by Olivia Allen, Project Lead for Youth Programs
In my last contribution to the Cautious Optimist Project,I shared about my experience with starting seedlings and planting many fruits and vegetables in my garden!
As you’ll read in the last blog, I was a little overwhelmed with the amount of plants I had started, pots everywhere, and two gardens full of many different fruits and vegetables. As the summer went on I was worried about the cost of gardening versus the return on investment (in terms of food that I would receive). I spent about $200 (or maybe a bit more) on garden materials (seeds, soil, lime starter pods/pots- but the starter pots and starter soil, I’ll still have some for next year). Over the summer I was concerned that I was racking up my water bill however, I’d estimate watering my gardens (almost daily as July and August were very dry and warm) cost me only about $80 total.
This summer I experienced success and failures with my garden, here is a summary of my accomplishments and learnings:
2020 Garden Accomplishments & Learnings
- Baby tomatoes and Italian pear tomatoes were a huge success, we had boxes and boxes of tomatoes, and was able to share with friends and family, make homemade pasta sauce multiple times (about 5 batches enough to feed 4-6 people each time), and two batches of homemade salsa (25 jars). I had to pick a bunch when they were green before the frost came and allow them to ripen indoors.
- Cucumbers were our next great success, I’d estimate I had 40-50 cucumbers, we shared with friends and family and ate many fresh , and then made the rest into dill pickle spears, which yielded about 40 jars of pickles (My partner and I love pickles, so I think we nearly recovered by cost-investment in pickles alone).
- The beets grew really well, we ate the beet greens, made a beet dip for pretzels and fed the rest of the beets to our dog in his homemade dog food
- We grew the juiciest and tastiest cantaloupe I’ve ever had! Only one vine survived the transplant, but yielded about 7 cantaloupe
- Watermelons were also a success, they were quite seedy and a little on the small side, but still a success, we got about 13 small Watermelon
- I bought a pumpkin seedling to plant (I didn’t start it from seed) . It grew two pumpkins, which we carved for Halloween! And used the guts in homemade dog food.
- I got my asparagus patch started, it takes three years for the asparagus to grow large enough to eat, but getting it started was a good investment, as it will grow back every year on its own!
- Seedlings really need to be watered, a lot of my starter plants didn’t make it because I missed a day of watering and once the sprouting seed dries out, it’s dead!
- The same thing happened in the garden, I planted carrot seed and romaine lettuce seeds, the next few days were very dry and I guess I did not water them enough for the seeds, no carrots or lettuce ever sprouted
- Broccoli are as hard to grow as the internet says- I tried some in both of my gardens and in single pots, as I read they get eaten by animals and bugs easily. The broccoli in one garden close to the forest was eaten by deer, the ones in the pots were eaten by ants, and the ones in the other garden, were also eaten by some sort of bug. I don’t think I will try broccoli or cauliflower again, until I have a greenhouse to keep them safe.
- Corn needs to be picked as soon as the hair turns brown even if the cobs are still small (my uncle pointed this out at our garden) and I picked the corn, but it was already starting to harden a bit, so it was not juicy at all, I cooked them anyway and fed them to my dog, he ate the corn and the entire cob!
- Pandemic problems- apparently everyone was gardening this year, tomato cages, which would have helped some of my bigger tomato plants grow better were nowhere to be found (my uncle gave me some, but I would have benefited from having a few more). Chicken coop wire was also impossible to find, I might have had better luck with the broccoli in one garden if I was able to fence in the garden and protect it from the deer.
- A garden is a lot of work, watering, weeding (lots of weeding), and with acidic soil = soil maintenance
Overall, I was very pleased with the outcomes of the garden- next year, I do want to make sure I do better with starting carrots in the ground and corn harvesting.
Making Dill Pickle Spears
I was really looking forward to making dill pickle spears (one of my go to snacks), I expected the cucumbers to do well because I remember my grandparents having a lot of success with them in this very garden.
I had to do some research to discover how to make dill pickle spears, my mom and grandmothers make sweet relish pickles, so this was going to be an learning experiment. My good friend Google taught me a lot, I realized this was going to be easier than I expected. I’d recommend reviewing a few recipes to get inspired- but the most important thing you need is vinegar, pickling salt or kosher salt and dill seed. You can decide what kind of spices you want to add. I added 1 garlic clove to each jar, a full piece of fresh dill (though the dill seed is really what gives it the dill flavor), chili flakes, and black peppercorn to make them spicy.
ECO TIP: Start saving all jars and lids now if you plan to pickle or make salsa… in general using jars is a great way to reduce your use of plastic containers and other plastics)
After collecting some jars and reading a few different recipes here is how to go about your pickling (if you are not preserving them), pickles are good for quite a long time without being caned if kept refrigerated:
- Wash and spear (or slice for sandwiches) the cucumbers (the first time I left the seeds on, the second batch later in the summer my friend and I spooned out the seeds before pickling, next time I would remove the seeds from only the very seedy cucumbers, with the largest centres). Extra tip – make sure you’re cutting your cucumbers so that they will be a few centimetres below the lip of the size jars you are using, it’s better for them to be too short than too long!
- Peel the garlic and clean the fresh dill.
- Wash jars and lids (even if they have already been washed)
- Set up a cooking sheet or dish towel full of jars, and fill them with pickle spears, not jam packed, but full.
- Go into manufacturing mode
- Plop a garlic clove, and piece of fresh dill into each jar
- Add spices (except salt), for a mason jar size I did half a teaspoon of peppercorn, dill seed and chili flakes in each jar.
- Make the brine- ½ water, ½ vinegar and a generous amount of of salt, stir to dissolve the salt
- Pour the brine into each jar to cover the cukes.
- Put on the lids, wipe off the jars and put them in the fridge, wait two weeks and… Ta-da!
Remember if I were to be canning these pickles the process for cleaning the jars and preparing the brine would be slightly different. Not canning them meant the cukes were never heated up- meaning the pickles had extra satisfying crunch.
Though the pickling was simpler than I anticipated, it was time consuming because I had a lot of cukes around 25 for my first batch, and 15 later in the summer. Washing the jars, cutting the cukes, peeling the garlic and adding ingredients to each jar all take time!
My pickles were a hit! My partner would eat a whole jar for a snack and my friends would talk about them at get togethers, I was feeling the pickle-love! Next year, I’d like to grow garlic and fresh dill to have for my pickling so I don’t have to purchase these at the store.
Homemade Salsa & Canning
I was not as confident about growing the tomatoes as I was the cucumbers, so I was caught off guard by the amount of tomatoes I had. I gifted the tomatoes to friends and family and experimented with a variety of homemade pasta sauces over the later half of the summer, picking a mixing bowl full of tomatoes every week. At the end of September even more tomatoes were ripening every few days, I ended up filling a large box and a shoe box with tomatoes within a week, and I knew it was time to try making homemade salsa, I couldn’t eat anymore pasta sauce and chips & salsa are another great snack!
I knew I would need to can the salsa to preserve it, as I didn’t expect it to last as well as the pickles would. I called up my friend Janetta, because I knew this was up her alley. She confirmed my suspicion that she knew how to and got excited to pay me a visit with her “canning pot” and to make salsa! She had only made salsa with a friend once before but was definitely a confident canner from canning other creations!
I looked up a recipe and had to buy quite a few things to make the salsa – jalapenos, more garlic, red onion, cumin and fresh cilantro.
Preparing the salsa itself was super easy!Olivia Allen
Pre- instructions tip: Nothing needs to be chopped small, it’s going in the food processor)!
- Chop up tomatoes – put in food processor to make chunky salsa texture, more to pot
- Peel garlic, remove seeds/core of jalapenos and chop, chop onions, chop fresh cilantro, process in food processor until in small bits, transfer to large pot
- Add lots of cumin, salt and pepper! You could add chili flakes if you want an extra kick!
- The instructions above made very taste by runny salsa, i added some tomato paste the second time
- Bring to a boil and simmer until onions are clear and tomatoes are breaking down
There are a lot of canning techniques, previous Cautious Optimist blog by Danyka discussed a variety of techniques, Janetta taught me slightly differently (we recommend this quick and easy method only if you’ll be eating your canned goods in the next few months, not storing them for an excessive amount of time).
We boiled a small amount of water in a large pot and reduced it to a simmer, we added the lids, and a few jars into the steamy pot and put the lid on for a few minutes, then sanitized the jars and to heat them for canning. We did use jars that were saved from pasta causes and store bought jams, which isn’t always recommended (but we made sure they canned properly, and those that did not can properly were stored in the fridge instead of the cupboard, and wear eaten first, so they did not spoil)
We created an assembly line system, Janetta carefully got the jars and matching lids out of the steamy pot, she would add more jars into the pot, while I scooped the simmering salsa into the jars (filling them up to the neck) and adding the lid, and wiping the jar.
What I didn’t realize was that the heat from the jar and salsa being hot was that the lids would seal themselves. I had to look into what was behind this process more, after doing a bit of reading I learned that Canning jars are designed with a seal that will suction onto the jar when air is removed, and that gasses venting inside the jars from the salsa cause the pressure outside of the jar to be greater than inside, this causes a vacuum seal!
Next year, I will have to grow some hot peppers, onions, cilantro (and garlic, already mentioned that though) to put into the salsa! I would also like to can some pasta sauce as it was easy to make, requiring less ingredients than the salsa did.
I can’t keep up with the salsa demand, my dad says he could eat one jar a day and there is a minor salsa-ownership dispute going on at my in-laws place!
This summer I did garden my way through a list of learning goals, the title of my last blog was more descriptive of the situation than I originally thought. Life is busy, I’ve thought about learning to pickle, can, and make homemade salsa over the past few years, but never seemed to make time for it. Gardening helped me break that trend! I was proud of the food I had grown, and no way was I letting it go to waste!
If I hadn’t grown cucumbers and tomatoes, I don’t think I would have purchased them from the store to learn these new skills. I’m thankful for the accountability that gardening gave me, in terms of caring for the garden herself and in making the most of the food the garden gave me! And I am thankful to Danielle for starting the Cautious Optimist Project, which has inspired me to share what I am learning with others. If this blog inspires a few people to start gardening and making creations from their garden’s gifts, that’s a few more people connecting with nature, eating healthy, eating more sustainability, and learning centuries-old skills to survive and address new-age problems! Growing your own food not only helps you fight climate change and prepare for the climate apocalypse, growing food can also give you a great sense of purpose and pride- if you are thinking about gardening in 2021, I recommend you place it high on your priority list.