Friday, July 21, 2017

Time Saving Canning Hacks From Prep to POP!

A "light load" in 2017 with chocolate black raspberry
dessert spread, blueberry pie filling, strawberry-lemonade
concentrate, and black raspberry vinegar.  
     Have you ever had someone see a picture of your canned goods and think you're nuts and that you must never have a chance to sit down, like ever?  

     For us, it's not uncommon to make sure by the end of canning season anywhere from 700 to 900 jars of canned goods are filled to last us until we can those particular products again (and yes, we plan to eat them all before you ask).  To do so, it could easily mean a couple dozen jars done in a morning or evening, or 100+ jars done over a long canning weekend.  We've noticed that a lot of people seem to think that doing this will take FOREVER, but it doesn't have to!  There's certainly places that you can "cut corners" to save time and still safely can your garden's bounty for out-of-season use.  

Step 1. Sterilizing canning jars 

Washing canning jars in my husband's
apartment kitchen in 2012.
     Jars right out of the package or off your storage shelf (even though they've been cleaned in the past) are not considered sterilized.  Did you know that according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation you don't have to sterilize your jars if you'll be processing them for more than ten minutes in a water bath or pressure canner?  Since we can everything for more than ten minutes, we do an abbreviated "sterilization" by washing our jars with a clean washcloth in a scrubbed out sink in hot soapy water.  Then they get loaded onto cookie sheets and placed in a 200 degree oven to keep them warm.  We heat them for at least ten minutes in the oven prior to use so the jars are hot when they come out, and therefore hot when the hot lid/food hits them as well.  We've found this assists in keeping the jars from breaking when different temperatures meet.  

     Tip: Any water drops that are left on them when they enter the oven are usually gone by the time the jars come out, and therefore we don't bother drying them off between the two.

     Tip: We found that however many jars your recipe calls for, always have an extra one or two ready to go because it'll likely make more, not less, than what your recipe says.  So think like a Boy Scout, and Be Prepared for that to happen.  

Step 2. Heating lids

     I've watched some people skip this step altogether, but along with it being more sterile for your soon-to-be processed canned goods, it also really helps get the wax on the standard canning lids heated up.  There's multiple ways to heat lids including just piling them all in a pot on the stovetop, but we use two handy gadgets - a canning lid rack and canning magnetic lid lifter - that make quick work of heating and using the lids.

      A canning lid rack holds twelve lids vertically, and can be submerged in a pot of water.  It keeps the lids separated so they don't accidentally stick together when the wax begins to heat up.  New these cost between $9-20 depending on the brand.

     A canning magnetic lid lifter is simply a magnet on the end of a stick.  Complex I know!  In the early days of us canning we used a pair of tongs to lift the lids out of the hot water, but now with a magnet, there's no more having the lids accidentally slide back into the pot, and seemingly hours of fishing around in the bottom of the pot for the last remaining lid.  New these cost between $2-8 depending on the brand.

     Tip: Heat an extra lid or two in case you drop one during the processing.  They can always be cooled down and reheated again at a later time.  

Step 3. Prepping your canned goods

Prepped recipes during Peach Season 2015.
     Ask yourself, "How many recipes worth am I planning on making today?" before you get started.  We don't just prep one recipe at a time, but at least two.  If you're planning on doing a lot of canning, you never want to have a stilled canner as a stilled canner means wasted processing time.

     I had started pre-prepping multiple recipes during peach and apple processing a few years ago because it just made more sense to get it all done while your hands were already sticky, and you could sit and watch television.  In that case, I chop all the peaches and other produce that is needed for a particular recipe beforehand, label them and stick them in the fridge so whenever I need to refill the canner with something other than what I was previously canning, there's a recipe more-or-less ready to drop into a pot and heat up.

Pizza sauce (back left), sweet 'n' sour sauce (front left) and tomato sauce
(front right) cooking down on the stove in 2016.

     When doing jams or tomato sauce-based recipes, I like to have one pot on the front burner, and one pot on the back burner, spaced evenly apart time-wise so that when one set of jars is ready to come out of the canner, a new set can easily go in.  I've found that it takes me approximately 10 minutes to take the jars out of the oven, fill them on the cookie tray so any drips and spills are easy to clean, and secure the lids and bands.  Usually, right as I'm putting on the last band, the previous load of jars is ready to come out of the canner.

     Tip: Gallon pickle jars, half gallon canning jars, and 8+ cup plastic containers make great options to store pre-prepped goods before you're ready to use them.

     Tip: To keep your fruit looking fresh and the proper color, place in a container of cool water with some Fresh Fruit powder or lemon juice.

Step 4. Heating your (water bath) canner.

      Fill up your canner with water before you need it.  We even get the water in our water bath heating about thirty minutes before we need it so that the hot jars won't touch cold water when they go in.  Then, even if you have to adjust the water level of the canner, it won't take nearly as long to heat back up once you've filled it with canned goods. 

     Tip: Keep a mixing bowl filled with water in your kitchen sink so you can level off the water of the water bath canner to at least one inch above your jars once they are in.

    Tip: If you want to keep your jars (especially those that go into a pressure canner) from getting water spots, add a little bit of white vinegar into the water as you are heating it.

Step 5. Filling the jars

     Splish!  Splash!  I think I need a bath!  This is by far the messiest part of canning for us because you're on a tight timetable to get the hot jars out of the oven, the hot ingredients into the jars (we don't do a lot of cold pack), and the hot lids on the jars, and then everything quickly and effectively into a canner.  I found the most effective way to do this is make sure you have a fully prepped "fill space" next to the stove (if possible).  Imagine that you're prepping a surgical area, so you want to have everything laid out in easy reach.  Here's the big three that you need to remember:

  • Gather everything you need to fill the jars: ladle or deep spoon, funnel for easy filling (we use a plastic collapsible canning funnel that costs around $5), small metal spoon to skim off foam or change volume in the jars, butter knife to remove air bubbles.
  • Keep the lids and rings at close reach.  This sometimes includes putting a potholder out for the lids if they are located on a burner too far away on the stovetop, and having a basket full of clean rings handy.  Make sure you have your magnet handy if you are using it!  
  • Hot pads are your friend.  We put out two potholders for our cookie tray to balance on with the hot jars from the oven.  You'll also want to have an oven mitt or glove to remove the cookie tray, take off the hot water bath lid, and also to tighten any rings on the jars once they are filled.  

     For me, it's always easiest to work in a grid pattern when I fill the jars then, leaving those furthest from the canner for last so nothing gets dripped into the otherwise empty jars and they can either be filled with another load, or cooled and put away without having to clean them.

     Tip: Think of this process as an assembly line.  Fill all the jars first, so you have the chance to adjust their volume easier if need be.  Then put all the lids on.  Then put on the rings and tighten them as you go.  Once they are all ready to go, open the canner lid and place them in.  

     Note: Even if a lid pops once the ring is screwed on, process it anyways.  Processing is not used just to seal the jar, but to heat whatever is being canned to a high enough temperature to make it shelf stable.  

Step 6. Removing the jars from the canner

Removing jars from the canner in 2012.
     CRRRRAAAACCCCKKKK.  It's bound to happen at least once in your canning career; a jar cracks either in the canner, or once it's removed, and makes what could be considered one of the stickiest canning messes you'll ever see.  To try to prevent this from happening, take some precautions:

  • DON'T remove the jars immediately from the (water bath) canner, but turn off the burner, remove the canner's lid, and set the timer for five minutes.  The jars not only start to cool down during these five minutes, but the lids (at least in our experience) are more likely to pop within the first minute or two of the jars coming out.  
  • DON'T remove hot jars from a canner into the direct flow of an air conditioner or fan, or cool them in that air flow.  The change in temperature is likely to make them break.  DO keep those cooling devices on until it is time to remove the jars or otherwise it'll be hot, hot, hot in your kitchen!
  • DON'T knock the jars against the side of the canner when removing them.  
  • DON'T drop the jars back into the canner.  Actual jar lifters designed for the purpose of lifting canning jars make a world of difference to the safety of your jars.  They cost anywhere from $3-$13 new depending on the exact style and brand you choose.  
  • DO slightly tip the jar to drain most of the water off the lid before you move it to your cooling location.  The last thing you'll want is a burn from the very hot water.  

Canned pineapple, apple pie filling, apple butter, and hot
pepper jam cooling on the table in 2013.
     Make sure you have a place prepared to let your jars cool before they need to come out of the canner.  You can use cookie trays with dish towels or cookie racks on, turkey roasters with their roasting racks, dish towels or bath towels laid out on tables or counters, or also cookie racks with towels or foil underneath to catch any overflow that might occur.  Although we started off just using the cookie tray and racks to cool them on, as our batches got bigger, we quickly ran out of racks.  We now remove all of our jars to a cookie tray to then carry them over to their cooling location on a large bath towel set on either a table, desk or trunk away from any direct air flow.  
  • DON'T check your lids too early.  This may result in a false seal, and therefore a ruined jar of canned goods.  Within about an hour or two all the lids should have popped.  Any canned goods with lids that have not popped should be stored in the fridge.  Wait at least eight hours to pack up your canned goods for storage.  
  • DO label all your canned goods before storing them with both year and their contents.  Trust me... you won't remember which kind of jam it is when you're looking at a sea of reds and purples without having a label on it.  

     I hope some of this is helpful in making your canning process a little easier!  What time saving tips do you have in the canning kitchen?  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Know Thy Enemy in the Garden

Cabbage White Butterflies dancing
on the blooming lavender in the garden.
     Chomp, chomp.  Some summer days it seems to echo throughout the land.  The chorus of quiet munching and nibbling on every leaf, stem, and fruit in the garden.  Somehow these pests know exactly where to go.  They avoid the weeds like the plague, and plop down on the squash, cabbage, beans, tomatoes, potatoes and corn, settling in for a good filling meal for them over the growing season, but a meal for them means less of one for us.  

     In September of 2016, the Mr. and I went to the Mother Earth News Fair in Somerset, PA, and listened to two different individuals discuss how they organically repelled, destroyed and co-habited with their garden pests.  They both had wonderful ideas that worked for their situation, but I've come to find that not all situations are the same, and as every single presenter seemed to say in answer to question after question that weekend... "it depends."  

     Those words leave me a little frustrated.  Can't there be a full proof way to get rid of these buggers, both big and small?  One that doesn't cost an arm and a leg?  One that doesn't involve laying down floating row covers, fencing the perimeter, or turning over every leaf, every day, as sunlight is waning as quickly as your sanity?  So I repeat, "it depends."  It depends on what pest you are dealing with, where you live, what your weather is, if you garden organic or pesticide friendly, and how much time and money you are willing to invest.  

     After four seasons of in-ground gardening (and in the midst of our fifth), I'm offering some of the pest prevention tips and tricks that we've used in our garden for five common pests.  Every garden is different, and maybe they won't work for you, but why not give them a try as most of these won't cost you much?

Five Common Garden Insect Pests

Caterpillar of a Swallowtail Butterfly 
Caterpillars.  I get it.  They're stunning.  They'll turn into an abundance of beautiful butterflies or moths, some of which eagerly help to pollinate the garden.  However, like it is for us, they are probably decimating your parsley, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc., depending on the species' desired buffet.  So do you kill them, or let them live?  Are they friend or foe?  We've come to the conclusion you must either hand pick them off the plants and send them to the afterlife, or to someone else.  Perhaps friends or family have butterfly gardens nearby and would be willing to take them off of your hands so they can watch the caterpillars mature, munch, and reproduce... in their garden.

Differential Grasshopper
Grasshoppers.  Anyone else grow up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books?  Among the most memorable parts of the series for me was in On The Banks of Plum Creek when the glittering cloud of grasshoppers shaded out the sky and literally ate the fields out of house and home.  Although, they were technically the Rocky Mountain Locusts of 1874 that were commonly referred to as grasshoppers, I feel that in the summer garden, the story sure fits.  Aside from the floating row covers that many gardeners swear by, I've noticed that another animal has quite the appetite for these... farm cats!  Although they don't completely eliminate the pests entirely, they certainly keep the population, and therefore problem, down as the cats "assist" us during our morning and evening chores.  In all, our less than half a dozen farm cats do pretty well over the 8,400 square feet of garden space we maintain.

Mature Colorado Potato Beetle
Colorado Potato Beetles.  The first of the pests for us to wage full-on warfare on was the dreaded Colorado Potato Beetle who systematically devoured the leaves of the carefully mounded Red Pontiac and Yukon Gold potatoes the first year until nearly none were left in the June heat.  Once feeding on the buffalo bur of another lonesome prairie in 1859, the pioneers’ potatoes looked better to these bugs that multiplied by the millions and traveled in droves 85 miles further eastward each year, looking for new potato fields to systematically devour.  The first year, we lost the crop as the plants were defoliated.  The second year we burned all the plants with a flaming torch.  The plants and beetles both returned.  In the third year, we hand picked every blasted one off, but this past year, we finally found our solution.  The potatoes were set in late this past year at the beginning of summer, instead of being the second crop in the garden at spring.  It broke the cycle, and we didn't pick a single beetle off the plants that I can recollect!  This year we once again planted the potatoes late (two rows in May, and we're hoping to put our third row in during early July) to see if we can eliminate or greatly reduce the beetles two years in a row.  We did have one or two appear thus far this year that were quickly picked off, and have been constantly surveying the crop for any other additional damage.  

Japanese Beetle
Japanese Beetles.  Arriving in America around the time of the First World War, the Japanese Beetle plagues our berry patch each summer (fortunately it's usually towards the end of the season).  This past year their sweet tooth sent them migrating to our sweet corn crop as soon as the berry patch was picked out.  Japanese Beetles are happy to dine on over 200 plants so there's no telling where they would have ended up next in our garden in the summer heat.  Although we cannot eliminate them all together, we can minimize the amount of damage they do by planting our crops earlier in the year before they make their largest attacks on our gardens near the end of summer.  Earlier in the season, we do hand-pick the beetles from the crops in the evening hours and drop them into containers of either soapy water or old motor oil.  

Tomato Hornworms.  Notice what looks like a moving tomato stem?  Uh oh.  You might have a Tomato Hornworm that blends in amazingly well with the tomato plant itself as it's often found clinging to branches and leaves near the tomato's main stem.  Tomato Hornworms, which can go up to 4" in length, are actually caterpillars of the Five-Spotted Hawk Moth that has a 3.5-5" wingspan itself.  We generally allow Mother Nature to take its course (with some help) with the Tomato Hornworms in our own garden, although you can pick them off by hand earlier on when they are just green caterpillars.  
     If you see a green caterpillar covered in what looks like white eggs, STOP!  Braconid Wasps lay their eggs under the skin of Tomato Hornworms (and their close relative the Tobacco Hornworm).  Once the larva chews its way through the hormworm, they spin little white cocoons on its back, which many mistake for the wasp's eggs.  The larva will feed off the hornworm, and once they emerge from their cocoons, the hornworm usually has but a few days left to live.  If you want to make sure the Tomato Hornworm is not continuing to decimate your crops during this process, you can pick them off the plants and put them in a quart-size yogurt container with a branch of tomato leaf.  Make sure to cover the container with screen or punch a few holes in the top for air.  Set it outside in a covered place so rain water doesn't flood the container.  Braconid Wasps (which pose no threat to humans) are less than 1/8" long when they emerge from their cocoons so they can easily fit through the small holes punched in the top.  By doing this instead of immediately killing the hornworm, you are producing the next generation of Tomato Hornworm killers for your garden.  
     (Note: It astounds me to no end that I cannot find a picture of these annual garden pests, especially with the wasp cocoons all over their backs.  If I do find or get a picture of them this year, I will certainly update this post with one!  For now search "tomato hornworm wasp" on the internet and you'll surely pop up a lot of pictures.)

Other Ways To Help Prevent Pests

Striped Cucumber Beetle
     Sure insect pests still show up in our garden.  Sure they are just what they are called: PESTS!  However, there are other ways we've found to deal with some of the pests too that can help in the garden overall.  

     Our most important piece of pest prevention is CROP ROTATION.  Crop rotation is where you don't plant a crop in the same place in the garden for successive years.  It can be done on a small, medium, or large scale, but honestly, the bigger your garden the better this will work.  We personally use a three-year rotation so the same crop is not planted in the same place for at least three years in a row.  This makes it more difficult for pests who overwinter to find their desired food crop.  Keep in mind when you are planning crop rotation that crops in the same family may share the same pests (i.e. Colorado Potato Beetles like both potatoes and tomatoes, which are both members of the nightshade family, so for crop rotation to truly work, you shouldn't plant potatoes where tomatoes were the previous year, and vice versa.)  

The layout of the 2014 Garden (our second year of in-ground gardening here).  
     
     You can also go back to our 2015 garden plan and 2016 garden plan posts to see how we rearranged the garden those two years to do our best to rotate crops.  Please keep in mind we may not have been 100% successful with crop rotation year to year as our gardens grew in size, but we certainly did try!  (On all layouts, one square = one square foot.)

Radish planted as a trap crop
     Another way to help avoid pest problems on particular crops is through the use of TRAP CROPS.  A trap crop is simply a crop that is sacrificed so that another crop might live.  For example, flea beetles that commonly defoliate eggplant leaves are drawn to radishes as well.  So therefore if you plant radishes nearby the eggplants, the flea beetles may find their way to them instead and leave your eggplants alone.  

     When all prevention fails (which does occur from time to time), it's time to CHECK EARLY AND OFTEN.  By taking morning, nightly, or even bi-weekly strolls through your garden you are more likely to catch the pests early on before they cause too much damage.  Once you find a pest (or really, even if you don't find any), continue to check up on your plants to make sure you are not seeing signs of them being attacked.

Spotted Cucumber Beetle
     The most common sign of a plant being attacked is holes in the plant's leaves.  Holes (or chew marks) along the outside edges might be rabbits nibbling at a tasty treat; whereas, holes straight through a leaf is a sign of insect damage.  Once you have identified damage on a plant, the next step is to identify pests that prefer that particular plant.  In this case a simple internet search of "pests of [insert variety of crop]" will tell you a lot, along with a variety of ways people found to get rid of that particular pest.  Keep in mind not all ways work for every garden because as the presenters stated again and again at the Mother Earth News Fair, "it depends" on a number of factors.

     Always make sure to write down in a notebook or scribble on the edge of a calendar when you noticed a certain pest showing up in the garden, and next year be extra vigilant a week or two prior to the same time to see if you can catch that pest earlier on if you haven't been able to eradicate it completely.

     What pests have been eating your gardening efforts?  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Taste of Family History

     I recently posted a picture of a "beyond cool piece of [The Mr.'s] family history" on my personal Facebook page, and asked our friends and family to take a gander at what they thought it might be without any additional hints or descriptions.  We got some pretty fun answers in response with a washing machine and bread dough trough ranking among the highest.  I will also admit the "giant mouse trap" and "bathtub for kittens and puppies" were rather inventive, but unequivocally wrong.  

     So we're left with the question that everyone now has, "What is it!?"

     It's a BUTTER CHURN!  The refinished churn still has bits of its original yellow paint clinging to the wooden cracks, and it also still rocks gently back and forth on its homemade stand (as the original one is no more).

     From dimensions and overall design, it's believed to be the Davis Swing (Butter) Churn No. 3, which was patented in 1877 by the Vermont Farm Machine Company. There were twelve available sizes in all, which ranged from 4-gallon capacity for at-home use to 300-gallon capacity that was suspended from the ceiling beams of creameries. This particular size (the No. 3) would have an 8-gallon capacity, and includes a glass peep-hole window in the top, and a drain hole on the bottom. With no paddles or plunger inside, the swinging motion of the whole churn back and forth would make the butter instead. To make the butter churning easier, a treadmill could be attached to the churn so sheep, goats, or dogs could act as the power instead of young children. A new churn in 1889 would cost around $8.00 from the company, a folding frame cost an additional $1.00, and the animal treadmill would be an additional $16.00.

Who Needs A Churn That Big? 

     Why a farm family of course, and on my husband's father's side they were all farm families!  This particular heirloom came from my husband's paternal grandmother's family.

     The Mr.'s Third Great Grandfather Moab H. Showalter (1853-1930) had moved to Washington County, Maryland around the spring of 1888 with his already expanding brood of eventually nine children.  Just a few years earlier, the local newspaper had already begun to run ads for the Davis Swing Churn, which was quickly becoming a labor and time saving device.  It would make sense that Moab, his son Amos Tobias (1885-1951), or Amos' son Paul Daniel (1920-2003) would find a use for such a butter churn on one of their farms.

     Moab owned two farms in Maryland, one being 110 acres and the other 120 acres, living in the area of Marsh Pike near Hagerstown, Maryland.  His son Amos would also eventually farm in the same area.   Although Amos mainly sold Stark Delicious, Grimes' Golden, Stark's Golden, Roman Beauties, Stayman, and Jonathan apples, Irish Cobbler potatoes, and oak lumber in the local classified ads, when he discontinued farming at the old Heilman Farm in 1936, he sold off 50 head of guernseys and cattle, at least fourteen of which were freshened at the time. By 1954, Amos' son Paul had the second highest producing dairy herd average in Washington County at 36.3lbs butterfat.  He also sold off "lots of old milk cans" when he rented his farm out in 1970.

     Until we get more clues from other relatives, any of these three men could easily have been the original owner of the Davis Swing Churn that Great Grandpa Paul had pulled out of the old pig pen on the farm and refinished.  Now, we plan to have it grace our own "farm kitchen."  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Never A Dull Moment

     This mommy-to-be (that's right, if you missed our Facebook announcement, we're expecting!) has already played her entire hand of energy cards today, and I've only made it through morning chores. It all started with the cries of a farm cat coming from the shed. Tiger had apparently fallen asleep in there and been locked in overnight. Don't worry, she made herself at home with the free buffet of open feed bags. 

     As I was searching for her hiding place, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye by the grill. It wasn't Tiger colored, and I didn't think we could have possibly got two cats stuck in there overnight. Had we locked someone else in the shed? 

     Wait... that's not a cat! 

     CRAP! 

     The meat birds got out of their brooder!!!!

     Yup, that's right the meat birds that have been hanging out in their brooder have made it to the age that they should go out on pasture.  We just happened to be 12-hours too late with our plans for this evening, and the birds managed to fly up and pop the top cover of the brooder and four of the sixteen found their way out into the shed... chowing down in the feed bags, balancing on flower pots, and making themselves a nice comfy roost on a pile of pallet boards.    

     This left the now tired pregnant woman, who hadn't eaten breakfast yet, let alone fed anyone else, a dilemma.  How was I going to get these birds back in?  

     I'd move within three feet of them, and they'd frantically fly looking for a safe place out my reach, and pooping whenever I got close enough to grab them out of fear.  Now they were wedged between flower pots in positions that I could not get to them in, clinging off the spokes of a mountain bike, perched on the windowsill, and one almost made it to the rafters.  

     In the meantime, the birds still in the brooder were trying with all their might to once again pop the top and join the escapees in their perceived freedom.  I refilled their feeders and tossed two boards on top of the brooder to try and hold down the screens that covered it.  

     Defeated, I called my husband for a second time; the first time having been to inform him of the situation that I found myself in ten minutes before.  

     "Do we have a fishing net on a big pole somewhere?"  I asked meekly.  

     "Nope, just the ones downstairs... can't you just corner them and grab them?"

     "I haven't eaten breakfast yet, or even touched the rest of the chores, and every time I bend up and down I get more and more lightheaded," I sighed.  "Could I just put a container of feed and water in the shed for them and leave them for when you get home?"  

     It was a last resort for the now exhausted pregnant lady who could hear the farm cats scratching at the door I had managed to tie shut with a piece of bailing twine.  Purrball was adamant that I was way too late with his breakfast.  Even Tiger seemed to want back in because at least then she'd have her free-choice feed sack buffet back.  I shooed the cats away from the door, and completely defeated and exhausted set out containers of water and feed on the floor of the shed next to the brooder.  It's just four of them, I reminded myself as I went out to finish the chores.  

    Here's to hoping the Mr. has better luck catching "just the four" escapee meat birds tonight so they can head out to their new homes on pasture.  There's officially never a dull moment around here.  


Saturday, April 1, 2017

How Much Should I Plant?

     As we work towards the ongoing chore of planning and planting the 2017 garden, that semi-crazy idea of growing enough food to sustain ourselves comes to mind once again.  In reality, we don't have the space, nor the time, it would take to be truly 100% sustainable, so we (more or less) plant enough food to supplement our trips to the grocery store, and certainly lower the grocery bills.  

So much zucchini!  2013 was the year of
more zucchini than I ever cared to see,
some of them almost reaching the
width of baseball bats!  
     Determining exactly how much we need to plant to do this comes with a lot of trial and error, and for certain crops, we've never made it past the error stage.  There are; however, some crops that we are essentially sustainable with unless there is a bad harvest year.  There was the one year that we planted a whopping 200 pea seeds, and yielded over 20 pounds of the tiny green things that blistered our fingers as we shelled them by hand.  The following year we upped it to 400 seeds and a different variety for the spring, and got a measly few ounces of peas that didn't even amount to half a pound for our efforts.  There was the year that our zucchini was decimated by squash bugs, followed by a year where we prayed the squash bugs would decimate the single plant that was producing over 30 pounds of zucchini and causing us to toss more than just the occasional scrap to the chickens.  It's essentially a toss up with what Mother Nature might throw at you.

     It all boils down to how much should I plant?  I've been asked this question multiple times, and in reality, it all comes down to trial and error.  We started off using advice from the internet by simply Googling "how much to plant" paired with some common sense to figure out how much to plant the first year.  From there, we started to expand upon what we needed more of based upon how quickly certain crops were used up.  Here's three tips to get you started that go beyond Googling "how much to plant":

Sit down and calculate what you actually use over the course of a year.

We try not to overburden ourselves with canning and do 1-year,
2-year and 3-year cycles.  Pictured above is a 3-year canning
cycle of Mixed Berry and Strawberry jams.  This year
(2017) our cycles collide so we will be canning all three
cycles at once.  YIKES!
     I know this sounds time consuming (it is) and bothersome, but when your up to your ears in spaghetti squash that only one of your family members will touch, you'll wish you would have listened.  We have three categories that we take into consideration: canned goods, frozen food, and dry goods (and root crops).  I generally don't calculate what we'll eat fresh because that greatly fluctuates with what is in abundance when harvesting.

     Below is an example of what we preserve for consumption later.  (Items that are crossed out means we are using up our current stock and do not plan to can or otherwise preserve them again in the coming year.  Items that are in parenthesis means that we plan on adding them in the coming year if our harvest permits.)

Canned Goods
Apple Barbecue Sauce
Apple Butter
Apple Juice
Apple Pie Filling
Apple Pie Jam
Applesauce
(Baked Beans)
(Beef Stock)
Blueberry Pie Filling
Bread and Butter Pickles
Carrot Cake Jam
(Chicken Stock)
Corn Relish
Corn Salsa
Cranberry Relish
Cranberry Sauce
Dill Pickles
Duck Sauce
Grape Jelly
Grape Juice
Ham Stock
Hot Pepper Jam
Ketchup
Marmalade
Mixed Berry Jam
Peaches
Peach Honey Butter
Peach Jam
Peach Pie Filling
Peach Salsa
Pineapples
Pizza Sauce
Raspberry Jam
Raspberry Jelly
Raspberry Lemonade Concentrate
Rhubarb Jam
Rhubarb Relish
Rhubarb Sunshine Concentrate
Roasted Red Pepper Spread
Salsa
Sauerkraut
Spaghetti Sauce
Strawberries
Strawberry Jam
Strawberry Lemonade Concentrate
Strawberry Rhubarb Jam
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Filling
Strawberry Syrup
Sweet 'N' Sour Sauce
Sweet Pickles
Sweet Pickle Relish
Tomatoes, Diced
Tomatoes, Whole
Tomato Juice
Tomato Paste
Tomato Sauce
Tomato Soup
Turkey Stock
Vegetable Stock
Wineberry Jam  
Frozen Foods
Blackberries
Blueberries
Broccoli, florets
Cabbage, quartered
Cauliflower, florets
Chili Peppers, diced
Celery
Celery Leaves
Corn on the Cob
Corn
Green Beans
Green/Spring Onions
Jalapeno Peppers, diced
Lima Beans
Patty Pan Squash, sliced
Peaches
Peas
Pumpkin, cooked
Raspberries
Spaghetti Squash, cooked
Strawberries
Sweet Peppers, sliced
Tomatoes, whole cherry
Wax Peppers, diced
Wineberries
Yellow Squash, coined
Zucchini, coined
Zucchini, shredded

Prepared Frozen Foods
From Garden/Produce
Apple Dumpling Roll-ups
Cream of Celery Soup
Egg Rolls
Enchilada Sauce
Pesto

Chicken Scraps 
*We keep chicken scraps 
frozen to feed them over 
the winter to supplement 
their diets when there is 
limited pasture
Cabbage, shredded
Garden Scraps
Mulberries
Radishes
Frozen Produce Surplus
left from previous years

Dry Goods
Basil, multiple varieties
Black Beans
Catnip
Chili Peppers
Corn
Dill
Garlic
Hulless Oats
Hutterite Soup Beans
Kidney Beans
Lima Beans
Mangals - chicken feed
Meadowmint
Onions, multiple varieties
Oregano
Parsley
Pinto Beans
Popcorn
Potatoes, multiple varieties
Pumpkins
Scarlet Runner Beans
Speariment
Squash
Sugar Beets - chicken feed
Thyme
Tomatoes, sun-dried

     Now after reading that list you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed, or perhaps proclaiming "ain't nobody got time for that!"  (Which I wholeheartedly agree with.)  Again, this is an example of how calculating what we use over a course of a year works for us.  It is certainly not meant to be what your family will do because every family has different tastes.

You plant it, you preserve it!  Processing tomatoes is always
the biggest chore around here because there are so many of
them!  This is an evening's worth of cutting tomatoes in 2014
to go through the processor and start canning in the morning.
     In this example, I'm going to use tomatoes as it's a fairly common item for people to plant in their gardens.  Out of the above items, the following have tomatoes in: Corn Salsa, Ketchup, Pizza Sauce, Salsa, Spaghetti Sauce, Sweet 'N' Sour Sauce, Diced Tomatoes, Whole Tomatoes, Tomato Paste, Tomato Sauce, Tomato Soup, Vegetable Stock, frozen Cherry Tomatoes, Enchilada Sauce, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes.  That's a lot of tomato products!  Now say your family eats two large pizzas every month.  A large pizza equals one jar of pizza sauce, meaning you would need to can 24 jars of pizza sauce to get you through the year.  To make 24 (jelly) jars of pizza sauce using Ball's recipe, you will need 39 cups of plum tomato puree (or about 13 pounds worth of plum/paste tomatoes).  IF you are having a good season with a good plant, a single tomato plant can produce 20-30 pounds worth of tomatoes, so you would have to plant half a plant to make pizza sauce, and then the additional harvest for the remaining plant could go to another tomato product.  You would then use the same method for the remaining recipes you want to can to get an estimate of how many tomato plants you'll need to plant.  We usually plant one or two extra in the garden to help if we might have a bad year.  (Note: We plant anywhere from 18 to 40 tomato plants in any given year depending on how many tomato products need canned as we stagger our canning in 1-year, 2-year and 3-year intervals.  A 40 tomato plant year will yield around 600 pounds of tomatoes for us, or an average of just fifteen pounds per plant.  This leads me to my second tip...)

Write It Down!

     Every year you plant you should keep records to help you determine how much you need to plant in subsequent years.  Although you swear you'll remember, in the midst of a crazy harvest season, it's a lot easier to just write it down and look it up than wrack through your already nerve-wracked brain.  We use a cheap produce scale (it's not even digital) and white board that's attached to the side of the fridge to record weight totals as the produce comes in.  Once the white board gets filled, I input the totals and dates the items were harvested into an Excel spreadsheet that will calculate our total produce amount over the season. 

     Having records that tell you how much you planted, and how much you yielded are helpful in averaging how much you will get from each plant in your particular growing location.  Keep in mind, just because you planted ten tomato plants one year and got x-amount of pounds of tomatoes, it does not mean you will get the same amount of tomatoes the following year.  

     After looking back through your records you'll get an idea with how much you should plant.  Here's three examples from our garden, which we are only feeding two from: 

Lima Beans - 38" double row (about 150 seeds).  
This gives us enough to eat fresh, freeze some for use throughout the year, and also enough to dry as seeds for planting next year.  (What happens if we get too much?  If we end up with too many Lima beans, succotash will be added to the menu more often.)

Peas (Hull or Shell) - 38" double row (about 400 seeds) - single planting 
This gives us enough to eat fresh and freeze some for use throughout the year; however, we do not have (at this point) enough to save seeds as well.  We hope with a double planting in the spring and fall this coming year, there will be enough to save dried peas for seeds the following year.  (What happens if we get too much?  Looks like Sheppard's pie will have extra peas in!)

Potatoes - three 38" rows (about 10lbs of seed potatoes).
This gives us enough to eat fresh, store for use throughout the year, and about 10lbs worth to use as seed potatoes for the following year; however, we do need to supplement potatoes from planting until harvesting (about four months) from the grocery store.  Our on-going struggles with the Colorado Potato Beetle and blight also limits the crop that comes out of the ground during harvest.  (What happens if we get too much?  We'll let you know when it happens... ;)  We eat a lot of potatoes!)  

Don't be afraid to re-evaluate each year.

     Once you have a few years worth of experience built up you will quickly find that you may be pawning off zucchini or eggplant on your neighbor every year, stuck without lettuce for three months at a time, or having to buy onions at the grocery store as soon as you put your onion sets into the ground.  It's okay!  It's part of the learning experience of trial and error.  At the end of every (major) growing season we sit down and do a quick evaluation of what we need and what we have too much of, then we adjust our planting totals to try and do better next year.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes, as is in the case of 400 pea plants, it fails miserably. Just remember...

There is ALWAYS next year!