By Susan Marquesen ©2014
Penn State Master Gardener
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 in the coming weeks do a bit of research into 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 be freeing up space for plants that require a lot of real estate in a traditional garden.
Raised bed gardening
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’ x 5’ raised beds – only 150 square feet of growing space. I use it wisely, following intensive planting methods like the square foot gardening system, interplanting, and succession planting. Still, there is never enough space for all that I would like to grow for eating fresh and preserving. 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 wonderful 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 the bush bean Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Tavera’ until almost mid-June. This haricot verts (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 at the store. 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 on a hot summer day?
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 hold the mulch a couple inches away from the stems of the plant. Water the soil (and not the foliage) either early in the day or in the early evening, allowing time for the foliage 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 to 5 years and follow the recommendations for nitrogen and adjusting pH values. If problems arise, tend to them immediately.
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 - You can adjust the quantity and variety of plants that you grow based on the how you plan to use the harvest as well as 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 I’ve chosen for relishes, chutney, 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. Space constraints in the garden may determine such choices.
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. You can accomplish that goal by stepping into your own garden and gathering delicious produce you’ve grown on your own. 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 in your garden.
If the idea of preserving the bounty of your home garden appeals to you, now is the time to select the varieties that answer the question posed above: “What do you like and want to eat?” While your vegetables and fruits are doing their job of growing and bearing fruit, be sure to investigate the proper techniques for canning and preserving the harvest. Long after our growing season is over you will be rewarded with the flavors of summer preserved from your own garden’s bounty.