We have always kept a well stocked panty. There is something comforting about having enough food to feed your family for quite a while should the need arise. When we transitioned from buying all of our food to growing a lot of it, stocking the pantry became an altogether different experience. Growing and preserving enough food to get through a year is a lot of work. It takes organization and discipline to do it. The rewards and benefits that you receive at the end of all that work is in a way … immeasurable. Food in jars grown by your family. It is a beautiful thing.
We’ve been asked about our pantry a fair bit lately and I get comments like “I wish I could do that” and “that’s a LOT of food”. I thought it might be beneficial to share a few words on how we do this, what it takes to achieve our home grown pantry and what the behind the scenes experience is really like.
It starts with a plan and a garden
Through the winter months I am on the computer, with notebooks and spreadsheets sketching out what the garden is going to look like. The seed stock gets counted, lists for ordering are made, The indoor seed starting gets planned out and so on. We know what will get planted and where before the ground has even thawed. You can read a bit about our process in planning your garden and estimating yields.
Vegetable Garden and Plots
As a result of all that planning and record keeping we plant an ambitious garden, always taking into account the yields, successes and failures from the season before. We start seeds indoors and take cuttings from plants to expand our stock of things like: raspberries, blackberries and roses. We get things growing as soon as possible in the spring and do our best to keep food growing into the late autumn. We plant a lot of food all over the place in an attempt to create a food jungle all around us. You can see some photos of our gardens and read about some of our methods in: Potager Gardens and The Benefits of Polyculture Gardening and A walk through a homesteader’s organic vegetable garden.
We plant perennial edibles including: rhubarb, sunchokes and horseradish and have a keen interest in growing a diverse selection of perennial foods. We have also planted a bunch of sunchokes in the pasture. I am not sure when there will be more pigs living in this pasture but sunchokes are work free, heavy producers that multiply (are invasive actually) so we like the idea of all that free feed growing and multiplying in the field.
We also take advantage of wild food by making jams and jellies from wild flowers & roses and foraging wild apples which we are fortunate to have an abundance of. There is no shortage of food around us and we are gradually learning how to use what grows around us naturally.
Our ultimate goal is to produce almost all of our own food.
Preserving food is an ongoing summer and autumn task
When you are growing a lot of food, far more than what your family can eat at any one time, and you want to be able to eat what you produce year round, that means it needs to be preserved on a fairly regular basis. We use a variety of techniques including: canning, fermenting, dehydrating and freezing. With root vegetables such as: carrots, beets and parsnips we do succession planting. The last batch stays in the ground until just before it freezes so we can cold store and eat them fresh. Although we preserve a lot of food I still believe fresh is best so we eat fresh for as long as possible.
I have a lofty goal of wasting nothing. We grow organically with no chemicals which means even the peels and skins are full of nutrition and safe to eat. The apple scraps that are left over from making juice, cider, wine, apple sauce etc, are put to use by making apple cider vinegar. Other scraps like carrot peels go into the freezer so that I can make vegetable stock in the winter. We have discovered that just about anything can be fermented or turned into wine, even beetroots so when we have more than what we need it often becomes a small batch of wine. It does not take long to find yourself looking for ways to use up everything.
Goodness. Get me out of this kitchen!
I used to work on big, intense projects with the company I worked for. I always started out eager and excited but as the months passed and the work load kept on growing it got harder. When the late nights became frequent, I would sometimes need to dig deep to find some fresh grit and determination to “push through” and keep going. I loved it, I loathed it and at the end the sense of accomplishment was tremendous. The job of preserving a LOT of food has a lot of similarities to this.
To break up the tedium of large batch canning I plan time for creative small batch recipes, fermenting, wild craft wine making and other preserving techniques that challenged me.
It takes a lot of tomatoes to make one jar of sauce
Sometimes I would sterilize and prepare a couple of flats of jars thinking that all the mountain of produce on the table would fill them up no problem. I often found myself shocked to discover that by the time the tomatoes boiled down or the carrots were chopped only half those jars were filled. After having spent all of this time growing and preserving food I understand in such a profound way just how much food it takes to feel a single person. Considering we still purchase grains and dairy it is almost bewildering. How in the world did small pioneer families manage? But they did manage. With our modern day conveniences we can most certainly manage too. Each jar placed on the shelf is a small victory when you are in the depths of canning season.
Other things can fall behind.
For some reason I always find myself surprised to be spending so much time in the kitchen over the summer and Autumn months. This year I spent a good three months working within the confines of the 6FT section around the stove for 4-18 hours per day, most days of the week. Some days I collapsed into bed aching and tired. Some days were easy.
With only two of us working at this and Ryan taking the brunt of the other tasks so I could work in the kitchen I often fell behind on other tasks. Laundry was always behind. Sometimes it was even forgotten on the line only to have it rain. Meal times were quite erratic. When you are using every surface and burner in your home to preserve with it makes cooking meals difficult. It bothered me but I also understood that preserving food was far more essential than any of the other tasks. There would be time enough for all of that later.
Experience brings speed and efficiency
Each season we expand the garden and increase the challenges. With each season we gain experience and knowledge. As we get closer to the goal of feeding ourselves entirely from our own food, it gets exciting and it keeps us motivated. You just keep getting better at it.
Some things you can do to improve your efficiency:
- Harvest as large a batch as you possibly can. Wait a day or two on that harvest if more tomatoes are about to ripen.
- Make sure your canner is filled to maximum capacity before running it.
- Invest in bigger pots so that you can make really big batches. Especially helpful with tomatoes.
- Use large canners and invest in multiple canners. The time savings is worth it. I have seen old photos of massive cast iron pots that must have held 40+ jars. We found this Amish Water bath canner that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
- Organize yourself before you start. Gather up all supplies, prepare your work areas and have a plan of attack for the day.
- Make some cold plates and other things that can be eaten without interfering with food production.
- Ensure you have sufficient supplies (jars, bands, lids)
- Create task lists. There are often a lot of things happening at once in the kitchen. It can be tricky to stay on top of so many projects. Creating lists and reminders that you can check off as completed can help make sure you don’t forget about anything.
Some final food for thought
Months of harvesting and preserving food calls for discipline. It’s important to spend some time in the sunshine and stretch. My mornings were often spent in the garden harvesting and I found that really pleasant and relaxing. Some days it can be really exhausting work and it can feel endless. I am admitting that I found it quite hard sometimes. Not technically hard but mentally.
Be good to yourself. take breaks. Keep things interesting by trying new friends. Accept help when it is offered. Remember that you are creating healthy nourishment for you and your family with your strong hands and determination. The experience is tremendously rewarding and satisfying. It is worth it. Really and truly.