Canning and preserving fruits and vegetables is a great way to bypass the seasonal cycle of the foods you enjoy and an economical way to fill your pantry. With a little forethought and planning, you can move from a "weekly produce" garden to a garden that yields enough food to eat in season, plus enough to get you through the winter.
Is Canning Worth the Cost?
Growing and canning your own food is an investment in time, garden space, and money. Canned food from a grocery store is relatively cheap and convenient, so from a strictly financial point-of-view, canning your own fruits and vegetables may not always seem worth the effort. That said, growing and preserving your own food will always have its place because of all of the benefits it offers:
Food from your garden, even if canned, always tastes better.
It's healthier because you don't put any additives and chemicals into the food when you're canning at home.
Canning allows you to control the ingredients in things like jellies, jams, soups, stews, pickles, salsa, etc.
It gives you the satisfaction of being self-sufficient.
Canning and preserving food requires a certain amount of specialized equipment. It's basically a one-time investment (other than occasionally replacing damaged jars and lids) and it doesn't have to be expensive. One way to reduce costs is to look for used equipment and supplies at yard sales and thrift stores. Buying jars and lids in bulk will also help reduce the cost (always buy a few more than you need). Another option is to split the costs among friends and family members. Start a tradition where all parties get together for "canning day" and have everyone agree ahead of time to bring a different recipe to share.
Learning the "How To" of Canning and Preserving Food
There's an art and science to canning and preserving food. It isn't difficult to learn, but it does need to be done correctly, using updated methods and well-tested recipes, to be considered safe. For gardeners new to canning, check out The National Center for Home Food Preservation's free publication, "The Complete Guide to Home Canning":
Planning your canning garden begins in the winter with the arrival of the new seed catalogs. Make a list of the fruits and vegetables your family likes to eat. Look for hybrids that have been developed specifically for canning and pickling.
One of the more difficult parts of planning a "Canning Garden" is trying to figure out how much of each crop to plant. Ultimately, this depends on individual family choices and it may require a bit of experimentation. This growing chart, created by Katherine Grossman who blogs at American Home Canning, is a great place to start.
She also offers a lot of great "how to" advice on canning.
For crops you would also like to eat fresh, choose two varieties - one for eating and one for canning. You may want to consider planting extra quantities of some of the more versatile vegetables like tomatoes, which can be canned in a variety of ways (whole, stewed, salsa, sauces, etc).
If you are new to canning, start small - grow just one or two types of "canning" crops at a time. This will help prevent you from over-planting (and becoming overwhelmed) until you get the hang of things. If you under-plant, you can always supplement your canning crop with produce from the grocery store.
Unless you have a lot of help, it's usually best to stagger your crops so they are not all ready to be canned at the same time. Successive plantings can be made all summer, as long as the last planting matures before the first frost.
If your garden space is limited, ask friends and family to participate in a "canning exchange". Everyone sets aside a small amount of growing space for canning (each garden a different crop) and in exchange, you all share in the canning.
Plant crops that compliment each other so they mature at the same time. For example, for canning dill pickles, you'll want the dill and cucumbers to mature at the same time; for salsa, the tomatoes, onions, and peppers.
Canning isn't the only way to preserve food. Don't forget to round out your preservation efforts using other techniques such as drying, dehydrating and freezing foods.
Be a wise shopper. In some cases, it may actually be more logical (and more convenient) to "pick your own" fruits and vegetables (e.g. a berry farm) or to buy them from a grocery store while they are on sale or in season, rather than growing your own.
About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at http://www.sustainable-media.com
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