll also want to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each crop variety. If you use a large slicing tomato to make pasta or pizza sauce, for example, you’ll have to start with twice as many pounds of tomatoes as you would use if you’d chosen a paste variety, which has denser, meatier flesh and less water content. You’ll have to cook slicing tomatoes a lot longer to get the thicker consistency you’ll want in a sauce. Although you can use any type of tomato to make a sauce, the paste cultivars, such as ‘Roma,’ ‘Amish Paste,’ and ‘Striped Roman,’ will make the task much quicker. Also, remember that preservation projects needn’t be solo pursuits in a hot kitchen. Plan a canning party (even outdoors!) to share harvests and the labor.
So how many tomatoes should you grow? Depending on the cultivar and your growing conditions, you can expect to harvest about 15 to 25 pounds of fruit per plant, so make calculations based on how many pounds you think your family will go through in a year. Many years ago, when we lived in the suburbs, we found that just eight tomato plants could produce enough tomatoes for freezing whole and canning as pasta sauce to fulfill our five-person family’s annual needs.
Tomato soup is a dish in which lots of different tomato cultivars can really shine, and you can make big batches for the freezer. ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes make a citrusy tasting soup, while ‘Great White’ imparts a smokier flavor. Try dehydrating some tomatoes, too. Paste types and cherry types typically dry best, although ‘Green Zebra’ is one of my favorites for drying in slices and then layering in a quiche or casserole.
Cucumbers are a classic crop to pickle. Don’t be swayed by those called “pickling cucumbers,” as you can pickle any cultivar — and you can eat any cultivar fresh, too. The pickling types are ideal if you’ll be canning whole dill pickles, though, because they stay small enough to fit well in your canning jars. You can pickle or ferment hot peppers, such as jalapeños, serranos, and habaneros, as well.
Although my children were never fans of plain canned green beans, which require pressure canning, they loved crisp, pickled dilly beans. Because dilly beans are pickled in vinegar, the acid level makes them safe to water bath can. This keeps the beans crunchy. You can also ferment green beans for a healthful probiotic boost.
Hot peppers, summer squash, and thick-leaved greens, such as kale or collards, are excellent crops for drying. Use your dried hot peppers in spicy Mexican and Italian recipes, and grind some into homemade spice blends. Stash dried greens and slices of dried summer squash for use in soups, veggie lasagna, quiche, or snacks. You likely won’t have to plant extra squash to make this possible, as summer squash harvests come on strong, and gardeners often end up searching for a way to use them up.
Carrots are freezer superstars. Slice, blanch, and then freeze them in gallon freezer bags to add to stews and other dishes all winter. Try growing a smaller spring planting of carrots for fresh eating through summer and fall, and then a large fall planting to harvest for the freezer.
More Advanced Crops and Projects
Have more time and want to venture into crops and preservation projects that may present a few more challenges? Eggplants and corn are long-season crops that need plenty of warmth. They may pose a few pest and disease issues, but when you get a good harvest, you’ll be able to roast and freeze them in super-flavorful packs that will enliven a wide diversity of dishes — think roasted eggplant dip or chili with roasted corn.
You may also be ready to try fermenting and pressure canning, which will provide you with even more storage options. I’ve heard many people say they’re afraid to attempt fermenting because they might make someone sick. But according to Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, that’s highly unlikely to happen. Fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation, and Katz says you can ferment virtually any vegetable. Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) is a classic favorite, and Katz also recommends fermenting celery and radishes.
Almost any low-acid canned vegetable you can buy at the store, such as corn, you can also preserve at home using a pressure canner. Don’t have enough of any one crop to pressure can it? Try a pressure canning recipe for mixed vegetable soup.
Although winter squash will keep well in a cool room, you can also cook, purée, and then freeze it. Use the purée later for soups, pies, breads, or other desserts, such as pumpkin ice cream. Try ‘Waltham’ butternut or ‘Burgess’ buttercup squash for fruits on the sweeter side that make a perfect purée.
I recommend successively sowing your crops whenever possible to make way for more food preservation projects. Your spring plantings can yield a fresh harvest for summer, and, in many regions, your fall garden can offer another substantial harvest period. If you eat up all of your spring-planted cabbage in fresh slaws, for example, you can plant more cabbage in summer to furnish a fall crop for fermenting into sauerkraut and kimchi.
Growing For the Long Haul
Most perennial crops take a few years to produce a harvest, but they’re worth the wait, as you’ll get many years of fruits and vegetables from one planting. Consider planting asparagus and rhubarb, which are simple to freeze or can. Although most people think of rhubarb as a fruit, thanks to the popularity of rhubarb pie, it’s actually a versatile vegetable that can add interest to soups, casseroles, and main dishes.
All types of berries are great candidates for freezing or dehydrating, and, of course, they make wonderful jams and preserves. Most are also easy to grow, and they tend to multiply every year. If you lack space in your garden, establish berry bushes and vines as elements of edible landscaping throughout your property.
If you want fresh strawberries as well as some to preserve, you should plant both June-bearers and ever-bearers. Over a two- to three-week period, the June-bearers will produce a heavy crop perfect for freezing or making jam, while the ever-bearers will ripen gradually over a couple of months, making them ideal for fresh eating through summer.
When choosing stone fruits to plant, such as peach and plum trees, select freestone, rather than clingstone, cultivars. Flesh clinging to the pit isn’t a big deal when you’re eating a fresh fruit, but if you use freestone fruits for preserving, you’ll save a lot of time and ultimately get more fruit for canning, freezing, or drying.
When planting apple trees, note that some cultivars are firmer, which dry well, while some are softer and make better applesauce. Apple cultivars also ripen at different times, which may affect your preservation game plan. For example, ‘Lodi’ apples ripen early and are a great sauce apple. You could make your sauce from that cultivar, and choose a firmer, late-season apple for drying and storing.
Year-To-Year Garden Planning
As you brainstorm your preserver’s garden, record your plans in a garden journal. This can be as simple as a spiral notebook, or as detailed as a digital journal. Had I started keeping a journal earlier in my gardening life, the learning curve would’ve been much smoother. In your records, include a list of the varieties you’ve planted, and keep notes throughout the season about what’s working and what’s not. Ideally, you’ll weigh your harvests throughout the season, or at least make rough notes on yields, so you’ll know how much each cultivar produced and whether you grew enough of any one crop. Also, jot down how much of each crop you’re able to stow — what you canned, froze, dried, and fermented — so you can refer to this information when planning future gardens. Add kitchen observations about what’s sitting on your pantry shelves too long and what you’re using up faster than you anticipated.
Even if you create the best plan imaginable, odds are good that you’ll wind up with too much or too little of one food or another every year. If you fall short, barter with friends or visit your local farmers market to supplement what you’ve grown. There are no rules against purchasing produce to preserve. And one thing is certain: Next winter, you’ll be grateful for all the food you were able to put by.
Resources for Your Food Preservation Projects
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
The Art of Preserving by R. Field, R. Courchesne, and L. Atwood
Preserving Everything by Leda Meredith
BIO: Deborah Niemann writes about self-reliance, growing food, cooking from scratch, and living a cheaper, happier, and healthier life. She runsAntiquity Oaks Farmin Illinois, and is the author ofHomegrown and Handmade.