How to Store Fresh Vegetables all Year Long

How to store fresh vegetables from the garden in every season, including: lettuce, kale, radishes, turnips, asparagus, zucchini, celery, eggplant, corn, onions, squash, pumpkins, root crops, canning, pickling and freezing.
By Mort Mather
August/September 1996
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1. Harvesting and storing fresh vegetables.
REBECCA LEER
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These harvest tips show you how to store fresh vegetables from your garden all year round.  

How to Store Fresh Vegetables all Year Long

I am continually amazed at all the things that go on in a vegetable garden. Each year is different — changed by the weather, by my own "experiments" with fertility, by the varieties I grow, and perhaps by my attitude. Each vegetable is different in color, size, shape, taste, growing characteristics. Take storage characteristics, for example. There are some vegetables that can't be stored while others can be thrown in a corner and stay wonderful for six months. Go figure. 

I grew up with my mother telling me there was no such word as "can't," so I better fix that. You can store lettuce by drying it. I just don't know what to do with dried lettuce. Smoke it? After more than 20 years of harvest success and failure, bounty and boondoggle, I've planted just about everything that I thought had a fighting chance in our northern climate, and the list that follows, though not absolutely comprehensive, provides a bird's-eye view of how your produce should be doing at the end of the season, as well as some storage secrets that will keep a steady supply of it on your dinner plates through the year.

LETTUCE 

There are a number of vegetables that I don't store any longer than they will keep in the refrigerator. Lettuce is one of these, but I love lettuce so I want to have it fresh from the garden for as long as possible. I extend the season in the spring by starting seedlings in the house. The first lettuce from transplants will reach the table in mid-June. That planting will have pretty much gone by in a month, which is when the second planting, planted from seed in mid-May, should be ready for harvest. Plantings in mid-June, mid-July and mid-August will keep the lettuce coming until November. We have even had lettuce from the garden on the Thanksgiving table. People in more southern climates may not think that is much of a feat, but our first fall frost comes around September 20.

Lettuce is not killed by early frosts because the cell walls are more elastic than most vegetables. When the water within the cells expands as it freezes, the cell walls expand also. Tender crops like cucumbers die at the first light frost because their cell walls burst.

KALE, KOHLRABI, RADISH & TURNIP 

Kale is another hardy vegetable that we don't store. It is wonderful in soups. I like it steamed and seasoned with vinegar. This is the way I like spinach also. Spinach in the spring and kale in the fall is the way I like it. I just don't care for kale well enough to want it around a lot. It will last longer in the fall than lettuce and it seems to get better after a frost. I can't tell you how long kale will last because the deer always cut the season short for me. One of these years I will keep them out of the fall garden.

Kohlrabi, radish, and turnip are delightful in summer salads. I can eat any of these right in the garden after wiping the soil off on my jeans. Radishes grow so fast that I can't keep up with succession planting to keep new ones coming. We eat them fresh from the garden as soon as the first ones get a little larger than peas. I always plant radishes with parsnips, carrots, and parsley. The radishes mark the row and shelter the slow-to-germinate crops. When the later crops need the space, I harvest all the radishes to make room. That may mean I've got five pounds of radishes. They keep quite well for up to a month if topped, washed, and put in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Sometimes, just to show off, I grow king-size radishes. They are regular radishes, cherry bell is my favorite, but when grown in good soil and mulched they can get almost as big as tennis balls. It's no big deal to grow them that large. The big deal is when someone eats one expecting it to be pithy or woody and finding it to have a perfect texture and superb taste. The mulch assures stable moisture and keeps the soil temperature from fluctuating as much as it would otherwise. The results are really special.

We don't store kohlrabi, radishes, or turnips as a rule. Kohlrabi can be pickled. Daikon radishes and rutabagas provide radish and turnip flavor in the winter and store easily in the root cellar.

ASPARAGUS & ZUCCHINI 

There are two vegetables that I really love in season, asparagus and zucchini. If spring is kind, I can eat my first asparagus on my birthday, May 10. It is just great steamed with nothing on it, or with butter, or served with a little dressing. The harvest is only about a month long, but what a month that is. It is especially wonderful because it is the first fresh, home-grown green for many months. I don't crave asparagus until some time in April, which is just right. I have a month of expectation and a month of ecstasy. Asparagus can be frozen or canned but it's not anything that I will ever be motivated to do.

Commercial growers harvest asparagus by cutting it off below the ground. I presume this is done to get more weight. They then let the ends dry out which makes them inedible. I cut the early asparagus below ground level because I want to get an extra bite or two from the first pickings. Later I will cut at ground level or snap them off. When I bring the asparagus into the house I bundle it together with two rubber bands. Then I cut the ends off and stand the asparagus in water in the refrigerator. This keeps it fresh until you eat it, and you won't wind up with any inedible fibrous ends that way.

Zucchini grows so fast that once it starts coming in you have to harvest it every other day. When I had a market garden and supplied restaurants with zucchini, I harvested every day and a half to get perfectly sized vegetables. I think they are best about six inches long.

When I was a bachelor in New York City my favorite meal was lamb chops, baked potato, and zucchini. I was not cognizant of seasons at that time in my life and bought my favorite vegetable in the winter when the price was notable. That is how I came to value zucchini. I don't even think I would like zucchini in the winter now but when it is in season I revel in the bounty.

CELERY, EGGPLANT & PEPPER 

There are three more vegetables in the we-don't-store-them category: celery, eggplant, and pepper. We don't grow celery very often mainly because I am not geared up for starting seedlings in February. Then they have to be taken care of until late May before they can be put out in the garden and left on their own. Then they should be blanched or else they are too strong and stringy. Celery can be stored in the root cellar for two to three months, so the books say. That is an experience that still awaits me.

Eggplant and pepper are not as bad as celery but they do need to be started indoors and cool summer weather can severely cut back the crop. Fans of dehydrating vegetables tout that method of storing these. We have stored them in ratatouille which we froze or canned. We try to get an overdose while they are in season but that isn't easy as there is so much coming from the garden at the same time ... like corn.

CORN 

Corn! Ah, this is another ecstasy vegetable. We plant early, middle, and late season varieties to get continuous corn from mid-July to mid-September. I have been told that frozen corn on the cob is as good as fresh, but I don't believe it. We have a lot of unused freezer space and we haven't even bothered to try it. Some say just put the ears in the freezer right from the garden. Others say shuck them and put them in plastic bags. Others say shuck them and blanch them before putting them in plastic bags.

We stick with the old rule of getting the water boiling before picking the corn. If you drop one on the way in, don't stop to pick it up. The sugar in corn does turn to starch but the transformation doesn't begin immediately and it takes a day or more to start to be noticeable. At least that is what I have read Me, I enjoy jogging in from the garden with an armload of freshly picked corn.

Harvesting can be a little tricky because you can't see the kernels. The best indication is the drying or browning of the silk. If you have raccoons, the corn will be ready to harvest about three days after the coons start eating it. If you are into sharing, plant a lot. With luck, your generosity will be noticed by porcupines as well.

Our favorite method of preparing corn is to cook it in the husk over coals. When the coals are ready I pick the corn and put it on the grill. The corn can actually go directly on the fire. The moisture in the husks keeps it from burning. Keep an eye on the husks, turning frequently. When the husks get brown, before they start to burn, the corn will be done. Pull back the husks, this is a little hot on the fingers but it is a good time to show off. Hand the ears around with the husk as handle. It cools in the air shortly after you have burned your fingers. We serve this outside with a stick of butter to rub the corn across. When finished, everyone gets to try their luck at lobbing the cob into the compost bin.

Sweet corn can be frozen on or off the cob and canned. It can also be dried. Of course, some corn is supposed to be dried. Popcorn needs to be dried but not too much because it is the moisture in the kernels that makes them pop when it expands. We let popcorn dry on the stalk as long as possible, which usually means until the birds get hungry. Then we pull the husks back, tie them in bundles, and hang them in a dry place for a few weeks. Then the kernels are shelled off the cob and stored in an airtight jar so the drying is stopped.

Field or flint corn can't get too dry. We treat it the same as popcorn except for the shelling which takes place later. If it is not dry enough, it will gum up the grinder when you come to grind. We leave it hanging from the rafters until we are ready to use it or until we decide it is getting dusty.

You need a big garden to grow all these varieties of corn as they all need to be separated during pollination. The separation can be either space or time. The Handbook for Vegetable Growers by James Edward Knott (John Wiley & Sons, New York) says that different varieties of corn should be planted a mile apart. As long as you are growing for your own table and not to sell seed you can gamble on opposite corners of the garden. If there is some cross pollination it will most likely result in partially filled ears or skipped rows of kernels.

A Storer's Hall of Fame:

ONIONS 

The opposite end of the storability scale from lettuce has got to be onions. The rules for onions are: don't let them freeze, don't store them wet or in a wet place, and don't store rotten ones. Accomplishing this is just too easy. First, when onions are ready to be harvested, they lie down so there is no trick to knowing when to harvest (By the way, you can harvest an onion any time you feel like it during the season). You can harvest the onions for storage any time after they lie down and before a hard frost. They won't rot, get eaten by anything, or lose flavor or quality in anyway. When I get around to it I pull all the onions and drop them right there in the row. They can lie on top of the ground like this for a casual period of time unless frost threatens. They can also be rained upon, which will clean them up a bit, as well as stand full sun. The idea is to let them dry and cure a bit. The soil that may have come up with their roots will fall off.

Not all of the onions will lie down at the same time, so you may have some with practically dry tops and others that still have green tops. If you can't leave them in the garden until all the tops are dry, you can move them to a porch or some other dry place where they can be spread out to finish the drying process.

The final step is to pick each one up by hand and feel it while putting it in an onion bag or a basket or whatever. My "feeling it" is really just giving it a squeeze designed to pull off dirt and perhaps the outer skin. It is all accomplished in the time it takes to pick up an onion and transfer it to the bag or basket. I'm not trying to make them picture-book clean. Mostly I want to be sure there are no soft ones. A soft onion is a rotten onion and you don't want any of them in storage.

There are invariably some thick-neck onions. These are set aside for early use. I can taste onion soup as I write this.

The ideal temperature for storing onions is just above freezing. In our house the closest space for that temperature is the front hall. It is unheated. Cold outside air comes in around the door and warmer air rises to the second floor to keep it a cold but above-freezing place. But don't fret about finding the perfect place. We sometimes braid onions and hang them from the rafters in the kitchen. I don't think there is a warmer place in our house. These onions sprout earlier than onions in a basket on the floor but they still last through March. It's a good idea to check through a bag or basket once a month or so just in case a poor-quality onion got stored by mistake. However, if your nose is working you can probably rely on it to tip you off to a potential problem.

SQUASH & PUMPKINS 

Winter squash and pumpkins are even easier. When the first frost hits, the leaves of these vine crops die, leaving them exposed and easy to find. Cut or twist them off the vine leaving the stem attached to the fruit. I have read various things about curing these vegetables on the sun porch or next to the wood stove. I've even followed those directions once or twice. It may make a difference but none that I've ever seen.

They can be stored just about anywhere in your living space. The optimum temperature is right around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.We have stored them on the kitchen floor, on shelves, and under the bed. We have been notified of squash rotting by fruit flies. Larger pumpkins and larger squash will last up to six months, but you might want to keep a close eye on the smaller ones after three months. They can go from a soft spot to mush pretty fast.

ROOT CROPS 

Root crops need a humid atmosphere. They also like to be as cold as possible without freezing. Our cellar with a dirt floor and water running through it was ideal until we put in a furnace. I've been trying to bring it back to the good old days ever since. This year I walled off a section, but if it is still too warm, I may try fooling around with fans and thermostats.

The ideal storage place for root crops is right where they grew. The is fine for parsnips which can freeze without bursting their cell walls. I don't know if parsnips belong in this grouping or if they should be classified as one of the vegetables we eat straight from the garden. They can be eaten in the fall but we never do. They are the first garden vegetable eaten from the garden in the spring. I have bent spading forks trying to get them out of the ground before the frost freed them.

Carrots, beets, potatoes, daikon radish, and rutabaga will rot if frozen. They can be protected from freezing by insulating them from the winter cold, and this can be done by covering them with enough hay to keep the ground from freezing. That takes a lot of hay, however. In our climate I need to use a whole bale thickness and the cover has to extend about eight inches from crops to keep the frost from coming in under the bales. I usually use this method for carrots, as I like them best and appreciate solid carrots especially in late winter. I try to get a couple of rows of carrots growing close together and reaching peak maturity in September. If I put the bales on too soon, rodents may move in. Too late, and the carrots freeze and are lost.

I wrote about root storage in the March issue. As with so much of gardening, there are a lot of different ways to get good results, from a hole in the ground to a humidity-controlled walk-in refrigerator. I like to eat low on the tech and energy hog. I also like to make things as easy as possible. I do most of my storage in wooden bins that are kept off the dirt floor of our cellar by resting on rocks.

CABBAGE 

Cabbage is the transition vegetable from unprocessed storage to processed. Winter cabbage will last three to four months in cold high humidity, just the same as root crops. The only real difference is that root crops usually lose their goodness by getting dry and limp. Cabbage usually rots. Therefore, you don't want to fill a box with cabbage in your cellar and forget about it. Check your cabbage every now and then to make sure none are rotting, because if you don't discover it until you can smell it in the house, you are not going to be living with happy campers until the smell goes away. In fact, you may want to go away.

The beauty of cabbage is that it is the only green vegetable than can be stored for any length of time without being processed. If you are trying to eat as much as possible from your garden, this is a very important feature. Lettuce from June through November and coleslaw from November through February still leaves four months with no fresh green vegetables. Those four months are the period of the year when a died-in-the-wool self-sufficient gardener is building an appreciation for fresh vegetables. We process some vegetables to get through this period without feeling deprived. Cabbage is one of the vegetables we process.

Old-Fashioned Fermenting 

Our first adventure into making sauerkraut lives on in our memories, especially Barbara's. Kraut is made with late cabbage and sea or pickling salt. That's it. On a beautiful crisp fall day I brought some firm heads of late cabbage in from the garden. The outer leaves had been eaten by cabbage worms but the heads looked great after the eaten leaves were removed. I quartered the cabbages and cut out the core. Barbara shredded them. I weighed the shredded cabbage and when I had five pounds I mixed it with three tablespoons of salt and let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Then I packed the cabbage into a large crock.

It was a lovely old crock which weighed probably 25 pounds and stood almost two feet high. We were going to have a lot of sauerkraut to go with the pork we were also raising that year.

Barbara kept shredding and I kept mixing and packing, making sure all the air was forced out of the kraut without breaking the shredded cabbage. When the kraut was up to about six inches from the top I covered it with cheesecloth. I had made a disk of oak that just fit into the crock. The idea was to hold down the cheesecloth so the brine that would form as the cabbage fermented would come up over the cover and seal off the kraut from the air. A rock on top of the oak finished the job.

The crock was placed on the floor on the high end of our kitchen. I should explain that our house is 200 years old and there is not a level floor or square corner in it. The high end was farthest from the woodburning kitchen range which we were using at the time. We thought that was the best place to find a 70 degree temperature.

In two days the brine was covering the oak disk. When scum formed on the brine we were to lift off the rock and disk and cloth and skim off any of the white scum that did not adhere to the cloth, then replace the cloth with a clean one, scald the lid and weight, and replace them. I did this the first time it needed to be done but then, as fate would have it, I got a job that called me away for a week. I left Barbara in charge of the sauerkraut scum skimming operation. That's Hollywood.

It didn't go well. First, I had neglected to tell her that the top of the crock was not a perfect circle, nor was the handmade disk. The disk would only fit a certain way. Second, she neglected to notice that the cheesecloth was tucked down around the kraut, not around the disk. When she tried to reassemble the cover it wouldn't fit into the crock. As she tried to make it fit, the crock split open, flooding her feet in brine. The brine continued to run across the kitchen floor until it puddled at the low end of the kitchen. Did I mention that lightning came into the house and melted a burner on the stove and that the dog had an epileptic fit that week? Oh yeah, Barbara was very pregnant, too. As you might imagine, sauerkraut has a special meaning for us.

While sauerkraut making may seem like pickling, it isn't, because it uses only salt. It is not salting either, which is a method of food storage that is not used much at all today. The reason salting is not used is that the salt has to be washed off before the vegetable so stored can be used and much of the nutrient value of the vegetables goes with the salt. We have salted one vegetable, parsley. The leaves are chopped and packed in salt in a small jar similarly to the cabbage in kraut making. The salt keeps the leaves green and, since parsley is used as a seasoning and usually at the same time as salt, the salted parsley is used in place of salt when both are desired. Another way to keep parsley around is to grow it in a pot as a house plant.

And what is sauerkraut if it is not salted or pickled? It is fermented.

Pickling 

Pickling uses salt and vinegar with spices and herbs. A number of vegetables can be pickled, the most obvious being cucumbers. Green beans pickled with dill and hot pepper is a favorite of mine. Green cherry tomatoes are another. Pickling is more fun than any other vegetable processing because you can be creative. It is not just a matter of getting things clean and temperatures right.

In the days before generally available processed foods on supermarket shelves, when most households had shelves of home-canned food as well as a full root cellar, pickles were the most frequently given or swapped vegetable. Storage of all the other vegetables was pretty straight forward. Everybody did it about the same way with the same results. Pickles were the items in which experimentation might bring forth a special product. Think of the subtle flavors of cloves, turmeric, mustard seed, dry mustard, celery seed, cinnamon, allspice, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, white sugar, ginger, nutmeg, white peppercorns, black peppercorns, horseradish, garlic, saccharin, curry powder, bay leaf, hot peppers, hot pepper pods, cayenne pepper, mace, and dill. Perhaps I should say, "Think of them as subtle flavors." They can all be used in varying amounts in making pickles; pickling such fresh-from-the-garden vegetables as cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, green peppers, red peppers, green beans, wax beans, green tomatoes, corn, cabbage, beets, zucchini, and horseradish. A grape leaf stuck in each jar of pickles before sealing will help keep them crisp.

Canning 

There are two processes we use to store food from the garden: canning and freezing. They both require energy, as in a stove and freezer, which causes them to have an expense that other storage methods don't have. Vegetables do lose some goodness in processing which is why we put it at the bottom of our list of storage methods. Before I go on I should say that we process our pickles. It wasn't done in olden days but using a boiling water bath stops bacteria that can work in an acidic environment and cause spoilage. It also stops enzyme action and insures a good seal on the canning jars.

We only can one vegetable other than the pickles which are pickled and canned. That is tomatoes. The story of our first experience with canning tomatoes is another memorable story. But before I get started, turn to Deanna Kawatski's guide to canning for a complete list of materials and instructions.

It was a beautiful fall day, the most wonderful time of the year in Maine. The kitchen floor was crowded with vegetables that had been brought in the night before as our first hard frost was sure. A couple of bushels of ripe tomatoes were joined by a bushel of green tomatoes, pumpkins, winter squash, and onions. The tomatoes were to be dealt with on this fine day. With the book propped up over the sink, Barbara and her assistant, me, began to learn a new skill, food processing.

We assembled all the equipment: canning jars, canner, assorted pots, knives, jar lifters, pot holders. The top of the stove was filled with the canner and pots all filled with water and being brought to a boil. Cleanliness is given such emphasis in most books that the novice is sure to get the entire kitchen close to operating room condition. Heaven forbid an enzyme should survive.

The tomatoes are washed; I did that. Then they are dipped in boiling water for half a minute or so. This is called scalding. It loosens the skin so it slips off easily. I did that, too, while Barbara read ahead and supervised so that everything would continue apace. As I dropped the peeled tomatoes into a bowl Barbara took them out and cut and packed them into the canning jars. Then she ran a knife around inside the jar to liberate any air bubbles. The tomatoes were packed to about half an inch of the top. She wiped the rim of the jar to make sure it was clean and smooth so the top would seal properly and placed the lid on loosely as directed.

"It says to cover the jars with half and inch of water," she said. "Won't the water get into the jars?"

What did I know, but being a man and being asked a question, I felt I had to come up with an answer. "Guess not. If that's what the book says." By this time the kitchen was so full of steam that we could barely see each other. Barbara put the jars into the boiling water of the tanner and proceeded to add more boiling water to cover the tops. The kitchen had become unbearably hot, especially with my hands full of scalding tomatoes, so I opened a window. Cold air swirled into the room. As the dew point dropped and the moisture-laden air condensed into drops of water not unlike rain, Barbara could see through the fog that the jars were indeed filling with water from the canner. This precipitated another shower in the kitchen, this time of tears.

We have told the kraut and canning stories many times in the hope that they amuse and that they help others to go forward bravely to learn new things. Doing something for the first time is usually a bit stressful. After each misadventure I think we become a little more philosophical. After all, it wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't a waste of tomatoes either. Nor was it a waste of time, because we learned something.

What did we learn about the water getting into the jars? I'm still a bit puzzled because we have checked many books since and they all say the same thing. Perhaps we were going too slowly and the inside of the jar had cooled too much and in came the water. Deanna will fill in the details.

Freezing 

We freeze peas, spinach, green beans, and broccoli. We have frozen brussels sprouts and cauliflower but our taste for brussels sprouts can generally be fulfilled by eating them in season. Their season is October through December if I can protect them from the deer. We are not big fans of cooked cauliflower so it is usually a fresh-from-the-garden vegetable with only about a month-long season in late spring.

Freezing is really pretty easy. Pick the vegetables when they are at their peak and process them as soon as possible. For peas and beans this may mean planting more than you will use so that you have enough in a single picking to process. These two vegetables produce over a two-week season. A 25-foot row provides enough in one picking to make it worthwhile to freeze. Over the two-week period the 25-foot row will produce two or three times as much as we can or want to eat, however. We could plant shorter rows and hold the peas in the refrigerator while enough accumulate to process but they will not be as good as they can be.

Spinach is very cooperative. When it reaches its peak you want to move fairly fast as it won't be long before it bolts.

The actual "processing" in freezing takes place in the freezer. I mentioned people telling me they had success freezing corn on the cob doing no more than putting it in the freezer. I believe them. The preparation before putting the vegetables in the freezer is solely for the purpose of getting rid of enzymes that will cause the vegetable to deteriorate. Maybe if vegetables are frozen directly from the garden, the enzymes don't have time to get involved.

We prepare vegetables for freezing first by preparing them just as we would for cooking: popping, washing, cutting, or whatever, depending on the vegetable. Then we put them in a strainer that can be placed in a pot of boiling water. We have plenty of ice to keep ice water good and cold. We plunge the veggies into boiling water, which is called blanching, for a minute or two. The books say longer. Then we lift the strainer with the vegetables out of the hot water and plunge them into ice water for another couple of minutes. It sounds like a Swedish bath, doesn't it? Then the vegetables are dried on a towel and put into a freezer container of some kind and put in the freezer. They are spread out in the freezer so they will freeze quickly. That's it.

When we are ready to eat frozen vegetables they go directly from the freezer to the stove top. In a few minutes they are ready, having lost very little garden goodness in the process.

I have not covered drying. We have done very little of it. I mentioned corn for cornmeal and popcorn. Dry beans and peas are also pretty easy. We usually have some of both in the garden because I am not diligent in cleaning up garden plants when they go by. If left alone the plants will dry and the pods left at the end of the season will dry along with the vines. These can be harvested, shaken or popped from the pods, and stored in jars. The peas should be split and the husks blown away leaving split peas for soup. I haven't done this so I'm going to leave you to your own theories on how best to do it.

Barbara dries herbs by collecting them at their peak, before flower, and hanging them from the kitchen ceiling. Once dry she crumbles them into various jars and cans she has collected over the years for the purpose.


For More Information 

Battered and splattered books we have used over the years are Putting Food By by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene (Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, VT); Keeping the Harvest by Nancy Thurber & Gretchen Mead (Garden Way Publishing, Charlotte, VT); Stocking Up, edited by Carol Stoner (Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA); Joy ofCooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (N.A.L. Dutton, New York); and Ball Blue Book (Ball Brothers Co., Muncie, IN).

Each garden brings new successes and unexpected events that are not always wonderful. In all my years of gardening I have never ended a growing season feeling that there were no challenges left. There was even a year when I had a full-scale zucchini failure, so even us experts are occasionally caught with our pants down.


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