For canning, how many plants?

ginak08(6b)January 27, 2012

I am planning to plant tomatoes and cucumbers for canning. I bought San Marzano tomato seeds and Sumter cucumber seeds. Do you know what kind of yield I can expect on these varieties? I haven't had much luck with gardening, so I am still a newbie in that area, and I am definitely a newbie at canning. We don't have a ton of space, so I am wondering how much of each I should plant so I can make pickles and spaghetti sauce.

I have no idea how many pounds of tomatoes it takes to can say, a dozen jars? maybe a dozen jars of pickles as well? Or how many plants of each it would take to can that many jars.

Also, our yard backs up to a field which has been used as a pasture in recent years (we don't own the land, so we have no idea if the owners of it are planning to cows out there again this year or not). We have a 50' garden bed along the back fence (currently just barbed wire) but hubby wants to put a chicken wire fence back there, because he does not want to lose the view of the field. If we do chicken wire, the cukes may be able to climb the fence to save some space? But then I don't know if cows will eat them (if they even put cows there this year) or if other wild things will eat them...

Anyone have any suggestions? We would eat very few, if any, of these tomatoes/cukes fresh, as I am planting these varieties strictly for canning. Sorry I think I kind of went off topic... So I guess my main question is this: to get 12 jars each of the tomatoes/cukes, how many of each plant would you plant?

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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


Your questions are hard to answer because of all the variables involved. Tomato plants of a given variety do not give you a specific number of pounds of tomatoes per plant in any soil and any weather. Instead, production is highly variable depending on many factors including the fertility of the soil (to get huge yields you need very rich, very well-enriched soil high in organic matter), the amount of rainfall and/or irrigation, the soil and air temperatures, the health of the plant, and how widely spaced the plants are from one another. Wider spacing, up to a point, gives higher yields per plant.

While you can control soil quality via amending and can enhance production with proper fertilization and good spacing, your plants still remain at the mercy of the weather. While a given variety like San Marzano might give you 75 or 100 or more lbs. of tomatoes per plant in one year, they might only give you 25 or 30 lbs. of fruit in a different year with tougher growing conditions. So, you have to plant more than you think you'll need, and then, depending on how the variables work you, you'll either get (a) too many tomatoes, (b) just the right amount of tomatoes, or (c) too few tomatoes. There! Did I make is simple or hard?

So, since I have no idea how well-enriched your soil will be or what spacing you'll use or how well the weather will cooperate, let's focus instead on how many lbs. of tomatoes it generally takes to produce a given number of jars of sauce.

First, you have to choose a recipe. For safety reasons, you must use an approved recipe like those from the Ball Blue Book, other legitimate canning guides, or the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation. You have to adhere to the recipe exactly because any deviation can cause pH or density changes that make the recipe unsafe and could result in the growth of pathogens that could make people ill or even kill them. I mention these factors since you are an inexperienced canner.

You mentioned spaghetti sauce, and that means you'll need a pressure canner in order to safely can your spaghetti sauce because of the various ingredients involved. There are two kinds of spaghetti sauce recipes available--those that include meat in them and those which do not. Once you choose a recipe, decide how many batches you'll make.

Using numbers provided by the National Center for Home Food Preservation, you'll need approximately 30 lbs. of tomatoes to make one canning batch of spaghetti sauce that gives you 9 pints of spaghetti sauce, with or without meat.

If you choose to make and can plain tomato sauce instead, which you then can open and use to make fresh pasta sauce for your next meal, then you have two options:

1) For a thinner sauce, you'll need about 35 lbs. of tomatoes for one canning batch that gives you about 7 quarts. If you want to can in pints, you'll need about 21 lbs. of tomatoes to give you 9 pints.

2) For a thicker sauce, you'll need about 44 lbs. of tomatoes for one canning batch of 7 quarts, or 28 lbs. for a canning batch of 9 pints.

One advantage of making plain tomato sauce is that then you can use it to make pasta sauce or in soups or stews or in any other recipe that uses tomato sauce, so it is more flexible. Also, you are able to can tomato sauce using a boiling water bath canner instead of a pressure canner, although you also can use a pressure canner for plain tomato sauce.

So, my suggestion is that you find a recipe you like, then total up how many batches you want to make to get the number of jars that makes you happy, and calculate how many pounds of tomatoes you need to make that many batches. Then, assume low production of 25-35 lbs. per San Marzano tomato plant since you are relatively new to growing tomatoes, and figure out how many plants you need. Then, plant twice as many plants as your need so that if you lose a plant to a rabbit, and another to a cow and a third to disease, you'll still have enough tomatoes to reach your canning goal. I always plant far more tomato plants that I think I 'need' because it is a whole lot easier to use up or give away extra tomatoes than it is to conjure up more tomatoes out of thin air. So, if you are going to err, err on the side of safety.

Actually, at our house it is impossible to have too many tomatoes because I do a lot of canning, freezing, and dehydrating, and we eat tons fresh, and we like to have extras to give away to family and friends.

San Marzano is generally a very good producer but I still get highly variable yields from it, and it is all because of our highly erratic weather. That's one reason I grow a variety of canning if one variety is having a bad year, maybe another one will balance it out by having a good year. In 2010 all our canners had a banner year and we have tomatoes everywhere...canned, frozen, dehydrated, made into salsa, etc. and I loved, loved, loved it. By contrast, last summer's drought gave us lots of tomatoes for fresh eating and even enough to give away, but not enough to can. So, one lesson to take from that is that you cannot count your chickens before they hatch.

Another issue is that even if a San Marzano plant gives you a lot of tomatoes, you won't get all of them ripe at exactly the same time. To work around that, you can throw fresh-picked, clean tomatoes into gallon-sized freezer zip-lock bags and just keep adding more tomatoes to the bags until you have enough for a canning batch. This is especially helpful early in the season when the first round of tomatoes ripens but you need more than that for a canning batch. To can with frozen tomatoes, just take them out, thaw them out and use them as directed in the canning recipe.

With pickles, it depends on the pickle recipe, whether you are canning in pints or quarts, whether you're canning whole pickles, or lengthwise sliced ones like dill spears, or hamburger dill chips which are sliced crosswise. It takes different amounts of cucumbers for different recipes, so go to your recipe source, pick out the recipe you wish to use, and figure out how many batches it will take. If you use a recipe from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, it usually tells you at the top of the page how many pounds of cukes you'll need for one canning batch, and it will tell you that in terms of pints or quarts.

I haven't grown Sumter and have no idea how many cukes a typical plant produces at one time under good conditions, but maybe you can google Sumter and find that info somewhere. With cucumbers, you can't freeze and save them until you get enough for a batch, so you need your plants to make a lot of cukes at once. Unless you're growing a parthenocarpic variety, you're at the mercy of insects for pollination too. So, plant a lot of cucumber plants in order to get a few pounds of cukes for a single batch of pickles. I usually plant at least 15-20 plants of vining pickling cukes (and some years twice that many if I also want to make pickle relish), but I make a lot of pickles in a good year and, by "a lot", I mean dozens of jars.

With cucumbers in our climate, planting at exactly the right time is critical because excessive heat (something we Okies know a lot about, lol) can slow down or shut down production. Cucumber plants often fall victim to cucumber beetles, pickleworms and other pests and to some diseases, so I always plant more plants than I think I'll need.

When I first started making pickles a long, long time ago, I probably had 6 or 8 plants and they produced far more cucumbers at one time than what I needed because I wasn't making a lot of pickles. Now I try to make enough in one year to last us for two years. That way, I am covered if the cucumbers produce poorly the next year. I also like to make extras to give as gifts.

If space is an issue, you might be able to plant only 4-6 cucumber plants and get enough pickles in one day to make pickles, but if you have more space, it would be better to plant maybe 8 or even 10.

The real trick with pickling cukes is not how many pounds of cucumbers you'll get from each plant, but rather how much you'll get on any given day. The best pickles are made from cucumbers freshly picked that day, so you have to have enough plants that you get enough cukes in one day to make a batch of pickles. You cannot pile them up in the fridge and hold them for several days and expect high-quality pickles from slightly old cucumbers.

In general, you only need approximately 8 to 10 pounds of freshly picked pickling cucumbers to make one batch of pickles, with a batch being about 7 to 9 pints. That is if your cucumbers are 4 to 5" long. FYI--it is best to pick cucumbers while they are 4 to 5" long as they give you a much higher quality pickle than those that are overly large. If you want to can your pickles in quart jars, you need about 13-15 lbs.

If you end up with cukes that are mis-shapen or too large for regular pickles, you still can use them for relish or for bread and butter pickles. Bread and butter pickles still can be pretty good quality even when made with larger cukes.

Have you grown cucumbers before? You have to watch them carefully because they can go from 'too small' for pickles on Friday to 'way too big' by Sunday or Monday if you forget to check them daily.

I'm going to link the National Center for Home Food Preservation so you can research pickling recipes and spaghetti sauce or tomato sauce recipes. There's tons of useful information on this website as it is the official U. S. government source on safe, approved food preservation methods.

This is a long reply, but since you're new to canning, I wanted to give a really thorough answer.


Here is a link that might be useful: How To Can Tomatoes

    Bookmark   January 27, 2012 at 2:18PM
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Thank you so much for all that information! Varying yields makes sense to me. It is also good to know that I need to follow a recipe. I used to always need a recipe for EVERYTHING but since I met my husband, he has taught me to just make up my own 90% of the time. I usually only use recipes to see how long or at what temperature something needs to cook for... but then as far as ingredients and amounts, I come up with that on my own. I was planning to the same with canning sauces and stuff... but after reading your reply, I think I better find a recipe.

I actually bought a bunch of roma tomatoes when they were on sale a couple of weeks ago to make chili with. Then, the weather was warm and we did not feel like eating chili. So I looked up "how to can tomatoes" and found instructions on ehow or somewhere similar and conjured up my own recipe to cook the tomatoes with onions and a bunch of seasonings for chili. I then followed canning directions (I do not have a canner or pressure cooker so I used a large stock pot) and now have 2 jars of chili tomatoes in my pantry... Now I am thinking I should throw them out.

Thank you for all that great info! You probably just saved my family from becoming really sick :-)

    Bookmark   January 27, 2012 at 2:56PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

You're welcome. Canning and other methods of food preservation are one area where you simply can not freelance and make up your own recipe, or adapt recipes by making changes to "make it your own" or use old family recipes that were not tested for safety in labs by trained food scientists. Many of the food-borne illnesses are caused by pathogens you cannot see, so food can look, taste and smell fine, and still be deadly. It pays to be careful and always follow safety-approved canning recipes.

Several years ago, in a town in Texas about 30 minutes from us, several members of one family contracted botulismn. I don't believe any of them died as a result, but they were severely ill for a very long time. I do not believe it was from home-canned food, and it most likely was contracted from frozen chili---the kind sold in 'bricks'---although I am not sure if that ever was officially established in a court of law. However, seeing their story on the news for months afterward (long, slow and difficult recovery period) reminded me of the importance of food safety.

It would be best to throw out the chili tomatoes from the made-up recipes. The best way is to open the jars and pour the food into a container, like a plastic bowl with a lid, put it into a trash bag and tie the bag securely. You can wash and use the jars and rings again, but discard the flat portion of the two-piece canning lid.

If you ever have an issue with something you've canned, you can reopen it and recan it within 24 hours safely. After 24 hours have passed, the potentially dangerous pathogens can begin growing and at that point all you can do is throw out the suspect food.

I should have mentioned, you can make and freeze pureed tomatoes, tomato sauce, etc. too instead of canning them.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2012 at 3:38PM
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I don't can pickles but I do can and freeze tomatoes. I use a trick that may save you some boiling time. Instead of making up tomato/spaghetti sauce to can during the summer when it is blasted hot, I either can (water bath) or freeze the tomatoes. I blanch the tomates, chill them, peel them and cut them in half over a colander set into a large bowl. This allows the juice to drain through and the pulp to stay in the colander. Then I process them separately. Juice in one jar, pulp in another. The juice goes into stews or is drunk straight in the winter, and the pulp makes a nice sauce without a lot of boiling to thicken it. BTW, the reason Dawn mentioned 7 quarts and 9 pints is because that is what the canner holds, whether it is a water bath or a pressure canner.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2012 at 7:44PM
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