Year-round vegetable gardening is not practical in my four-season climate, but my alternative goal – to eat something from the garden every day of the year – is much more doable. This is the focus of my new book, Homegrown Pantry, which melds organic gardening with food preservation, always with an eye toward good eating.
Even with decades of experience, writing a book to instruct the complex role of gardener-food preserver-cook pushed me into countless new growing-storing-eating experiments, often with stellar results. Dehydrated sticks of sweetened rhubarb taste like sweet-and-sour candies, and now that I’ve tried them, snap peas may be my favorite fermented vegetable.
There is always more to learn, but a few simple guidelines can help you stock your pantry and freezer with homegrown produce, starting with this one: Emphasize crops that are easy to store. The vegetables below will keep for months in a cool, dry place, and food preservation does not get simpler than this.
- Dry beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Winter squash
How much to grow?
New gardeners worry about not growing enough, but growing too much carries its own set of risks. You can waste a lot of time growing and preserving things that will never get eaten, or end the season with a lot of only a few foods.
Case in point: A few years ago, my neighbor Joe and his new girlfriend celebrated their romance by planting a garden. They put out forty tomato and pepper plants with the plan of making salsa, but the relationship didn’t last the summer, and I think the garden was partially to blame. A dozen tomato plans would have been plenty, and salsa can carry only so many meals, plus the garden was not offering up spring greens, strawberries, or other fun crops. From the beginning, that garden was an all-work, no-play proposition.
Visitors to my garden often remark on my small yet concentrated plantings, for example ten kohlrabi plants here or a short triple row of bush beans there. But I think that small plantings are especially beautiful with vegetables that are being grown for freezing or pickling. In addition to taking only a little time to put by, you end up with a wonderful selection of foods to enjoy during the winter months from small batches that were frozen or pickled in summer.
Handling super-productive crops
With very productive garden crops like zucchini, it is best to use a variety of food preservation methods. For example, I use zucchini instead of cucumbers to make sweet relish, dried squash slices are great for adding to winter soups, and grated zucchini stored in the freezer comes in handy for baking.
Finding storage methods that work for you as a cook does require some trial and error, but you may be surprised at some of the special put-by foods available only to gardeners. The outer leaves from cabbage can be blanched and frozen flat, for later use making cabbage rolls. Purple basil makes a stunning herb vinegar, and you can chop extra herbs into packets of frozen vegetables to boost their flavor.
The growing popularity of fermentation adds to the rewards of food gardening, because there are so many possibilities to try. I’ve been making sauerkraut and other veggie ferments for several seasons, and last fall I participated in a tasting of fermented foods grown by local gardeners. Now I can’t wait to try fermenting thinly sliced onions, which were much more digestible compared to raw onions, but still retained their crisp texture.
Shop your own store first
After a lifetime of getting food from stores, I often must remind myself to shop my own store first. Before I decide what to cook in coming days and go shopping for supplies, I check my stored foods and plan around what I have on hand. The goal is to have an empty freezer and pantry by early summer, when the new crops start coming in.
If there is a down side to running a homegrown pantry, it is that time and work are required. But this is one of the best health benefits of gardening! For example, by the time I have planted, weeded, mulched, harvested and stored my potatoes, I have spent many hours out in the fresh air moving about. In this way, the potatoes started making me healthier the day I planted them. I think of this as the most special reward for growing vegetables, herbs and fruits to be enjoyed in every season.