By Kate Klimesh,
There is nothing more satisfying than seeing summer’s bounty preserved in colorful jars in the pantry or in the cold storage cellar. Canning has become more commonplace as many people picked up the art, institution and practice of canning during pandemic lockdowns. This is why canning lids alone are as rare as gold nuggets in the stores these days. When they are spotted, they are snatched up fast.
As people leap forward into yet another growing season, this may be the year to plant a garden to enjoy canned produce all year long. It’s easy to do, and certainly can be a lifesaver to prevent last-minute trips to the store for commonly-used pantry staples, or simply cut down on fresh vegetable waste from the harvest by preserving them at their peak.
I first began canning small, with crisp summer cucumbers turning into zesty pickles like magic. Over the years, I have worn the printing off the corners of my favorite Kerr canning guide and have experimented canning a wide variety of vegetables: corn, beans, tomatoes, tiny baby potatoes, home-grown pepperoncini peppers (for salads and Italian roast beef recipes) and our own jalapeno-tomato blend from garden supplies. I have canned salsa and sauces, homemade vegetable juice and a full complement of pickle and corn relishes – thanks to Marlys Lien and Jan from Fayette Lumber for sharing their time-honored recipes so many years ago.
Our family has canned deer, beef and chicken (dressed and plucked straight from the butchering line) as well as casserole and chili vegetable blends. There’s been bushels of canned peaches and pears – and I admit I bloomed late in discovering the joy and creativity of fruit jams, preserves and compotes. The options of what to put in the jar are bound only by imagination and favored recipes and flavors.
Instead of planting on a whim, think of this year’s garden as the “personal grocery store of the future” and plant what the family best likes to eat, with extra thought about when to eat it and can it – a growing grocery shopping list. When planning to can, look at winter month cravings for special dishes or holiday fare the family can’t get enough of when it’s cold. Planning ahead means the supply is there and the quality is top-notch, filled with vitamins and minerals from the summer’s garden.
First, make a plan
Bring out the family-favorite recipes used most often and go over the vegetables needed. My vegetable soup requires corn, green beans, tomatoes and potatoes. Can those grow in this area? Can they be canned together at the same time and temperature? Can they be planted to coordinate the harvest? Then add them to the list for the garden this year in addition to any veggies planted for fresh eating.
Next, think of the quantity required and ensure enough seeds or plants get planted to produce the needed amount. Some vegetables are easy to plan, such as canned tomatoes, green beans and corn. These are used in a wide variety of dishes and can be canned individually in pints or quarter as needed.
Feeling adventurous? Take this year’s garden to the next level and plan canning for soups, stews and casseroles. Vintage canning books and online resources have recipes to preserve mixed vegetables in easy-to-use sizes for easy meal preparation of favorite vegetable soup, chili, curry or tater tot hotdish vegetable blends.
Controlling the realm of time and space
Timing each planting in succession and observing average growing time of planned veggies is particularly important in successful canned vegetable blends to ensure the corn, beans, carrots and any other combo is ready for harvesting at the same time – at the peak of freshness. This works well with relishes, salsas and ketchups as well.
With the list of what to plant made, next comes mapping out the garden space to maximize the growing season and harvest potential. A four-foot section can hold up to 144 green beans seeds planted four inches apart and produce up to 35 pounds of tender, crisp beans per planting. Or use that same space to plant carrots three inches apart and harvest up to 30 pounds of the vision-enhancing roots.
Planting certain items in succession can also maximize the ground’s productivity. Planting early radishes and lettuces in a smaller space, over three weeks ensures a little bit of fresh crop will produce each week. Planting tomatoes or pepper plants in that same space following the first harvest allows the space to be productive even when the last of the radishes are gone. Broccoli is a great plant to put in mid-summer, utilizing early crop space.
Plantmaps.com is a wonderful resource to really narrow down the best growing seasons and understand the area in which we live from a growing perspective.
Larger garden sizes can utilize a more traditional row layout but be careful with more space to avoid planting too much too soon. Those wide-open spaces and spring excitement for digging in the dirt could lead to too many of one thing – throwing a wrench in the careful plan, schedule and canning storage space. Speaking from experience, 99 tomato plants is too many for one family of five, as is 68 hills of potatoes. Just because the yard or garden has the space doesn’t mean it must be filled – stick to the plan!
Keeping it clean
For best results after so much hard work, be sure to sterilize any reused supports, cages, stakes or shears to eliminate potential disease. Once the harvest comes in, take time the weekend prior to harvest to prepare the canning equipment, jars, and ensure there are enough canning lids of the correct size for the anticipated harvest.
The most beneficial effort to a grand garden is still weeding – unfortunately. Allowing the garden plants to absorb the lion’s share of nutrients from the dirt and get all the water they need means eliminating the competition – weeds. Regular and consistent weeding will ensure this year’s harvest is a fruitful as possible.
For even better economy of effort, coordinate with neighbors or family to divide and conquer the garden production, garden A will raise beets, corn and green beans for both households, and garden B will focus on tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers for both households. It can be much easier when the load and harvest is shared.
Incorporating additional help to can the produce is a great plan once the harvests start rolling in. Even those without a yard can help with processing and ensure everyone can enjoy the garden-rich bounty year-round.
Garden thoughtfully for maximum results
Planning a garden? Think a bit more critically about the space available and the needs for the upcoming year to plan a garden and can a garden to fill the pantry. One of my canning books is from the second world war and encourages its readers to plant a victory garden. While the times have changed, personal victory from a well-planned garden and beautifully stocked canned pantry is within reach every year.