In the Garden:
Middle South
July, 2005
Regional Report

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The beets are all pickled and canned; now it's on to blanching and freezing broccoli!

I'm in a Pickle -- Preserving the Harvest

A word to the wise: Beware of asking a farmer to plant "a row" of anything for you. This spring, my 86-year-old neighbor offered to plant some beets for me. Now, 60 pints of pickled beets later, we've harvested less than half the crop. I overheard him joking to his 83-year-old cousin, "She wanted beets, she's got beets!" I think they are toying with me.

Preserving the Harvest
The bounty of summer is upon us, so take advantage of bumper crops -- in your own garden and at local markets -- by preserving foods at their peak, so you can enjoy them next winter. However, preserving foods, whether by canning, freezing, or drying, takes time and effort so plan wisely. For example, I've narrowed down my food preservation efforts to focus on foods that we especially enjoy, foods that are hard to find or very expensive, and those that seem most appreciated as gifts. Some years I'm more ambitious than others, but at a minimum I like to can pickled beets, jam, and applesauce; freeze corn, pureed pumpkin, pesto, and fresh herbs; and dry flowers and some herbs. I used to can tomatoes but found that it was a tedious, messy, hot job; now I wait for canned organic tomatoes and sauce to go on sale and buy a case or two for the winter.

Canning
In addition to pickled beets, I'll make blueberry jam and peach preserves this summer to offer to our B&B guests. These are both relatively simple to make and are a nice addition to the breakfast table. Homemade jams also make welcome gifts, and the colorful jars look beautiful on the pantry shelves. I usually can applesauce in the fall, too.

Because these foods are acidic and/or high in sugar, I use a boiling water canner. Non-acidic foods, such as beans and corn, require the use of a pressure canner to ensure all harmful microorganisms are killed.

It took me two afternoons to can the 60 pints of beets; that's not bad when you consider they sell for up to $5 each at the market. And best of all, I know where and how those beets were grown.

Freezing
My husband teased me when I asked for a chest freezer for my birthday about 10 years ago, but it's proven to be a gift I use daily. I've experimented with different ways to prepare various crops; here's what I've found:

Fruit: I freeze blueberries and strawberries whole by spreading them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Once they're frozen, I transfer them to a freezer bag, "vacuum-sealing" them by flattening the bag (to make it easy to stack), sealing it most of the way, then sucking out the air in the bag through a straw. I also cook down some of the fresh fruit into an unsweetened sauce and freeze it in ice cube trays. I can thaw a "fruit cube" and add it to plain yogurt, or sweeten it for homemade waffle syrup.

Herbs: Summer isn't summer without fresh pesto. I make huge batches, freeze it in ice cube trays, then pop out the frozen cubes and store them in freezer bags. Last summer my neighbor and I sat on the porch, plucking leaves off harvested basil plants and drinking iced tea. Plucking the leaves is the most time-consuming part of the job, and is made more pleasant with good company. Considering how easy basil is to grow, and how expensive fresh pesto is at the deli, the task is well worth the trouble. Throughout the year, I'll add a few pesto cubes to hot pasta or soups. In addition to making pesto, I also blend fresh herbs, such as sage and thyme, with a little olive oil, then seal the resulting paste in small zippered freezer bags. By flattening the paste in the bag, I can break off pieces as I need them.

Vegetables: Most vegetables should be blanched (scalded in boiling water or steam for a short time) before freezing them. Blanching stops the action of enzymes in the vegetables that, left unchecked, can result in a loss of quality. I made a sweet discovery a few years ago: I got dozens of day-old ears of sweet corn from the farm where I worked -- still "super-sweet" but too old to sell. I blanched the ears, then cut the corn off the cob and froze it in bags. We enjoyed it all winter in soups and stews and, surprisingly, as a topping on homemade pesto pizza. It tastes wonderful -- tender and sweet, and nothing like the tough, starchy frozen corn you can buy.

I also like to halve winter squash and pumpkin, set the pieces cut side down in a pan with about an inch of water, and bake them until they're tender. I scoop out the flesh and puree it, then set a freezer bag in a square plastic container, fill it, and put it in the freezer. Once it's frozen I remove the container and have a stackable "brick" of squash. If you know you'll be using the squash in a favorite recipe, freeze in that quanity -- you might have 1- and 2-cup bricks, for example. One of my staple breakfast entrees for my B&B guests is pumpkin-spice waffles, so I freeze it in the proper quantity for this recipe.

Drying
Because it's so humid here, it's difficult to dry herbs without using a food dehydrator or the oven. If I have basil left over from pesto-making, I sometimes spread the leaves in a thin layer and put them in a warm oven until they're dry. Even so, with the humidity as high as it is here in the summer, I find that the stored herbs will sometimes mold. It is imperative that the herbs are fully dry before you package them in an airtight container. Flowers are bit easier. I hang bunches of easy-to-dry globe amaranth, strawflowers, or lavender upside down in a warm, dry place. I've tried using silica gel to dry flowers, but found it was a messy process.

Some days it's overwhelming to think of all that needs to get done during harvest time. Then I remind myself of how fortunate I am that I don't depend on my garden for my entire sustenance. If a crop fails or something doesn't get canned, I can always buy it. As I look at the old stone foundation -- and what appears to be an old root cellar -- near our house, I wonder what life was like for the people who built in the 1920s. Preserving their garden's bounty wasn't a hobby for them, it was a matter of survival.

As much as I enjoy gardening and canning, I don't have any illusions about life in "the good old days." My 86-year-old neighbor tells stories of the scarcity of his youth in the mountains of North Carolina, how all the boys used to bring their guns to school so they could hunt for squirrels for dinner on their way home. He still cans dozens and dozens of jars of food harvested from his 1-acre garden every summer, although he could live on his existing store for years. Having lived through hard times, he takes his gardening very seriously; wasting food isn't an option. So, it looks like I'll be canning lots more beets in a few weeks!


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