This year, consider planning your garden with an eye to preserving the harvest. Evaluate past successes and failures when selecting seeds. If you plan to purchase vegetable plants ,research which local nurseries have the best selection.
We most often think of vegetables growing in raised beds or traditional vegetable gardens, but many edible plants add design interest throughout the garden. Consider intermingling edibles within perennial beds, herb gardens and containers. You'll free up space for plants that require a lot of real estate in a traditional garden.
Preserving your own food brings lots of benefits: eating locally grown foods all year long, saving money, and knowing what is in the food you are preparing for your family. While I preserve for all of those reasons, I especially enjoy preserving delicious and sometimes unique foods that can't be found in a market.
What to preserve depends on the answer to the question, "What do you like and want to eat?" Growing and preserving your own food requires planning and a commitment to caring for the plants throughout the growing season. In choosing which plants to grow and which to purchase, consider factors such as space limitations, timing, expense, availability, quantity and quality.
Space limitations: My kitchen potager consists of six 5-by-5-foot raised beds -- only 150 square feet of growing space. I follow intensive planting methods such as the square foot gardening system, interplanting and succession planting. Still, there is never enough space for all that I would like to grow. I choose to grow the more expensive or unique items. To find more space, I grow things vertically, in containers, and also incorporate edibles -- herbs, fruit, vegetables and edible flowers -- into my ornamental beds. Rhubarb and kale add beauty to a perennial border. Alpine strawberries can be tucked here and there in beds and containers. Golden oregano is a bright spiller in an ornamental container.
Timing: Check the ripening date and be sure that you'll be able to make use of the harvest. For example, I make dilly beans (pickled green beans) every year. I delay planting 'Tavera' bush bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) until almost mid-June. This French green bean ripens in 54 days, perfectly timed for harvesting after my summer vacation.
Expense: Some fruits and vegetables demand a premium price at the market. It just makes sense to grow your own. Rhubarb can be $5 per pound, but as a perennial it costs less than $10. Within two years, that plant will return your initial $10 investment every year, forever. Raspberries' price reflects their fragility in harvesting and storing, making them costly to transport. Why not pop them directly into your mouth from your own bushes?
Availability: Savor the ability to choose from myriad edibles with their great range of flavor, size, color, nutritional value and fragrance. If you want to preserve, seek out varieties best suited to drying, freezing or canning. I generally choose heirloom varieties and grow them organically.
One advantage to choosing hybrids is that many have been bred for disease resistance. If you prefer heirloom varieties, keep in mind that some extra effort may be required to keep the plants pest- and disease-free. Keep weeds at bay by hand picking or hoeing. Apply 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch, being careful to keep the mulch a couple of inches away from the stems of the plants. Water the soil (not the foliage) either early in the day or in the early evening, allowing time for the leaves to dry before the sun sets. Keep a garden plan and rotate crop families. Clean the garden well in the fall. Get a soil test every 3-5 years, and follow the recommendations for nitrogen and adjusting pH values.
If your goal is to preserve, do your homework as to which varieties of a fruit or vegetable lend themselves best to the task. For example, bush beans and determinate tomatoes tend to ripen at the same time, making it easier to get a canner load. A canner load is the capacity of your home canning equipment, either a boiling water or pressure canner.
Quantity: Adjust the quantity and variety of plants that you grow based on how you plan to use the harvest and the specific needs of your family. This year I will grow a selection of flavorful, colorful, heirloom, indeterminate tomatoes to use fresh and in recipes for relishes, chutneys and preserves. But I will purchase a bushel of readily sourced paste tomatoes from a local grower for canning whole tomatoes, tomato sauce and pasta sauce.
Quality: The nutritional properties in fruits and vegetables begin to decline after harvest. Properly frozen foods retrieved from your freezer in February can be more nutritious than fresh foods found the same day at your local market. Superior preserved foods come from high-quality fruits, vegetables and herbs harvested at peak ripeness. The optimal time to pick ripe vegetables is in the morning after the dew has dried but before the heat of the day has warmed the herbs, fruits or vegetables.
If preserving the bounty of your home garden appeals to you, now is the time to select the varieties. While your vegetables and fruits are doing their job of growing and bearing fruit, investigate the proper techniques for canning and preserving.
Food safety is of utmost importance in preserving foods. The most up-to-date research-based methods and recipes can be found at:
* National Center for Home Food Preservation: http://nchfp.uga.edu/
* Home Food Preservation-Penn State Extension: http://extension.psu.edu/food/preservation
* Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving: www.freshpreserving.com
Susan Marquesen is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State educator.