preserving with a small garden (or, the year of the pickle)

Size is all relative.  Some folks might think I have a large backyard garden, while others have tilled up an acre on their property or are a market gardener with 2000 tomato plants.  So I still consider myself small.  This year we have 13 tomato plants. Barring late blight (fingers still crossed in this area) that's more than enough for the two of us for fresh eating and winter use.  However, we're not the type of garden where you put up 36 quarts of tomatoes in an afternoon.  I actually consider that a good thing, but maybe my style has evolved with the size of my garden.

At any rate, the first step in preserving on this scale is knowing what you use, and not wasting time and space on things you don't.  And realistically, it takes a few years of practice to figure this out, so don't expect to get it right on your first try.  I take inventories, make guestimates, and try to honestly decide whether I was hoarding something or not (did those 6 jars of pears last because I couldn't bear to eat them, or because we're not really canned fruit lovers?).  I also try new things every year, and keep in mind gift-giving.  If I have a lot of something leftover, I make less the next season and use up the older jars first.

A few miscellaneous things I find have helped:

  • Let your produce guide you.  I don't get 20 pounds of tomatoes at once, but at peak season will get 6 pounds every day or so.  I have a cheat sheet on how many pounds in a batch of X (salsa, sauce, plain tomatoes).  Then I'll sort the fruit:  Overripe and/or unfit for canning?  This pile gets made into tomato sauce for the week, with extra to be frozen in ziplock bags.  Just right?  The weight and other ingredients on hand (am I out of peppers?) will guide me to a salsa recipe.  Extra cherry or plum tomatoes?  Slice in half and throw them in the dehydrator.
  • Similarly, keep track of your goals.  We love our salsa, and I try to make a lot of that up front while I have enthusiasm for lots of chopping.  We also have a serious pizza addiction here so I aim for 30 or so portions of sauce in the freezer.  Once those goals are met, the simpler canned tomatoes and plain sauce can use up the rest of the harvest.  Or, I can try out a new recipe.
  • Small batches and portions.  We can almost entirely in pints and half-pints.  Not only is that a useful size for us, but it means we don't need as much produce for a batch.  I need 9 to 11 pounds for a full canner load of basic tomato products, 4 to 6 for salsa.  Also, there are a lot of salsa recipes making 4 or 5 jars.  These I can even process in a large stock pot, which saves time and energy over my big 21-quart canner.  
  • Sometimes it's just a good year for XXXX.  Take advantage of a bumper crop and make extra--or take the opportunity to learn something new.  This year for me it's cucumbers, and I'm finally getting the hang of pickles.  These are so adaptable to smaller batches.  Don't worry about having 20 pounds of fruit, just make what you've got.  It's easy to cut a recipe down to your batch size, and you can even save the extra brine and use it within a week or two.  And don't be afraid of overnight brining, it actually makes things easier--the next day you can be all prepped and ready to go after work (or whatever), and the basic processing step is pretty simple.  That was a hard lesson for me to learn.
  • Don't forget freezing:  Freezing a few extra zucchini or eggplant, or just your leftovers from dinner, is one of the easiest ways for us to extend our harvest over the winter.  Even just a quart bag or two at a time quickly adds up, and keeps your fridge from being overloaded with zucchini and eggplant.   We don't grow sweet corn, but when we pick it up for dinner we often get a few extra ears and freeze a bag full.   
A good start so far...The pickle to salsa ratio is a bit off so far this year.  There's also a few jars left from last season on the top shelf.

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  1. Very helpful post! I'm always struggling with these issues, how much to grow, etc. The pounds needed for a canner load is especially useful, and why don't I already know this?

  2. It took me a few years of doing math before every batch to make a cheat sheet, ha! I also was pretty boring making the same salsa recipe over and over, so I at least got the hang of knowing how much produce I needed for it.

    Its definitely a learning curve, I feel like I'm just getting a grip on it.


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