I can think of few better ways to invest in summer than to grow cucumbers for making pickles, or raise a crop of canning tomatoes to put by in jars, accented with aromatic basil and oregano. It sounds romantic, but growing any crop for pickling or canning purposes – be it beetroot, green beans, cucumbers or tomatoes – is a serious proposition that should be planned with the end in mind.
Unlike freezing and drying, which can be done in small batches, canning in pint jars or larger requires a lot of produce, all at once. Choosing appropriate varieties is important, too, because not all vegetables have the right shape, colour, texture or whatever to become a sauce or pickle. But get it right and you hit the jackpot, which is the enjoyment of your garden-grown produce through the winter months.
If you're new to gardening with food preservation in mind, I suggest starting with one or two modest goals, like aiming for a dozen pints each of tomatoes and pickled cucumbers or other vegetables. Then you can build on what you learn, and fine tune the details in future seasons. As a starting point, I'll walk through the planning process with tomatoes and cucumbers, the two most popular garden vegetables grown for canning.
Growing Tomatoes for Canning
Big, juicy slicing tomatoes may be great for sandwiches, but the best canning tomatoes are so firm that they seem dry when you slice them open. But every tomato canning project you can name – from diced tomatoes to pasta sauce – will give superior results if you use paste tomatoes, often called plum tomatoes in the UK, and sauce tomatoes in other parts of Europe.
The most suitable paste tomatoes also have a determinate growth habit, so they produce their crop in one or two concentrated bursts. Vigorous 'Roma VF', for example, loads up heavily with fruits that ripen over a three week period. Where I live blight resistance is important, and I have been impressed with the tolerance shown by the 'Plum Dandy' variety. Some heirlooms like 'Heinz' are round, while others resemble long, pointed peppers. I don't want to dismiss heirloom tomatoes varieties, which I would not be without, but for this job you want a strong, proven performer that makes a crop and then moves on. Bred by American seed saver John Swenson, 'Striped Roman' looks like a pretty heirloom and it's plenty productive, too.
You will need at least four plants to harvest enough tomatoes to run a couple of canning projects. If you already have some experience behind you and want to plan for year-round tomato self-sufficiency, estimate five to seven plants per household member. Harvest your paste tomatoes just as they blush with colour, and allow them to finish ripening indoors. Every few days, you should have enough for a batch of something. And, while many tomatoes will go into the jars with only salt and lemon juice, you will also want to grow savoury herbs like basil and oregano to add to tomato canning projects in small amounts.
Growing Cucumbers for Making Pickles
Big, burpless cucumbers make fine salads and sandwiches, but stubby varieties are much better for making pickles. Whether left whole or cut into slices or spears, small-fruited pickling cucumbers like County Fair, Little Leaf or Diamant have just the right texture and rind-to-flesh ratio to hold up well through the pickling process. Making pickles is easy when you have plenty of perfect little gherkins, harvested when they are 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) long.
You will need at least six robust pickling cucumber plants to make pickles, and often it is necessary to save up harvested cukes in the refrigerator for a few days to have enough to make a batch. Allow at least a dozen plants if you want to make pickles in quantity, but don't get too carried away because even perfectly made pickles store only for one year.
The must-have companion herb for pickles is dill, an easy annual that runs a little behind cucumbers when the two are planted at the same time. To make sure I have fresh dill ready for making pickles, I start a few seeds indoors, and set the seedlings out just after the last frost has passed.
With good planning and some luck from the weather, in a few short months the anticipation of canning tomatoes or making pickles will be replaced by relief that you got it done. This is a satisfying feeling! Next year at this time, you may be making planting plans for pickled beetroot, basil, beans or other delights that are easy to put by in jars.
By Barbara Pleasant