Low-tech Food Preservation

Dan Bodkin sorting a harvest.   Photo: Cris CarlThe gardening season (you think) is coming to a close. Many of us mourn a bit for the true freshness of summertime garden pickings as the days grow shorter and colder. So, we freeze, blanch, can, dry etc. But there are actually ways to keep your garden producing in all but the worst of winter climes.

Daniel Bodkin, permaculture teacher, and owner of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, MA recently shared his knowledge on the topic of going the easy route to food preservation. “My mantra is taking the easy ways – now that I’m over 50,” he said with a laugh.  Bodkin’s basic principles in low-tech food preservation include four principles:

  • Observe
  • Rotate
  • Reduce
  • Diversify

“Basically, you want to keep your food alive, and grow things that will self-preserve,” said Bodkin.

Foods that “self-preserve”

Foods that can be kept in a cool storage area include potatoes, winter squashes, apples, and garlic. Bodkin said that the most important aspect to keeping vegetables and fruits in cool storage is to consistently observe and rotate whatever you are storing. If something rots, you may lose the whole or much of what you have stored.

Winter squashes must be cured first. They are picked with at least one inch of stem left. It is best to have had a couple of days of sun before picking to reduce chances of rot. Once the squashes are picked they need to be laid out in the sun for at least a day or two. Roll them over once a day for two to four days and then store in a cool, dark location. You need to be sure the storage area will not freeze and is dry as possible. “I’m always observing and rotating stock,” said Bodkin. Remember, the smaller the squash, the shorter the shelf-life.

You can also place carrots, turnips, and beets in buckets of sand with fitted lids (also kept in cool storage). You can often find discarded lidded buckets at your local market or food cooperative. Check your stock a minimum of once every three weeks.

Another self-preserver is any type of dried bean. Don’t fear the flatulence. To best reduce the gassiness of dried beans, simply soak them overnight and rinse them well. Also, make sure they are well-cooked. An additional perk is how attractive your beans look in their jars on a shelf or in your pantry.

If you end up with too much, just give it away! “I want to see how little I can grow and still grow too much,” said Bodkin.

All vegetables don’t like the same temperature.

Keeping the temperature somewhere in the 50’s is optimal. However, members of the cabbage family like it cool and moist. However, potatoes, squashes, and other “hard” vegetables like it dry. Bodkin recommends to “store less and do it better.”

Storing garlic:

Bodkin said to remember the large, fat bulbs have the most moisture in the center. The moisture can’t escape fast enough and require more observation and rotation to avoid rot. “They (garlic) need a cooler, drier room for storage,” he said.

Bodkin places “compromised bulbs” in a shallow ditch outside. The bulbs winter over, “then in the spring I just move them around like lawn furniture,” he said.

Keeping food alive:

“Many of us crave dark, green, leafy vegetables come January,” said Bodkin. Some plants, Bodkin explained, love the cold, wilting and reviving nearly endless times. “Frost acts as a sweetener. The cold concentrates the plants’ sap,” he said. Depending on how cold a plant get, water is forced from its cells to spaces between the cell walls Bodkin said. “If water freezes in the cell walls, it destroys the plant.”

Preventing too intense cold requires gearing up in September. Without any expensive or labor intensive efforts, all you need to do is to start heavily mulching your cold-hardy crops. “Keeping cold-hardy plants alive is really easy,” said Bodkin. And when he says “mulch” he really means it. “You can put 14 to 18 inches of straw, hay, and leaves over the plants, then a tarp. Basically, you want to keep the ground from freezing. At Christmas, you can go out, push the mulch aside and pick carrots.”

Cold-hardy plants:

  • All members of the Brassica family, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnip, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Chard
  • Collards
  • Rosemary, oregano, cilantro, and parsle
  • Leeks

Lucky enough to have chestnuts?

Chestnut trees are making a come-back with new blight-resistant varieties. The trees grow quickly and can have a tap root up to 80 feet or more, so they can survive in relative dry areas. Chestnut trees take five to six years for their first crop. Also, if you have one chestnut tree, you will soon have more, as they will re-seed themselves.

If you have chestnut trees, the one thing to remember is – they drop their fruit all at once. Once you have gathered your crop, all you need to do is peel, double wrap, and freeze. Check your chestnuts carefully for rot or worms. Don’t freeze chestnuts with the shell on – they won’t last as long.

To roast chestnuts, score the shell with an “x”, then spread on cookie sheets and bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. The thin, brown skin can often be rubbed off (it’s a little bitter). However, a method for removal is to par-boil the chestnuts and the skin will come off very easily.


Have a bountiful winter!

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