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I first tried using bird seed on slippery ice last winter, and immediately gained favor with a squirrel.

There’s not much happening in my home kitchen garden. Thankfully, it’s covered with snow. There’s not a lot of snow, but even a little is helpful because it provides insulation that promotes decay in the six-inch layer of leaves underneath.

The snow came with biting cold, but sunny days have caused melting and refreezing… and for some reason that happened on our front walkway. In other words: there’s ice on the pavement where people are supposed to walk.

Green Ice Remediation

It’s tempting to toss hands full of rock salt on the icy walkway, but there’s a planting bed on one side and lawn on the other. It’d be fine with me to lose the lawn, but I still want to be able to grow plants there in place of the grass. So… I’d rather not use rock salt on the ice.

The front walk was icy yesterday, so I sprinkled it with bird seed. After the ice melted today, a cardinal and several junkos came to clean things up.

Last season, I came up with an environmentally-friendly alternative: bird seed. No, bird seed doesn’t chemically alter ice so that it melts at lower temperatures, but it still remediates icy walkways. Here’s how:

An even sprinkling of bird seed over ice provides instant traction. Your shoes push the hard grains into the ice and many stick, preventing your shoes from sliding. When there’s even a little sunshine, seeds absorb heat and ice beneath them melts faster than surrounding ice. A few hours of sunshine can riddle seed-covered ice with holes and make it easy to break up with a shovel.

New Friends

When I first tried bird seed as an ice countermeasure, I discovered a fun benefit I should have anticipated: the seed attracts birds and other animals. If you maintain bird feeders anyway, tossing a little seed on an icy walkway isn’t going to change you lifestyle a whole lot. If you don’t already feed birds, you might get a kick out of the wildlife you attract when you treat your icy walkways with bird seed.

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canned neck pumpkin from a Home Kitchen Garden

Having been processed in a pressure canner, this neck pumpkin could remain edible for two years, though experts recommend that you use canned vegetables in six to twelve months after processing.

Zone five denizens probably have rather barren home kitchen garden plots at this point; repeated frost and occasional deeper freezes have shut down all but the hardiest plants. This shouldn’t discourage a kitchen gardener. Fruits of winter squash still abound in local markets. If you can find them in good condition, they may last for months without special treatment; I’ve kept butternut squash on my dining room floor well into spring.

However, there are many easy ways to preserve winter squash so it lasts until next year’s harvest. Perhaps the most complicated of all preservation methods is canning… but canning really isn’t hard to do if you have the right equipment.

Pressure Canning not Optional

You can preserve high-acid and high-sugar foods such as fruits, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves in a boiling water bath canner. To can low-acid foods such as vegetables and meats, you must use a pressure canner. Some microorganisms simply won’t die at the temperature of boiling water. However, when you increase the pressure in the cooking environment, you also increase the temperature. Generally, the increased heat is enough to kill every microorganism so low-acid foods can survive for a year or more without refrigeration.

Before you blanch the squash, wash your canning jars, fill them with very hot water, and keep them hot. I fill my jars with hot water and set them in my canner. Then I add the prescribed 3 quarts of water to the canner, and set it on the stove on medium heat so it warms slowly. If the water starts to boil, I turn off the burner… the heat will hold. I also rinse the lids and bands and set them in a pot of water on very low heat.

To do the blanching, first pare and cube the winter squash or pumpkin (the steps I followed are on Your Small Kitchen Garden blog). Blanching is simple. First, fill a very large pot with water and get it boiling. If you’re freezing the squash, you need a correspondingly large pot of very cold water. Because you’re canning, the cold water isn’t necessary.

Put all the squash in the boiling water and wait for the water to start boiling again. Let the squash boil for three minutes, and then ladle it out with a strainer, setting it in a bowl or pot to hold it until you pack it into jars. Keep the hot water in which you blanched the squash; you’ll use it in the canning jars. (If you’re freezing the squash, plunge it into cold water when you remove it from the boiling water… you need to cool it down quickly so it doesn’t get mushy.)

Squash is a low-acid food. Unless you want to pickle it before canning, you must use a pressure canner to make it safe for long-term storage (alternatively, you can freeze squash or dry it… but we’ll talk about those preservation methods in later posts).

Canned Neck Pumpkin

Neck pumpkin is a magnificent squash that’s common in central Pennsylvania. I wrote about neck pumpkin in Your Home Kitchen Garden at the end of October, and I wrote more about it in my other blog under the topic of Exploring Neck Pumpkin at Your Small Kitchen Garden. There, I explained one method of preparing winter squash for cooking—and, perhaps, the most reliable way to prepare it for blanching and canning.

To fill the canning jars, lift one at a time from the canning pot, pour the water out (save the water for other things such as watering plants or flushing toilets), and set the jar on a clean work surface. Use a measuring cup with a handle to scoop cubes of blanched squash from the holding bowl and dump them into the jar.

When the jar is nearly full, lift it and shake it up and down so the squash cubes settle in and fill spaces. Then add squash, shake the jar, and add squash until there is an inch of space between the top of the squash and the rim of the jar. At this point, fill the jar with boiling water left from blanching.

Use a chopstick or other non-metalic probe to release air bubbles trapped by the squash and top up the boiling water to cover the squash… still leave an inch between the water and the rim of the jar. Finally, wipe the rim and threads of the jar to remove any squash particles you might have gotten on them.

The photos in this post show the steps I took to can my neck pumpkin. I ended up canning all but a pint it. Of that pint, I cooked a small amount to taste, and used the rest to make pumpkin bread.

My neck pumpkin had the same consistency as butternut squash. The flesh was lighter in color and tasted sweeter than butternut. Also, my neck pumpkin’s flavor wasn’t as “squashy” as butternut… it was a little bland. Still, there’s room for slightly bland squash in my larder; most pumpkin breads and cakes have enough seasoning to make up for blandness in the pumpkin itself… I imagine my family will eat a lot of pumpkin bread and cake in the next year.

Place a heated lid on the jar, then screw a band onto it. Don’t pull a muscle tightening the band, but don’t be gentle either. When the band is tight, place the jar back into the canning pot. Repeat this procedure until all the jars are full or until you run out of squash.

Read the instructions for your pressure canner and follow them. For mine, I lock the lid on and bring the water to boil. When steam is coming out of the vent pipe (to the left of the pressure gauge), I let it cook for ten minutes. Then I set the pressure regulator on the vent pipe (right). I monitor the pressure gauge until it registers 11 pounds of pressure, then I adjust the heat of the stove to keep the pressure at 11 pounds. Once the pressure is up, I turn the heat down surprisingly low to maintain it… with a stove knob that runs from 0 (off) to 9 (hottest), a setting of about 2.5 is enough to maintain 11 pounds of pressure in the canner.

For squash, the pressure must remain at or above 11 pounds for 90 minutes. If, at any point in that 90 minutes the pressure drops below 11 pounds, you need to get it back to 11 pounds and start timing from zero.

After 90 minutes, remove the canner from the heat and leave it alone until the pressure drops to zero; this could take ten or more minutes. My canning pot has a “vent lock” to tell whether it’s under pressure. When there is pressure, a metal disk rises above the lid (right). Once that disk drops back in place (left), it’s time to open the canner’s lid. With any canner, do this cautiously. I wear oven mitts, stand back from the canner, and keep the lid between me and the steam.

Set the lid aside, and lift the jars from the canning pot. Set them on a cooling rack or on a towel on the counter. Let them sit for a day so they cool and seal. As they cool, the lids will pop with a “ping.” After the jars cool, examine the lids to confirm that they form concave surfaces—they should bulge down into the jars. If you remove the band, you should be able to lift the jar by the lid. If a lid hasn’t sealed, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within three days.

 

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Your Home Kitchen Garden announces winners in our first ever promotional giveaway. Each of three winners will receive a carton having 24 individual packets of yummy freeze-dried fruit snacks.

The random number generator selected the following winners:

@igaia whose tweet about the giveaway qualified her winning entry.

@joan_w who received one entry in the drawing by tweeting about the giveaway.

@4bratz2luv whose link to the contest announcement from her blog earned two entries… and one of those entries won.

Thanks to all who participated in the giveaway!

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home kitchen garden winter squash

I photographed my neck pumpkin next to 2/3 of the butternut squash that grew this year in my home kitchen garden (we’ve consumed a third of the butternut squash). The neck pumpkin in this photo weighs 20 pounds. The combined weight of the butternut squash in the photo is 22 pounds.

I love to grow butternut squash in my home kitchen garden. Winter squash has a rich, sweet flavor, and it’s filling. What’s more, a typical single fruit can easily feed a family of four… maybe even for two meals.

Since moving to rural Pennsylvania 14 years ago, I’ve eyed these butternut squash-like fruits that are omnipresent at farmers’ markets, farm stands, and road-side kiosks. These fruits look like butternut squash that took steroids that had taken steroids. While the fruits have fascinated me, I’ve dismissed them as impractical because of their sizes. How could I possibly use a squash of that size before it started to rot?

Neck Pumpkin Fascination

During a Twitter exchange the other night, I shared that I’d heard neck pumpkins are great for pumpkin pie. My Twitter friends weren’t familiar with neck pumpkins, and I realized that I had little to offer… so I did some research.

Neck pumpkins, it seems, are kind of a central Pennsylvania phenomenon. In fact, Cornell University’s web site acknowledges that some people call neck pumpkins Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck Squash. I’ve photographed neck pumpkins in local gardens, and there’s clearly no trick to growing these squash goliaths: they grow as readily as butternut squash. I imagine they haven’t taken the world by storm mostly because of the crazy size of their fruits.

In any case, after researching neck pumpkins, I decided it’s time I get some first-hand experience with one of these bad boys.

The Neck Pumpkin Wow-Factor

At the farmers’ market, there were many piles of neck pumpkins from which to choose. Vendors were asking about $2.25 for the small ones, and up to $3.75 for the large ones. Actually, one vendor had neck pumpkins marked at 79 cents a pound which is a crazy price to ask when shoppers can get a 15 pound pumpkin for $2.25 from the vendor directly across the walkway.

To help put the neck pumpkin’s size in perspective: that’s me holding the pumpkin. I’m 6’1” tall. Another point of comparison: our local grocery store is advertising a sale price for winter squash of 79 cents per pound. I’d have paid $15.80 at the grocery store sale price. Their normal price is $1.49 per pound, making this $29 worth of winter squash. I paid $3.50 at the farmers’ market.

I chose a large neck pumpkin, but not an extraordinary one. On my way to the car, I stopped to buy apples and pears from a different vendor. The man who served me commented, “Making pie?” That seems to be the main purpose of neck pumpkins: to become pumpkin pie. Many times in the past month I’ve heard people comment about what great pies you can make using neck pumpkins.

So, I’m going to make pies. I estimate that I can make 12 to 16 pies from my neck pumpkin. No, I won’t make them all at once. Rather, I’ll make a few pies… and a pumpkin cheese cake. I might even serve neck pumpkin as a side dish for dinner once or twice. Maybe I’ll make a pot of pumpkin soup. Oh, and I’ve been hankering to make pumpkin ravioli.

With the ten pounds of neck pumpkin meat that remains after all that cooking, I’ll finally try out my pressure canner. It’ll be nice to have a few dozen jars of canned pumpkin so I’ll be able to make more pumpkin pies, pumpkin cake, pumpkin fritters, and a dozen loaves of pumpkin bread.

Oh, and I’m saving the seeds. Next year I’m growing neck pumpkins in my home kitchen garden.

I found a few other posts about neck pumpkins that you might find interesting. Please enjoy them:

  • Cooking Soup in a Pumpkin – Buy a neck pumpkin or two. My initial mistake was trying to use a jack-o-lantern type pumpkin (so much wasted effort!). I think we get about 4 c. of puree from one neck pumpkin. 2. Peel the neck pumpkins. Cut them into thick 1-2″ slices …

  • “Mistaken Identity” « Daily Encouragement – I prefer neck pumpkin because it is less watery than other more common types, has fewer seeds and very little stringy pulp. It is solid pumpkin until the very bottom (see photo below) so you really get your money’s worth. …

  • Brown Long Neck – Another heirloom: the Brown Long Neck pumpkin. This crook-neck pumpkin makes an excellent pumpkin bread or pie. The Brown Long Neck is the pumpkin used by our regional Amish for their markets’ baked goods. …

 

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Tomato Flower in a Home Kitchen Garden

If you’ve read my blog this season, you may be shaking your head and thinking, “Please, not another tomato flower.” This one is amusing to me because it’s on a tomato plant in my deck-rail basil planter. I filled the planter this summer with a mixture of compost and soil from the garden bed. Somewhere in the mix, there was a tomato seed left over from last season, and it decided to sprout. It put out its first flowers in time for September’s Bloom Day… far too late to produce meaningful tomatoes.

It seems only a month ago that it was August 15th in my Home Kitchen Garden. That’s significant because the 15th of each month is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. The tradition, started by Carol at May Dreams Gardens is for garden bloggers everywhere to photograph and write posts about what’s blooming in their own gardens.

I don’t deliberately grow flowers, but they’re a necessary step in the growing of vegetables and fruits. I like the flowers because they represent food I’ll be eating three to six weeks from blossom time… that is, assuming the plants in bloom don’t freeze to death before they produce fruit or vegetables.

Unfortunately, the growing season here is trending toward conclusion. I imagine we’ll see frost before the next Bloom Day so I’m trying to enjoy the flowers for flowers’ sake. But I feel a tad melancholy knowing that most of the flowers in my home kitchen garden have come too late to add to my larder.

Pepper Flower in a Home Kitchen Garden

Also on my deck, the pepper plants have completed one fruiting cycle and have started a second. The first time around, my pot-bound pepper plants produced plenty of pleasing but piccolo piquant peppers. If peppers from this second round of flowers look good enough, I might move the planters indoors when frost threatens.

 

Butterfly & Rosemary in a Home Kitchen Garden

Sheltered from prevailing winds by our house, a small rosemary plant has survived two winters. Its delicate purple flowers had lured critters besides me to get close.

 

I liked the idea of capturing some bean flowers alongside a developing bean… didn’t really like any of the photos, but I still like the idea. The upside is that I discovered the climbing bean plants entwined with the kids’ play set had developed another crop of beans since last I’d looked; we had very fresh green beans with dinner today.

 

Oregano in a Home Kitchen Garden

Yes, the oregano is still in bloom; it has been in bloom since mid July, but it looks as though the blossoms are about done. I’m guessing there are a lot of seeds tucked away in the petalled stalks holding the flowers.

 

A Home Kitchen Garden Squash Flower

A few branches of my winter squash vines have grown through the garden fence and they’re still putting out flowers. I haven’t found female flowers in a few weeks, so I don’t anticipate more squash fruits to develop. However, this male flower is cleverly trying to conceal a ripening squash that has remained safely inside the fence.

 

Broccoli Flowers in a Home Kitchen Garden

The bees were abuzz on the broccoli flowers this morning. No, I don’t grow broccoli flowers… I grow broccoli buds, and we eat them. However, like so many kitchen gardeners, I eventually tire of keeping up with the broccoli. After harvesting the central bud cluster, I revisit the plants for many weeks, cutting off the side shoots and feeding them to my family. At some point, I overlook those side shoots and some of them flower. Then, judging the “ready” clusters from the “too old” clusters becomes a chore rather than a task… and soon I’m growing broccoli flowers.

Many people tidy their home kitchen gardens by pulling plants in which they’ve lost interest. I encourage you not to hurry: you do a great favor to pollinators when you leave plants to flower. At least six large bees, two or three butterflies, and another half dozen insects I couldn’t identify flitted from blossom-to-blossom as I tried to capture an image that screamed “BROCCOLI!”

 

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If you have four- to six-months’ lead time to start a new planting bed in your lawn, don’t cut sod! Rather, lay out cardboard in the shape of the bed, cover it with at least six inches of manure or compost, and let it cook.

Great news: You’re going to add a home kitchen garden to your yard next year! Wait: you’re adding to an existing home kitchen garden? That’s also great news! But I’m pretty sure I heard you mention that you plan to cut sod in the spring. Don’t do it!

I mean, don’t cut sod. Cutting sod to create a planting bed in the lawn is a time-honored ritual. So many people figure that to find soil they must remove the grass. But cutting and removing sod is back-breaking work, and the science of gardening is ever-changing. Coming into vogue is a method of creating new planting beds in lawns without ever cutting sod!

Lazy Garden your way to Next Year’s Planting Bed

Because you started planning now for next spring, you can take the lazy path and slow-cook a planting bed into your lawn. Then you won’t have to cut and remove sod in the spring. Slow-cooking is relatively easy. I learned about it from the Penn State University Cooperative Extension office, though I don’t think they called it slow-cooking. In fact, I don’t think they gave a name for it.

Slow-Cook a Planting Bed

Begin, of course, by selecting the location and dimensions for your new planting bed. I hope you’ve already thought this through carefully and have resolved concerns about sunlight, exposure to wind, drainage, and accessibility. My earlier post, Your First Small Kitchen Garden explores these concerns further. When choosing dimensions for a planting bed, consider whether you’ll need to walk in the bed; my blog post, Small Kitchen Garden Design Layout can help with this decision.

Lay corrugated cardboard on the lawn in the shape of the new planting bed. Cover the grass completely, overlapping pieces of cardboard to close all gaps between them. Cover the cardboard with six inches of compost or manure and wait until spring. A lot of good things should happen in the six months to come.

  • The weighted-down cardboard deprives the grass of oxygen, the grass dies (and the weeds in the grass), and the leaves and roots decompose into a mat of humus-rich soil.
  • Bugs and grubs in the lawn die or move out from under the cardboard.
  • Moisture from the grass, and from dew, rain, and snow break down the cardboard.
  • The compost or manure continues to decay, reducing in depth while it leaches nutrients into the cardboard and the soil under it.

You can use raw manure when you set up a slow-cooked planting bed. If you apply the manure in August or September, it has plenty of time to leach out salt and nutrients into the soil; it will be ready for planting in the spring.

By the time things thaw in the spring, you can dig right through the compost or manure and the cardboard into what used to be lawn. Typically, there will be virtually no evidence of cardboard by this time and what used to be lawn will be relatively soft and easy to work.

Turn Down the Bed

When you plant in a cooked-in bed, your life is easiest if you’re dealing with seedlings or potted plants. You can simply dig a hole for each seedling, set the seedling in the hole, and back-fill with the rich mix of soil and compost that developed over the winter.

If you’re sowing seeds, it’s a good idea to turn the soil within the row in which you plan to sow. Then rake out the soil, create a furrow, and set the seeds. Of course, you can till the entire planting bed: use a power tiller or a shovel to cut deep and turn over six-to-eight inches of soil. Then rake it smooth and lay out your planting zones.

 

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I love having a few bags of blueberries in the freezer. While my mom used to add them to grapefruit-based fruit salads, I prefer to sprinkle frozen blueberries into puddles of pancake batter I’ve just poured on the griddle. Then, as the pancakes cook on side one, I drizzle a bit of extra batter over the blueberries so they’ll cook inside the pancakes when I flip them to side two. Using frozen blueberries to make pancakes, I set the cooking temperature lower than I would for plain pancakes. This gives the blueberries more time to thaw before the pancakes finish cooking.

Is your home kitchen garden producing well? This time of year, a kitchen garden can overwhelm its caretaker with produce. Beans are typical offenders along with tomatoes, eggplant, and various types of squash. Fruits can also present excesses.

If you’re facing a glut of vegetables or fruit… or if you simply want to store some goodies now so you can enjoy them until next year’s harvest, a deep-freeze makes a great food-preserver.

Why Freeze Produce?

Of all methods of preserving goods, freezing maintains flavors and textures the most faithfully. But freezing isn’t a perfect solution. Fruits especially suffer from freezing. As a rule fruits become mushy when they thaw, though their flavors remain true. If you plan to cook the fruits before you eat them, they’ll be great after freezing. If you’re going to eat them raw, find applications where the altered consistencies suit your sensibilities.

When it comes to frozen vegetables, I’ve never wanted to eat one raw after thawing it. These, I think, you should plan to cook… but trust that the outcome will be very similar to that of cooking the vegetables when they’re fresh. Root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on—do not thaw well, but they do keep a long time unfrozen in a cool, dry storage area.

I line jelly roll pans with waxed paper and then add single layers of blueberries or other produce. These I set uncovered in the deep-freeze overnight. The frozen berries easily come loose from the waxed paper and from each other.

Freezing Fruit

How you prepare fruit for freezing depends on what type of fruit it is. I suggest making it bite-sized. So, if you’re freezing peaches, pears, apples, or pineapples, peel them and cut them into pieces. If you’re freezing berries, they’re already in bite-sized pieces.

Pack fruit in freezer containers or in food storage freezer bags. Vacuum-seal them for the longest freezer life, but a zipper-style bag with the air squeezed out around the fruit should keep the fruit in decent shape for close to a year. Place only as much fruit in each bag as you’re going to use in one meal or service. Alternatively, follow the instructions below for Individually-Frozen Vegetables and Berries.

Freezing Vegetables

You can freeze vegetables raw and they’ll be fine when you cook them up later… as long as it’s not too much later. Conventional wisdom is that certain enzymes in vegetables promote aging and they continue to work even when the vegetables are frozen. This means the quality of frozen vegetables decreases rapidly over time unless you stop the enzymes. To “turn off” enzymes and increase the freezer live of vegetables, blanch them before you freeze them.

Individually-frozen, blueberries are hard, cold marbles. You have ten or fifteen minutes to package them and return them to the freezer before they soften noticeably.

How to Blanch Vegetables

Blanching is a breeze. It involves cooking the vegetables only long enough that they heat through, and then rapidly cooling them to stop the cooking before their texture changes significantly.

To prepare vegetables for freezing, first wash off the dirt, discard the bad spots, and cut the vegetables into sizes you’ll want to cook later. Peas, I remove from the pods and leave whole. Beans, I snap into ¾ inch lengths… some people prefer to cut them rather than snap them.

Set a very large pot of water to boil. I use my canning pot filled about ¾ of its depth. Fill a second very large pot with cold water, and have some ice on hand to add to that water.

Fill a strainer or a steamer’s colander with prepared vegetable chunks, then plunge the strainer into the boiling water so that all the vegetables are in the water. This may stop the boiling, so cover the pot to help bring up its temperature.

I use my canning pot or a very large stock pot for cooking, and another for cooling when I blanch vegetables for freezing. The colander is an insert from a pasta-cooker, though I might just as well use a strainer. I used to let the vegetables float free in the cook-pot, but it took so long to fish them out that some were nearly totally cooked by the time I’d finish.

When the water starts boiling again, leave the vegetables cooking for three minutes. During this time, add ice to the pot of cold water. Then, at the end of three minutes, lift the strainer from the boiling water and submerge it in the cold water. Stir the vegetables around in the strainer to promote rapid cooling. In about three minutes, the vegetables should be at or below room temperature; remove them from the water and let them drain.

Put one-meal-sized portions of the blanched vegetables into freezer containers or bags, and toss them into your deep-freeze. If you can vacuum-seal the containers, your vegetables may keep well for 18 months, but even in a heavy-weight hermetically-sealed bag they should be acceptable for eating up to a year after you process them.

As with fruit, blanched vegetables tend to stick together when they freeze, resulting in a brick that may be hard to separate until it thaws. You can simplify your freezer space by freezing the vegetable parts individually, and storing them in much larger bags or containers.

Individually-Frozen Vegetables and Berries

Typical instructions for freezing fruits and vegetables result in large clumps of frozen-together stuff. Blanch beans, toss them in a bag, put them in your freezer, and soon you’ll have a brick of frozen beans. If you want to use a portion of the beans, you may need a hammer or an ice pick to break them free of the bean brick.

When last I froze wax beans, I ran out of waxed paper so I tried plastic wrap as pan-liners. I much prefer the waxed paper because it’s far more biodegradable than plastic. I had so many beans to freeze that I layered them in the pans: first wax paper, then beans, then paper, and then beans. This worked well, and let me double the amount of produce I could freeze in one night.

The same goes for fruits: Wash a quart of blueberries, put the berries in a bag, freeze them, and you’ll need to chip them apart when you want to use them.

You’re best off freezing packages of beans or berries in modest amounts—no more per bag than you’ll use for a single meal… unless you freeze the beans or berries individually. Here’s how I do it:

After washing berries or blanching beans (or peas or broccoli spears or cauliflower florets), drain them and then dump them onto a towel. Gently roll the fruits or vegetables around on the towel to remove as much moisture as you have patience for.

Then, line a jellyroll pan or a pizza pan with waxed paper (plastic wrap works as well) and cover the paper with produce only one layer deep. If you like, cover the produce with more waxed paper and put a second layer of beans or berries on that.

Place the uncovered pan of beans or berries in your freezer over night. Then, retrieve the pan (I actually do as many as four pans in a single freezing event), break the individual fruits or vegetables off of the waxed paper, and load a container with the frozen produce. Put the filled container back in your freezer.

When you freeze fruits and vegetables this way, you can grab a handful, a pint, or a quart as-needed without having to bust a clump loose from a frozen produce brick.

Why So Much Boiling Water?

You can blanch stuff in rather modest amounts of boiling water. However, when you plunge vegetables into the water, you rapidly lower the water’s temperature; it is likely to stop boiling. At low volumes, the water may take many minutes to heat back to boiling. If the size of your blanching pot is dramatically bigger than that of the strainer-full of vegetables you put into it, it may not stop boiling at all… but even if it does stop it remains much closer to the boiling point than a small volume of water would.

You’ll blanch more produce more quickly if you work with a large vat of boiling water.

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Squash seedlings from a Home Kitchen Garden

My squash seedlings grew to this size in their starter pots, and then slowed way down. By the time I planted them in the garden three weeks later, each had added no more than two inches of stem and another leaf; they looked very sad.

In May, it was apparent that my home kitchen garden’s spring crops would not mature on time. By “on time” I mean “on my time;” I have no illusions that plants growing outdoors are going to follow my schedule. Still, for the sake of comparison, in 2008 my garden put out its last load of peas in mid June. This year, the plants continued producing till the third week of July… and even as the vines were dying, cool weather coaxed a burst of flowering.

To prepare for this year’s late transition from spring crops to summer crops, I started squash seeds under lights on my ping pong table. These, I captured in a time lapse video as they popped out of the soil, and I posted it in blog entry titled, Squash Babies for my Home Kitchen Garden.

Slow Grow

By early June, my squash babies were ready to move into the garden, but the spring crops weren’t even close to done. I didn’t want to “pot up” the squash seedlings (transplant them into larger pots) because I’d run out of large peat pots and my gardening budget was stressed. So, my squash babies sat in their infant-sized pots and yearned for greater things.

And there they sat, and sat, and sat.

When a plant spends too much time in small pot, it feels stress. Roots grow into any open space they can find without actually growing up out of the soil. Eventually, there are so many roots in the pot that they quickly suck all the nutrition out of the soil. Most plants shut down; they don’t die, they just stop growing… or they grow very slowly.

By May 10 (left), sprouts in my Home Kitchen Garden were pathetic. I had planted much of this in March, yet lettuce and spinach weren’t yet ready for thinning. Fully 20 days later (right), I was finally making salads from thinned lettuce plants and young spinach leaves… but I had harvested only three pods of peas. I had no doubt by May 30th that there would be no space for squash plants until July.

Hardening Down

What is most problematical is that pot-bound plants continue to mature… even when they put on virtually no new growth. For most plants, this maturation includes what I call “hardening down” (forgive me if there’s a horticultural term for this that I ought to know). When a plant hardens down, it strengthens the distinction between the root system and the above-ground stem.

For many types of trees, hardening down is obvious as the bark turns from smooth to rough and it eventually develops deep furrows. For garden vegetables, hardening down produces similar textural changes in the stem. The surface of the stem nearest the soil becomes woody and it eventually stops thickening. Some plants produce flower buds even though they’ve grown only a few small leaves.

Once a plant hardens down, the hardened stem will not thicken—or will thicken only a little when the plant reawakens… if the plant reawakens. And that brings me back to the transition from spring crops to summer crops.

A Home Kitchen Garden Seasonal Transition

My sad little winter squash seedlings were hardening down, and my pea plants hadn’t yet produced peas! A vaguely unfortunate turn of events provided a partial solution: My spinach plants met an abrupt and unexpected end.

I had planted only four feet of a row with two types of spinach. The plants took forever to grow big enough for harvest, and after providing for only two salads, half the plants wilted and died. I guessed a plant disease or insect was involved, but the wilting death didn’t spread to the other half row of plants. Then, about seven days and two more salads later, the remaining spinach plants bolted. In early July, I pulled the spinach plants, turned over soil in the row, and planted two of my squash pots just three feet apart.

On July 14 (left), the pea plants (center three rows) showed a lot of brown; there were still pea flowers and forming pods, but there would be only an occasional handful of pods had I let them alone. So, on July 15 (right), I removed the trellises, the pea plants, and the weeds. I left in place some volunteer tomato plants, cilantro, and dill weed. Squash plants in the front-left of the photos were well-established after nearly three weeks in the garden. Other squash plants, nearly invisible near the top of the photo, started far more slowly I think because their roots have been too wet.

At the opposite side of the garden, I planted another squash pot snuggled between two rows of peas. A week later I planted the last squash pot between adjacent rows of peas. I figured to spend the next month stepping over those plants to pick peas… but I also figured the squash plants would stretch their roots and break out of their pot-bound stupor.

This morning, the squash in my Home Kitchen Garden fills fully one third of the space where peas grew just two and a half weeks ago. Even the slow-starters at the far side of the garden are waking up. Things are very crowded what with the volunteer tomatoes and herbs, but the plants don’t seem to mind. Already, the squash have set at least a dozen fruits, and there are many fruiting buds preparing to blossom.

Summer Crops Prevail

It was a short month; we had some heat in July that cooked the pea plants. On July 15th I removed the pea trellises and the plants, and I pulled the weeds that had grown from the exposed soil along the pea rows. I worked around four volunteer tomato plants and a few volunteer herb plants. In the two weeks since, the squash plants I had placed in the vacated spinach row have exploded outward in all directions.

As the vines have lengthened, I’ve trained them toward the newly-opened space. They obviously have overcome being pot bound, and are already setting fruit. It’s clear that four plants from the first two squash pots will completely fill the space the pea plants had occupied.

Clearly, starting the squash in pots gained two or three weeks on the summer growing season. This means extra days for the plants to produce squash before frost shuts them down. Even if we don’t have wacky spring weather, you can bet I’ll start my squash in pots early in coming seasons.

 

 

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Strawberries from a Home Kitchen Garden

Jam that you make from fresh-picked strawberries is noticeably better-tasting than store-bought jam.

Strawberry season is running out in my home kitchen garden; I may have berries for another week. As we do every year, we’ve consumed a lot of strawberries this spring… but it wasn’t enough. I want to extend my relationship with strawberries throughout the year. One way I do this is by making jam.

Jam is a combination of fruit, sugar, and pectin. Pectin thickens when you cook it, but it doesn’t impart color to whatever you add it to. Consider: if you thicken juice with cornstarch or flour, you create an opaque pie filling. If you thicken the same juice with pectin, you create jelly.

Pectin exists naturally in fruit… but rarely in great enough amounts to make the fruit’s juice jell. Traditionally, you add an enormous amount of sugar and extra pectin to fruit juice, cook it, and the juice gels. That’s what we’re doing in this blog post.

Read the instructions that come in the box. Follow them! Minor deviations won’t cause problems (an ounce here-or-there), but if you miscount cups of sugar or fruit, you may not like the results. The strawberry jam recipe that came with the powdered pectin I used called for the following: 2 quarts of washed and capped berries. ¼ cup of lemon juice. Seven cups of sugar. One package of fruit pectin. An optional tablespoon of butter. Also, note that you’ll need a large pot in which to boil jars, a small pot in which to heat lids, a medium pot (about a gallon capacity) in which to cook jam, a large spoon, measuring cups, a canning funnel (though you can survive without the funnel), tongs (to lift things out of boiling water), and a canning jar lifter (again, I managed without one for years). Oh, it’s wise to have a pot holder or a dry towel on-hand as well as a damp (but clean) dish cloth.

Before I start making jam, I rinse the jelly jars and put them in a large pot of water on high heat so the water will boil. I put a matching number of canning lids and bands in a smaller pot of water, and I heat that on low so the water gets very hot without boiling. It can take 30 minutes for the pot of jars to start boiling, so I often take a break while the water heats. The pectin I’m using claims to produce eight cups of jam… so I heat enough jars to hold ten cups, in case the estimate is low. Eventually, however, you need to mash the strawberries. I use a rusty potato masher, and I smoosh the berries into small pieces; large chunks are hard to spread on sandwiches.

Jelly or Jam?

Measure the sugar into a bowl before you start cooking the fruit! Ideally, use a bowl you can dump with only one hand; you’ll add the sugar to the cooking jam a bit later and it’s nice to have one hand free so you can keep stirring as the sugar goes in. The pectin I use calls for seven cups of sugar for a single batch of strawberry jam.

Often, people I talk with about jam and jelly ask, “What’s the difference?” Quite simply: you make jam using juice and chunks of fruit, you make jelly from juice with all the fruit pulp strained out of it. From the perspective of the jam-maker, jam and jelly are nearly identical: once you’ve prepared the fruit or the juice, you follow the same steps to cook it into jam or jelly.

The single greatest aide to success at jam-making is to buy a box of powdered fruit pectin, open it, read the instructions it contains, and **follow those instruction**. Until jam- and jelly-making comes automatically to you, don’t mess with the recipes. Using more or less sugar, changing the cooking time, or using too little or too much fruit all can affect the finished product quite noticeably. Too much sugar and over-cooking can result in jam that comes out of the jar in one piece. Too little sugar and under-cooking can result in jam that runs rather than spreading.

I measure five cups of mashed berries into the cooking pot. Then I add a quarter cup of lemon juice (yes, I use the bottled stuff) and the packet of pectin. The pot goes on the stove on high heat and I don’t stop stirring until the jam is done. Cooking works like this: 1. Stir until the mixture boils. 2. Pour in all the sugar at once and mix it in. 2b. Add a tablespoon of butter if you believe it will help keep foam from forming. 3. Stir until the mixture starts boiling despite the stirring activity. From that moment, boil the stuff for exactly 60 seconds. Watch it carefully because it may want to boil over. On my electric stove, I turn off the burner after 15 seconds of boiling, and leave the pot in place. There is always enough heat in the burner to keep the jam bubbling for 45 more seconds. When that minute of boiling ends, remove the pot from the heat. In this photo, you can see the large (covered) kettle in which jars are boiling, and the smaller pot that contains lids and bands heated just below boiling.

The pectin box contains specific instructions for making jam or jelly from most common types of fruit. Harvest or buy fruit accordingly, and make sure you have the necessary equipment on-hand before you start.

Preserved from a Home Kitchen Garden

Jam made at home from fresh fruit, will keep for a year or longer when you can it properly. Heck, without canning, my mom stored jam on a shelf in a dark closet for a year, and it always tasted fresh. That was in the days when the FDA said it was OK to seal jars with melted paraffin.

Canning jam and jelly is stupid-easy: once you’ve screwed the band onto a jar, set the jar upright in a deep pot of boiling water for ten minutes. Then remove the jar to a towel on the counter and let it cool. With the high-temperature cooking and the ten-minute boil, your jam will be germ-free… and it already contained so much acid and sugar that almost nothing could have lived in it anyway.

I can 12 one-cup gift jars of each type of jam or jelly I make. We give the one-cup jars as gifts to teachers, hosts at dinner parties, golf professionals (at the course where I play), and other acquaintances. It usually takes at least two batches to make 12 cups, and whatever is left over, I put into pint jars for us to eat through the year.

Foam Snack from a Home Kitchen Garden

Even when I add butter to my cooking jam, the jam produces a lot of foam. I pull the foam across the surface of the jam and skim it off with the spoon. I didn’t get a great shot of that through the steam coming off the jam, but here’s what it looks like on its way to my mouth after it cooled down for a bit. It surprises me that no one sells jam and jelly foams in jars. It tastes great, and you could dramatically increase the amount of product you get from your raw materials.

When you’ve removed most of the foam, fill the hot jelly jars, put on the hot lids, screw on the hot bands, and set the jars in boiling water for ten minutes. The canning funnel helps keep jam off the rim of the jelly jars; if you get any jam there, wipe it off before you apply a lid. With the lid on and the jar upright, screw on a band.

To get a band “finger tight,” I pick up the jar by the lid (usually I can handle the lids and bands while they’re hot, but a jar of hot jelly would take my skin off) and quickly grasp the jar with a pot holder. Then I screw the lid down tightly – not bodybuilding flex tightly, but I take up all the slack I can while twisting with just my hands.

Upside Down Jars

As mentioned earlier: immediately after filling the jars, put them, upright, into a pot of boiling water so the jars are completely covered. Ideally, use a canning rack or a canning pot with a rack to keep the jars off the bottom. If you don’t have a canning rack, you can sink a cloth napkin or dish cloth in the water and pin it to the bottom with the jars. Leave the jars to boil for ten minutes, then remove them to cool, upright, on your counter. After the tops seal (you’ll hear them pop) and the jars are hot but not too hot to hold, flip them onto the bands and let them cool further until they are warm but the jam is still liquid. Flip them back upright to finish cooling. If you don’t flip the jars this way during cooling, the fruit will likely float making the top layer of jam very chunky while the bottom layer will be more like jelly.

Homemade is Best

We’ve been told that the strawberry jam we make is noticeably better eating than store-bought jam. What’s more, we usually have peach, pear, and black raspberry jelly; and strawberry, sour cherry, and fruit punch jams in the larder. Most of these are never available in our local grocery stores. When you have a lot of homemade jam and jelly on-hand, you find ways to use it that people don’t necessarily think of when you say “jam.” For example, I’ve mixed black raspberry jelly into homemade chutneys and marinades with great results. The delicate flavor of pear or peach jelly comes through when you grill it on chicken or fish.

From time-to-time, I’ll jot down ingredients lists when I cook with jam or jelly, and share the results on this blog. In the meantime, if you can still harvest fresh strawberries from your home kitchen garden… or you can buy them in your neighborhood, make some jam and extend strawberry season through the year.

I created a step-by-step video that shows how to make strawberry jam. Please follow this link to Your Small Kitchen Garden if you prefer video instruction over the written word.

 

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My first harvest of peas each spring is always about this overwhelming. I had taken a quart basket to the garden with me to handle the bounty.

My home kitchen garden has blessed me with my first home-grown peas of 2009. The pea harvest is, perhaps, my favorite of all harvests through a growing season. So, naturally, as the pods emerge I become, perhaps, overly vigilant: I check my vines each morning and again in the evening, looking for the first ones plump with green pearls.

Today I picked the first full pods. Usually, the first harvest is only a small handful that sits a day or two in the fridge until enough others grow plump to make a side dish or a meal. As you can see from the first photo, today was no different: I harvested only a small handful of pods.

My eagerness clouded my judgement. The peas I removed from these pods should have stayed podded for at least another day… and I enjoyed eating them.

Of course, in my excitement for the first harvest, I sometimes choose a few pods that aren’t quite filled out. Despite having been very selective today, it happened again. But fortunately only three of the pods I picked were a tad underdeveloped.

Now that I’d removed them from their plants, they weren’t going to grow fuller… and I can’t abide using such immature peas in my cooking. Betcha can guess what happened to the peas. Sure, and they tasted swell.

 

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