Food security - taking control of your food supplies

21 October 2013
In the next few posts about food security I'd like to write about what we grow for our own fresh food needs, and how we grow food for storage and drying. When you grow food in the backyard, you have to increase your skill level in several directions because everything you grow will have to be harvested at the correct time, processed in a certain way such as cooking, preserving, drying, and then stored safely, either in the fridge, freezer, in a jar, a bag or hanging in a braid/plait. Growing the food is just one part of this. You will let yourself down if you know how to grow great fruit and vegetables but don't know how to process and store it correctly.

Even though we have four seasons, we generally have cold crops and warm crops. We're currently in our warm season now so let's do that first.

Food to grow in warm seasons

FRESH: In the warm seasons the obvious category for fresh food is salad and all the vegetables that can go into a decent salad. We change from year to year but usually grow: tomatoes, cucumbers, beetroot, radishes, capsicums/peppers, chilli, mushrooms, green beans, snake beans, Madagascar beans, corn, eggplant and various herbs. We grow lettuce until it starts to get bitter. As soon as the hot weather sets in, or if we have a hot day out of the blue, the lettuce will go bitter. When it does, we start buying our lettuce.  I grow various types of sprouts in the kitchen and yesterday put a bag of freshly grown mung bean shoots in the fridge.

We also grow daikon, Asian greens, Welsh onions, silverbeet/chard, sweet potato and zucchini. We sometimes have a crop of potatoes in at this time of year but we don't this year. We're just about to plant up a few pumpkin seedlings in the compost heap. The rest of the garden is starting to dry off now but those pumpkins will, hopefully, grow over summer and give us a dozen or so pumpkins to store for the next year.

PRESERVING: If you have the room, grow extras to put up in jars. Tomatoes, cucumbers, beetroot, onions can all be preserved in a water bath and if you have a pressure canner, you can do up jars of green beans, corn, carrots.  Making up jars of sauces will use up all your extra vegetables because you can either make jars of tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, or you can mix it all together and make chutney or relish. Don't forget to use tried and tested recipes if you're water bathing - they'll have the correct amounts of lemon juice or vinegar and sugar to add for long term storage.

 Pickled beetroot ready to go in the fridge.

FREEZER: Don't forget your freezer - you don't have to worry about the acid level of the vegetables you put up if you freeze them. Learn to blanch first, there are very few vegetables that will freeze well long term if they're not blanched. Frozen vegetables include beans, peas, chard and spinach. onions, Corn, capsicums/peppers, chillis and tomatoes don't have to be blanched, and tomatoes, if you want to use them in soups and stews after freezing - freeze them whole and store in a plastic bag. They'll be mushy when thawed.

DRYING: Although I don't have a dehydrator, I do sometimes dry food and store it. Usually it's beans because they're easy to grow, full of protein and they store well. You can grow borlotti beans, lazy housewife beans, haricot beans, or ask your supplier which beans they have for drying. It's simply a matter of growing them as instructed and letting them dry out. You can let them dry on the vine, but the plant will not produce more pods if you do that. Pick the beans as they mature and place them undercover to dry out. When they're completely dry, strip all the beans from the pods and add them to your jar.

 Sprouting sweet potato ready for planting.

Dried pigeon peas in the pod.
Sprouting ginger ready for planting.
This is one of the pineapples we're grown here.
ODDS AND ENDS: If you're in a warm climate, try growing some pigeon peas, they're a really useful crop. They're high in nitrogen, love hot weather and the chickens will eat the fresh young green leaves and the green peas.  You can harvest the peas green or brown. If they're green just steam or boil them, if they're brown and dry, store them in a jar for use later. One tree will give you at least one or two kilos/2 - 5lbs of peas. You use them in the same way you use lentils or split peas, they make an excellent pea soup. The leaves of pigeon peas can be cut back and used as mulch. Sunflowers are also a good crop during the warmer months. They're great for snacks and the chooks love them. Ginger and tumeric are easy to grow in a warmer garden. Just buy some organic ginger and tumeric from the green grocer, break it up and plant it. Sweet potatoes are also easy to grow. They need to shoot first, as soon as they do, plant them. And don't forget your herbs. Whichever herbs you use, they need to be planted in the warmer seasons. Make sure you dry some herbs to store in the cupboard too. I have some bunches of thyme drying out now that are almost ready to put into a jar. In a warm climate, pineapples are the ultimate in recycled fruit. Simply remove the top off a good, sweet pineapple, remove the bottom leaves and let the head dry out for a week or so. Plant the head into enriched soil full of organic matter in an area of the garden that you don't need for the next three years. In the first 18 months the head will grow a pineapple (see the photo above), then it's ripe, harvest it and leave the plant in. Fertilise with comfrey tea and in the following year, another pineapple will grow. Pull the plant out after the second pineapple. If you live in a warm to hot climate, you can keep pineapples growing like this, simply by using the heads, for years.

Tomorrow we'll talk about colder crops and later in the week we'll talk about extending your seasons by creating microclimates.

Please add to this by telling us what you're growing and how you process and store it.