Growing Green, A Family Gardening Series: Week 10

In this week's blog: Preserving the Harvest

As much as fresh produce is a delight to eat right at its peak ripeness, inevitably there comes a time when you can’t consume it all right away and you would like to save some for later. For me, this year, this point came when my cherries, black currants, raspberries, and haskap all, unusually, ripened at the same time. There are many ways of preserving your harvest, and the method you choose can depend on the time you have available, the ingredients you have, the equipment you have, and certain environmental conditions.

The goal of preservation is to stop or slow down decay and deterioration. Fruits and vegetables deteriorate as they age, as enzymes alter the food and provide microorganisms such as bacteria and mold with a tempting environment. You can kill microorganisms at high temperatures, like in canning, or can prevent or slow their spread through low temperatures, drying, or use of acid or salt. The following methods can extend the shelf life of your produce for weeks or months. 

Some products can be kept edible longer by storing it in cool temperatures. I would love to have a root cellar someday, but barring that, even a cooler basement can help. Winter squash stored at about 10 degrees will last for months; coolness extends potato storage; some varieties of apple also last for months below 10 degrees, but must be kept separate from other foods because the gas they give off, ethylene, causes other things to ripen faster.

If you have freezer space, freezing quickly after harvest is a great way to preserve nutrients. In fact, there are studies showing that frozen food can be more nutritious than ‘fresh’ food that, for example, sat for days in a truck from California and then spent days in the store. 

Tomatoes, raspberries, and cherries in my freezer

Freezing is also a relatively quick method. I freeze berries (tip: freeze them separately on a cookie sheet then transfer to bags, so they stay loose and you don’t have to use a big frozen-together clump but can select the amount you want), tomatoes (just pop them in a bag; they can be taken out and used as canned tomatoes – dip in boiling water and slip the skins off first), chopped greens, and pesto. If I have a lot of beans, corn, or peas, I also freeze them. This requires blanching, which means boiling them to kill enzymes then immediately cooling them in ice water. You can freeze these all in plastic bags but, if you have them and don’t like using plastic, straight-sided glass jars work as well (ones with shoulders may crack if they have liquid inside that expands as it freezes. Ask me how I know.). 

Frozen chokecherry syrup and haskap jam in straight-sided jars

In canning, salt, acid, and sugar delay spoilage and the heat kills other organisms. Jam, salsa and pickles are good examples of things that are preserved partly this way. I say partly because, while in older times many people canned by putting hot jam in jars and relying on them to seal (and many people probably still do), the safest method is to water-bath can these – boil the filled jars in water for a set amount of time.

Bernardin, a company that produces jars and other canning necessaries, has a great how-to on their website as well as tested recipes. I believe in ‘safety first’ and if I make something without an approved (by a health authority/canning company) recipe, I freeze it after thus, my frozen chokecherry syrup and haskap jam. I am water-bath can pickles and tomato products and applesauce. Things containing meat or without high enough levels of acid, such as corn, must be pressure canned for safety. Yes, people do it in more casual ways, have lived long lives, and only a handful are poisoned or die every few years, but I’d rather not risk it. Water-bath canning does require you to have jars and lids, a large pot that is at least a couple inches taller than your jars, and a stovetop. Other implements such as a canning lifter are helpful. I bought all my canning equipment as a kit from Peavey Mart.

Homemade salsa and pickled beans

Drying/dehydrating fruits and vegetables preserves them for months as long as they are sealed or kept dry after drying (not difficult in a prairie winter). I dehydrate herbs and tomatoes if I have excess and sometimes greens like Swiss chard, to crumble and slip into soups. I have a cheap dehydrator (it has trays and a heating element in the bottom but no fan) and have always wanted to build a solar dryer – there are lots of plans online – but you can also use your oven if it has a low enough temperature.

My kids love dried apple rings (I have a peeler/corer/slicer, best $3 I ever spent at a garage sale) and mine even had fun making her own with a friend.

Dried tomatoes and herbs stored in a paper bag out of sunlight to further preserve nutrients and flavor

Those are the main preservation techniques for garden produce. I have also done a little preserving in alcohol – I make the best brandied sour cherries in existence. I have yet to try lacto-fermentation, but it’s a pretty big trend in the foodie world lately, so there is lots of information about it online. If you’re looking for further, reliable information about any of these techniques online, any website about preserving that has a .edu address is from an American university and likely part of their agricultural extension department. The National Center for Home Food Preservation can likely answer any question you have.

I’ll be honest: other than drying apple rings and operating a cherry pitter, I haven’t gotten my kids involved in preserving. It’s not the most exciting job and it can be hot, time-consuming, and finicky. 

In midwinter when the ground is snow-covered and the store-bought lettuce is limp and tomatoes are hard and bland, it is the most rewarding job. Opening a jar of jewelled salsa or topping ice cream with frozen raspberries is a satisfying treat for the whole family. And preserves make great Christmas gifts!

Naomi Beingessner has lived and gardened in the Prairies for most of her life. She has two children, an enthusiastic gardener and an enthusiastic eater. She was a high school teacher and is now back in university studying food sovereignty. Her favourite vegetable is green beans but she finds that the most significant taste difference between store-bought and home-grown is in tomatoes.