The Wednesday List: Five Reasons to be a “home canner”

I’m up past my bedtime canning green beans, and that’s gotten me thinking about why I do it. Here are my top five reasons:

1. It makes winter suppers easy. Some January afternoon when it’s freezing cold outside, I won’t have to run to the store; I’ll just pull a few cans out of the cabinet and have supper ready in a matter of minutes.

2. It connects me with past generations. Rarely do I complete a canning batch without calling my mom. Tonight I had to call and check to make sure I was putting the right amount of canning salt in each jar of green beans. Putting up food reminds me of watching as a kid as my mom did the same thing, and hearing her talk about her mother doing the same thing before her. Even if my immediate ancestors weren’t home canners, the skill of canning is a throwback to the past and makes me feel a little more self-reliant than I actually am.

3. It makes the harvest worthwhile. When we have two large colanders full of green beans, snapped and ready to eat, it’s hardly possible for us to eat them before they’re ruined. Instead of stuffing ourselves with all the veggies we can eat in the summer or worse, letting them go to waste, canning lets us eat some now and save more for later. And once they’re canned, they’ll still taste almost as fresh when we eat them in a few months as they do right now straight out of the garden.

4. It saves money and promotes good health. Ok, I know that a can of green beans doesn’t cost much at the store. But aside from our labor, our own canned beans cost almost nothing. Eleven quarts for a couple of hours of work isn’t bad. (Lee picked them and snapped them, so he put in a couple hours as well.) Even better, the beans we can at home contain only fresh green beans, a little bit of salt, and water — and store-bought beans usually contain high sodium content, along with who knows what else.

5. It gives me a sense of satisfaction. One of the sweetest sounds I know is the pop of a Ball jar lid when it seals, letting you know the food you’ve processed is safely preserved. After going through the steamy work of washing jars, boiling lids, packing jars and watching the pressure canner for the allotted time, it’s a little bit thrilling as you’re cleaning up the kitchen to hear the occasional “pop,” letting you know your work was not for naught.

Do you can your own produce at home? If so, what are your reasons for doing so?

The Wednesday List: Four insects that are good for your garden

Plenty of insects are simply pests, eating their way through your tomatoes or stinging your face and arms while you try to pull weeds. But here are four creepy-crawlies who can help your garden grow.

bumblebee

1. Bees. A few days ago I saw a bumblebee buzzing around our squash plants, and I was glad to see it. While some vegetables are self-pollinating (such as beans, peas and tomatoes), many fruiting vegetables such as squash, melons, pumpkins and cucumbers depend on bees for pollination. Without pollination, the plants can’t develop into tasty vegetables.

2. Dragonflies. The colorful dragonfly will eat mosquitoes and other garden pests. And they’re also pretty to look at.

3. Ladybugs. Not only is she fun to watch, but the little ladybug also has a huge appetite — and she loves to eat other insects that are damaging to your garden. According to GardenInsects.com, a ladybug can consume 50 to 60 aphids per day, as well as a number of other damaging insects and larvae.

4. Praying mantis. The praying mantis will eat anything it can catch, so it may eat some “good” insects along with the pests, according to this slide show on beneficial garden bugs.

What other helpful insects would you add to the list?

Safety first

If yours is a family who loves to spend time outdoors, chances are you’ll be in the water from time to time. Our boys’ favorite days are the ones spent by a creek, lake, river, or pool. There are rocks to skip, fish to catch, diving boards to jump off of.

But as much fun as the water can be, it can be dangerous too. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), about 300 children under the age of five drown in swimming pools each year. That doesn’t count those who drown in ponds, lakes, creeks, or other natural waterways. And most of the victims reported by the CPSC had been missing less than five minutes when they were found in the pools.

swimmingWhile there are many ways to prevent drowning and other water accidents, I think one of the most important is to make sure kids know how to swim. Even very young children can learn to blow bubbles and kick their way to the top of the water when submerged.

Our boys started swimming lessons today. They’ve spent enough time in the water to know how to get around pretty well, and they’re not afraid to jump in or get their faces wet. But I want them to know not just enough to survive; I want them to be strong swimmers who know how to stay safe in the water and could lend a hand to another swimmer who might be in trouble. It will take some time — they’re only five and three — but we’re on our way.

The mom of another three-year-old told me her son had fallen into the pool recently, but because he’s had swimming lessons and they’ve practiced regularly for almost a year, he didn’t panic and kicked his way out of the water and to the side of the pool. What a relief. Of course there’s no substitute for parental supervision, but accidents happen, so why not be prepared?

Do your kids take swimming lessons? What are your tips for keeping kids safe around water?

Memorial Day

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died,” said General George S. Patton. “Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

american flag

Today, I am thankful for the lives of those who made our freedoms possible.

Garden for better grades

Parents and teachers who garden with kids often allude to the benefits that gardening offers for kids, as I did in yesterday’s post. But fortunately, the evidence is not just anecdotal. While research on the benefits of gardening for children is limited, the field is growing, according to the National Gardening Association (NGA). And results look promising so far.

“No activity holds more value for young people than the gardening experience,” Mike Metallo, president of the NGA, told the Staten Island Advance in this article.

The NGA offers an online synopsis of some of the research studies that have shown the benefits of school gardens for children. I’d argue that whether the gardening is happening at school, at home, or in a community garden, many of the benefits are the same. This isn’t a complete list, but here are five of the benefits researchers have discovered that children gain through the experience of gardening (To read more about the studies that found these results, click here):

1. Significantly increase science achievement scores.

2. Improve social skills and behavior.

3. Increase interest in eating fruits and vegetables and improve attitude toward
fruits and vegetables.

4. Instill appreciation and respect for nature that lasts into adulthood.

5. Contribute to communication of knowledge and emotions.

Wow, the research really makes it all seem worthwhile, doesn’t it?

Slowing down

Recently, while working on a magazine article about canning vegetables, I interviewed a woman named Deborah Lewis from Muncie, Indiana, who’s been growing vegetables and canning them for years. When I asked her what she likes most about canning, she said: “I love how canning requires you to slow down; you just can’t be in a rush when you are slipping tomato skins or snapping green beans.”

clock She’s exactly right. And I think the sentiment extends to gardening as well as canning and preserving. A couple of days ago, my boys and I spent part of the morning in the garden picking English peas. I had other work to do and they wanted to go swimming, but we had to take it slow or we’d miss one (or several) of the fat, ripened pods. You just can’t hurry through picking peas. Or planting them. Or shelling them.

Maybe that’s one of the valuable things about gardening. It makes us slow down, take our time, and enjoy the labor (or at least the fruits of it). Couldn’t we all use a good reason to slow down?

With baseball games, homework, laundry, work deadlines, and other commitments pulling our families in various directions at all times, it can seem like an impossibility to spend a morning, afternoon, or sometimes an entire day in the garden, or in the kitchen with the produce we’ve grown or purchased. But during that time, we’re usually talking, laughing, learning — and at the end of it, we have that satisfied feeling of having accomplished something important. After all, what’s more important than feeding your family good, wholesome foods?

Does gardening help your family slow down? What other lessons does it teach you?

Photo credit: 123RF.com

Getting over gardener’s guilt

On Fridays during the WordCount Blogathon, I’m republishing popular posts from the past. This one originally appeared in August 2009.

Gardening is a lot like parenting; they both involve guilt. It happens every summer: I leave a couple of tomatoes or cucumbers on the windowsill above my kitchen sink to ripen, and before I know it, I’ve neglected them until they’re overripe, brown and spotted, and have to be thrown away. I’ve been too busy working, playing with the kids, cleaning house, or something else to actually use them. I wait until my husband’s outside with the kids or at night when everyone’s asleep to pitch them in the trash.

004 The feeling I get throwing out a few tomatoes or a bowl of unsnapped green beans is familiar. As a mom, I’m always making choices that leave me with a little guilt. Should I clean the kitchen and do the laundry or sit down and play with my two-year-old and his Fisher-Price farm set? Should I finish my work on deadline or should I go ride bikes with my four-year-old, who’s just ditched his training wheels? Should I have let the kids miss their nap to go swimming? Did I lose my patience too quickly when they poured shelled peas all over the kitchen floor?

For parents, guilt is part of the territory. For gardening parents, I guess it’s even worse. And throwing away a few overripe vegetables isn’t the only source of gardening guilt — there are other things too, like:

  • Forgetting to weed.
  • Neglecting to pick ripe vegetables and letting them rot on the vine.
  • Getting takeout for dinner even though you have plenty of fresh veggies in the garden.

It could drive you crazy if you let it. As a parent, I’ve learned to loosen up, let some things go and realize I can only do my best. As a gardener, I’m still trying to do that. Here are a few of my ideas for assuaging gardener’s guilt:

Compost. We’ve just started composting at our house, so it’s too soon to tell if this will help me feel better about any vegetables we aren’t able to use — at least I’ll know the veggies that go unpicked or uneaten won’t be a complete waste; they’ll help make next year’s garden fruitful.

Share. If we’re out of town or just too busy to tend to the garden for a few days, it makes me feel better to know that somebody is eating the produce, even if it’s not us. We’ve invited neighbors, family members and friends to come by and pick peas, corn, squash, whatever’s available. And of course, we often share jars of homemade pickles or bags of already-picked veggies that we can’t eat or don’t have time to preserve. (Word to the wise: many of the people who like to eat fresh veggies don’t want to actually get out in the garden and pick them, so just spreading the word won’t always do the trick. On the other hand, some people are happy to take any produce available — so make sure you’re specific about when and how often it’s ok to harvest your garden, or there may not be enough left for your own family.)

Partner. If keeping up with your garden and its yield turns out to be too much for you, consider joining forces with a partner. I haven’t tried this technique, but my first cousin in Chicago shares a garden with a neighbor. Together with their children, they have a lot more hands to help plant, pick, and preserve than if they were each gardening alone. And it sounds like a lot of fun too.

Do you experience gardening guilt? How do you get around it?

Gardens Doing Good #3: Project Orange Thumb

This is the third installment in my occasional series, “Gardens Doing Good,” which shares the stories of organizations and people who are using gardens to make a difference in others’ lives. (Read the first two installments here and here.)

Community gardens are popping up in cities and towns across the country. But many communities lack the funds they need to make the garden all that it can be. That’s why Fiskars, the company that makes the good kid scissors, launched Project Orange Thumb.

“Project Orange Thumb is a grant program that provides community garden groups with the tools and materials they need to reach their goals for neighborhood beautification and horticulture education,” says Janelle Schwartz, a spokesperson for Fiskars.

In addition to providing grants to gardening groups across the country, Project Orange Thumb also conducts garden makeovers in communities that need rebuilding. Partnering with The Home Depot Foundation for each makeover, a team of Fiskars professionals works with volunteers from the community to “transform nothing into something, in a single day,” Schwartz says. 

Portland5 Last month, Fiskars completed its seventh garden makeover, which took place at the North Brentwood Community Garden in Portland, Oregon.

The Portland Parks & Recreation Department had a year-long waiting list of more than 70 names of people who wanted to join the garden. As a result of the Project Orange makeover, 23 of those waiting gardeners are now seasonal owner-operators of their own individual plots.

And not only are local residents enjoying fresh, hand-grown foods from the garden; the makeover also resulted in a beautiful outdoor space that revives the neighborhood and fosters community living.

Portland3

Upcoming garden makeovers will take place in Columbus, Ohio, and Vancouver, BC, Canada. At each makeover, Project Orange Thumb “coordinates everything needed to develop a beautiful, productive, and engaging community space,” Schwartz says. “The company works closely with neighbors, business leaders, volunteers, and community partners to educate garden caretakers to help ensure that the space is productive for years to come.”

Portland4According to Fiskars, the company’s mission for  Project Orange Thumb is to celebrate the endeavor of community gardening and all that it represents, including creative expression, beautiful outdoor spaces, civic and community collaboration, healthy hand-grown foods, and sustainable living.

Do you know of another group, individual or organization that is using gardens to do good? If so, please let me know in the comments section below or send me an email: nancy (at) nancyjackson.com. Thank you!