Maine gardeners used to late frosts and short growing seasons may get a surprise this summer: more crops than they can handle.

The mild winter and unusually warm and early spring have provided ideal conditions for backyard gardens to yield more vegetables than usual. Plus, last year was such a bad garden season, with record rainfall, that a lot of gardeners planted more vegetables this year to try to make up for lost time.

So it’s looking like this year might be a good time to bone up on, or learn about for the first time, ways of preserving your garden-fresh food.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension staff is thinking the same thing, and has organized a series of food-preserving workshops around the state from now into the fall. Dubbed “Preserving the Harvest Workshops,” the events will typically last two and a half to three hours, teach participants various canning and freezing methods, and allow people to preserve one item while there.

“There’s no question the weather is going to help people maximize the outputs of their gardens,” said Kathy Savoie, a Cooperative Extension educator helping to put on the workshops. “A lot of people think about canning as the way to preserve foods from the garden, but we also want to teach people about freezing, about how simple it is and how much better the nutritional retention is.”

Many green vegetables need to be blanched — dipped in boiling water for a few minutes — in order to be frozen properly, Savoie said. These include broccoli, green beans, peas and leafy greens.

For blanching green vegetables, you’ll need a pot with a lid, a wire basket, clean towels or a salad spinner, and a bowl of ice. Savoie says to put the basket in the boiling pot of water for a few minutes, then cool the contents in ice, dry them and put them in freezer bags. The veggies should be used in the next eight to 12 months, Savoie said.

But other common garden vegetables, like green peppers or whole tomatoes, can be frozen in freezer bags and used whenever you want, Savoie said.

Frozen tomatoes are great in soups, stews or chili, Savoie said. But they can’t be used in salads or used raw.

“When things freeze they expand, so the cell structure breaks down,” said Savoie.

Cucumbers are one of the few vegetables that don’t freeze well at all, said Savoie. And that’s where canning comes in. You can use your garden cukes to make pickles, for instance.

People can use a canning method called boiling water baths to make pickles or relishes or to preserve veggies in vinegar. Pots specifically made for canning are best for this, and cost about $25 and up.

But for low-acid vegetables like beets or green beans, you need to use a device called a pressure canner, said Savoie. They are sort of like pressure cookers and cost about $100 and up.

Tomatoes are particularly tricky to can, since they are more acidic than many vegetables and more likely to spoil. Savoie suggests reading about recommended safety procedures for preserving tomatoes at the Extension’s website (www.umext.maine.edu) and searching for tomatoes in the publications section.

But if people want the simplicity of freezing, they can easily try it out on local crops such as blueberries, rhubarb or cranberries, said Savoie.

Freezing and canning are good ways to eat local foods all year long, Savoie said. So even if you don’t grow a lot in your garden, the things you buy at local farms or farmers’ markets now can be frozen for later.

“Blueberries can be frozen easily now for pies or muffins or pancakes later,” said Savoie.

At the workshops she teaches, Savoie says participants get to can and take home one product, usually a low-sugar blueberry spice jam. So the workshops offer some hands-on experience.

“We want people to see how easy it can be, and we want people to think about food safety and nutrition at the same time,” said Savoie.

 

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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