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Learn to preserve the produce you grow in your home kitchen garden. This home canning starter kit includes everything you need to can your first batch using the boiling water bath method for high-acid foods. Find it and other canning supplies at the Home Kitchen Garden Store.

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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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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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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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Nearly centered in the photo are three rows of peas in my home kitchen garden. Immediately to the left of the left-most peas are lettuce and spinach with carrots and cilantro to the left of them. When the spring crops- the peas, lettuce, and spinach – wilt in summer’s heat, I’ll remove them, making an 8′ by 14′ clearing in which to grow winter squash. I expect the squash to grow well beyond this 112 square foot area.

When I’m feeling ambitious, I manage multiple plantings in my home kitchen garden. By this I mean I plant the same garden zones two or three times through the growing season. When weather cooperates, cold-weather vegetables planted early grow themselves out as summer approaches. I remove the dying plants and introduce other crops.

Usually, I plant peas, lettuce, and spinach in adjacent rows so there will be space in which to plant something large in June… and my first choice is almost always winter squash. Squash is a great late-season vegetable that stores well; it’ll keep for months on your dining room floor unless your spouse makes you move it to the garage.

Awkward Spring for a Home Kitchen Garden

Weather has not cooperated. This has been an unusually cold spring for my zone 5/6 home kitchen garden, and I’ve heard similar observations from gardeners all over the northeastern United States. I’m used to planting summer crops in April, but we had so many cold days in April and May that my spring crops are about a month behind where they’ve been in past seasons.

It dawned on me this could become a problem when it’s time to plant the winter squash: if the spring crops are still hogging garden space, where will I plant four hills of squash?

So, for the first time in my life, I started squash seeds in containers. When they go in the garden, they won’t have lost the month the cold weather crops lost in April.

Time Lapse Silliness

As my squash seeds started to sprout, I got the urge to capture some of them popping out of the soil: I wanted to create a time lapse movie. I don’t have the best equipment to film such a sequence: my video camera shoots at only one speed, and my digital picture camera has no features to simplify shooting a sequence of photos over an extended period. Here’s what I did:

I mounted my camera on a tripod, and set it on the ping-pong table pointing at my squash pots. I shot one photograph every fifteen minutes for 24 hours. The 24 hours were deadly; I pulled an all-nighter to complete the sequence, and it wasn’t long enough.

About two weeks after popping out of the soil, my squash babies are putting out a second tier of leaves. I may need to pot them up (meaning, plant them in a larger pot) to buy time given how late spring actually started this year. On the other hand, recent summer-like heat may burn off my spring crops before I’ve gotten complete satisfaction from them. It’s been a difficult season for kitchen gardeners in the northeastern United States.

Turning on my digital camera consumes a lot of electricity, and I had to turn it on for each photo I took. It ran through three battery changes. Also, to get consistent framing and focus, I had to push buttons on the camera about thirteen times per photograph. Unfortunately, all this button-pushing caused tiny but perceptible reorientation of the photo frame.

After shooting the photos, I expected to load them into Windows Movie Maker (free software you can download from Microsoft’s web site) and package them as an AVI file. But Windows Movie Maker couldn’t sequence the photos as I wanted. The shortest period it will display a photo is an eighth of a second… but the shortest transition from one photo to another is a quarter second. Whatever settings I chose, the time lapse sequence was choppy.

So… I Googled. My search uncovered a handy piece of free software called Photolapse 3 (you can download a copy at the Photolapse web site). The programmer built this software specifically to create time lapse movies in AVI files. The download was painless, and the software proved easy to use. Within minutes I had built an AVI file that was no better than anything I’d done in Windows Movie Maker.

Through experimentation, I learned it’s important to use small image files when making a time lapse movie. That became the second biggest chore of my project: my photo-editing software doesn’t have a batch mode for reducing an image’s size and jpeg compression, so I manually adjusted all 99 images down to 640 by 480 pixels. For future time lapse sequences, I’ll shoot the photos at that resolution in the first place.

Photolapse 3 produced a lovely movie.

Finishing the Video

The output from Photolapse 3 was just a time lapse sequence of seeds sprouting. To add titles and a soundtrack, I pulled the time lapse movie into Windows Movie Maker. There, it was easy to dress it up and save the assembled components as a new AVI movie file. It was a lot of work for a 33-second video, but it was also a lot of fun for a gardening/photo/technology geek. In any case, I expect to harvest a lot of squash in October.

Here’s the movie:

 

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