With friends and families gathered around the table sharing meals during the holidays, many gardeners are cracking open the fruits of their labor for the first time. Home-grown canned green beans become a delicious casserole, and preserved pumpkins become pie. For many, the taste of these home-grown meals has them thinking about learning to can their own food. Food preservation can be an excellent way to extend the harvest and save money. Whether canning to be frugal or even for sale, beginners should be aware of startup costs and planting strategies on the front end.

The first thing to consider when analyzing the costs of canning is the initial capital to get started and the lifespan of the equipment. Some supplies are obvious, such as jars, lids, and bands. Lids have to be replaced after each use while jars and screw bands can last 10 years or more. Other items that a beginner would need, such as jar funnels and lifters, are not as obvious, but can be worth investing in for the convenience they offer.

There are two primary methods of canning foods. The water bath method simply uses a large pot, often already on hand, to boil the jars. Though the water bath method can be a good starting point for beginners, be sure to follow only recipes tested by extension services. It is often recommended that foods likely to harbor bacteria, specifically botulism, be preserved using a pressure canner. Pressure canners typically cost $100 on the low end but can last 20 years or more.

Once the supplies and equipment are accounted for, consider planning the garden around a recipe. For example, cucumbers and dill mature at roughly the same time, making dill pickles an easy project for beginners. When canning marinara sauce, however, the bulk of the tomato harvest may come before the bell peppers or onions have matured. Be cautious as there is nothing sadder for the frugal home gardener than having to purchase ingredients already growing in the garden.

Gardeners canning to save money should keep preserved yields and cost per jar in mind. For example, a bushel of corn yields 6 to 8 quarts while a bushel of beans yields 12 to 20 quarts. The cost per jar on these items should factor in the costs of growing them in the garden. Without having to pay for gelatin and sugar, though, the cost per jar of basic canned vegetables will likely be lower than the cost of raspberry jam.

A gardener can save money by canning their own food as long as they strategically purchase, plan and plant. Whether for home consumption, additional income, or just to give as gifts, canning is an excellent option for preserving the harvest through the cold winter months.

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Chelsea Goulding is the Agriculture Education Program manager for Appalachian Sustainable Development.

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