MOUNT JACKSON, Va. - For many vegetable growers, the real fun begins in midsummer as they shift their focus from the garden to the kitchen. That's when families start putting their foods up, capturing the taste and nutrition of freshly picked produce by canning, freezing, pickling, curing, smoking, drying or dehydrating.
"Preserving foods is not an essential part of our life any more but it is an important part of our lifestyle," said Bobby Clark, an extension agent specializing in crop and soil sciences for Virginia's mostly rural Shenandoah County.
As much as putting up fruits and vegetables is about preserving the past along with produce, there is evidence to show there are new converts all the time - especially as people worry about the origins of processed food.
Clark is one of the old pros, and grows tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, onions, corn, green beans, cabbage, pumpkins and a variety of herbs in his family garden, which measures roughly 90 feet long by 60 feet wide.
He selects vegetable varieties with different maturity dates so he can harvest progressively through the growing season. He cans green beans and tomatoes, pickles beets and makes salsa.
His sons, James, 6, and Sam, 4, are beginning to help with the garden. His wife, Sharon, a nutritionist, supervises the home canning operation.
"It's all about family," Clark said. "The boys do some weeding when they're not running up and down the cornrows. The garden is a wonderful place to spend time together."
Although canning is labor-intensive, practitioners contend it generally results in foods that are more appetizing and less expensive than store-bought.
Canning is defined as a method of preserving foods so they last without refrigeration - and it is usually done with jars. Vegetables or fruits are peeled, pared, sliced and diced, then spooned into jars and superheated to kill existing microorganisms and to form tight vacuum seals that keep other bacteria out.
These canned goods can be stored for a year or more in cool, dark areas without losing flavor, color and nutritional quality. They may even be more nutritious than fresh produce that has sat around for a long time, according to the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Service.
For many people, canning brings back memories of a savory childhood when farmhouse attics were used for drying herbs, mushrooms, peppers and small, colorful ears of popcorn still in their papery husks.
Tales are told about the sweet-sour smell of cucumbers or beans, carrots or cauliflower soaking in a pickling brine of salt and vinegar in large earthenware crocks. Still others remember the scores of vacuum-sealed Mason jars lining shelves and windowsills during the coldest months of the year
But newcomers are also creating a market for updated methods.
"New products positioned toward new consumers have seen double-digit growth from last year," said Lauren Devine, a research and test-kitchen scientist with Jarden Home Brands, in Muncie, Ind., which manufactures the classic Ball home-canning Mason jars.
"This includes new plastic freezer jars and a new freezer-jam pectin (a natural thickener) that yields fresh, homemade freezer jam without cooking. People just don't have the time to make large batches of jam and prefer the easiest way of preparation - no cooking," she said.
With smaller gardens, or more people not gardening at all but going to farmers markets, people are also preserving in smaller batches.
"We are reformulating our mixes to match this smaller batch size," Devine said, referring to the packaged salsa mixes and other blends of spices Jarden sells on its Web site. "Instead of making seven pints of salsa with our mix, they can make four pints."
People also want to understand where their food is coming from and, just as importantly, what's going into it, Devine said.
When you do your own canning, you know that.
SideBar: At a glance
Anyone who successfully cans knows it's a matter of safety first and taking no shortcuts. The threat of deadly botulism lurks beneath every loose lid or improperly sealed jar cover.
The poisonous bacterium Clostridium botulinum can survive even in cooked foods, so it's best to use a large pressure cooker for scientifically determined periods, which will vary with product and chunk size, altitude and container volume, among other things.
Temperatures should be taken to 240 F or higher.
Most fruits and pickling vegetables high in acid or with a pH value of 4.6 or above carry less risk because their acidity prevents botulism spores from germinating.
Recommended reading: 'Ball Blue Book of Preserving' (Alltrista Consumer Products Co., $8.95); 'Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving' (U.S. Department of Agriculture, $9.95).
More information about safe home food preservation is available on the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Service Web site at www.extension.umn.edu