The average garden produces about $1.00 of food per square foot of production on an annual basis. If you happen to be growing fruit trees or berries, that number will be a bit higher. At that level of production, it is pretty easy to grow more than you can possibly eat right out of the garden. If you have a neighbor in need, this excess can quickly be put to good use. If you manage to feed your neighbor and still find yourself with excess, you are going to need to learn a bit about food preservation.
In the old days, food preservation meant canning your food in glass canning jars. Today, there are a range of options including canning, drying, and freezing. In our home, we utilize all three.
The first thing you need to know about food preservation is that you can't learn everything you'll want to know in one blog. There are hundreds of great books and websites out there that list specific safety guidelines for individual food products. For an overall resource on food preservation I'd recommend the University of Wisconsin Extension's guide to food preservation and food safety. It includes free downloadable guides on freezing, drying, and canning just about anything you could imagine. Another great commercial resource is the Ball Canning Website. It includes everything you might ever want to know about canning including tons of recipes. They are also willing and ready to sell you canning supplies.
The second thing you need to know about canning is that not all food preservation techniques are equal. Freezing is MUCH faster than anything else. In terms of energy use, the jury is still out on whether a good chest freezer uses more energy than that required to heat the canning equipment. So, if you are thinking carbon footprint, I'm not sure anyone has a clear answer on which is best. We have a very large chest freezer in our garage that we bought used. We store some of our food in the freezer, especially products that we will be dropping into soups. Our freezer contains snap beans, shredded squash, freezer pickles, berries, pies, peas, spinach, kale, breads, and pre-made soups. It uses far less energy than our refrigerator.
The third thing you need to know about food preservation is that there are two distinctly different forms of canning. The first, involves filling glass jars with the food of your choice and then immersing them into a giant pot of boiling water to force unwanted air from the jars. This form of canning involves the use of a "water bath canner". I frequently see these canners (really nothing more than a very large pot) on sale at thrift stores for a few dollars. In addition to the canner you will be using canning jars, lids for your jars, and metal rings to hold those lids on. You might also wish to use a funnel and a jar lifter. I picked up all of the equipment to get started about ten years ago for about $20.00 used (including around 100 jars). The second form of canning involves the use of a pressure canner. Pressure canners are a bit more expensive and utilize high pressure to raise the temperature within the chamber. Typically you can use a water bath canner for anything with a high acid content. So, you can use a water bath canner for things like fruit (including tomatoes) and anything pickled in vinegar. You'll need a pressure canner for anything else. (Though we do own a pressure canner, we typically freeze anything we can't can with a water bath canner).
The fourth thing you need to know about food preservation is that you lose value in your fresh produce when you store it. A sweet pepper out of your garden contains far more vitamin C than a pepper that has been sitting on your counter for six hours or a pepper that has been pickled and canned. Freezing typically preserves these nutrients better, but isn't perfect either. So, grow fresh produce just as long as you can. If you can stagger your plantings then you will have fresh produce much longer. This year we put in 6 plantings of snap beans. Each planting was only around 12 feet in length. We've had green beans as a main course at least once per week since late June and have three gallons of snap beans in our chest freezer. We'd have much more but our neighbors like beans.
The fifth thing you should know about food preservation is that it is really easy and really wonderful. I simply cannot explain in words how wonderful it is to be able to eat from food I grew myself all year long. Though these benefits extend well beyond the simple financial savings, it shouldn't be forgotten. The average garden saves the gardener around $.90 per square foot. If you happen to have a large garden, a few fruit trees, or some berries, you can expect to save thousands of dollars each year. In a research study I conducted on home gardeners, I met one gardener who produced nearly $10,000 worth of food on her suburban garden plot.
So, what are you waiting for? Those seed catalogs will start showing up in the mail in about a month or two. Start planning for next year right now. Make it a family affair. In our house, our kids help in some way at just about every step including in seed selection. If you can't figure out how to get your kids to eat their veggies...try having them grow their own. It works!
Vincent M. Smith - PhD