This is the ninth in a twelve part series for new gardeners. If you have never planted vegetables before but always wanted to, this is the series for you. Robin, who writes the blog Vegetable Matter, and I will post on the first of every month. Robin lives in Houston and I live in Boston. We will be posting about what to do in the garden that month and giving advice. So if you have always wanted that vegetable garden, but didn’t know where to start, you have no excuse. Get growing!
The title of this series is "Get Growing", but in New England in August it is less about growing and more about harvesting and what to do with all your bounty. If your plantings did well, you will be inundated with squash, tomatoes, beans, peppers, corn, and herbs. Something always seems to fail every year, but celebrate what you do get. Even if it is a huge pile of zucchini and your neighbors slam the door when you get close because they don't want any more.
Instead of tossing the excess think about preserving the food for the winter. You might be sick of zucchini now, but zucchini bread will sound really good in the depth of winter. Not everything freezes well, but most things can be preserved this way.
Most vegetables have enzymes in them that will break down the food into mush over time or taste strange, even in the freezer. To deactivate these enzymes you need to blanch your food. This method just heats up the food by boiling for long enough to break down the enzymes. Foods need longer or shorter blanching depending on its thickness.
Basic water blanching method:
- Wash and trim your vegetable
- Get a pot of water boiling that is large enough to cover the vegetables
- Drop in the vegetables
- Wait until it is boiling again and time for the appropriate length
- Immediately drain with a strainer and put into ice water to cool quickly add more ice if necessary. Cool the vegetables as quickly as possible. I often stir to make sure the ice water gets through it evenly.
- Drain and freeze
It is possible to steam blanch food too, but you have to steam them in a single layer and is not very conducive to freezing large quantities.
The freezing step can be done in two ways. You can either tray freeze your vegetables or not. Tray freezing just means you spread the vegetable out over a tray like a cookie sheet and put the sheet into the freezer. Then once they are frozen you can put into a bag making sure to get out all the air. The advantage of tray freezing is that when you use the vegetable you can measure out what you want. You don't have to use the whole bag at once. Tray freezing works well for things that have individual pieces like corn or green beans, but not so well for spinach. For spinach and chard I tend to freeze them in plastic containers then pop them out and put them in bags. For shredded zucchini I measure the amount I use in zucchini bread and freeze it in pack of that size.
Some vegetables don't need blanching some do, here is a list of how long to blanch:
*If there is a range it is based on size.
Vegetables that don't need to be blanched, but can just be frozen: onions, celery, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, and shredded zucchini. For shredded zucchini the water separates out in freezing but still works well for soups and zucchini bread. Just don't drain it before using. The bread will need that liquid. And just as a note, none of these will retain their texture well, but still maintain their flavor and are good for cooking.
Frozen vegetables can keep a long time in the freezer if you have a chest freezer that is not auto defrosting. The auto defrosting freezers (like the one with your fridge) heats the walls of your freezer up on occasion to make sure no frost forms. This is very detrimental to storing frozen goods long term. My rule of thumb is one to two months in an auto defrosting freezer and about a year in a chest freezer.
Many things that you wouldn't think of dehydrating can in fact be dehydrated. Dehydrated food lasts a long time and doesn't need expensive equipment like a chest freezer. Some things like herbs you can just dehydrate by hanging them in bunches upside down in a dark, dry, warm spot. In our humid environment I've found it not to be too practical. Things often mold before they dry out. I've found a dehydrator to be indispensable here.
Mine is just a really cheap one with a heating element on the bottom and five trays for which I paid $25. It uses convection to dry and it works, but not well. The best ones have thermostats as not all things should be dried at the same temperature. They also have airflow over the tops of the tray and not from the bottom which makes drying much more even. These styles cost over $100, but are very nice.
I've dried many things in my dehydrator over the decades. Herbs of all kinds are the most common. But I've dried peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes, beans, fruit, and even cabbage. Sometimes it is fun to experiment.
There are two methods of canning. The most common is the water bath canner. It is just a pot with a rack for jars and you submerge the jars in boiling water for a given time to kill all the bacteria in the jar. This works well with highly acidic foods, but otherwise it is dangerous. Botulism is not killed by boiling water and grows whenever the pH is over 4.6. To can these kinds of foods you need to use a pressure canner. When water boils in a pressure canner it brings the water to a higher temperature than when it is out in the air.
I'm not going to go into all about canning as the USDA puts out a wonderful guide that is online. Peruse it at your hearts content. I will put fourth a few safety tips though. For water bath recipes I've told you that you need to have a certain pH. This means you can NEVER lower the amount of anything acidic put into the recipe. Acidic things are: vinegar, lime juice, lemon juice, and fruit. These is your major preservatives. In addition salt and sugar are also preservatives so it is not a good idea to lower their amount either. You have very little leeway with changing the tested recipes if you want to keep safe. But you can always lower the amount of non acidic ingredients. For instance in a salsa recipe you might have tomatoes, vinegar, salt, sugar, peppers, cilantro onions, and garlic. Don't mess with any of those first four, but if you don't like garlic, you can leave it out. Or if you don't like cilantro. You can put half the number of peppers into it. Just don't mess with the preservative ingredients. Also you can add preservatives. You can add more vinegar, salt or sugar. Tomatoes are a weird one though. You can't lower the amount in a recipe and you can't raise it either. Tomatoes hover around a pH of 4.6. Some are over and some are under. You don't know which way they go. Tomatoes CAN NOT be canned safely by themselves. They need a acid to be added to make sure they are safe.
After all that talk of safety and the thought of botulism, the whole concept of canning might put you off, but it really is quite easy. Just follow the recipes as written on the USDA site (they have all been thoroughly tested) and you have nothing to worry about. Once you have done it once you will see how easy it is.
What to Plant for the Fall
There are a few things to plant for fall that still have time to mature. Usually I plant spinach in August and also short maturing Asian greens, radishes, and sometimes short maturing turnips. I've been given a lot of advice to plant spinach 40 days before my average first frost in the fall, but the reality is the plants won't be ready if you follow that advice. At my last house my normal last frost date would be at the end of October. If I planted spinach in the middle of September it would never grow. This is because the sun is lower to the horizon. Everything grows much slower. Last year I planted spinach on September 1st. It wasn't really long enough to get much of a harvest. A few leaves maybe but not much more. Assume that this time of year your plants will take twice as long to grow as normal and you will be all set.
Other post in the seriesDetermining your growing zone and planting peas (Vegetable Matter - December)
Planning a Garden (Daphne's Dandelions - December)
Growing Lettuce (Vegetable Matter - January)
Starting transplants indoors (Daphne's Dandelions - January)
Growing tomatoes (Vegetable Matter - February)
Compost (Daphne's Dandelions - February)
Snap Beans (Vegetable Matter - March)
Peas and Spinach (Daphne's Dandelions - March)
Eggplant (Vegetable Matter - April)
Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage, Asian vegetables) (Daphne's Dandelions - April)
Edamame (Vegetable Matter - May)
Tomatoes (Daphne's Dandelions - May)
Lima Beans (Vegetable Matter - June)
Disease Control (Daphne's Dandelions - June)
Chili Peppers (Vegetable Matter - July)
Insect Control (Daphne's Dandelions- July)