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Preserving the Harvest

Make your garden’s bounty last

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Preserving the Harvest

Harvest season is here. But how do you make your garden's bounty last? Try these tips for storing them, including freezing, canning, and drying your vegetables.

We conclude our four-part series on gardening with tips to help you harvest and preserve your garden’s bounty.

Harvest season is here, a time of exuberant colour and ripeness. Piles of multi-hued squash, great bins of sweet corn, apples the colour of a tropical sunset—it all draws us into the last warm embrace of summer.

And that means winter, with its chill and gloomy darkness, isn’t far off. So our instinct is to take the bounty we see all around us and preserve it in some way. In less prosperous times, preserving the harvest meant surviving the long, cold winter. Today it gives us a chance to keep the wonderful organic produce we’ve grown this past summer on our home menus long after the last bean has been plucked from the vine.

Even if you haven’t grown all you might want to eat this winter, your favourite farm or farmers’ market will give you plenty to work with. You’ll know where the food was grown and can rest assured your family will be well-nourished. And the planet will be spared the extra carbon load because the fruits and vegetables you’ll be eating this winter didn’t travel too far.

Getting to the root of it

Root vegetables such as potatoes and onions can last until spring when stored properly. They should be kept in a dark, cool (but not freezing) area. Store them apart: onions like dry storage whereas potatoes prefer more humidity. Check regularly for soft or moldy specimens and throw them out. The adage “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch” applies here too.

Once cleaned and dried, carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips, celery root, and parsnips can be kept fresh and crisp by storing them in any large container and layering them in sawdust or fine wood chips. They shouldn’t touch each other and should be kept in a cool, dry place. Store only the best specimens. Produce that was bruised, punctured, or otherwise damaged in harvesting should be used immediately.

Winter squash also keeps well, even in a warm house, but is best stored in a cool, dry place. Some winter squashes grow sweeter the longer they are stored. Store them so they’re not touching each other, and check regularly for soft or moldy spots.

Freezing’s a breeze

Most perishable foods can be preserved by freezing, canning, or drying. Freezing is probably the easiest and least technical method.

If wrapped in airtight containers or packages, frozen food will last well into the next growing season, but make sure you mark clearly what is in the package. Otherwise, you won’t remember whether that’s kale or spinach three months from now. Heritage tomatoes can be chopped and cooked quickly, then ladled into freezer containers for delicious soups and sauces throughout the winter. Green beans, peas, and carrots require blanching in a boiling water bath, then quick cooling in ice water. Dry thoroughly before freezing.

Greens such as kale and collards freeze well, and they too must be briefly blanched and ice-cooled. Blanch the whole leaves, which can be chopped for use when thawed. Once cooled, roll them into a bundle and squeeze out as much water as you can before bagging in airtight freezer bags.

Unhusked ears of corn can be frozen raw, then thawed and cooked or roasted, either whole or as cut kernels.

Small fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries also freeze well, though they will be soft when thawed. Freeze individually on trays or baking sheets, then store in airtight containers. Use in smoothies or baked goods, or just snack on the frozen berries when the mood strikes.

Yes, you can!

Emerie Brine, manager of communications for Bernardin, a Canadian maker of canning supplies, says interest in canning has reached such a rolling boil that he travels all across Canada year-round to teach canning classes, not just at harvest time.

Brine credits the interest in preserving our own food to a number of factors, including the growth in farmers’ markets, consumers’ desire to know the source of the food they’re eating, and concern about additives such as salt and sugar in commercially prepared food.

Canning requires some expertise. The best place to get this is at a canning class or workshop.

You’ll also find plenty of information on the Internet, but make sure you’re following a reliable source, such as Bernardin’s website. A recipe for Aunt Mary’s special beans may turn out to be a recipe for disaster if the latest methods and equipment aren’t being used. Remember, botulism is a real danger with improperly canned, low-acid foods such as beans, peas, and carrots.

The biggest mistake novice canners tend to make is to not give themselves enough time to do the job properly, Brine says. Prepping fruits and vegetables can be onerous if you’re starting with 50 pounds of produce. Plan a canning party and get family or friends to join you, with the promise that they’ll take home some bounty as a reward. It’s fun, it gets the job done, and everyone goes away happy.

Dry it

Most foods can be dried, and if you have an electric food dehydrator or live where high temperatures and low humidity are assured for weeks at a time, it’s a fairly easy method. The added bonus is that dried food weighs very little and is relatively easy to store (pest-proof containers are a must).

However, vegetables must be steam blanched for best results and the drying itself can be time- and energy-consuming—an electric home dehydrator must blow warm air through the trays of food for hours at a time. An oven set at 115 to 120 F (46 to 49 C) with the door slightly ajar can work too, but you may need a small fan alongside the oven door to blow away excess moisture.

Herbs such as thyme, rosemary, oregano, dill, mint, marjoram, sage, and lavender all take well to drying. Pick herbs at their peak, wash if necessary, and dry completely, then hang in small bundles in an airy, dry, warm, dark place. In two to three weeks, remove dried leaves from stems and store in airtight containers.

Basil and cilantro lose much of their flavour when dried, so preserve their best qualities by making pesto, a thick sauce made with olive oil and other spices. Store in small freezer containers, and get ready for a moment of sunny summer on even the dreariest winter day every time you open one up.


Ready for winter

These tips will help you prepare your garden for winter.

  • Clear vegetable beds of dead or dying vegetation, particularly if you’ve had pest problems over the growing season. Let predators, winter rains, and freezing temperatures take care of what’s left.
  • Remove and dispose of weeds. Do not compost, as their seeds will likely survive and be a nuisance when you use the compost next year. 
  • Clean tools and store; empty, wash out, and dry clay pots, then store in a protected place; empty hoses of water and store in garage or shed.
  • Plant garlic while soil is still workable, usually best in October, for a much bigger yield next summer.

Blanching veggies for freezing

Blanching slows or stops the action of enzymes to preserve the colour, taste, and texture of frozen vegetables.

  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  • Add vegetables, cover, and continue to boil.
  • Remove blanched veggies and drain.
  • Place veggies into ice water immediately.
  • Let cool for same amount of time as they cooked.
  • Drain thoroughly and freeze.

Blanching times

Vegetable
Minutes
carrots (diced or strips)       
2
carrots (baby-sized, whole)5
green beans3
greens (spinach, kale, collards)2
peas (shelled)1 1/2
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