One of the things I love most about the summer is enjoying my backyard container garden. While I always introduce some new plants each year, a number of my staples never change – you can’t go wrong with lettuce greens, peppers, and certain herbs.
Not only do these plants produce well and provide enough food to last all year, some also produce seeds that help make for easy planting the next season. In fact, with a bit of careful planning, you can preserve many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs you grow to make your harvest last throughout the year.
Preserve the Harvest
Freezing, drying, pickling, and canning are all great ways to preserve the vegetables, fruits, and herbs you grow during the gardening season. The method you choose depends on what you hope to do with produce when it comes time to eat it.
For example, if you had some productive blueberry bushes and you love blueberry muffins, freezing the berries is a great idea. If you’d rather enjoy those blueberries as a jam throughout the winter, preparing and canning a jar or two is probably best.
Freezing is one of the easiest ways to preserve a variety of vegetables and fruits. While it’s a pretty simple method, it does involve a bit more than just tossing a few vegetables into a zip-top bag and stashing them in the freezer. Before you freeze them, you should blanch (cook briefly in boiling water) many vegetables, such as beans, peas, corn, and tomatoes. And, the sooner you freeze vegetables or fruit after you harvest them, the better.
Blanching before freezing has several benefits, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It preserves the color of the produce, reduces vitamin loss, and cleans the surface of the vegetables (you can skip the blanching if you’re freezing fruit).
Follow these steps so that you can enjoy a variety of vegetables and fruit throughout the winter:
- Prep Vegetables. Some vegetables need to be prepared before you blanch and freeze them. For example, shelling peas need to be removed from the pods first. Chop larger vegetables, such as broccoli, into smaller pieces before blanching. One exception is corn, which is easier to cook while still on the cob.
- Blanch Vegetables. Bring a pot of water to a boil, using one gallon of water for every pound of vegetables. Once the water is boiling, plunge the vegetables in and wait for the water to once again rise to a boil. How long you cook the veggies depends on their size and density. Peas need about a minute, while bigger, thicker vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, need around five. Home Food Safety provides a handy chart that lists blanching times for a variety of vegetables.
- Rinse, Cool, and Dry. Once the vegetables are blanched, turn your stove off and drain the hot water out of the pot. Cool the vegetables by pouring them into a bowl full of ice water or by running cold tap water over them for several minutes. Keep adding ice to the bowl of water to keep the temperature down. Cool the vegetables for as long as you cooked them, then drain and spread them out on a towel to dry. If you’re freezing fruits, simply give them a quick rinse and let them dry.
- Pack Vegetables and Fruit. You can package fruit and vegetables for the freezer once they’re dry. Plastic zip-top freezer bags are best – they tend to offer the most efficient use of freezer space, and you can use a variety of sizes. Smaller bags can be ideal if there are just a few people in your household, while larger bags work for bigger families or for larger vegetables, such as whole tomatoes. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing it, then label each bag with the name of the produce and date, and stash them away in the freezer.
Keep in mind that some vegetables just don’t freeze well. For example, cucumbers, celery, and cabbage are likely to turn into waterlogged messes if you freeze them. Those that do freeze well can last for up to a year in a freezer that’s kept at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Unlike freezing, drying changes the taste of the produce somewhat, as the removal of water concentrates the flavor. It also changes the texture, making fruit leathery and herbs crumbly.
How you dry your harvest depends on the type of food. You can dry hardy herbs such as sage or rosemary, as well as vegetables like peppers, by hanging them up in a cool, dry, and dark place – a closet, for example. Other herbs and vegetables benefit from a bit of heat when drying them out.
Here is a general list of steps for drying your produce:
- Prepare the Produce. Give the vegetables, herbs, or fruit you’re drying a thorough cleaning to remove any dirt or debris, then pat them dry with a towel. Once all excess moisture is gone, cut away any parts you don’t want to dry, such as the rind of winter squash, the stems of herbs, and the pods of beans or peas. Cut vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes into slices.
- Blanch It. Blanch the vegetables the same way you would if you were freezing them. Cool them with ice water, then drain and let them dry. Skip blanching for fruits and herbs (blanching fruit will change its taste).
- Dry It. If you have a working oven, you can dry produce at home. Turn the oven on at the lowest temperature setting – usually around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the vegetables, fruit, or herbs in a single layer on a baking sheet, then slide it into the oven and leave the door open slightly. Drying time can be anywhere from just a few hours for herbs to as long as 24 for tomatoes or peppers.
- Store It. Once dried, pack the vegetables, herbs, or fruit away into airtight containers. Glass mason jars or zip-top plastic bags are two solid storage options. Be sure to use containers about the same size as your portions to keep the produce as flavorful as possible for as long as possible.
Keep an eye on the produce as it dries, as it can burn or become too dry if you let it go for too long. Usually, herbs and leafy vegetables are finished when they are flaking or crumbly. Tomatoes and peppers are ready when they’re crispy. Peas and other vegetables are finished when they are wrinkled, shriveled, and tough looking. Dried produce can keep for up to a year, if stored at room temperature.
Pickling isn’t just for cucumbers. If you grow carrots, beans, snap peas, or cabbage, you can try your hand at preserving them through pickling as well.
For simplicity’s sake, this section will focus on refrigerator pickles, instead of fermented pickles. You can enjoy this type of pickle quickly, usually within a few hours, whereas fermentation takes weeks. This recipe makes one quart’s worth of pickles, but you can alter it to make more.
- Sterilize Jars and Lids. Place the jars in a large saucepan, cover them with water, and put them on the stove. Turn the burner on and bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat off and let the jars sit. Place the lids in a large bowl, cover them with boiling water, and let them sit, too.
- Chop Vegetables. Peel and cut a pound of vegetables (such as cucumbers, carrots, or radishes) into slices, sticks, or whatever shape you want. The important thing is that they’re relatively the same size. Use tongs to remove a jar from the hot water, then fill it with vegetables.
- Make Pickle Juice. Pour one cup of vinegar into a small saucepan and stir in one tablespoon of salt until it dissolves. Add one cup of water and remove from heat.
- Add Seasoning. Put seasoning in the jar with the vegetables – it can be whatever you enjoy, such as a tablespoon of fresh dill, a garlic clove, or a teaspoon of peppercorns. You can also purchase a jar of pickle seasoning and add a tablespoon of that.
- Pour and Store. Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetables in the jar, covering them completely. Let the pickle jar cool off fully, then put a clean lid on it and store it in the refrigerator.
Give the pickles a few hours in the refrigerator, then try one. It should taste like a true pickle at this point, but the flavor will continue to develop over the next few weeks. Refrigerator pickles usually keep for a couple of months.
Canning preserves foods by creating an environment that’s inhospitable to bacteria. A lot of things can be canned – from salsa made from homegrown tomatoes, to berry jam from homegrown blueberries. Out of all these food preservation options, however, it’s definitely the most complicated.
There are several important factors to keep in mind when canning. You should use vegetables and fruits at their peak ripeness, and use glass canning jars that are in good shape and aren’t chipped or cracked. And, no matter what you decide to can, be sure to follow the recipe instructions to the letter, since deviating from them can create a bacteria-friendly environment.
If you want to get into canning but aren’t sure what to start with, give one of these great options a try:
- Tomato or pasta sauce
- Cooked, diced tomatoes
- Fruit jelly or jam
- Pie fillings
- Hot or chili sauces
No matter what you decide to can, test the jar to make sure it’s fully sealed before storing it. Tap on the lid with a teaspoon – a sealed can makes a sharp, ringing sound, not a dull one. Once you’ve confirmed that your cans are sealed, label them with the name of the food and date and store them at room temperature for up to a year.
Sustain Your Garden
The harvest from your garden isn’t the only thing you can preserve to save money. Depending on what you grow, you don’t have to keep buying seeds, plants, or even container soil year after year. Instead, find ways to save your seeds or reuse what you already have.
If you find that a plant is particularly productive or delicious one year, you can try to save any seeds it produces and use them to grow it again the next season. You can’t save the seeds from every plant, though, as some won’t produce the same variety. Try looking for plant varieties labeled “open pollinated” or “OP,” instead of hybrid varieties.
You also should try to save seeds from plants that self-pollinate, such as peppers, since there’s no chance of cross-breeding. If you do save seeds from an insect-pollinated plant, such as squash or cucumber, make sure there aren’t any other varieties of the same plant growing within about a mile of your garden. Otherwise, you might end up with a weird variety if you plant the seeds you saved.
Other seeds to save include:
- Leafy Greens. Most leafy green vegetables produce a flower stalk at the end of their growing season. That flower produces the seeds, which you can harvest and store. Enjoy the flowers when they are in bloom, then let them go to seed and dry. Only cut off the seed heads once fully dry, then gently break them apart and store any seeds you capture in a labeled envelope.
- Peppers. Peppers are self-pollinating, so the seeds they produce give you the same plant next season. Wait to harvest the pepper until it’s fully ripe, otherwise the seeds won’t be completely matured. When you do harvest the peppers, scrape the seeds out and place them on a ceramic plate to dry. They’re ready for storage once they’re hard.
- Cucumber, Summer Squash, and Eggplant. If you want to save the seeds from summer squash, cucumber, or eggplant, you need to sacrifice a few fruits by letting them stay on the plant until way past ripeness. The fruits change color, or in the case of squash, become hard. To get their seeds, cut open the fruit, scrape out the seeds, then rinse them to wash away any flesh that might cling to them. Spread them out on a flat surface, let them dry, and store in an envelope.
- Winter Squash and Melons. To save the seeds from winter squash or melons, simply cut the ripe fruit in half. Scoop out the seeds and wash them to remove any stringy flesh or sugar. Let them dry before also storing them in an envelope.
You can plant any seeds you save during the next gardening season. Some might remain viable for several years after you save them. If you are going to save seeds for years though, try storing them in the freezer to keep them viable.
Clone Your Plants
Some plants, particularly herbs, can be easily propagated by means of a cutting instead of seed. You can clone herbs such as mint, rosemary, basil, and sage this way. And, the process is relatively simple.
Pick a plant that is healthy and in an active growth cycle. Fill a small, two-inch-deep container with potting mix. Snip a three-inch sprig from your herb of choice using a clean pair of scissors. Gently remove most of the leaves from the sprig, leaving just a few at the very top. Make a small hole in the potting mix and place the cutting into it so that just the top leaves remain above the soil.
Water the cutting and place it on a windowsill. Check on it regularly, watering when the potting mix dries out. After about a week or two, take a peek beneath the soil to see if it’s grown roots. Once roots are about a half-inch long, you can plant the cutting in your garden or a larger pot.
Reusing Container Soil
While gardening can help you save money on food, if you need to grow in pots – as I do – you’ve got to use container soil. It isn’t cheap though, especially if you want to use an organic, peat-free variety. Over the years, I’ve found that I can get at least two seasons, if not three, out of my container mix if I save it from year to year and add some more at the beginning of the season.
When you look at a bag of container mix, you might notice that it reads something along the lines of “feeds for four months!” That’s because container mix has fertilizer in it. Over the course of the season, your plants are going to eat up the fertilizer as they grow and produce fruits and vegetables for you. Since potting mix is pretty much depleted at the end of the gardening season, some people just toss it.
However, if you’re tossing container soil, you’re pretty much throwing away money. Instead, keep it until next year, and add some fertilizer to give it back its oomph – plants will want to live in it again. You can try adding one part commercial fertilizer to four parts reused potting mix. If you compost, you can use that instead of purchased fertilizer.
There is one caveat when it comes to reusing container soil. If your plants had any disease problems, you don’t want to take the risk of spreading them to your garden next year. Toss the soil that any sick plants grew in and start completely fresh next season.
Whether you’re saving seeds, freezing your bounty, or recycling your container mix, good hygiene is essential. Do what you can to ensure your foods stay healthy, from wearing gloves to sterilizing any tools that come in contact with the plants or soil. This can reduce the chance of bacterial contamination or the spread of disease from plant to plant or from season to season. Treat your garden well and the bounty will be returned to you.
Have you tried preserving any homegrown produce? What method did you enjoy most?