As a young child, Blaine resident Kelle Sunter said she was fascinated with plants, finding magic in growing something edible. What started as a curiosity turned into a lifelong passion for gardening and food preservation as Sunter continues to grow her own food while sharing the hobby with others.
“I was the kid who was always looking for seeds to stick in the ground and see what would grow,” Sunter said.
Along with a large garden – complete with fruit trees – in her front yard, Sunter also maintains three plots at the Blaine Community Garden. In one plot, she grows crops that she donates to the food bank while the other two plots are reserved for kids programs. The kids programs are on hold this year, so she’s using those plots to donate more food to the food bank.
Sunter taught herself how to preserve her home-grown fruits and vegetables in her twenties and hasn’t stopped canning. She usually teaches 30 to 40 canning classes each year at the Blaine library through the Blaine Community Orchards for Resources and Education (CORE) program, but hasn’t been able to this year due to Covid-19. With people spending more time at home during the pandemic, Sunter encourages the community to continue to garden and preserve their summer crops.
“Realistically, we don’t know where things are going to go, so it’s probably a good plan to have at least a little something growing in your yard that you can munch on,” Sunter said.
For canning beginners, Sunter recommends starting by canning apples, pears or peaches. These crops have a high acid content and won’t be contaminated by botulinum, a toxic bacteria found in improperly-preserved food that can cause death. Most other foods need to be pickled with vinegar in order to avoid contamination. Sunter encourages first-time canners to read the USDA Food Guide to Canning; a condensed version can be found on the CORE website, at nwcore.org.
Water bath canning is a simple way to preserve food, Sunter said. It works by first preparing the fruit or vegetables and placing them into clean jars. Then, after sealing the jars with a lid, they are submerged in boiling water for a specific amount of time depending on the recipe. After the jars cool, the lids will make a popping sound, which indicates an air-tight seal and that they are ready to be stored. Though it’s possible to teach yourself, Sunter recommends learning from an experienced canner.
“In terms of preserving, I would find somebody who is already doing it and ask if you can come help them,” Sunter said. “A really great way to learn is to watch somebody else go through that process.”
Sunter also encourages gardeners to start planting winter crops now, such as carrots, peas, lettuce and beets. She recommends covering the ground around each plant with straw to ensure cold weather doesn’t penetrate the ground, keeping vegetables warm enough to grow.
“If you have the tiniest bit of protection around those crops, they actually will continue to grow and thrive quite well even if we get snow,” Sunter said.
What Sunter seems to enjoy most about growing and preserving her own food is controlling what she eats. For example, she makes applesauce without any added sugar and salsa without salt. Sunter believes canning is perfect for anyone with food intolerances or diet restrictions because you can make products as healthy as possible. It’s also relatively cheap – less than $50 for all the equipment needed – she added.
Sunter has thought about teaching an online canning class sometime in the near future, but for now she is content growing and preserving food for herself and others. For canning recipes and more information about food preservation, visit nwcore.org/course.html.
Quantity of fruit:
An average of 21 pounds is needed per canner load of 7 quarts; an average of 13 ½ pounds is needed per canner load of 9 pints. A bushel weighs 48 pounds and yields 14 to 19 quarts of sauce – an average of 3 pounds per quart.
Select apples that are sweet, juicy, and crisp. For a tart flavor, add 1 to 2 pounds of tart apples to each 3 pounds of sweeter apples.
Wash, peel and core apples. If desired, slice apples into water containing ascorbic acid to prevent browning. Place drained slices in an 8 to 10-quart pot. Add ½ cup water. Stirring occasionally to prevent burning, heat quickly until tender (5 to 20 minutes, depending on maturity and variety). Press through a sieve or food mill, or skip the pressing step if you prefer chunk-style sauce. If desired, add 2 tablespoons sugar per quart of sauce. Taste and adjust. Reheat sauce to a rolling boil. Fill jars with hot sauce, leaving ½-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process. Follow the link below to learn how to do this.
15 minutes for pint jars and 20 minutes for quarts.
To learn how to process and store canned foods, visit the nwcore.org site and click on the “education” link on the left side of the page and scroll down to the section for canning and food preservation. Kelle Sunter’s handout for the class she teaches is the first link.