Conference pears are ready to pick. (Mary Lowther photo)

Conference pears are ready to pick. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Storing, canning and freezing the harvest

Gardening is rather like alchemy, except we get results

By Mary Lowther

Autumn is my favourite time of the year, when our planning and labour come literally to fruition and reward us with a delicious and wholesome crop. In the Middle Ages, alchemists spent their lives (and their patrons’ wealth) in vain attempts to transform base metals into gold when their time would have been better spent turning dirt into food.

Gardening is rather like alchemy, except we get results. We compost refuse and waste, encourage worms to turn it into humus, add it to dirt, sow our seeds and wait. No magic words are required, and the cycle of life provides us with wealth and sustenance. Take that, Albertus Magnus!

I love the harvest season because, even though storing, canning and freezing take up so much time, the anticipation of eating our own nutritious crops over winter justifies our efforts. We can use our surplus to exchange with other growers for things we didn’t produce; this year I didn’t get my cucumbers in, but my brother-in-law had plenty to trade for my apple jelly.

David, believing that you can’t have too much of a good thing, built me an industrial sized pantry that allows me to can and preserve enough food to last until three weeks past Armageddon, but some things are just fine left where they are. Carrots and other root crops (except potatoes) can be left in the ground when protected from rain and snow, or they can be pulled up and stored in layers of sand or moist coir in a cold room. I’ve found both methods work equally well.

Crops like leeks, kale and Brussels sprouts stay in the garden all winter. Brussels sprouts taste sweeter after freezing weather and it is surprisingly enjoyable digging (or chopping) leeks out from the frozen tundra. Don’t scoff until you’ve tried it. It does help if you mark the beds with labeled stakes so you know where to dig once it snows.

Garlic and onions can be tied or braided in bunches or trimmed and stored in mesh bags and hung from hooks in a cool, dry place. I store potatoes in unsealed boxes kept off the cold floor. Potatoes can rot if they’re sealed up because of their high moisture content, and if they freeze I only pull out what I need each time to let them thaw before use. It’s a good idea to check on everything once a week to avoid unpleasant surprises. After all that work we want to enjoy the vegetables of our labour.

Fall-ripening fruit like apples and pears get stored in the same cold room as the vegetables, but separately in a box with dividing layers that keep the fruit apart from each other. I dehydrated some apples in slices, and since we have a pretty good pear harvest I think I have enough to make fruit leather. Some cherries might survive for canning, but the idea that any of the nectarines will not be eaten as soon as they ripen underestimates David’s appetite. After all, we only have 20 trees.

To be fair to the alchemists we must concede that some few, such as Roger Bacon and Isaac Newton, did make discoveries that evolved over the long centuries into actual science, but we would have all starved long before were it not for the peasant farmers whose lives went unrecorded.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.