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Self-Sufficient Living | How To Grow Food, Process and Store it Safely
Learn How to Grow Food, Process and Store it Safely
With the increased issues of contaminants in our food chain, chemicals, and the overall economic conditions it should be no surprise that more and more people are turning to processing and storing fresh vegetables, fruits and meats at home. Some have become even more self-sufficient by making their own cheese, sausage, and dried fruit mixes. Many are finding small plots in the yard, or patio to raise their own vegetables.
During earlier generation’s home gardens, home processing and food storage was a necessity and taught in schools as well as learned at home in helping with the process. Over the years as people changed lifestyle and focused on work, ready made foods, fast food and an abundance of stocked grocery stores along with the convenience of microwave and frozen dinner cooking has taken away the need to learn and continue those skills.
Over the past few decades we have transitioned to the modern world of food coming from a store bought package or a can. Many family members who possessed those old time canning skills and knowledge have now passed and those skills are becoming harder to acquire.
Cottage Craft Works is a unique sustainable living general store focused on helping those to reacquire self-sufficient, self-reliant skills through knowledge and offering the products and equipment needed to grow and process food in a home kitchen.
There are several methods that can be used to grow home vegetables without chemicals and commercial fertilizers, many have taken this to the extreme and grow only organic gardens. But most successful gardens are grown in well drained enhance soils. Compact soil such as clay can be helped with adding sand, and composted materials.
Composted materials also add nutrients and replace the need for commercial fertilizers. Composted materials can be from decayed grass clippings leaves, wood chips sawdust, shredded paper, and kitchen vegetable scraps. Meat scraps and grease should not be added to compost as well as colored ink printed papers and sawdust from treated outdoor lumber. Animal manure from livestock adds even more punch to compost, but it should be well decayed or mixed into compost that will heat and break down any potential harmful contaminants that have passed though the animals digestive system. Pet manure should never be used in compost as well as human manure.
The safest rule to remember is if it is from and animal that is used as human food or produces a product for human consumption chances are it is good composting manure. Many do use horse manure, but that manure should cook and decay for several years as horses do pass through potential harmful contaminants.
The process of cooking compost means as the compost pile decays it heats inside and actually cooks as part of the decaying process. Adding green items and turning the compost pile helps to accelerate the cooking process. This is why the compost barrels have become popular.
One of the best compost bins consist of two side by side wire cages made with heavy gauge fencing and post. Others have used wooden pallets wired together. Whatever is used for a compost bin it should provide ventilation on all sides, be open and strong enough to easily scoop and shovel the compost.
The concept is to start with one side by adding your material, then as you add new material or occasionally pitch fork the compost over to the opposite side as you layer new green material, this turns the compost and helps to speed up the process.
The compost cooking process also helps sterilize the soil to prevent weed seeds from being added to the garden. Cottage Craft Works carries several books on the process of composting.
Try to locate the garden out of the shade and in an area where rain water will drain off. Adding plastic four inch perforated drain tile around the perimeter of a garden will help a lot if you have a lower area that it can gravity drain outwards. Use some gravel and the drain sock fabric to keep silt from washing in and plugging up the drain tile. The drain tile doesn’t need to go very deep ideally we have placed ours about 12” deep. It will all depend on how much of a slope you will have to gravity drain out.
If you have poor soil and drainage, you might consider raised beds, and or container gardening. These provide many benefits from weed control to not having to bend over as much, but they do sacrifice some garden space, and will require more frequent watering between rains. The real benefit is the drainage; they can be filled with some gravel and sand on the bottom then topped with garden soil and compost. Container gardening can also be used on a patio or other hard surface, making it an ideal solution for apartment dwellers.
Planting the seeds is pretty easy as the packs will have planting depth and spacing. Some of the fine seeds like lettuce work best with a small handheld seeder that can be found at most hardware and garden stores, it consist of a small plastic tray and a dome that can be turned for different seed sizes. Larger seeds such as beans and corn can be spaced by hand. Using a string and spacing the rows as instructed helps during the cultivation and weeding periods as the plants mature.
Store bought potted garden vegetables can get pretty expensive, we try to start our own from seed, but consideration needs to be given on how early to start in order to have the plants just large enough to transplant after the chances of a late frost have passed. This means looking at the date on the seed package for the estimated days until maturity, counting back about a third of that time and then checking with your local information of when the last danger of frost has passed. Another good rule of thumb is to count back four to six weeks to start the seeds and be ready to transplant.
Growing plants indoors from seeds does takes a lot of time and attention; they will dry out fast and often will need to be rotated to keep even sunlight from a window. Plants that grow tall and spindly are not getting enough sun light, too much sun light and heat the plants will wilt. You will need healthy strong transplants to survive.
Plants will need a conditioning period as well, meaning they need to be gradually introduced to the outside temps, wind and sun. Start by taking them outside early in the morning bring them back in around noon, and then gradually keep extending the time over a week before actually planting. You can judge by looking at the plants, if they begin to wilt it is probably time to take them back in and water, until they reach a point they look as healthy in the afternoon as they did when you sat them out in the morning. Do try to avoid high winds on new transplants. This conditioning also holds true to store bought plants if they are not already exposed to the sun and outside temps and winds.
Tomato plants need to be buried up to two thirds of the plant. This can be done by burying deeply, but not too deep that they are going to become water logged during heavy rains or watering. They can also be laid over in a deep trench with the end third slightly bent upward and out of the ground. This allows the plant to adequately grow a root system that will support the top growth of the plant. Tomato plants will need to be supported with stakes or cages before fruit grows to support the additional weight. Our garden even with the drain tile does not drain well, we like to take the wide landscape rake that we carry on the site and mound our rows. Then bury the plants at about the level of the actual garden and pull dirt up to the top third of the remaining exposed plant.
Other tall plants like peppers should be buried a little deeper than they are in the starter tray while shorter plants like cabbage can be transplanted at around the same depth as they come out of the tray. Try to avoid setting out new transplants in the morning that will need to endure the transplant shock then a hot sunny day, and try to keep the soil from the container intact while planting. Some of the pots are made to break down in the soil; we still like to break away the sides and bottoms so the roots are not inhibited to growing out into the garden soil and we also like to plant on a cloudy day or later in the evening when the sun is not as direct.
As seeds sprout some thinning will be needed, consider the size of the plant at maturity and the space it will need to have to thrive. Cramped plantings will produce smaller fruits, or will not thrive to even produce vegetables.
As your plants grow weed and insect control will be your next challenge. Inspecting the leaves each day will help keep you ahead of the potential pest problem a good gardening book on organic weed and pest control is a good investment, as there are several helpful beneficial bugs that help your garden plants thrive, so bugs are not necessarily a bad thing, but there is an army of bugs and birds that love fresh garden plants.
Cottage Craft Works has several books on pest identification and organic weed and pest control. There is also an army of insects and nematodes that attack the plants under ground at the roots. A good garden plant book with pictures of infected plants will help you immensely. Plant rotation each year is also an important factor. You will want to try avoiding planting your tomatoes, cucumbers and squash in the same location or pot year after year.
Weed control starts with keeping new weed seeds from blowing into the garden, or carried in with new material. Try and keep the grass and outside parameter of the garden as weed free as possible and do not bring in fresh grass clippings, or hay or straw that has potential of bringing in new weed seeds. Regardless weeds seem to grow faster than the plants, early and frequent cultivation around the plants then followed with compost as mulch or other material to keep the weeds smothered. Some use layers of wet newspaper, some use plastic sheeting to mulch, and others use clean straw. Cottage Craft Works has several books just on the topic of organic weed control and mulching.
Watering the garden, will need to occur daily until the seeds pop and the transplants take a solid hold, and then if you don’t have a good soaking rain a couple times a week, ongoing, supplemental watering will likely be needed. Watch the plants carefully you will learn they soon talk to you and you will know they need a drink. Some gardeners use drip irrigation while some just use overhead sprinklers. The ideal time to water regardless is in the early mornings before the sun hits the plants directly. This allows the plants to dry out on the leaves. In contrast watering in the evenings leave the plant tops wet and subject to developing plant fungus and other leaf diseases. The best irrigation is set up on a timer which automatically comes on in the morning and provides the garden with a good soaking but does not leave standing water.
Mulch also helps absorb water and keeps the splash up from soil hitting the underside of the leaves. This also helps prevent transfer of potential plant leaf diseases as well as helps the plants retain moisture.
When the vegetables mature and you are ready to harvest the fruits of your hard work, you will then need to decide how you are going to use the bounty of the harvest. Many of the plants will produce over the summer, thus not all the vegetables will be ready at one time. Green beans come on heavy and will last several weeks. You will probably encounter a surplus of vegetables especially if you grow squash. Different plants like peas will stop producing as the days get hotter, followed by the beans. After a few seasons you will have a better feel for of the timing of different vegetables.
There are several ways to store the surplus. The most popular, quickest and easiest is blanching and then freezing. Blanching is a process of bringing the vegetables to a quick boil for just a few minutes pulling them out icing them down and then placing in freezer bags. The downside to this process is that it can fill your freezer fast, and the frozen items do not last as long as canned items.
The next process is actually canning the vegetables. The term canning is a bit confusing as you don’t place the vegetables in a can and place on a shelf. The easiest and most popular canning method is called the hot water bath cooker. This is where the food is processed by a recipe then placed in sterilized canning glass jars, with new lids sealed down with screw rims, then placed in a hot water canner to boil for a set period of time as required in the recipe and instructions to seal the lids. Most sterilize the jars by washing them in a dishwasher set on hot dry and then pull them out still hot to place hot liquid into the jars. Never place hot liquid into a jar that has not been heated by boiling or in a hot dishwasher, as they may burst as the hot liquid is poured in. The lids actually have a center dome that will suck down when the lid is properly sealed, they also need to be boiled to sterilize before using. Most use a shallow pan and a simple tool with a magnet to pull out the hot lids.
It is very important to follow the entire recipe and canning instructions as improperly home canned foods can be dangerous with the potential for botulism and food poisoning. Also pay close attention on how full the jar is topped off to allow for expansion and not have the jars burst. Generally we fill ours up to about a 1/2” just below the screw rim this leaves a 1-1/2 air gap in the jar neck. When the jars are pulled from the hot water bath they should be left out on a kitchen counter to air cool. As they cool you will actually here the lids pop down. Once sealed you should be able to feel the indentation of the lid and the jar should have a vacuum sound when opening, if not don’t use the product. It should also smell and look fresh. Look for any black residue around the top edge, which is an indication the contents has spoiled. You can use a black felt tip pen to mark the date the item was canned, and your canning instruction book will give you the expected shelf life before the product is considered outdated.
Cottage Craft Works carries a very inexpensive canning kit for $12.95 which includes the magnetic lid lifter, a jar lifter to take the jars in and out of the hot water, and a funnel to pour the hot liquid into the jars.
The next process is somewhat similar but uses a pressure cooker to seal the lids, most don’t like messing with this process unless they are very experienced and do a lot of home canning of meats, and other canned meals where a pressure cooker is required. A pressure cooker is a steam kettle that cooks using hot water and steam under pressure, if the lid is not placed on properly or the pressure relief valve has become damaged the lid could blow off or the cooker could actually explode like a bomb sending sharp hot metal shrapnel across the kitchen. So don’t get grandmas antique cooker down of the shelf that hasn’t been used for decades and attempt to use until it has been taken to a service center and inspected. Some of the older hardware stores still provide this service along with the parts and seals.
The initial investment in canning jars and the processing equipment can run several hundred dollars, but after that the only purchase needed for each year should be the new lids and prepackaged mixes. Canning lids should never be recycled; the threaded ring can be used year after year. Cottage Craft Works carries several books on home canning and the equipment, including both the hot water bath and American made pressure cookers. Canning jars and lids can still be purchased locally in hardware stores, grocery and discount stores. These stores usually carry premixed pouches with instructions for making salsa, ketchup, and pickles. They make wonderful mixes and are worth the time savings. Do pay close attention to the recipe measurements especially with the acid based products like tomatoes. The required mix of vinegar is needed to retard the chances of botulism from developing.
Cottage Craft Works also carries several food processors to make the home canning process easier and faster. The Victorio Food/Tomato Strainer cost $49. will quickly strain tomatoes and other fruit juices while separating the pulp into a separate container.
All this talk about food poisoning, botulism and exploding pots may seem a bit scary and intimidating but after you gain some experience, with your first couple of batches the process of home canning can be very easy and rewarding as well as self-sufficient. Just start small and accomplish the steps before trying to can several dozen jars. Making jams and jellies are even easier as they don’t require the hot water bath at all.
If you do have a large garden, or share friendships or family relationship with others who need help canning consider joining together and have a canning party. Several hands can make the process go much quicker, drafting the kids into the process will help them learn self-sufficiency for their own families, although if yours are like mine if it doesn’t have a computer key board or a game controller there won’t be much interest for now. Rediscovering the almost lost art of home canning will help them down the road when they realize all that work and fuss is worth it and they come back home wanting to know how to do it.
We also enjoy our outdoor kitchen for canning, but if you just use a gas kettle cooker outside for the hot water bath, it does take a lot of heat and mess out of the main kitchen.
The next food storage process is for those vegetables called root corps. This is the potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips and other vegetables that grow under the ground. Many have elaborate root cellars to store these items, while others store them in a pump house, like we do or some even under a house in the crawl space. The main storage factor is to find a cool dark ventilated location that won’t freeze. Take them from the garden leaving the soil on and spread the vegetables out so they don’t touch each other on cardboard or a tarp. These vegetables will stay fresh for several weeks and some for months. Onions with the partial stem left on can be tied and hung from a floor ceiling joist to allow them to air dry. Winter squash and some other above ground vegetables can also be stored in a root cellar environment. Cottage Craft Works carries books on building and using root cellar food storage.
Cottage Craft Works also carries several instructional books on making cheese, home butchering, making and smoking meats, making your own herb mixes and spices herbal vinegars, drying foods, as well as making homemade root beer, and wines. You can browse the site to see all the available books on self-sufficient, garden tools and home canning products at http://www.cottagecraftworks.com