We all know that canning is a great way to preserve an abundant harvest, but for some of us, it can be an irregular proposition. For years, I approached canning as a way to save garden produce that my family couldn't eat before it spoiled. Now, I know how much better it is to plan a canning garden around what I'd like to preserve instead.
Any garden will serve you best if you start with a plan. Knowing your crops' purpose allows you to get the maximum production out of your space and vastly reduces waste. You can even plan ahead for specific recipes. Whether you want a supply of home-grown salsa all year or you can't get enough of green bean salad, an organized blueprint reduces waste and makes your job easier.
If you approach canning in a haphazard way right now – a few jars of peaches when they start falling off the tree or a few cans of tomatoes when you can't make enough fresh pasta sauce during the summer – we're going to show you how to plan your garden specifically for canning. Even if you plant foods specifically for preserving now, we'll show you how to make the most of your space and time to take your canning garden to the next level.
Planning for Canning
Planning a canning garden is the ideal way to maximize your garden space and utilize your time. By preparing your garden ahead of time, you can be sure that you have what you need to feed everyone without a bunch of waste. You can also ensure that veggies are ripening at the same time, so you'll be able to preserve everything at once.
We often talk about succession planting when it comes to garden planning, which lets a gardener have a small amount of food coming in for meals throughout the growing season. Planning for canning is different because we think in bulk so that we're harvesting a large amount and the right variety off produce on the day we expect to process.
It's tempting to plant the things you want to eat without thinking ahead, but you need to plan your garden as if it were a grocery store list. The first step is to think about what you like to eat and what you want more of when your garden isn't producing.
In the winter when your garden is dormant what food does your family yearn for? What foods always sit in the pantry uneaten? Also, think about what you end up buying at the grocery store most often. If you are always picking up canned corn, be sure to plant that.
Make a list of what foods your family likes best. If this is your first time growing a garden for canning, start small, and pick one or two crops that are your favorites.
Tomatoes and green beans are the most commonly canned items, but cucumbers, carrots, and corn are also popular and simple to start with. If you want to go a bit more advanced, think about grouping plants to produce a favorite dish.
My family eats a lot of Mexican inspired food. One of my favorite things to do is to plant a salsa garden for salsa preserves. So I grow cilantro, onions, tomatoes, peppers all together and plan the timing, so they mature at the same time when I am ready to make salsa.
If your family loves root vegetables, you might want to plan a garden full of beets, rutabagas, and carrots. If you adore a green bean salad, plant lots of beans, onions, garlic, and asparagus. The options are endless.
Plan Your Garden Space
Once you have your plants picked out, it's time to plan things out. A blueprint lets you plan your crop rotation, pest control, fertilizer schedule, and plant varieties. It's also a great way to keep track of what you grow from year to year. You can look back at last year's plot and see what worked and what didn't.
Draw a Garden Map
The first step in planning a garden is to map things out. This can be as simple as sketching out an outline on a piece of paper or as sophisticated as using a software program. The next step is to calculate how much space you have for planting.
Now it's time to choose how many plants you need. There are a lot of figures out there stating how many square feet your garden should be based on the size of your family and if you plan to preserve part of your harvest. Those figures are going to vary quite a bit depending on multiple factors, such as what you grow and how well the plants produce. Storey’s publishing has some great online worksheets to get you started that let you input what you want out of your garden.
You may think that a canning garden needs lots of space and 100-foot rows of green beans. But a well-planned garden has space for things you want to eat fresh and things you plan to can so you have a year-round supply of food, all in an area that isn't as large as you might think.
No matter what size your canning garden, you can grow enough to preserve. If your space is limited or are you a fan of the Square Foot Gardening method, you can grow an abundance in 4-foot square beds.
For instance, take one of your 4-foot garden beds and plant 144 green bean seeds 4-inches apart in each direction you will average 35 pounds of green beans. A bushel of green beans weighs approximately 30 pounds and will make 14 to 18 quarts.
You can do the same thing with carrots. In one 4-foot bed, you can plant 256 seeds 3-inches apart and harvest thirty pounds of carrots. This will net you about 15 quarts of diced carrots.
There are several charts online that give you the yield of pounds to quarts for canning purposes.
If you have a canning garden that is between 400 to 800 square feet you have a bit more room to spread out. If you have a larger garden and are using a traditional row method, fifty feet of green beans would yield you about 30 pounds of beans. And fifty feet of carrots would be about 50 pounds.
The trick with a more extensive garden is organization. You have more room to spread out which can be tempting to plant too many of certain crops. Try to reign in your desire to plant the whole garden in one sitting and spend some time considering what you need and want.
If you have plenty of space, you may also want to see what is selling at your local farmer's market and plant that with the goal of selling your excess produce.
One of the keys to planning a canning garden is to focus on timing. If you plan to process your food in late September, take a look at the maturity dates on your plants and schedule your planting so everything matures at approximately the same time. If you'd rather stagger your canning, plan ahead for that.
You may also want to sow a few plants in succession so that you have a fresh supply of food before or after canning as well.
You can see an example of how I schedule my plantings in the recipe for a salsa garden below.
Plant Varieties for Your Canning Garden
When you are canning, you are subjecting your vegetables to extreme heat and pressure. It is important to have varieties that can stand up to the rigors of the process – not to mention being a hardy, productive plant so you can maximize yields.
Green beans are an excellent first choice when it comes to canning. They are prolific and do well planted in succession so you have a supply for fresh eating and for canning. Pick your green beans at the peak of flavor when they are about 5-inches long. Don’t can green beans that have full pods or are turning yellow.
Provider is a great green bean for a canning garden. It has that traditional bean taste and does not lose flavor during canning. Provider is also known for having reliable yields even during unfavorable conditions so you can count on having plenty for eating and canning.
Hands down my favorite “green bean” is Royal Burgundy. They are actually a purple bean, and to my great dismay, they turn green during cooking. I love this bean's crunchy flavor when it is fresh, but it holds up well in canning and does not become too mushy.
Other popular canning beans are Blue Lake and Jade.
Yes, my last name is very Italian, and my family thinks that tomatoes are a food group in themselves. So I grow a lot of tomatoes for different functions.
The truth is most tomato varieties are good for a variety of canning tasks. Listen to any group of gardeners and you'll hear heated discussions about which tomatoes are superior. I have my favorites, but experimenting is half the fun.
For canning pasta sauces and fresh tomatoes, my favorite is Amish Paste. My favorite used to be Roma’s, but they have been more susceptible to fungus issues. This heirloom plum tomato is very thick and meaty.
I also like that it's one of the biggest paste tomatoes and that makes it easier on my hands. Amish Paste tomatoes make a nice thick sauce. A bushel of paste tomatoes weighs 53 pounds, but when cooking down into a sauce, you get about 6 quarts.
Rutgers is my favorite slicing tomato for a canning garden. I use them to make chopped tomatoes that I add to dishes when cooking in the winter. You do need to remove the seeds as they can add a bitter flavor to your final product. Rutgers have a great taste and take the heat from processing well.
As I said earlier, I like to have a salsa garden. The varieties that are the foundation of my salsa garden are San Marzano tomatoes, Amarylla tomatillos, and Lipstick peppers. These varieties also have the advantage of being different colors and make a visually attractive dish.
I admit, corn is a space hog and has a low yield per plant (fifty ears per fifty-foot row). But it tastes so good and is such a staple of summer cooking. On average, a bushel of corn (the ears) weighs 30 pounds and makes 7 to 11 quarts of corn.
If you've only had the store-bought kind, you're in for a treat. Fresh canned corn is downright delicious. For a canning garden, try to pick dependable varieties with 3 or more ears per plant. Corn should go from picking to canning as soon as possible because it loses flavor quickly.
Bodacious is an excellent canning variety. It has a nice uniform ear which makes kernel removal easier. It's a yellow corn variety which also looks more attractive when canned.
Silver Queen is a tasty white kernel corn, but it does have a tendency to look cloudy when canned. However, it holds its flavor well so if you can overlook the appearance, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Come January, there's nothing better than the bright crunch of a canned carrot. Red Core Chatenay is an ideal size for a canning garden and retains its sweet, crisp flavor even after sitting on the shelf. Imperator and Danver varieties mature by frost and lend themselves nicely to long-term storage. You can get about 1 quart for every 2 pounds of carrots.
If you've ever made pickles at home you know they can be so much tastier than the store-bought kind. Select cucumber types that retain their crunch, are small and can stand up to pickling's bold flavors. A quick way to find a good variety is to choose one that has “pickle” in the plant's name. National Pickling, Kirby cukes, Little Leaf and County Fair cucumbers are also good choices. A pound of cucumbers will yield you about a quart of pickles.
Whether you prefer spicy or sweet, peppers are nice to have around the house because they add a kick to a variety of dishes. Jimmy Nardello is a delicious heirloom bell pepper that is particularly tasty canned. Almost any variety of small pepper, like banana, habanero or jalapeno, lends itself well to preserves. There are even varieties, like the Sweet Pickle Pepper, that are cultivated solely for pickling. You need about a pound of fresh peppers to yield a pint of pickled peppers.
If you like sauerkraut, Late Flat Dutch and Golden Acre are perfect. Late Flat Dutch takes 100 days to mature, so it works well with other veggies that take a long time to mature. Golden Acre takes 65 days, so it's more suitable for quick maturing plants in a canning garden. You'll get about a pint of sauerkraut for every 3 pounds of fresh cabbage.
Grow a Salsa Canning Garden
A salsa garden easily fits into a 2-foot by 8-foot bed. If you think of each square foot as a box, you have 16 squares.
Along the back side of the garden, I plant my tomatoes – 4 of each variety, with one in each square. My raised beds are up along a fence so the tomatoes can climb. Then, I plant four pepper plants in front, one in each square.
Notice, I don’t have any hot peppers? We like sweet or mild salsa. If you like some bite to your salsa, then you will want to plant a jalapeno pepper in your salsa garden. Replace a sweet pepper plant with a hot pepper.
I plant two squares of onions – I prefer Red Spanish Sweet – with nine onions in each square. The last two squares are for herbs. Six cilantro plants in one square and two basil plants in the other.
Since cilantro grows more quickly than tomatoes, I plant my tomatoes earlier in the year and cilantro later so that everything matures at the same time. Onions take the longest of all, so I start them much earlier in the season indoors. Then I select a pepper variety that matures right alongside everything else. You can find sweet peppers that take anywhere from 60 to 100 days to mature, so it's easy to find one that works with my canning garden's schedule.
A little time and planning before your start sowing your seeds will make all the difference in the success of your canning garden. Once you get the hang of things, you'll be growing more and spending less time processing than ever before. Be sure to share your favorite canning recipe with us in the comments.