Small home gardens, in spite of their size, can produce a surprisingly large amount of food. If your garden is like mine, it is not going to produce enough of any one crop — except maybe dill or other herbs — to last through the whole of the coming year. However, there are often surpluses of one veggie or another as the season progresses.
Any surpluses are likely to be small, but the risk of losing some of that surplus to rots and molds is real, especially if you are gardening for just one or two people. Keeping our small abundances edible for a longer time can require extra work.
The work is in the different preservation options and picking the one that is best for our current crop and situation. Will it be freezing, dehydrating, canning, fermenting, or simply storing a crop “as is”?
For example, this year, the cucumber patch in my garden produced a steady flow of cucumbers, just about right for eating them all fresh, except for one bumper week. That week, the patch produced about twice as many cukes as we could use. To avoid losing the extras to rot, we made a couple of different kinds of pickles.
My choices for extending the usefulness of our harvests may not be the same as yours, but below I have listed the preservation/extension methods we use, and some of the reasoning behind each choice.
Many gardeners opt for freezing as a favorite preservation/extension method. Blanched green beans and greens, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes and peppers, and many more kinds of veggies can, theoretically, be stored in a freezer for at least a few months. Using the freezer is not my first choice, though, because of a bad experience back in 2012.
That year, a tree fell on our house, smashing through the dining room and living room, leaving wires dangling from the attic. The house was without power for more than nine weeks while it was being repaired, and most of what we had in our (thankfully-small) chest freezer “went bad”. This is the kind of thing that can happen randomly, I know, but it made me wary of relying on electricity for our food storage.
We don’t have a chest freezer now. Already, since moving to the coast, we have had one event (last fall — Hurricane Zeta) that knocked out electricity for three and a half days. We use the freezer section of our fridge for short-term storage of some foods, like pesto made from our garden basil and the deer sausage that a sister shared with us. I also keep extra flour and rice in there, safe from bugs. This way, we are less likely to lose much of our home-garden-produce to spoilage in the event of a power failure.
Drying foods for later use is probably our favorite preservation/extension method. Re-hydrating foods is easy — soak in water or drop straight into a soup pot — and the dried foods take up very little space in the pantry.
This week, we have dried quite a lot of okra for use in winter gumbos. The okra patch is our best-producing section of the garden right now. It all fell over a few weeks ago, in Hurricane Ida, and I had to stand it all back up, cutting some of the tops off to help the plants stay upright. The okra went right on producing; it is amazing.
We dehydrated several trays-worth of tomatoes in mid-summer, and Joe recently made jerky from deer meat (from the same sister who provided the deer sausages). I’ve also dried herbs and flowers for teas and tinctures. Normally, we would also dry a lot of peppers for use in winter, but those plants are not doing nearly as well as the okra in all the rain. We are up to 90 inches for the year, and more is coming.
We also, sometimes, dehydrate sale-produce from the grocery store. This year one of our local stores celebrated “Hawaii Days” with $1.25 pineapples and $0.25 mangoes. We dehydrated some of each.
Our dehydrator has seen more than a decade of use. It is a five-tray Excaliber, which is a bit pricey, but the temperature controls, large surface-area for drying, and fan on the back that blows the heated air evenly across all the trays are great features. The new version (not mine) includes a timer. However, if the dehydrator you have is one of the round ones with just two or three temperature settings, and the fan and heating element are in the base, and you found it at a thrift store, that works, too.
To learn how to use our dehydrated foods, we checked a couple of books out of the library (long ago). If your library doesn’t have a good book about using dehydrated foods, try this one, The Ultimate Dehydrator Cookbook, that is fairly comprehensive.
We tend toward small-batch canning. This means, for making jams and fruit preserves, we follow instructions from Wild Preserves, a cookbook that I have had for many years. The author, Joe Freitus, knows that we don’t usually find wild fruits in large amounts, so many of the recipes ask for small amounts of fruit — just four cups for many recipes. These recipes work for non-wild versions of similar fruits.
In the past, I have done a lot more traditional pressure-canning, especially for green beans. At this time in my life, though, and with the smaller-and-still-experimental garden, I am sticking with simpler “canning” methods.
For example, when we had an abundance of eggplant earlier this summer, I made a full pint of marinated eggplant, from (I think) seven or so Ichiban-type (long and skinny) eggplants. The recipe indicated that it would keep for only a few weeks in the fridge, but that is a lot longer than any fresh eggplant would stay edible!
For pickles, I use a refrigerator-pickle recipe that can be adjusted to make just one quart of sweet pickles. No water-bath canner or pressure-canner is required. However, I did water-bath-can some of the pineapple purchased during “Hawaii Days”.
Fermenting foods is Joe’s expertise. His three most-frequently fermented foods are sauerkraut, brined pickles, and fermented hot sauce. He keeps the salt-to-produce ratio for brining all of these written on the lid of our pickling salt box. That way, he doesn’t have to hunt it up when he is ready to start a batch of fermented foods.
Storing “As Is”
This is the laziest method, and my favorite, but it only works for some particular crops.
Sweet potatoes can be kept, after harvest and curing in the fall, in a basket, covered with a towel to keep dark, nearly anywhere in the house. They will be good for several months, and no root cellar or special space is required. I usually keep mine in the kitchen.
Some winter squashes will keep for months in a cooler part of the house. Butternut squashes and some pumpkins actually get sweeter as the months go by. The best “keeper” I’ve grown so far is ‘Seminole’ pumpkin squash. I have eaten some that were in the kitchen for more than a year, and they were still good.
Dried beans, like black-eyed peas or kidney beans, can be kept in a jar after they are truly and completely dry. Ditto for popcorn.
If you are new to food preservation, reading a good guide to preserving foods at home is an essential first step. There may be a good book at your local library. Alternatively, you can check the recipe section of the Ball and Kerr Home Preserving website. That site also includes helpful information about all the preservation methods discussed above, at this link (scroll down to see each section).