Our vegetable gardens offer us beautiful, fresh bounty during the growing season — and they also have the potential to increase our food security the rest of the year. When you craft a plan to put up some of the crops you grow, you’re preparing for the future, simplifying winter meals, reducing waste, and saving money, too.
As you plan your garden with preservation in mind, consider what your family loves to eat versus what they merely tolerate. Talk with your household members about what you want your meals to look like for the following year. If you’re aiming for year-round veggie self-sufficiency, calculate how many times per week on average your family eats a particular crop, and multiply that figure by 52 (number of weeks in a year). Then, use our chart of crop yields in Garden Planning: Guidelines for Growing Vegetables to arrive at a rough calculation of how much of that crop to plant. Or, to start smaller, jump in with any of the following ideas, organized from the easiest to grow and preserve to the crops and storage methods that require more expertise or a longer-term commitment.
Easy Crops and Preservation Projects
From a preservation perspective, some vegetables are much more flexible to work with than others. I suggest starting with tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, green beans, summer squash, leafy greens and carrots because, with proper variety selection, they’re all easy to grow in most regions, and they lend themselves to a plethora of simple preservation projects, such as freezing, pickling and water bath canning. Note that water bath canning and pressure canning each require a distinct type of canner and have unique safety guidelines, and most beginners start with water bath canning.
One of my favorite methods is to peel and chop tomatoes and put them in 1-quart freezer bags with several chopped hot peppers and onions. When I want to make a pot of chili in winter, all I have to do is brown some ground meat and add spices and a bag of these frozen veggies. I use tomatoes, sweet peppers and onions in canned pizza and pasta sauces, and freeze bags of tomatoes and onions for later use in soups, too. Try ‘Carmen’ sweet peppers, which deliver high yields and superb flavor.
When deciding what to plant for future preservation projects, you’ll also want to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each crop variety. If you use a large slicing tomato to make pasta or pizza sauce, for example, you’ll have to start with twice as many pounds of tomatoes as you would use if you had chosen a paste variety, which has denser, meatier flesh and less water content. You’d have to cook slicing tomatoes a lot longer to get the thicker consistency you’ll want in a sauce. Although you can use any type of tomato to make a sauce, the paste varieties, such as ‘Roma,’ ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Striped Roman,’ will make the task much quicker. (See Best Tomato Varieties to Grow This Year for many more tomato variety recommendations by type.) Also, remember that preservation projects needn’t be solo pursuits in a hot kitchen. Plan a canning party (even outdoors!) to share harvests and the labor.
So how many tomatoes should you sow? Depending on the variety and your growing conditions, you can expect about 15 to 25 pounds per plant, so make calculations based on how many pounds you think your family will go through in a year. Many years ago, when we lived in the suburbs, we found that just eight ‘Big Boy’ tomato plants could produce enough tomatoes for freezing whole and canning pasta sauce for our five-person family’s annual needs. In Sustainable Market Farming, author Pam Dawling describes planting 250 paste tomatoes and 90 slicing tomatoes in a community garden for 100 people, and canning about 500 gallons of sauce annually from the harvests.
Tomato soup is a dish in which lots of different tomato varieties can really shine, and you can make big batches for the freezer. ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes make a citrusy tasting soup, while ‘Great White’ imparts a smokier flavor. Try dehydrating some tomatoes, too. Paste types and cherry types typically dry best, although ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes are one of the best foods to dehydrate and then layer in quiche or casseroles.
Cucumbers are a classic crop to pickle. Don’t be swayed by those called “pickling cucumbers,” as you can pickle any variety — and you can eat any variety fresh, too. The pickling types are ideal if you’ll be canning whole dill pickles, though, because they stay small enough to fit well in your canning jars. You can pickle hot peppers, such as jalapeños, serranos and habaneros, as well.
Although my children were never fans of plain canned green beans, which require pressure canning, they loved crisp, pickled dilly beans. Because dilly beans are pickled in vinegar, the acid level makes them safe to water bath can. This keeps the beans crunchy.
Hot peppers, summer squash and thick-leaved greens, such as kale or collards, are excellent crops for drying. Use your dried hot peppers in spicy Mexican and Italian recipes, and grind some into homemade spice blends. Stash dried greens and slices of dried summer squash for use in soups, veggie lasagna, quiche or snacks. You likely won’t have to plant extra squash to make this possible, as summer squash harvests come on strong, and gardeners are often searching for a way to use them up.
Carrots are one of the best foods to freeze. Try the uniform, heavy-yielding Nantes types, such as ‘Bolero,’ ‘Nelson’ or ‘Napa.’ Slice, blanch and then freeze them in gallon bags to add to stews and other dishes all winter. Try growing a smaller spring planting of carrots for fresh eating through summer and fall, and then a large fall planting to harvest for the freezer.
Intermediate Crops and Preservation Projects
Have more time and want to venture into crops and preservation projects that may present a few more challenges? Eggplant and corn are long-season crops that need plenty of warmth. They may pose a few pest and disease issues, but when you get a good harvest, you’ll be able to roast and freeze them in super-flavorful packs that will enliven a wide diversity of dishes — think roasted-eggplant dip or chili with roasted corn.
You may also be ready to try fermenting and pressure canning, which will provide you with even more storage options. I’ve heard many people say they’re afraid to attempt fermenting because they might make someone sick. But according to Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, that’s highly unlikely to happen. Fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation, and Katz says you can ferment virtually any vegetable. Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) is a classic favorite, and Katz also recommends fermenting celery and radishes.
Almost any low-acid canned vegetable you can buy at the store, such as green beans or corn, you can also preserve at home using a pressure canner. Don’t have enough of any one crop to pressure can it? Then try a pressure canning recipe for mixed vegetable soup.
Although winter squash will keep well in a cool room, you can also cook, purée and then freeze them. Use the purée later for soups, pies, breads or other desserts, such as pumpkin ice cream. Try ‘Waltham’ butternut or ‘Burgess’ buttercup squash for sweet fruits that purée perfectly.
I recommend successively sowing your crops whenever possible to make way for more food preservation projects. Your spring plantings can yield a fresh harvest for summer, and, in many regions, your fall garden can offer another substantial harvest period. If you eat up all of your spring-planted cabbage in fresh slaws, for example, you can plant more cabbage in summer to furnish a fall crop for fermenting into sauerkraut and kimchi.
Planting Perennials and Long-Term Garden Planning
Most perennial crops take a few years to produce a harvest, but they’re worth the wait, as you’ll get many years of fruits and vegetables from that one planting. Consider planting asparagus and rhubarb, which are simple to freeze or can. Although most people think of rhubarb as a fruit thanks to the popularity of rhubarb pie, it’s actually a versatile vegetable that can add interest to soups, casseroles and main dishes. It even goes well in mixed drinks — think refreshing rhubarb mojitos.
All types of berries are great candidates for freezing or dehydrating, and, of course, they make wonderful jams and preserves. Most are also easy to grow, and they tend to multiply every year. If you lack space in your garden, establish berry bushes and vines as elements of edible landscaping throughout your property.
If you want fresh strawberries as well as some to preserve, you should plant both June-bearers and ever-bearers. Over a two- to three-week period, the June-bearers will produce a heavy crop perfect for freezing or making jam, while the ever-bearers will ripen gradually over the course of a couple of months, making them ideal for fresh eating through summer.
When choosing stone fruits to plant, such as peach and plum trees, select freestone, rather than clingstone, varieties. Flesh clinging to the pit isn’t a big deal when you’re eating a fresh fruit, but if you use freestone fruits for preserving, you’ll save a lot of time and ultimately get more fruit for canning, freezing or drying.
When planting apple trees, note that some varieties are firmer, which dry well, while some are softer and make better applesauce. Apple varieties also ripen at different times, which may affect your preservation game plan. For example, ‘Lodi’ apples ripen early and are a great sauce apple. You could make your sauce from that variety, and choose a firmer, late-season apple for drying and storing.
Year-to-Year Garden Planning
As you brainstorm your preserver’s garden, record your plans in a garden journal. This can be as simple as a spiral notebook, or as detailed as a digital journal and map made using a computer program, such as the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Vegetable Garden Planner. Had I started keeping a journal earlier in my gardening life, the learning curve would’ve been much smoother. In your records, include a list of the varieties you’ve planted and keep notes throughout the season about what’s working and what’s not. Ideally, you’ll weigh your harvests throughout the season, or at least make rough notes on yields, so you’ll know how much each variety produced and whether you grew enough of any one crop. Also, jot down how much of each crop you’re able to stow — what you canned, froze, dried and fermented — so you can refer to this information when planning future gardens. Add kitchen observations to your notes now and then, too, about what’s sitting on your pantry shelves too long and what you’re using up faster than you anticipated.
Even if you create the best plan imaginable, odds are good that you’ll wind up with too much or too little of one food or another every year. If you fall short, barter with friends or visit your local farmers market to supplement what you’ve grown, so you can still fill your pantry and freezer. There are no rules against purchasing produce to preserve. And one thing is certain: Next winter when the snow flies, you’ll be grateful for all the food you were able to put by.
Resources for Your Food Preservation Projects
• Seed and Plant Finder (to locate crop varieties)
• Garden Planning: Guidelines for Growing Vegetables
• MOTHER EARTH NEWS Food Preservation hub
• Home Canning Guide: Learn How to Can Your Own Food
• How to Make Pickles
• How to Dry Food: Reap the Garden and Market Bounty
• Pressure Canning Basics: Fearless Food Preservation
• The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
Deborah Niemann writes about self-reliance, growing food, cooking from scratch, and living a cheaper, happier and healthier life. She runs Antiquity Oaks Farm in Illinois, and is the author of Homegrown and Handmade.