Tips and How To’s

Hey you all! Chris has asked me to write a little bit on here to share what I know about canning and preserving. My knowledge is by no means expert or exhaustive – this is just something I got into for fun a few years ago, with lots of trial and error during the summers in between.

My first foray into canning was jelly-making – pepper jelly to be specific. My friend LL taught me how to make this formerly “wha’?? pepper? jelly?” (I had never heard of it, being a Northern Girl) maybe seven years ago. The first time ended in some evil brown goo that was the result of cooking the sugar waaaaay too long. We called it Jelly Moreno. Since then, I have mostly perfected that recipe, which I will share with you as my habaneros come to fruition – but for now I’ll just go over the basics of canning and preserving as I see them.

First, I only do water-bath canning. Not to knock the pressure canner, but the one and only time I tried that for tomatoes, it ended somewhat anticlimactically, if not explosively. Not our fault: it was all due to a faulty pressure gauge (which we cleared up after a few Bloody Marys and a call to the manufacturer), but it definitely steered me back to the ease of the boiling water canning. This does mean that I only work with foods which are either naturally high in acid or have acid or sugar added in order to create an inhospitable environment to any beasties that might try to set up shop. I don’t want to get all microbiological on here, but acidity, high sugar, and high salt will knock out most of the evils. That being said, if you ever notice any mold, weird lid bulges, or off odors in anything that you’ve preserved or canned, it’s best to toss it. Some say that you can scrape mold off, especially on jellies and jams, and to that I say:
How very European of you. You probably won’t die, and Americans are probably too concerned with anti-bacterial this and microbial that, but err on the side of caution – especially if you’re serving any product to children or anyone who may be immuno-compromised. Of course, we can talk about natural fermentation on here too, which invites certain molds and bacteria, but I can burn that bridge later.

The take home message from all this is you should start out with a fairly clean kitchen. Wash your jars before you use them; use produce that if not at its best, then free from mold; and wash your hands and utensils. You can re-use the jar rings, but probably not the lids. Some sources say to boil/sanitize all utensils that you may use, but I rarely go that far. Here are some things you will need, regardless of what you are cooking up:

Glass jars with appropriate lids (if you are canning – plastic freeze jars for the um, freezer)
Sturdy tongs
A jar lifter
A water bath canner or large stockpot (I got mine at the Target a few years ago, but you can sometimes find them at hardware stores or online)
A funnel (there are wide-mouth funnels specifically for filling jars)
Paper towels
Labels and a Sharpie

It’s been more difficult for me to find canning supplies this year than in the past – I hear that the economic downturn has made canning and preserving more trendy – plus my local Kroger has stopped carrying canning supplies because as I was gently reminded by a kind employee earlier this summer, “College students don’t CAN a whole lot, do they?” But the Meijer between Nicholasville and Harrodsburg has a large stock of needful things, and Chevy Chase Hardware does an admirable job as well.

So, go shopping, and I’ll be back next week with lesson one: canning tomatoes!


Tomato — Lycopersicon lycopersicon

plant profile

The humble tomato originated in Latin and South America. Brought to Europe by Columbus, it was for many years considered a death-inducing oddity. Today, many of us would consider summer to be incomplete without the flavor of a freshly picked tomato.

Though most tomatoes are red and slightly acidic to the taste, this favorite fruit has a wide variety of colors, sizes, flavors, and uses. It is also fairly easy to save tomato seed.

steps for saving tomato seed

  1. Most tomato flowers are self-pollinating. Though cross-pollination is possible, it has, in my experience, been non-existent. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it most likely won’t. Therefore, you can grow as many different types of tomatoes as you have room or desire for, often with little or no spacing issues.
  2. Pick ripe tomatoes from plants whose fruits exhibit those characteristics you most enjoy.
  3. Cut the fruit in half and squeeze the seeds into a cup or container.
  4. Once you’ve completed step #3, fill your container with a little water. Tomato seeds form inside gelatinous sacks whose purpose is to keep the seeds from germinating inside the fruit. Because of this, you must put the seeds through a very simple fermentation process.
  5. Stir your seeds 2-3 times a day. This will speed the fermentation process.
  6. Once the liquid has formed a layer of mold, or when bubbles can be seen rising to the surface, the process is complete. Note: this mixture smells noxious. If you do this inside your house, make sure to place the mixture where it can’t spill!
  7. Double or triple the liquid in the mixture with clean water, skim the mold from the surface, then pour the mixture through a strainer.
  8. Rinse the seeds and place them on a plate or metal surface. Do not use cloth or paper, as the seeds will dry and stick, becoming virtually impossible to pry loose.
  9. Stir the seeds once or twice a day to prevent sticking.
  10. Once dry, place the seed in an air tight container. I find old prescription bottles work perfectly.
  11. Properly stored tomato seed will remain viable for up to 10 years (though I usually grow mine out after 3 or 4). Seed keeps longer if stored in the freezer.


seedlings in a square foot garden

seedlings in a square foot garden

“Where do I start?” This is a common question among budding vegetable growers. And with good reason: starting a garden can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first. With the beginner in mind, I offer these basic tips to get you moving in the right direction.

1. Start Small — the Square Foot Garden                                                   

The back yard where I planted my first garden was tiny, the sunlight it received was inconsistent, and I had no idea what I was doing.

In the process of  figuring it out, I ran across a great book: Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew. Mel’s system helped me visualize and plan  for the space I had. I created and managed two 16 square foot beds that first season. The next, I created two more.

I like the square foot method because it’s easy to start, easy to plan, and easy to maintain. For the novice, this ease can be the difference between a new found love or new found frustration.

Regardless of the design you choose, starting small has many benefits: 

  • Weeds and pests are the only certainties in a garden. Learning to deal with them on a small scale will save your sanity (and your pocketbook).
  • Your chances for success are improved. You may not grow enough food to make those trips to the grocery store obsolete, but mastering the needs and habits of the varieties you’ve planted is far more manageable on a small scale.
  • All of the knowledge you gain can be easily applied to an expanded garden the next year!

2. Start with Carefree Plants

Of course, the real pleasure of a vegetable garden is in being able to raise those veggies you love the most or that you’re sick of paying too much for at the grocery and farmer’s market. Still, certain vegetables almost grow themselves, while others bedevil even those with the greenest thumbs. Here’s a shortlist of good plants for the beginning gardener.

  • Cherry tomatoes. Hardier than full-sized tomatoes and just as versatile, cherry tomatoes provide many of the same benefits without as many of the headaches. That said, full-sized tomatoes are still a relatively easy veggie to grow.
  • Peppers. Especially hot or banana peppers, and especially if your summers (and summer nights) are warm.
  • Peas. These are the stars of any spring and fall garden. They hardly take up any space, and you can trellis them on just about anything.
  • Arugula and Lettuce. Another star of the spring and fall garden. Depending on where you live, an early start with these will help avoid such pesky insects as aphids.
  • Thumbelina Carrots. The secret to growing  carrots is well prepared soil. However, if you, like me, live in an area with heavy clay soils, carrots can be a real challenge. An easy answer to this problem is the Thumbelina carrot. Although small, they’re huge on flavor. They are also well suited for heavy soils or container gardens.
  • Swiss Chard. For three or four years I tried to grow spinach, and for three or four years, I watched with dismay as my seeds sprouted, stunted, and then bolted at the first sign of heat. Then I discovered swiss chard. Chard provides the same texture and flavor as spinach, plus its stalk can be used in place of celery. In areas with mild winters, chard can be grown like a perennial.
  • Turnips. You may have hated turnips as a child, or you may be from a part of the country where they were raised to feed the pigs and not the people. Whatever the case, I suggest reacquainting yourself with this gem of a vegetable. Not only are they easy to grow, they also have a long storage life and you can eat the greens as well as the root.
  • Black Eyed Peas. If you love the taste of fresh beans, but don’t want the hassle of setting up a trellis, black eyed peas (and other bush beans) are a great way to go. Just make sure you give yourself room to grow enough!

3. Do a Little Research

When I lived in Eugene, I would get excited every spring at the thought of the tomatoes I was going to grow that summer. And every summer, I would come up short. Way short. I would grow a gazillion different varieties, and apart from cherry tomatoes and a few Russian heirlooms, I would resign myself to eating one or two paltry fruits from paltry little plants. I thought I was cursed. Then I moved back to Kentucky and discovered the missing ingredient: heat.

My point is this: though I thought my garden would be incomplete without the tomato, I could have saved myself a lot of time, money, and woe if I’d accepted that tomatoes just aren’t suited for the short summers and cool nights in western Oregon. By researching what varieties grow well in your neck of the woods, you’ll save yourself mountains of time and misery.

Talk with farmers and/or gardeners in your area to find out what they grow, when they plant it, and tips for growing it. Also, talk to your county extension agent or someone with the agriculture university in your state. They can often give you pointers about growing food suited for your particular region.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Buy Starter Plants

Last spring I managed to get a few tomato and pepper plants started from seed. Then I set them outside without hardening them off, and within a day, they were all dead. I was crushed. So in a fit of tormented grief, I rushed out to Lowe’s and dropped more money than I care to remember on tomato and pepper starts. I felt like a sucker, like a cheat, like a hack. Three months later, when my wife and I were enjoying homemade salsa, fresh tomatoes, and homemade enchilada sauce, I didn’t give it a second thought.

I am a huge believer in starting plants from seed. I believe in saving seed and I believe in sharing the seed you save with others. The vegetables we grow represent cultural traditions, beliefs, and practices passed down over the generations. All of that high-falutin’ talk aside, starting seed can sometimes be a real challenge. And for the beginner, there are many ways to inadvertently thwart your best efforts along the way.

If your goal is to raise your own food, don’t hesitate to buy starter plants. I would simply advise knowing which plants will transplant well and which won’t. Lowe’s will sell you starters of chard and squash, but they won’t tell you that those don’t transplant well.

Still, for hard to start veggies like tomatoes and peppers, starter plants can be one less thing you have to worry about.

5. Buy Good Seed

Every spring, you start seeing seed packets everywhere you go: the grocery store, the hardware store, the pharmacy. I’ve even seen seed for sale at rundown old gas stations.

But not all seed retailers are the same. For those plants you want to grow from seed, I recommend looking for companies based in your region. They are more likely to offer varieties that will be suited for your particular climate.

There are also some seed companies who are a little more expensive, but whose product is miles beyond that of their competitors. Territorial Seed, out of Cottage Grove, Oregon, is hands down the greatest garden supply company I have ever dealt with. Although they offer varieties most suited for the Pacific Northwest, their seeds are superior in every way to other companies. The Seed Savers Exchange is another good option. If you join the Exchange, you will have access to the annual yearbook, which has an even larger selection than that offered on their website or through their catalog.

Though you might pay more for premium seed, the high germination rates and uniform plants you will grow will far outweigh the cost and frustration of having to buy five packets of broccoli to get ten healthy plants.