Canning 101

Every summer growing up I would watch my mom put up several batches of fruit and jam from local produce. It was an exhausting process, but I don’t think we ever ate store-bought jam. Instead, we were able to enjoy delicious produce all year long because my mom knew how to can. As I entered my teenage years I started helping her more and developed a love (or obsession, depending who you ask) for canning myself.

Canning is a great skill to have, especially if you have access to produce (from neighbors or your own garden). It is not that hard to do and only requires a few pieces of equipment. I love it because we often get power-outages at our home due to wind, and while I worry about our frozen foods spoiling, I never have to worry about the jars of food I have preserved. I also love knowing exactly what is in my foods and being able to make healthy foods for my family with my home-grown produce.

All the colors of these canned goods will give us a rich and varied diet through the bleak winter months.

Canning comes in basically two flavors. There is regular water-bath canning, arguably the most common form, where jars are submerged in boiling water. There is pressure canning, where jars are placed in a pressurized vessel for a particular amount of pressure and time. (There is also freezer canning, but this does not produce jars that are shelf stable.)

Why choose one method over the other? It is not really a choice, it all depends on what you’re canning!

Fruits, fruit spreads, and pickled goods are suitable for water-bath canning. This method capitalizes on a few features for preserving the produce: acidity (generally in the form of vinegar or lemon juice) and heat. By heating the jars up to boiling temperature and adding an acid, enzymes and other microorganisms are killed. The heat creates a vacuum when the jars are removed from the bath and food is kept preserved for years.

Foods like vegetables in plain water (not pickled) and meats don’t have enough acid to be safely canned in a water-bath canner so they must be pressure canned to get to the appropriate temperature to make the foods safe. I am not as familiar with this method (despite my wonderful brother-in-law getting me a pressure canner as a wedding gift, but it’s something I’m going to look more into in the future. It’s important to have your pressure canner checked yearly to ensure the gauge is working correctly.

In water bath canning, the acidity of the food kills the microorganisms that can cause illness or spoilage, along with heat to remove oxygen and create a vacuum. For foods with low acidity, the temperature needed to kill these microorganisms CANNOT be achieved in a water bath canner, so a pressure canner must be used to make these foods safe. You can use a pressure canner to can both high and low acid foods, but water bath canning is exclusively for high acid foods.

It is critical when you’re canning for food preservation to follow the correct steps of a tested recipe. This is not the time or place to experiment. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a great free guide that goes into more detail here. I myself only follow recipes from cookbooks produced by companies such as Ball. These have been tested for safety and they have a lot of other good information in them including troubleshooting issues.

 

How We Canned Our Tomatoes

This is meant to be a general overview of canning, please follow an approved recipe when canning your own produce.

As you may have read in one of my other posts, we had a delightful bumper crop of tomatoes this year. I planted these with canning in mind (nothing beats homemade chili from homegrown tomatoes in the winter!), so I picked two varieties of Roma tomatoes. These are known for being good sauce tomatoes with their great flavor and lower water content compared to other regular tomatoes.

When enough tomatoes were ripe, I enlisted my husband to help start canning them. We canned halved tomatoes and some tomato sauce.

Before prepping the food, I like to get my water bath started. Check jars for chips, cracks, or scratches on the rim. These will, at best, not seal and your food will spoil, and at worst, break in your canner getting glass everywhere. Toss any jars with these flaws (or at least relegate them to a non-canning task. I had a beautiful bluish jar with a faint scratch on the rim that wouldn’t seal and now it’s storing oats for my rabbits.) With hot water and dish soap, clean enough jars for the amount of produce you’ll be preserving (recipes typically have an estimate for you, I always add one extra just in case). Rinse the soap off of the jars and put them in the canner with ~1 inch of water over their rims. Bring this to a gentle boil for at least 10 minutes before starting to can your produce.

Also set a sauce pot of water on low heat for your lids. You don’t need to include the rings, but I find putting the lids in the rings helps keep them separated. This water shouldn’t boil, but be hot enough to get the rubber seal around the edge of the lids soft. Buy new lids every time, don’t reuse lids. Rings are fine to reuse.

For any recipe, make sure your produce is clean and free of blemishes or rotten pieces. Always wash your produce thoroughly before canning!

I had two recipes for canned tomatoes to try, one with the tomatoes in their own juices and one with water. I found, at least with my Roma tomatoes, that canning them in their own juices doesn’t work that well. They don’t have much juice to begin with, so you have to push pretty hard on them to get any fluid accumulated. Ultimately they were packed too tightly and lost fluid during the canning process.

So for the rest of them we went for tomatoes in water.

Our recipe indicated that 2-3 pounds of tomatoes would fit in a quart jar, so we weighed out 5 lbs of tomatoes at a time hoping to get 2 quarts.  We washed our tomatoes then cored them. We set a small pot of water to simmer on the stove and when it was hot, dropped a number of tomatoes in. After no more than 40 seconds (or as soon as we saw the first skin starting to split) we removed all of the tomatoes from the boiling water and put them in a cool ice bath. This stopped their cooking and sped up how quickly we could handle them. With this process, the skins slip right off.

We did 25 pounds of tomatoes this way. Once skinned, halving the tomatoes, removing their seeds, and putting them in a big sauce pot.

My little helper is always there to catch anything I drop… (this photo is actually of our tomato sauce adventure where the skins are strained out after cooking.)

By the way, save all of these scraps if you have chickens or pigs, they’ll love you for it!

After all 25 pounds of tomatoes were done (limited by the number of quart jars that fit in the canner), I added just enough water to cover the tomatoes. I then heated them up, simmering for 20 minutes.

You can raw pack or hot pack a lot of fruits and vegetables. While hot packing (heating up the produce before putting it in the jars) is annoying and sticky, it does make the finished product look nicer. The fruit won’t float to the top as much as it does when it’s raw packed. Just a preference thing.

When the tomatoes are ready, pull the jars out, draining the water in each jar into the sink. If you leave all of the water in the canner, it will overflow when the full jars are put back in. Set the jars on a clean towel on the counter. Add two tablespoons lemon juice to each quart jar (you can add salt too, I usually forego it since I’ll be adding salt to whatever dish they’re going into). Then add your tomatoes. I try to separate as much fluid as I can initially, getting only tomatoes in the jars, then adding water from the tomato pot back to the jars to get them to the right level. We’re looking for 1/2 inch head space here.

When all the tomatoes are packed, take a moist paper towel and wipe the rims of each jar. Take your time here, because one little speck of tomato will prevent the whole jar from sealing and that sucks. When the rims are all spotless, use your magnet wand to grab a lid, placing this on the jar, then a ring. When tightening the ring, only make it finger tight, don’t try to put muscle into it to seal it. It needs a little room to breathe out air while in the canner.

When all the jars are lidded and ringed, place them back in the water canner. You should have enough water to cover the jars by at least one inch, but if you’re short you can add back the hot water from the sauce pot that was holding your lids. Process as described in your recipe, for us it was 45 minutes of a rolling boil (start counting from when the water boils again, not when the jars are added!). Be aware that processing times change with altitude, so make sure you take that into account!

When the time’s up, turn the heat to the canner off and let the canner sit without its lid for five minutes before removing the jars. Take the jars out, keeping them level, and place them on a towel on the counter with at least 2 inches of space between jars. You should start hearing the “pings” of jars sealing soon. Don’t mess with them! I know it’s so tempting… All jars should seal, the button on top should be sucked in and not move if you push on it with a finger, within two hours. If any hold out, put them in the fridge to eat soon or reprocess as described in your canning book.

After 12-24 hours, you can remove the rings. Grab the jars by the edge of the lid and lift the jar off the counter an inch or so. If the lid stays intact, the jar is sealed well and can be labeled and stored. If the lid comes off the jar was not sealed well and should be put in the fridge to be eaten. Growing up we always left the rings on the jars with no issues, but a good point was made to me recently that if you take the rings off you can spot spoilage quicker. It also prevents the really sticky fruits from seizing the rings to the jars, if you didn’t clean them up after canning… like you should’ve…

First batch of quarts, I have at least twice this on my shelves now with at least 10 more pounds of tomatoes waiting for me to get my act together.

I label my jars pretty simply, with the year they were processed and what is in the jar. I can tell tomatoes from applesauce without a label, but sometimes it’s nice to know which batch something came from or if there’s added salt in one.

I place all of my sealed jars a cool dark pantry where they will keep for over a year. But there’s always more to can next year, so I try to make sure we eat everything through the winter!

Ripening Green Tomatoes

Well, I finally had to admit it, summer is over. I was holding out hope that it would last forever this year, but the leaves are coming down almost as much as the rain, and here on the Oregon Coast we’ve got plenty of both.

I saw my first light frost and knew I had to start thinking about harvesting a number of my crops before they were lost to the weather. My chief concern was my tomatoes. I had planted 14 roma tomato plants with hopes of getting at least enough fruit to can to keep us fed with chili and spaghetti sauces through the winter. My crops last year failed and it was a miserable winter with no homegrown goods. Despite starting my seeds in February, the tomatoes were just starting to get ripe in October.

Not prepared to let frost ruin my whole harvest, I decided to harvest all of the tomatoes on October 10th and ripen them inside.

With the help of my husband, we got at least 100 lbs. of tomatoes picked!

There are so many tips online about how to ripen tomatoes, so I thought I’d try a few methods to see what worked the best. These are the results after two weeks

Hello my beauties!

All of the tips I found had a few things in common that seemed like good advice. Toss any tomatoes with damage to them, as this invites mold and speeds rotting. When putting the tomatoes away for storage and ripening make sure they are clean and dry (I may have kinda ignored this tip). The main ripening agent when tomatoes are off the vine is a gas called ethylene. Ripe fruit including tomatoes and bananas produce this gas, so putting a ripe fruit in with your green tomatoes will promote ripening.

One method I tried was to put the green tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe tomato. I only did one layer of tomatoes in the bag and picked the ones that looked somewhat closer to being ripe. This method worked well. It seemed like the fruit ripened most uniformly of all the methods. After two weeks most of the fruit had at least some color.

Another traditional method for ripening tomatoes is to put them on the window sill. I only did a few tomatoes this way, all were very green. I’m not impressed with this method, the fruit ripened somewhat, but they seemed superficially ripe, if that makes any sense. They weren’t the lovely deep red that tomatoes should be and seemed to be a bit grainy. It could be because the fruit was so green to start with.

Finally I used shallow boxes covered in plastic (they were originally ramen boxes, don’t judge). I put a couple riper tomatoes in each box and kept the plastic over the fruit. The plastic was the original packaging so there was a hole in it from where we retrieved the ramen. After two weeks this method seemed to produce the most ripe fruit. I think this may have been because the fruit were in a greenhouse-like container that kept the ethylene gas more concentrated.

Then I got lazy and just kept the rest of the fruit in the boxes we picked them in. One box was plastic with a bunch of holes like a milk crate. One was a cardboard box. The third was cardboard but between each single layer of fruit I put a layer of newspaper. I didn’t dry them or clean them off. Of all of these boxes, after two weeks I pulled out only four green tomatoes that were starting to mold. Honestly, these boxes had about the same amount of ripening going on and there was no more effort on my part than putting them in the boxes straight off the plants.

The green tomatoes after bringing them in from harvest
After two weeks, we are seeing a bit more reds and pinks

 

 

 

 

 

Today I rearranged all the tomatoes, removing any with damage that I didn’t notice before and any that were starting to rot.

This guy had to go.

I put the various levels of ripeness together so I can easily access the ones that need to get used up first and hopefully slow down the really green ones from catching up as I have at least a day of canning ahead of me already!

Overall, my impressions are that as long as the tomatoes are undamaged and they’re kept dry and at about room temperature, they will ripen on their own accord. The ones that were left with a ripe tomato did seem to progress faster. I would recommend keeping the tomatoes in one layer as it makes it a lot easier to see if any are going bad or if they’re ready to be used. If you’re like me and over-planted though, it might not be feasible, so I wouldn’t worry too much if your tomatoes go in a box together. I wouldn’t go longer than 2 weeks before checking them for mold though.

There are other types of produce that will ripen off the vine too, although nothing compares to the flavor you get when the ripen in the garden, including peppers and pumpkins. Get those guys inside before the frost gets them!

Garden Pests: The Tomato Cutworm

I have grown gardens in four different locations in Oregon, each over 50 miles from the others. Our home in Seaside is my fifth location.

I was pretty confident in my gardening prowess until one morning I came out to gaze upon my newly transplanted tomato starts and five of them had no leaves.

A brief Internet search concluded that my garden had been ravaged by early tomato cutworms. These malicious little beasties that come out at night to literally cut your tomato starts to the ground. If you go out at night you can catch them in the act, they look like pudgy caterpillars usually in pale green or shades of brown. There are also cutworms that target the plants after they have started bearing fruit, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Hopefully we won’t get to it.

The sadistic little worms left just one leaf on this plant.

Now, I’m not one to use pesticides haphazardly, but these creatures posed a threat I could not overlook. The year prior had yielded a sub-par tomato harvest and spending the winter buying store tomatoes instead of using homegrown, home canned goods, nearly killed me. However, it seemed there was a few alternatives I could try before I went to chemical warfare.

The first line of defense: tomato collars. This is basically just putting up some barrier around the tomato starts that the cutworms won’t crawl over. Different sources advise using cardboard, foil, tin cans, aluminum cans, or even plastic. I immediately set to work cutting out cardboard collars for my remaining plants, thanking the heavens I started more plants than I really wanted.

The most simple one I saw was cutting a section of cardboard in a square or circle. I cut squares approximately 5-6 inches long on each side. Then cutting a straight line halfway into the shape, you cut a small circle, just bigger than the plant’s stem. This can be opened and slid around each start.

A great use for junk mail to boot.

Another method was using cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet paper. Cut sections of the tube just short enough to be below the lowest set of leaves. Then cut straight down the tube. This can be opened and placed around the stem of each plant, pushing the tube into the dirt to secure it closed.

I also cut the ends off a pop can and put this around one plant that had already been chewed on a bit. It was just a test really, I thought this plant wouldn’t come back from the damage it had undergone (spoiler: it came back with two tops but is filling out nicely and has blossoms!).

The plant was mutilated prior to placing the collar, however no more damage has occurred since then.

It’s been about a month since I placed the collars, and so far they have been working. I try to check them every day to make sure they stay intact. One collar came off a plant recently that’s about 8-10 inches tall and it has not been attacked, perhaps it’s past the most fragile stage?

My favorite of the few types I tried are the flat cardboard pieces, they are the most secure and easiest to make. They do make it harder to water the plants, but they keep the weeds down and keep the ground moist longer than if the plants had nothing. If I were to use the cardboard tubes again I would want to figure out a way to keep them closed better as when they get wet they tend to want to unfurl, leaving the precious plants unguarded. The pop can is definitely the most sturdy, but the edges are rather sharp and could hurt the plant if it rubs up against them; it was also took the longest to make (and made me cringe while I used scissors to cut the can).

Because the collars worked so well, I did not have to proceed to other methods. Some alternatives that I didn’t try but have heard work well include sprinkling corn meal around the plants, as apparently this is toxic to the worms and they will eat it before getting to your plants. Placing Popsicle sticks on either side of the stems, which is the same idea as the collars but they also can support the plants a bit more. I have also seen beneficial predatory nematodes (microscopic worms) for sale that will do the dirty work for you, attacking soft bodied garden pests and protecting your plants.

I have found a worm or two, and it is immensely satisfying to toss them into the chickens’ run and see the girls run around with their tasty little treasures.

The Dirt on Potato Towers

Potato Tower.jpeg

This is the chronicle of my trial with potato towers this year. I am by no means an expert, and there were many things I know I could improve on, so this will hopefully get you started in the right direction for success!

I saw this idea come across Pinterest and was very interested in it. When I was a child, my parents once planted purple potatoes in our small family garden. Without fail, year after year, we would find several “volunteer” plants that came up from potatoes we missed harvesting. It wasn’t necessarily a bad problem to have, but somewhat irritating nonetheless.

I decided to attempt the potato tower to help ease this issue in my garden. Growing potatoes in a specially set aside column of soil would prevent errant potatoes from colonizing. I also like that you can specially designate the soil for the potatoes so it doesn’t strip your other garden soil of nutrients in a particular area. Then you can sprinkle the used soil throughout the garden or keep it saved and just amend it again next year.

Materials
Poultry netting (smaller holes are better!)
Gloves
Wire cutters
Straw
Soil
Seed potatoes
First, I built the towers out of poultry netting. Cut a strip of netting as big as you want your tower to be. I found mine were a little too big, the potatoes didn’t seem set tubers too far from the edge of the tower, so there was a bit of wasted space. Take the ends of the wire and twist them together to make a secure attachment and turn the netting into a tube.

I included a bottom on my towers as the vole situation in my area is a little outrageous and I knew they would go for the helpless tasty tubers. I wasn’t sure if they would squeeze through the holes, but tried it anyway and didn’t see any evidence of critters.

I recommend a sharp pair of wire cutters and some poke-resistant gloves to help prevent scratches as the netting has a strong tendency to roll up on you.

img_0209

The soil in the garden I was using is a very heavy clay, which is great for nutrients but horrible for giving potatoes room to grow and breathe. I combined a few different types of soil and amendments, including potting soil and steer manure, to make a nutrient rich soil with good drainage. Most of the bags I used were left over from other projects. I mixed them all in a large wheelbarrow with about 1/3 of the mix being the native clay soil.

img_0242
And yes, the folks at the feed store get a good chuckle loading my farm rig. It’s always covered in hay and straw.

Take your time when deciding where to put your potato tower, try to give it as much sun as possible from the most angles possible because the potatoes will be spread around the tower.

img_0219

When you’ve decided where to put your tower, it’s time to start assembling! Take your straw and put about a loosely packed 2 inch border around the inside edge. Try to use the least amount of straw possible, but enough to keep the soil from falling out of the wire. We want the sun the be able to reach the potatoes!

img_0245

Cut the seed potatoes to include at least two eyes per piece. I did this a day or two before planting, as many sources recommend. Place the pieces around the potato tower, then cover with about 6 inches of soil and place another layer. I alternated placement so no potato had another one right above it on the next layer. On the top layer of potatoes, put a nice piece in the middle of the tower. Cover the top with about 3-4 inches of soil.

img_0246

Water the tower well, be sure to get all of the sides where the potatoes have been placed. As the potatoes grow, heap more soil on top to encourage more tubers to grow on the top plants. Keep the tower damp, but not overly wet.

img_0249

Now the waiting begins! I checked the towers a little compulsively for the first few weeks looking for any sign of growth. They did finally poke through some places along the tower edge!

img_0374

And everything in my garden turned into a jungle this year. With moving to our new house my garden suffered severe neglect, but the potatoes didn’t seem to mind that much.

img_0435

Harvest when the plants die back. I harvested by tipping the towers on their sides and rummaging through the soil to expose the potatoes. When it got harder to move the soil, I pushed on the tower with my foot to loosen it. You can also get the bottom potatoes from the bottom of the tower by removing the piece of netting there, mine just fell off so it was easy.

Overall, I was pretty happy with my towers. I hardly looked at mine once they started growing. They got watered maybe three times by me, then only by the mercy of Mother Nature. Unless they get more attention, I wouldn’t recommend Russets for towers. Mine didn’t get as big as I would’ve liked, but hey they could work for you! The red potatoes were plenty usable, so with a little more TLC from me next year it could work even better!

img_0606

So all in all, were the potato towers more efficient that growing straight in the ground? Maybe. The voles didn’t get to them so I didn’t have any loss. For how many cubic feet of soil I used, the potato yield was probably pretty average or maybe on the low end, but my input as far as care went was bare bones.

Would I try them again? Yes! They had decent yields, so I am happy on that front. I really liked being able to just tip the towers over to harvest versus digging and accidentally slicing through the tubers. I also liked being able to water one tower opposed to a long row. Next year, with more care, I should be able to get the towers perfected!

2016 Seed Starting

Less than eight weeks to our last frost- let the wild rumpus start!

Growing up, we always bought starts of my favorite garden vegetables from nurseries. I have found that starting seeds is not nearly as hard as you might think, and it’s very rewarding.

First off, some important lingo. Your last average frost date is the keystone of timing for your garden. Ours is May 10th. The first thing I do around February is mark out eight, six, and four weeks prior to the last frost date. These are the normal intervals that seed packets instruct you to start seeds at.

Eight weeks to our last frost was March 15th
Eight weeks to our last frost was March 15th

That being said, some plants hate being transplanted and aren’t well suited to being started indoors. Some of these plants include cucumbers, beans, and cilantro.

Other veggies, like carrots, kale, snow peas, and beets can be planted well before your last frost date, so what’s the point in taking up space to start them?

I missed my eight week mark and just started my peppers and tomatoes with six weeks until our last frost date. This year I’m planning to go big or go home on canning. I’ve used up pretty much all of the tomatoes and salsa that I canned last summer, so I definitely need to expand. My staples for these recipes are jalapeños and roma tomatoes so I tripled the number of seeds I’m starting for those varieties.

I’m also starting sungold tomatoes (from seeds I saved last year), yellow pear tomatoes, grape tomatoes, ground cherries (aka husk tomatoes), gatherer’s gold peppers, italian sweet peppers, red belt peppers, three types of eggplants (Nadia, Beatrice, and Bianca Rosa), and just for laughs- pansies.

My peppers and tomatoes
My peppers and tomatoes

In addition to my plastic flat, I’m starting more romas, jalapeños, and red belt peppers in biodegradable pots to see if that helps. With this method, you don’t disturb the roots when you plant, as the roots can grow through it. I think the disturbance of the roots was a big contributor to why my peppers did so poorly last year. I set these little pots in a disposable aluminum cake pan that had a plastic lid, and it works perfectly.

When I first started to grow my own vegetable plants from seeds, I had no lamp and no heat pad. It is doable! But it is much easier to invest a few bucks on equipment, it makes things much easier. I ask for these kinds of things for my birthday and holidays. I have a big grow light on a timer, that is on for 12 hours a day, and a little heat pad that fits right under a standard seed-starting flat (tomatoes and peppers like being warm!). You should try not to put the heat pad on carpet. I have no alternatives and have done extensive testing with my model. I also use regular potting soil to start my seeds in, and I have never really had any problems with it.

Getting read to sow!
Getting read to sow on my tiny apartment patio!

Another trick if you’re starting a number of varieties is my method for labeling who’s who. You can buy the white plant labels for around $3 from most stores with a garden department. I always cut up a plastic yogurt carton, or this year a large, plastic fast-food drink cup. It’s so cheap and the results are the same!

Large plastic cup prepared to do work
Large plastic cup prepared to do work
Cut it into a single flat sheet, then into strips
Cut it into a single flat sheet, then into strips
Label plastic markers with simple and easy to recognize names
Label plastic markers with simple and easy to recognize names, make sure they fit under your start tray’s lid!

When you’re planting your seeds, make sure to follow the seed packet instructions! The people who grew the seeds know what they like, and following their instructions will help your chances of having a good germination rate. Near all of my peppers and tomatoes like being planted at 1/4 of an inch deep. I usually fill each cell up about 3/4 of the way and water that soil. Then, I plop my seeds in, label which group is what variety, and sprinkle 1/4 inch of soil on top of them. Heavy watering at this point can dislodge your seeds and make them float to the top, so I usually get a fine mister and wet the top of the soil.

Ground cherry seeds, so tiny!
Ground cherry seeds
Roma tomato seeds
Roma tomato seeds
Jalapeño pepper seeds
Jalapeño pepper seeds

 

 

 

When the soil starts drying out I add water to the bottom of the flat instead of watering from the top. Also I keep the clear plastic lid on the flat until most of the seedlings have gotten a couple “true leaves”, mostly because my cat is a seedling murderer and will lay on them.

My set-up
My set-up

I also keep a Garden Diary where I keep track of when I started seeds and planted vegetables. Mine goes back through about four years now, starting with my experiences in my backyard in Corvallis.

Don’t be daunted by starting your own seeds! The value is amazing and it is easier than you think. I’m still learning too!