There's no question that home gardening has exploded in popularity in recent years. With rising food prices and a rising need to reconnect with nature, growing your own food can be an ideal two-for-one hobby. It's wonderful to watch once purely ornamental gardens being transformed into berried hedgerows and vegetable patches that can provide for the kitchen table all year round. You might think eating from your garden all year is practically impossible, but think again. The key to success is in preserving the fruits of your labor. Along with this conversion to growing our own fruit and vegetables must come skills in storing and preserving that food. Not only are we saving money in being more self-sufficient, we are also reducing our carbon footprint. As changes within our climate wreak havoc with world food production, we can lessen that effect by being more self-sufficient, even within our small backyard. Collectively, we can have an impact. One way to help us achieve this self-sufficiency is to time our harvesting with the Moon's cycle.
Since ancient times, methods for storing and preserving fruits from garden, field, and forest have been used. Techniques such as fermentation, salting, smoking, boiling, roasting, drying, and freezing have been used to store goods in dry, often dark places until the food is needed. Now, by being aware of the lunar calendar when harvesting and conserving, we are able to reap excellent results.
After all that gardening effort, it pays to harvest at just the right time. If possible, harvest by the light of a waxing Moon, when the succulence is retained and the goodness preserved. Obviously, such crops as lettuce are best picked around a waning Moon, when their crunchy crispness is kept by being picked at dawn with the cool dew upon them. Then they will have maximum crispness and can be kept in the refrigerator.
In their book The Art of Timing, Johanna Paungger and Thomas Poppe state that Aries is the best sign in which to store cereals, vegetables, and potatoes. Choosing to harvest fruit and vegetables during a waning Moon helps to preserve the yield longer and makes for produce that is juicier and has the best chance of remaining so until you eat it. This is also true for preserving jams and juices, as not only is the fruit really succulent, the aroma is at its best as well. Therefore, there is less need for adding artificial setting agents or chemical additives, especially for black currant and blueberries. Most of us end up harvesting crops a lot in August, so pick your crop for storage during a waning Moon to preserve the yield longer. (If you can't resist eating your bountiful harvest straight away, however, pick those items during a waxing Moon to savor that flavor and ripeness.)
Harvesting is the most rewarding garden job in the year, whether it is on a grand or modest scale. Searching out potatoes is like claiming buried treasure, while jam-filled cupboards and freezers full of beans are a wonderful sight to behold. To reach this bountiful stage, there are a few basic rules to follow.
Reap your harvest at the best time for ripeness. The exact best time depends on the micro-climate of your garden, as the Sun may not reach the individual fruits or vegetables at the same time. Pick ripe specimens first and leave the rest for another day. Keep in mind that some fruits, such as apples and pears, need to be harvested before pests get at them; in that case, store the best fruits and turn any surplus into cider or juice.
While harvesting time for most vegetables is not usually very critical, most fruits are more demanding and only thoroughly enjoyable when perfectly ripened. Melons are improved by chilling first, but many fruits are tastiest warmed by sunshine and eaten straight off the plant. Strawberries should be picked with their stalk on to avoid damage. A few fruits, such as pears, have to be watched until they are nearly ripe, picked a bit early and brought to perfection in a warm, not too dry, dim room. Inspect such fruit daily for ripeness. The best date to pick fruit depends on the cultivar, soil, site, and season, but can only be determined by experience. Most fruits store best when picked just under-ripe. They may keep longer picked younger than that, but this is very much at the cost of flavor and sweetness. Fruit will ripen more quickly if extra warmth is supplied, such as that near a wall, window, chimney, vent, or just close to the soil.
Vegetables can usually be picked over a long season and many are easier to store than fruits since they are less prone to rot. Indeed, some vegetables—parsnips, most roots, brassicas, and leeks—are best left in the ground for a light frost to improve flavor; they are protected from a hard frost because they are underground. Some vegetables, such as squashes and the onion family, require careful drying after harvest. This can be done by laying out the crops on soil or a bench in the Sun before moving to an airy, frost-free place until needed. A few vegetable crops, however, will ripen and go over quickly, so you need to plan your harvest carefully. Make sure you can use the fresh produce very quickly and preserve the excess in one efficient swoop.
Potatoes are an easy vegetable, as they offer considerable leeway in harvesting time. It is best to dig up your potatoes by the end of August to avoid losing them to a hard frost. Surplus new potatoes should be stored buried in a tin of slightly damp sand; they should last until Christmas. Alternatively, dig up your potatoes and let them dry before putting into a hessian sack and storing in a dark, cool place until needed. Potato harvest is best done under a Taurus Moon. Root vegetables, such as carrots, also store well when harvested under Taurus. Avoid harvesting and storing roots when the Moon is in the water signs of Cancer, Scorpio, or Pisces (except days when it enters those signs after 3 pm or leaves before 3 am).
When buying plants, choose varieties that are suitable for storing. Do some research online to find the best varietals for your zone and preserving method—don't buy a tomato plant that doesn't can well if canning is your aim.
The simplest way to store produce is to just set it aside in a cool, dark place, such as a cellar. We can maximize the success of storing our home-grown produce this way if we treat the food well. To be stored, a crop must be perfect—a blemish or bruise is where mold starts. There is no point in trying to store anything that has any real damage; enjoy such produce straight away. Some fruits keep quite well wrapped in paper or oiled vegetable paper.
Watch out for rodents intent on eating your fruit, or shriveling fruit due to water loss or a too-hot storage location. Most houses are too hot and garages are too warm, cold, or dry for long-term produce storage. One especially "green" solution is to use an old fridge or freezer as a compact cellar. They are dark, keep the contents at a constant temperature, and protect the food from pests and frost. The lack of ventilation can be solved by cutting small holes in the rubber door or lid seal. When putting crops in such storage, it is usually best to leave them to chill at night in trays or bags, and then load them into the cellar in the morning, when they have dried out but before they are warm again. Similarly, it is helpful to chill and dry off many crops initially by leaving the storage cellar open on cool, dry nights and closing it during the day. Do this for the first week or so when you are storing your produce. Most fruits taste best if you remove them from their cellar a few days before use. Care should be taken not to store early and late varieties together (such as potatoes) where resistance to disease can be lost if decay or mold from the weaker variety infects the other.
For cellar storage, vegetables need to be kept separate from fruits. Shredded newspaper is safer than straw when it gets damp. Always inspect store cupboards often. Be selective and store only what you will use; share the rest with friends and they'll certainly thank you!
One answer for ripe excess vegetables is freezing. Freezing may not be the most carbon-efficient method, but it's very easy and keeps beans and peas in prime eating condition. You need to blanch most vegetables before freezing, or they will become tough. Just drop the cleaned and cut vegetables in a big pot of boiling water for a few minutes (find exact times for different vegetables online). Then remove the food pieces and immediately chill them in a pan of ice-cold water. Next dry the pieces on a clean linen towel and freeze them on flat trays. Once frozen, pack the vegetables into bags or boxes and use them throughout the winter months. (If you don't mind a solid block of vegetables, just skip the flat tray step.) Green beans, peas, carrots, and broccoli lend themselves to freezing very well. Nearly any vegetable can be frozen, so be sure to do some quick research on blanching times and freezing methods if you find yourself with excess.
Juicing is the best way to store fruit (other than making your own wine). Canning fruits or making them into preserves is another way to capture the flavor of fruits; however, this is time-consuming and must be done when the Moon is in the third or fourth quarter, preferably in an earth sign, such as Taurus or Capricorn.
You can also dry fruits. When picking the fruit, make sure you choose ripe specimens. Wash them to remove any debris, cut into pieces, then air dry. Use a food dehydrator, or the oven method: Turn your oven to its lowest setting and spread the cut fruits on a baking tray. Place the tray on the middle shelf for several hours. Leave the oven door open slightly to let moisture escape, so the fruit does not cook but becomes dry. Dried fruit can be stored in jars in a cool, dark place.
Jellying and jamming are two ways to preserve fruit in a sugary form. The difference is that jelly is made from just fruit juice, while jam contains the seeds, skins, and sometimes fruit pieces. Almost any fruit can be jammed or jellied. Some fruits can be made into jam or jelly on their own, but others require added sugar, lemon juice, and/or pectin. Again, do some quick research to make sure you have everything you need before you start. Remember to sterilize your containers prior to storage. You may either can the jam or jelly, or store it in the freezer (freezer jam). It's worth the work just to taste your own homemade fruit jam! For best results, make and can preserves when the Moon is in the third or fourth quarter in Cancer, Scorpio, or Pisces for nearly the entire day—avoid days when the Moon enters those signs after 3 am or leaves it before 3 pm.
Chutneys, sauces, and pickles are a lot like jams, except they're made from vegetables. You will likely need to add vinegar and salt to them to help the preserving process. Many vegetables (e.g., courgettes, onions, and cucumbers) are combined with fruits (e.g., tomatoes and raisins) to make really tasty chutney. Chutneys can then be used on meats, rices, or crackers. Tomato sauce is one of the most versatile and most popular ways to preserve tomatoes. Recipes abound, so find a basic one and then tweak to your delight—you'll be enjoying the taste of fresh tomatoes long into the winter. Can vegetables and fruit/vegetable combinations with the Moon in the third or fourth quarter, in Cancer, Scorpio, or Taurus for nearly an entire day—avoid days when the Moon enters those signs after 3 am or leaves it before 3 pm.
For Further Reading:
Flowerdew, Bob. Bob Flowerdew's Organic Bible. London: Kyle Cathie Ltd., 1998.
Paungger, Johanna, and Thomas Poppe. The Art of Timing. Saffron Walden, UK: C. W. Daniel Co. Ltd., 2000.
Henry Doubleday Research Association. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Pauline Pears, ed. London: DK Pub., 2002.
About the Author
Janice Sharkey is a keen Moon gardener who loves trying to grow all sorts of fruits but finds the Scottish climate really good for soft fruits like raspberries and black currants. She writes more in the winter and gardens in the summer.
Article excerpted from Llewellyn's 2012 Moon Sign Book. Click here for current-year calendars, almanacs, and datebooks.