Diarmuid Gavin's top tips to preserve your home-grown fruit and veg all winter
Follow my top tips for storing and preserving your crops to give you home-grown fruit and veg all winter long
Gardening Goddess Charlie Dimmock caused quite a stir across the water recently with her comments about allotment sizes.
There are long waiting lists for allotments in the UK - in some areas the wait time is 40 years! So, the former Ground Force presenter suggested that allotment sizes be cut in half or even quarters, which would give more people the chance to grow fruit and vegetables.
She argued that the standard 250m patches were too big for today's time-poor gardeners, and that people wanted to grow small quantities of more exotic produce than the traditional bountiful crops, such as runner beans.
Charlie has a point. Traditional family size and structure is changing and even our gardening habits should reflect that. We often grow far too much produce in gardens and allotments and end up giving it away to neighbours and friends.
I have grown a lot of potatoes this year, enough to feed a few families. So how can we store produce from the garden and the allotment over the next few months?
Families used to pickle and candy, salt and preserve food to ensure it lasted as long as possible as a necessity.
Today, we don't have the same need, as we have relatively cheap produce from the supermarket, but preserving your food can be a wonderful way of ensuring that you and your household are eating home-grown healthy produce right through winter.
So, as we enter harvest season here's some tips to consider storing what you've grown:
1 Select only good fruit and veg which have no signs of disease or decay for storing or preserving - one rotten apple really can spoil the barrel. Also, pick and handle carefully as any bruising can lead to decay.
2 Store fruit and veg separately as fruit produces a gas called ethylene which speeds up the decaying process. You need a dry, well-ventilated space and one that is protected from frost and vermin.
3 Apples are ready to pick when they come away from the tree easily with a gentle twist. These can be stored wrapped in newspaper in wooden crates or cardboard boxes, and kept in a dry cool place. Pears won't have as long a shelf life and prefer it a bit colder - the fridge is ideal. Check apples and pears regularly and remove any that have gone off. Keep different varieties separate as early cultivars will ripen ahead of mature ones.
4 Soft fruit such as raspberries and currants freeze very well in plastic bags. I love picking wild blackberries in September, freezing them and then adding them to smoothies in mid-winter, which turns the juice dark purple, rich in antioxidants. Jam is also a great way of bottling and preserving the goodness of summer in a jar to be enjoyed in the depths of winter with hot scones or toast.
5 Root crops such as carrots and beetroots can be left in the ground until you need them. But if you have them in a very cold and wetlogged soil, there is a danger of rotting or frost damage in which case you are better lifting them. (The exception here is parsnip whose flavour intensifies with a touch of frost). Leave about an inch of leaf on them and pack in boxes with sand. This will preserve their moisture and stop them shrivelling up. Like brassicas, leeks, parsley, they like it cold and moist, about 30˚F. If using plastic bags, perforate these to allow for air circulation.
6 Herbs can be dried or frozen. To dry, hang in bunches or spread in a tray in the airing cupboard until they are dry as a bone and then store in brown paper bags. Alternatively, you can use the ice-cube method: chop and blanch the herbs, then pop with some water in ice-cube trays and freeze. As you require them through autumn and winter, just pop the ice-cubes into soups and stews while cooking to enhance the flavour.
7 Garlic and onions like to be dry, so thoroughly dry them out after lifting and then store in a cool light place. You could be very stylish and plait and hang them in bunches in your kitchen. Shallots as well as root vegatables can be pickled in vinegar.
8 And potatoes? Well I will just have to keep eating the earlies as these don't store well but main crops will. Hessian bags or double thickness brown paper are ideal and store them away from any light source at about 40 to 50˚F. Of course if you have too much harvest you can always give it as a gift to your friends and neighbours - there is nothing nicer than receiving a basket of potatoes with some fresh mint thrown in and others can appreciate your wizardry in the garden!
This week in the garden:
Sweetpea lovers, it's time to make your selection of varieties for next year. They're best sown from late September through early October to get a head start for next spring.
Have you chosen your spring bulbs yet? It's time to get purchasing and planting.
September starts next week and light levels are beginning to drop. Houseplants will start to require less watering and feeding.
As growth decreases, heighten the blade on your lawn mower. Reseed any worn patches.
You'll know that sweetcorn is ready to harvest when a squeezed kernel produces milky sap.
Mid-September to mid-October is a good time to plant evergreen bushes, so start preparing the ground now if you are planning an evergreen hedge.