Selecting Plants for Food Preserving

When asked why they grow fruits and vegetables, most gardeners would probably answer with something akin to, “Because I want to eat them.” There’s little debate in recognizing that we grow food crops to eat. But what do you do when the plants produce more than you, your family, and even your friends can eat? I hope there are only three top answers: preserve it for later eating; donate it to a food charity; compost it.

As a Master Food Preserver, I advocate preserving food at every opportunity. I’m referring to canning, pickling, dehydrating, and freezing as your primary options. Rather than waiting to see what you have left over before you think about preserving, I suggest you plan some of your garden activities with preservation in mind. Grow to preserve.

I grow four specific crops with food preservation as my primary goal. My wife and daughter love my pickled green beans (that’s not news to loyal followers; see my blog: “Your Garden in a Pickle“) so I plant an entire bed of green beans devoted to a tasty end in the pickle jar. I’ll continue that tradition this year and expand it by planting a new variety of purple-striped green beans. We may eat a few of the beans after harvest, but the large majority will be pickled.

Pickling green beans

My grape jelly is a huge hit as a Christmas present for family and friends. In my old garden, two Concord grape vines allowed me to make as many as 36 jars of grape jelly in a typical year. One of the first things I did when I established my new garden last year was to plant grape vines. It will still be a few years before the new vines produce enough fruit to make jelly, but that’s the reason they’re in my garden.

Grapes before jelly

Tomatoes are one of my favorite crops and I use them fresh in salsa, pasta sauces, and salads. The six to 12 tomato plants I put in my beds each year produce far more fruit than can be eaten fresh. The reason I plant so many is so that there will be plenty of juicy tomatoes to can. Canned tomatoes may not work well in a salad, but they’re perfect for salsa and sauce. Making a fresh salsa in January or February with tomatoes from my own garden is a special pleasure.

There are varieties of cucumber that are bred specifically for pickling and I grow them. They taste good when eaten fresh, but they taste better when pickled along with some of the dill in my herb garden. I also add some of the garlic and hot peppers that I grow, for a little extra zing in each crunchy bite. Homemade pickles are a wonderful thing.

There are other plants in my garden that I grow for the preservation option too. When I harvest the raspberries, it seems that few make it to the house; they’re too delectable to pass up. Those that make it to the kitchen are eaten by the handful, added to yogurt, or sprinkled on ice cream and other desserts, but in banner harvest years there are enough left over to freeze for future desserts or to make into raspberry jam. The same holds true for my blackberries and strawberries.

My fruit trees serve a dual purpose too. The apples, apricots, plums, and cherries are grown to enjoy fresh, but when they produce enough fruit they end up in the pickle or jam jar. Yes, I mentioned pickles when talking about fruit. Pickled apples, pear, and peaches are very tasty.

Making apricots into jam

Though garlic, onions, and potatoes are not technically preserved after harvest, they are grown for later use. You store them in a cool, dry place so that you can use them long after the snows begin to fall.

I also have to add herbs to this list. While I pick fresh herbs for use in the kitchen, I always harvest every last leaf before bitter cold hits. After drying the herbs, they’re available in the kitchen throughout the winter until fresh ones appear in the spring.

What do you grow that could or should be preserved? Everything I’ve mentioned is easily preserved. How about carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and zucchini? They can be pickled individually or together, especially at the end of the season when you have small amounts of each. I’ve also pickled jalapeno and banana peppers.

Try planting a variety of bean that can be dried and stored; I’m doing that this year. When you have leftover pumpkins after Halloween, cut and freeze the flesh for pumpkin pie, soup, or ice cream. When you have bushels of zucchini and no one left to unload them on, freeze them for making bread or stew. Think about planting similar squash plants specifically to freeze and use later.

Too much garden produce ends up unused. Too few gardeners preserve, donate, or compost their extra harvest. When you plant your first seed or potted plant with a specific use in mind, you’re helping to eliminate waste. I support planting a row for the hungry. I encourage you to compost everything that can be composted. Food preservation is another option that should be part of your planning.

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