Here in the No. Hemisphere, this is prime planning season. And in the So. Hemisphere, it's time to seek out u-pick farms and road-side farm stands, for great deals to put away for your winter.
Garden centers at stores like Wal Mart and Home Depot will have rhubarb roots and bare root berry bushes/canes and plants later this month. Now is a good time to research the fruits that do well in your climate. If you look for disease and pest resistance, you'll have save yourself a whole lotta trouble down the road.
Growing your own doesn't work for everyone. Assess your own space, time, and energy. You may feel you want the whole orchard, or just a rhubarb plant or two, or maybe none at all. Take heart non-gardener/non-orchardists! You can stock your freezer in summer when the price is right on cases of fruit.
But if you're interested in growing your own, here's what has worked for us
For the months of January, February and March, I buy very little in the way of fruit, just some oranges and bananas. Yet we enjoy fruit every day in winter. How so? We are eating our stash of fruit that we froze in summer.
We began our fruit garden rather simply, 17 years ago this spring. We knew we wanted some fruit, but had no idea just how much we could grow, how many varieties we would choose or just how we would work this all into our ornamental garden plan. We started with 3 measly rhubarb roots from the garden center near us. Two weeks later I got the bug to add 3 blueberry bushes. A month after that, I bought 3 strawberry planters and a bunch of bare root plants. And that was Season 1. Our fruit garden had begun. You can see that we were hooked!
We've added many other types of fruit, and continue to seek out new varieties, and develop areas of our yard to take "just one more". Below is a rundown of the best of our fruit garden for freezing for winter use. I hope that some of this information can be helpful to you.
Rhubarb (rhubarb likes moist, rich soil and full sun)
I'll start with rhubarb, because it grows practically anywhere that there's sun. Rhubarb has few pests, has no pits or cores to remove, and doesn't require any special treatment except washing and chopping before freezing.
For us, we've appreciated that the squirrels, birds and slugs take no interest in our rhubarb. Those three are our garden's biggest pests.
I have 7 rhubarb plants. (I began with 3, have divided over the years and given several plants away. I'll be giving more away this spring, too.) I freeze about 8-12 quarts of chopped rhubarb every summer. If you lived near me, I would be more than happy to set aside a division this spring. Ask friends and family who have rhubarb in their gardens, if they'd like to divide one of their plants for you. If you plant rhubarb this year, don't pick any until next year. The roots need a year to develop enough to withstand harvest.
In winter, we use frozen, chopped rhubarb in rhubarb custard pie, rhubarb-orange muffins, rhubarb oatmeal, rhubarb crisps and cobblers, and as rhubarb sauce (like apple sauce) to pack in lunches to go.
Italian Prunes (self-pollinating, need full sun, average soil, regular water in summer, a good mulch with compost around the base of tree holds in water and adds nutrients)
We knew we had just enough space for 1 plum tree. In a rental, several years ago, we had a couple of plum trees, Italian Prune being one of them. We saw first-hand how prolific these trees are, and knew that we wanted one in our own yard. All of our fruit trees are semi-dwarfs, using very little square footage, are easier to harvest, and mature to bearing faster than standards.
Italian prunes are a type of European plum that dries well, due to a high sugar content. The European plums keep fresh longer than the Asian plums, and tend to ripen over a longer stretch of time than the Asians.
Last summer was a bumper crop, to be sure. We harvested about 6 grocery bags full of plums! I did get quite tired of all the pitting and chopping. But now that it's winter, I am very grateful for all we have both frozen and dehydrated.
In winter, I use the frozen plums in jam, cobblers and crisps, fruit sauce. With the dried prunes, I make stewed prunes, or chop them to add to homemade granola, oatmeal-"raisin" cookies, and bread stuffing for poultry.
Blueberries (need acid soil, lots of moisture, but still good draining soil, and full-sun, though we get by with about 5 hours of full sun for some of our bushes)
Blueberries are too precious for me to just use in cobblers and crisps in winter. I reserve these for snacking on frozen, baking into muffins and pancakes, or to stir into yogurt and smoothies, so that we get the maximum blueberry flavor. However, you may live somewhere blueberries grow in abundance.
We began with 3 blueberry bushes, planted up against the house for maximum sun. Our bushes never did very well, until we moved them out into the yard. We had lasagna-gardened a new spot up with layers of mulch, and compostable material like catalogs and paper. This is very rich soil now. The very first year we moved one of the bushes, we had a bumper crop of berries. And the berries were huge, too. My thought is that the soil is not only rich here, now, but also moist, and away from the alkaline concrete foundation of the house (blueberries are acid-lovers). I also keep the ph acidic by dumping all of our coffee grounds around the base of the blueberry bushes, year round.
Birds love blueberries. But netting over the bushes slows them down.
We have 8 blueberry bushes, all worked into the ornamental landscape, and 4 are still babies. Last summer, we ate blueberries fresh for several weeks, and froze about a quart of blueberries for winter use.
Strawberries (need full sun, well-draining soil, but consistent moisture, and a lot of room to "run")
Strawberries are fairly prolific here. I freeze several quarts of them every summer for adding to yogurt and smoothies. I could make jam or add to cobblers, but their flavor is so delicate I prefer to savor them uncooked.
We began with 3 terra cotta strawberry pots, filled with about 3 dozen plants. The terra cotta pots did not work for us. I wouldn't recommend them for strawberries, but they are great for herbs. After a couple of years of practically no berries when the plants were in the pots, I moved them to the ground and the copious harvests of strawberries began.
I use bird netting over the plants to slow down the squirrels who have a sweet tooth, and beer baited slug traps, throughout the season for those slimy guys.
Strawberries are one of the fruits on the "buy organic" list, due to high levels of pesticides and fungicides used. Growing your own guarantees you organic berries. And the bonus is, homegrown berries taste loads better than farm grown -- soooo flavorful, all my kids will agree.
Raspberries (do not like "wet feet", grow well in raised beds, full sun, most soil types, very prolific)
We've only been growing our own raspberries for about 5 years now. They are fabulous! I didn't think we could grow them here, due to their dislike of soggy soil. So we put in raised cedar beds, and they have been doing very well.
Summers of 2010, 2011 were bumper-crop summers for us. We froze about 2 gallons of raspberries. Last summer we had plenty for fresh eating, but only about a quart of berries for the freezer. It was a cloudy and cool summer here.
Apples (full sun, most need a cross pollinator, there are long keepers that store well into December or early January, good, rich soil, add mulch to base of tree yearly, look for disease and pest resistant cultivars to eliminate spraying trees)
We have 5 apple trees, one still immature, the other 4 producing. Varieties include: 2 red eating apples, 1 pippin apple (good fresh and baked), 1 green apple (baking, good storage apple), 1 russet apple (excellent flavor for fresh eating, baking, and long storage, a late ripening apple). We chose apples with a broad range of ripening, from late August through late October.
Most of our apples we eat or bake with fresh. A few, however, get knocked off the trees by squirrels, so I pick those up and chop them for the freezer right away. In winter it is so nice to have these chopped, frozen apples to add to quick breads and curries.
Of course, there's the traditional cranberry sauce accompaniment to holiday dinners, but I also use them in quick breads, harvest pie (very similar to mincemeat in texture, with dried fruits and chopped nuts) and mixed fruit cobblers. A little goes a long way, so my gallon of cranberries harvested and frozen in October will last all through winter. If you'd like more info on growing cranberries, I wrote this post last fall.
We also have pear, sweet cherry, fig, and crabapple trees, as well as red currants and huckleberries. But I don't think of those fruits as for the freezer. Some we eat fresh in summer or fall only, and some is for jelly, and one is strictly for the birds (I've never been able to beat the birds to the huckleberries).
Wild fruit for the freezer:
Every locale (except the concrete jungle) has some sort of wild fruit available for picking. In the Pacific Northwest, we have wild blackberries. They are everywhere. I live in the midst of a very large bramble hedgerow here. Not picking the blackberries seems downright foolish. Yet I know many folks who won't even try them ("those aren't real fruit, a farmer didn't grow them" sort of attitude).
We pick as many as we can every August and September. I use them in jam, pies, cobblers and crisps, smoothies, and in blackberry sauce. This past summer I froze about 20 quarts of blackberries.
What grows wild near you? Have you ever foraged for the wildies?
All this is about more than just saving money. I like that I know what is on our fruit (we don't spray or use any chemicals whatsoever, and we're totally fine with some blemished fruit). And I like the sense of security we have here, that no matter what else happens with our finances, we'll always be able to put food on our table.
Do you freeze fruit in summer for winter eating? What is your favorite fruit to freeze and how do you use it? If you grow any of your own fruit, what advice would you offer someone just beginning with a fruit garden? Is there any fruit that has done especially well for you?