It’s no secret that food gardening is bringing eager neophytes into garden centers. Even long-established ornamental gardeners are reserving more space for vegetables and fruit, or combining food plants and ornamentals in attractive potagers. The important thing to notice in this trend: it’s about food.
Your garden center may be benefiting from increased sales in seeds, seedlings, brambles, fruit trees, mulch, pest management products, fencing, trellises, irrigation systems and other food gardening-specific products. But how are you doing at the other end, during the harvest? Perhaps you can bring customers back with a well-marketed line of home-preserving gear.
Extension services report they always fill beginner courses on home preserving. If you can host, a local Cooperative Extension office may authorize a Master Preserver to teach. Alternatively, local newspapers or regional magazines might recommend food or garden writers to teach preserving.
Of course, you may have the requisite experience to teach home-preserving yourself, but be sure to review USDA guidelines before organizing a class. The USDA now considers dangerous some practices they recommended in the 1980s.
Ideally, schedule demos throughout the year. Use local produce to teach various preserving methods. Strawberries and rhubarb make great jam and freezable pies. Use sour cherries and it might be the first time many of your customers have even seen them raw. Tomatoes deserve several demos (canning diced tomatoes, sauces, dehydrating) and sweet corn has its own challenges. Don’t overlook herbs; customers can save a fortune by growing their own and then drying or freezing them. If you can’t offer demonstrations, create a display of preserved products along with the gear used to preserve them. A variety of canned foods distributed among canning tools will draw attention while dehydrator trays filled with freshly dried fruits and herbs can be a compelling conversation starter.
To promote canning, find USDA-tested recipes for products customers can’t find in stores: Homemade salsas, chutneys, jams, jellies, relishes, barbecue sauces and pickles are all easy to sample with tiny plastic spoons or crackers. Deliver a dramatic flavor combination by offering halved ginger snaps to dunk in homemade lemon curd.
The best demo won’t be enough to enable someone new to home preserving. Include in your displays at least one easy-to-follow book and, perhaps, fliers from Cooperative Extension. If they’re not in the books you’re selling, print recipes for whatever samples your customers have tasted.
If you have the shelf space, don’t treat preserving as a seasonal activity. Stores tend to put out preserving gear too late in spring and remove it from shelves in late autumn. But winter brings amazing prices on pineapples, mangoes and avocados.
Always tie your home preserving products back to the garden. A customer who gets the “bug” might require a larger garden. Where before a hill of cucumbers lasted the summer, it could take three or four hills to fill canning jars with pickles and relish. Where six tomato plants were enough for salads and sandwiches in season, canning might demand 14 or 20 plants. Help preserving enthusiasts calculate how much to plant to assure they’ll have enough to stock their larders.
Finally, include cold storage in your repertoire. A simple cold storage system might involve plastic tubs and damp sand. You could provide kits for customers to manage homegrown root vegetables all winter in their basements.
Home preserving offers the opportunity to sell canning pots, jars, lids, funnels, jar-lifters, seasonings, fruit pectin, pickling lime, citric acid, freezer containers, freezer bags, dehydrators, slicers, food mills, storage shelves, cutting boards, cutlery, storage boxes, sand or sawdust, fermentation tanks and how-to and recipe books.
Written by Daniel Gasteiger who wrote the book “Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too” from Cool Springs Press. He writes about gardening and cooking and speaks enthusiastically about growing, preserving and cooking food.