Learning about growing and preserving at Maja’s Garden

Maja Mielonen, right, showed the participants numerous ways by which they could extend the shelf life of various garden plants. photo by Warren Schlote

MINDEMOYA—Growing delicious and nutritious food in a garden is only half of a producer’s battle. If they have enough space to grow more food than they can eat in a season, it is important to know how to ensure that food can last long past its shelf life to offer year-round sustenance for the people who put their effort into its cultivation. Maja Mielonen of Maja’s Garden in Mindemoya offered tips on how to do just that at a Manitoulin Garden Tour stop from this past weekend.

She offered no shortage of information about the plants as the group walked through her garden rows which included stinging nettle, elderberries, red currants, asparagus, blue cauliflower and poppies among many other plant varieties. 

The first step to getting lush, nutritious foods is to have a rich nutrient base in their soil.

“You can taste the difference if the soil is rich in minerals,” said Ms. Mielonen. “If the nutrients are not in the soil, they can’t be in our food.”

Her tips on preserving harvested goods included separating herb leaves from their stems to encourage drying, proper labeling of preserved goods, preservation media including mustard powder, oil, vinegar or even sugar, and when not to use a dehydrator.

She also discussed the process of canning including a trick to remember the sterilization process (bake on a sturdy cookie sheet at 220° F for 22 minutes). Ms. Mielonen said it is important to make sure no product sits on the rim of the jar as this can compromise the seal. If one discovers a jar that has not sealed and not much time has passed since the canning process, if it smells fine then acidic foods are likely still safe to eat. Non-acidic foods like green beans, fish or meat can cause botulism, a fatal toxin caused by a strain of bacteria. For non-acidic foods, freezing is usually a safer alternative.

When cooking preserves such as jams, Ms. Mielonen said she does not add any pectin (the agent which gels jams) to her dishes. Instead, she includes fruits with naturally high levels of pectin such as green apples, quinces or green tomatoes. Generally, the less ripe a fruit is, the more pectin it will contain. She emphasized the importance of never filling a cook pot more than half-full because this requires higher temperatures for a longer period, which can ruin the integrity of the preserve and cause it to not gel.

Ms. Mielonen also described preserving in a root cellar for items such as potatoes, beets and carrots. This is as opposed to garlic, squash and onions which like cool places, but without the dampness of a root cellar.

“There’s nothing nicer than having a garden,” said Ms. Mielonen. “In the wintertime, I don’t even cook because all my meals are already prepared.”