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Learn how to raise figs in the midwest

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KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

ANN SCHERTZ: Every year, we get about twice as many figs as we did the year before, and this year we got, I think, somewhere in the ballpark of 200 figs.

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show, rivers and trees, and fresh food packed in glass jars. We have a story about an ancient fish struggling for survival in the Missouri River; a beloved fig tree and the measures taken to protect it; and we head into the kitchen for a step-by-step guide to preserving tomatoes. All that is just ahead. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Since the age of the dinosaurs, pallid sturgeon have thrived in what's become the Missouri River. The fish made it through mass extinctions and multiple Ice Ages. But populations have plummeted over the last 90 years as humans installed dams and engineered the river current. Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports: "The pallid sturgeon's struggle may be a sign of larger issues in the Missouri River.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Early on fall morning, a graduate student leans forward on an air boat, reaching for a fishing line that she baited the night before. For hours, it floated in Nebraska's Platte River, an offshoot of the Missouri. Her professor, Mark Pegg, looks on to see what she's caught.

PROFESSOR MARK PEGG: Looks like there's a fish or two on. Might not be the right fish.


ELIZABETH REMBERT: Pegg and his student are searching for the endangered pallid sturgeon. It's a funny looking fish with a long snout and a humped back, all covered in beige scales. The funky features are for a good reason, says Wayne Nelson-Stastny, with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

WAYNE NELSON-STASTNY: If you are going to design a fish in an engineering program to the Missouri River, where you can't see, you can smell, you can hear, and to be able to handle the currents, a pallid sturgeon is what you would design.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: But those traits didn't help out when the pallid came up against the massive projects of the 20th century, when engineers built dams and narrowed the river. That basically eliminated the fishes' habitat, and soon it was rare to catch a young pallid sturgeon.

WAYNE NELSON-STASTNY: What they were capturing was older fish; never anything in the small, young type pallids. And so there was a major concern about: are we going to have this population go extinct?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Biologists were worried about what it meant if this fish, so in tune with the river after millions of years of evolution, was struggling. Those concerns kick-started a hatchery to resuscitate the pallid sturgeon population. Biologist, Chris Hooley, leads the Gavin's Point National Fish Hatchery in Yankton, South Dakota. He talks over dozens of huge fish tanks to explain the program.

CHRIS HOOLEY: In this building, there's about 1600 fish and what it serves for is it's a genetic backup for the pallid sturgeon in the Upper Missouri River.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: The hatchery raises baby pallids from eggs, and then releases them into the river to keep the population going. Hooley uses an ultrasound machine to examine a fish.

CHRIS HOOLEY: Oh, winner, winner. All those little babies that you see are actually black eggs inside this fish. So, this is a female that's reproductive, that was spawned in the spring.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: But, eventually, biologists want pallids to reproduce naturally and grow in the Missouri without their help. So the Corps of Engineers has been working to recreate their pre-engineering habitats. Changing stretches of the river to benefit endangered species hasn't been popular. It came to a head after the region saw devastating floods in 2011 and 2019. Farmers blamed the habitat restoration projects for their damaged property. Here's Wayne Nelson-Stastny of Fish and Wildlife again.

WAYNE NELSON-STASTNY: I've been in meetings where bus loads of people show up and say, "my farm is not your laboratory."

ELIZABETH REMBERT: But to Gerald Mestl, who worked in Nebraska Game and Parks for decades, the pallid sturgeon has mistakenly become a scapegoat for larger problems on the river.

GERALD MESTL: The ecosystem is in trouble on the Missouri River. It's not the pallid sturgeon is in trouble.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Mestl thinks narrowing the river for the navigation industry increased flood heights and frequencies. He says, "on doing those projects and widening the river, could restore habitat for animals like the pallid sturgeon, and make more room for flood years."

GERALD MESTL: Yes, it would cost a lot of money, but have a system that will meet our needs today and for a long way in the future.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: A future that will likely include more flooding as climatologists predict stronger and more frequent storms. For Harvest Public Media, I'm Elizabeth Rembert.

KAYTE YOUNG: This story is part of NOVA's Climate Across America initiative, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It's being distributed by Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG: Last week, we talked with folks from CanopyBloomington, about the urban forest and how tree planting involves looking to the future. That's especially true when it comes to food forests. Fruit and nut trees take a number of years before they bear fruit, so you have to be patient. Our next story is a favorite from a few years back about a beloved fruit tree in a neighbor's yard. Ann Schertz said she hadn't thought too far ahead when she purchased her fig tree in 2012.

ANN SCHERTZ: I bought it from Mays Greenhouse.

KAYTE YOUNG: She says it was an impulse buy.

ANN SCHERTZ: But I was inspired by the Bloomington Community Orchard. When I saw their fig and how big it had grown and that it was producing figs, I thought, 'I want one of those'. It's a Chicago fig.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Chicago Hardy? Is that just a terminology?

KAYTE YOUNG: I think you're right.


ANN SCHERTZ: I thought if it could survive in Chicago, then it would probably do pretty well in Bloomington, Indiana.

KAYTE YOUNG: Ann Schertz lives with her husband, Alan Schertz, in the Bryan Park neighborhood in central Bloomington; we used to be neighbors. She's a professional photographer and he works for the City of Bloomington. They have a lot of other interests, like baking, building, gardening. You might catch Alan gliding across campus on a longboard in the summer, or the two of them walking their little dog, [PHONETIC: Magee], in the neighborhood. Oh, and you might say they're foodies.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, maybe we could do a levels check. Just tell me what you had for breakfast.

ANN SCHERTZ: Today we had crepes with Gruyère cheese, sautéed mushrooms, spinach, and eggs.

ALAN SCHERTZ: It was pretty nice, yes. I appreciated it.

KAYTE YOUNG: That is definitely the best, what did you have for breakfast, breakfast that I have ever gotten. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: I invited them on the show to talk about their fig tree. I started by asking them, why figs?

ALAN SCHERTZ: I think Ann, for a foodie, for choosing a plant, would lean towards something that would produce food. And the fig leaves are beautiful, so it's quite pleasant to look at. And it is really fun to eat figs.

ANN SCHERTZ: I think, also, because it seemed a little exotic and something that I never thought we could grow in Indiana. Then once I learned that we could, I was really excited about planting something in my yard that I could look forward to picking every year.

KAYTE YOUNG: I know a couple of other people in town with fig trees, but Ann and Alan's is the biggest and it bears the most fruit. Their house lies along a familiar route through town for me, and the tree is in their side yard, right next to the road. So I pass it almost daily. A few years ago in the winter, I noticed they'd built a sort of circular cage around it with light wire fencing and filled it in with dried leaves. Each year, the cage got bigger as the tree grew. Last year, they had it decorated with Christmas lights.

ANN SCHERTZ: A neighbor bought us Christmas lights to put on it.

ALAN SCHERTZ: We thought it looked like a cake

ANN SCHERTZ: So it looks like a big cake at Christmas.

KAYTE YOUNG: I wanted to learn their secret to fig tree success. I stopped by in the fall when they were getting it ready for winter and asked them to describe the process. When I arrived, they'd already set up a circular cage around the tree using stakes and lightweight wire fencing. They had started to fill it in with dried leaves and were dragging a tarp down the side of the road to a pecan tree on the corner.

ANN SCHERTZ: Here, we got lucky. Somebody who had bagged up about a dozen bags of leaves.

ALAN SCHERTZ: My old professor.

ANN SCHERTZ: Giant bags. And so we just sent him an email and asked him if we could have his leaves.

KAYTE YOUNG: That saves time.

ANN SCHERTZ: Yes, especially when we're kind of in a pinch. It's cold so early this year.

KAYTE YOUNG: They tried to get it covered before the first frost, or at least the first hard freeze. This year's first cold snap came early. Many of the leaves hadn't even fallen off the trees yet, so they were happy for any leaves they could get their hands on. They dragged the tarp to the cage and started dumping in the leaves.

KAYTE YOUNG: What is the method here? Do you just dump it in there or do you want to make sure it's packed dense?

ALAN SCHERTZ: I would say packed loose. You can see I have a little void there, so my quality control's not up to snuff.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, you probably want to trap some air in there, too.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Yes, I think I've tried. I think the first year we did it, we did not use straw. Maybe year two or three, we did use straw at the base, and I think that's a good thing; I did not use straw at the base of this one. So, we'll see. Again, I am no expert. We are just winging it, do you know what I mean?

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes. All pretty loose.

ALAN SCHERTZ: It's more like a ritual.


KAYTE YOUNG: It's a ritual that seems to work. What I've noticed from other friends' fig trees is that in our climate, certain varieties of fig trees will survive the winter but they die back quite a bit, and each spring it takes a while to recover and send out new growth. As a result, the tree doesn't get that much bigger from year to year. That's not the case with Ann and Alan's tree.

KAYTE YOUNG: What is the purpose of putting a cage around it and packing it with leaves? What is your intention with that? What do you think it's doing?

ALAN SCHERTZ: I guess we're thinking it's insulating it. I don't really know if it is. We've never studied it. We don't really know what we're doing, but we just keep doing it each year and it keeps producing, so.

ANN SCHERTZ: Well, I think I read to do that and that it would help protect it from a hard freeze.


ANN SCHERTZ: It seems to have worked though. I mean, every year, we get about twice as many figs as we did the year before, and this year we got, I think, somewhere in the ballpark of 200 figs.

KAYTE YOUNG: 200 figs, that's quite a bit. Do they come on all at once or is it just sort of throughout the season?

ALAN SCHERTZ: Yes, gradually.

ANN SCHERTZ: Yes, it usually starts out with just one or two. You have to really keep looking for them because the fig's so big now. You really have to get in there and see where the figs are, and make sure you don't miss any of those delicious figs on that.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, speaking of delicious, what kind of things do you guys like to do with them? Since you have an abundant harvest, this isn't just one or two a day.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Unfortunately, I think we mainly just eat them raw, I mean, when they ripen. But we sautéed them.

ANN SCHERTZ: Sautéed them in butter and maple syrup, and very lightly because you don't need to use very much because they're already a pretty sweet fruit. We cut them up and then we'll eat them with pancakes and waffles or on ice cream.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Or even yogurt. We've had a fig yogurt parfait; a little granola, a little yogurt, little figgy.

ANN SCHERTZ: And sometimes we've taken them to a friend of our's house and we've put them on pizza, too, with goat cheese.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Oh yes, I forgot, we did.

ANN SCHERTZ: It's very good.

KAYTE YOUNG: Have you ever preserved them by making jam, or dried them or anything?

ANN SCHERTZ: We haven't gotten to that point where we have so many that we would do that. We mostly gobble them down just as they are.

KAYTE YOUNG: Do you give them away to friends and neighbors?

ALAN SCHERTZ: By all means.

ANN SCHERTZ: We do, because we want other people to experience the fig. They often have never had a fig.

KAYTE YOUNG: Especially a fresh one.

ANN SCHERTZ: We have neighbors from Israel, and they thought that they could only get them in Israel as far as growing them in the vicinity where they lived. So that was exciting to them to know that that was a possibility.

ALAN SCHERTZ: But it is a nice invitational, I don't know what you'd call it, like fellowship, sharing thing. It's a nice element as far as that goes, I think.

ANN SCHERTZ: It's actually happened with people driving by, too, because I think people are curious when we're standing by it, wondering what we're doing. Because they don't recognize it as something that would be bearing fruit. So they're curious and they ask us what we're doing, and we're basically almost getting inside the fig and trying to find the figs in there.

KAYTE YOUNG: I think some people have never had a fresh fig and then I especially think people don't know what a fig tree looks like. All of that would mean people would be curious.

ANN SCHERTZ: Absolutely. Although, there are some people who think, 'no, I'm not eating that, it looks weird'. [LAUGHS]

ALAN SCHERTZ: You're right. Then it's beautiful, yes.

ANN SCHERTZ: Then they slice it open and it's pink, it's gorgeous on the inside. It looks like a little ugly fruit on the outside, but you open it up and it's pink and beautiful and delicious.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, so what does the outside look like?

ALAN SCHERTZ: The outside color's initially green and then kind of turns brownish, almost like a purply bruised color when it's starting to ripen.

KAYTE YOUNG: Do you think anybody's picking?


KAYTE YOUNG: Because I know that your fig is outside of your backyard fence.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Yes. It is accessible.

KAYTE YOUNG: It's very open to the community.

ALAN SCHERTZ: There's many individuals that we've said, "by all means, help yourself." But I also think there's a respect that they're not going to just come and harvest all of them or anything.

KAYTE YOUNG: You said squirrels. What about deer? I know that this neighborhood is just overrun with deer sometimes.

ALAN SCHERTZ: Yes, there is a lot of deer, but I don't think I've ever seen a deer jumping on the fig; not for the leaves, not for the fruit.

ANN SCHERTZ: Either they don't like figs or they have not discovered them.


KAYTE YOUNG: My guess would be the latter. [LAUGHS] They haven't discovered them because they will like them.

ANN SCHERTZ: I think, for me, mostly it's just nice to have something out in the yard that grows and then I can pick the food and eat it. I don't feel like I'm being that resourceful, but it's just a fun thing to have in my life, to be able to do that. I don't know, I guess what I am learning is to try to grow things that grow easily in Indiana. I have tried to grow lots of fruits that don't necessarily do that well in Indiana, and so to find something that does well, it pretty much takes care of itself besides covering it up in the winter. It just really brings me a lot of joy.

ALAN SCHERTZ: It's definitely fun. I think the fellowship of the tree has been the highlight for me, just interacting with neighbors, kids, grown-ups.

ANN SCHERTZ: As is often the case, fruit from their fig tree is more than food. It's a conversation starter, a connector.

KAYTE YOUNG: We'll be back after a short break with a step-by-step guide to canning tomatoes. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats.

KAYTE YOUNG: Here we are in the middle of the growing season in the Midwest. Everything seems to be ahead of schedule this year, which makes me want to be prepared for tomato season. One of the primary motivations for growing food at home is the one-of-a-kind flavor of a vine-ripened tomato in summertime. Today, we're going to learn how to preserve that precious harvest to enjoy year round. Now, as far as canning projects go, tomatoes may not seem as exciting as, say, hot salsa, strawberry jam, or even pickles. But I assure you, home-canned tomatoes are far superior to store-bought. The deep flavor of those sun-kissed beauties really does translate to the finished product.

KAYTE YOUNG: I have done side-by-side comparisons with the same recipe, made with home-canned tomatoes and then with store-bought ones, and I could really taste the difference. I mean, it makes sense. When you start with high quality ingredients, you can taste it. If you don't grow tomatoes yourself, or you don't grow enough for canning, check with local farmers in your area and see if you can get a deal for a bulk purchase of canning tomatoes. Often, farmers will have seconds that they'll be willing to sell you at a reduced price. I have found that around 25 lb of tomatoes will fill a canner of seven quart jars. So, let's get started. Fair warning: this is a bit of an involved process, but it's not difficult and it's very satisfying to see your finished product cooling on the countertop. If you've ever wanted to learn how to do this, now is your chance. So, settle in for some step-by-step instructions.

KAYTE YOUNG: First things first, you want to clean up your kitchen thoroughly: wipe down all the counters, start with a clean working space. Then you want to gather all of your equipment and supplies: seven 1 quart jars, large canner, a jar lifter, 25 lb of tomatoes, a towel, a baking rack, a small cloth made of t-shirt material, paring knife, a slotted spoon and a ladle or wooden spoon, measuring spoons, some lemon juice or some citric acid, seven rings and seven flat lids, a special canning funnel, two pots, a bowl, and some ice.

KAYTE YOUNG: Don't worry, we'll go over each one of these, and we've got the full recipe on our website, and that's We'll start with the jars, which need to be washed first.

KAYTE YOUNG: You want to make sure that these are official canning jars. They need to be in Ball jars or mason jars. You can't just reuse a jar that spaghetti sauce came in or whatever; you need to get canning jars. They can withstand the temperatures of the canning process, and they have a specific shape at the bottom of them that allows them to not sit really flat on the bottom of the pot that you're boiling them in when you're doing the canning.

KAYTE YOUNG: You should also inspect each jar for any hairline cracks or any nicks or chips around the rim of the jar, because that could interfere with a proper seal.

KAYTE YOUNG: You'll need a canning vessel. This is a large, usually enamel-lined pot that holds seven quart canning jars, and it has a little metal wire basket in the bottom that your jars sit on and you can use it to lift the jars out. The canning pot has two lines on it: one towards the bottom third of the pot, and one at the top third of the pot. For the quart jars, you're going to want to fill it just to that first line, because when you place the full quart jars into the water bath, it's going to displace a lot of water and you don't want it overflowing and dousing the flame under your pot. I'm speaking from experience, this has happened to me before.

KAYTE YOUNG: You will probably want to fill it a little bit above that line, about an inch above that line, because there will be some evaporation. You also want to make sure you have enough water in the kettle when you put the jars because you don't want to be trying to add a bunch of water at the end. The jars do need to be fully submerged for the canning process.

KAYTE YOUNG: At this point, you can also add a tablespoon of vinegar to the water. This is a trick I learned from some old-school preservationists. They say that it prevents the jars from becoming cloudy; it keeps them nice and clear. Then, once you get the water in the pot and you get the jars all washed, you'll want to put the jars into the water bath. You do want to do this while the water is cold because you want the jars and the water to heat up together. Then you want to turn on the heat under the water bath. The jars will heat up with the water and once they've reached boiling, you can set a timer for ten minutes. Once they have boiled for ten minutes, then the jars are officially sterilized.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, we've got all of our equipment. We've got a large canner that will hold seven quart jars and it's got sort of a basket on the bottom that keeps the jars off the bottom and also can assist in lifting them, though I hardly ever use it. Instead, I use what's called a jar lifter and it kind of looks like tongs, but it's specially shaped that allows you to pick up a jar by grabbing it at the lid. You can do this with one hand and pull it out of a canner, or set it into a canner. It's a great tool; I do not recommend canning without this. You can come up with some sort of makeshift pot to do your canning in if you have a large enough stock pot and you can find a way to get the jars off the bottom. But when it comes to the jar lifter, you really need to purchase a canning jar lifter.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so I've got my jar lifter. I've got my canning pot: it is filled with water and it's on the stove heating up. I've got my 25 lb of tomatoes. I've completely cleared off some countertop space in my kitchen so that I can really spread out and do all these tasks. I have a towel, a clean towel, laid out, which is what I'm going to set the jars on when I'm filling them. And I've got a baking rack, which is what I'm going to set the jars on once they come out of the canning bath. The other thing I'm going to need is a small cloth made of t-shirt material; you don't want something that's going to shed lint. This is something that you're going to use to wipe the rims of the jars before you put the lids on and that ensures a proper seal. The other thing you're going to need is a bowl and you're going to want to put your lids in that bowl.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, the canning lids are a two-part thing. You need seven rings, the rings you can reuse, so if you already have some of those, that's great; the canning lids, the flat disk that goes on top of the jar. That has to be new; you can't reuse those. You can purchase those and they come in a small box, they're made by Ball, and you can find them in the baking, canning section of your grocery store. You want to make sure that the lid size matches the kind of jar that you have. I have a mix of wide-mouth and small-mouth or regular-mouth jars, and I happen to have both types of lids. The other thing you're going to need is some lemon juice or some citric acid; we're going to add that to the tomatoes.

KAYTE YOUNG: The other thing you're going to need are two pots: one is going to be for boiling water, and the boiling water we're going to use to blanch the tomatoes. The other pot is going to be used for the tomatoes themselves, so you're going to put the tomatoes in that pot as you're processing them and getting them ready to can. The other thing that you're going to need is a bowl and some ice.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, you're going to want to take those lids: the seven rings and the seven flat lids, put those in a bowl and pour some hot water over those. So you can heat up some water in a kettle or you can grab some water from your canning bath and just pour that over them just to wet those lids. There's a little rubber ring around the top part of the lid and you just want to get that warm so it assists in sealing the lid.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, to process the tomatoes, first they should be washed, rinsed off in water, and then we're going to blanch them, and that is what is going to help us remove the skins. It's important to remove the skins when you can tomatoes because when they get canned, they tend to be tough, unpleasant to eat and not great to cook with. You definitely don't want to skip this step. It does add another tedious step to this process, but it's just part of what you have to do if you're going to can tomatoes.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so to blanch, you're going to take your tomato and I recommend slicing with a paring knife, just a small X somewhere on the tomato; I usually do it up by the stem. You're going to boil the pot of water on the stove and then you're going to dip some tomatoes in there; I usually do about five at a time. You're just dunking them in there for a minute or two and that's going to cause the skin to split, and you an see it happening. Then you fish them out of there with a slotted spoon and drop them immediately into some ice-cold water in a bowl, and I usually have that in the sink. Then the skins will slip off very easily, and you can core the tomato and cut out any part that you don't think looks great, or any part that's too firm or something like that. Basically, you get the core out and trim them, I usually use a paring knife, then you're also going to cut them.

KAYTE YOUNG: If they're large tomatoes, you're going to cut them in quarters, then you're going to drop them into a pot that is going to be set on low and simmering on your stove. We want to make sure that the tomatoes are nice and hot before we put them in the hot jars; you don't want cold food going into hot jars, it can cause the jars to break. Get your tomatoes stewing on the stove. You're not trying to cook them or anything, you just want to make sure that they're nice and hot when you can them. Because processing the tomatoes, peeling them and cutting them up, can take some time, your jars might be hot and sterilized before you're ready to can. If that happens, just either turn the heat off or turn it onto low, and just let it sit there, and turn it back on and get it back up to boiling before you're ready to can.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so I'm going to take some of these tomatoes and I'm going to slice a X in the skin. This just helps assist in the peeling process. I've done that to about five of these tomatoes and I'm going to drop them in the boiling water.

KAYTE YOUNG: So I've got my water boiling on the stove and I'm going to carefully lower these tomatoes into the boiling water. You can use your slotted spoon for that, just to reduce the possibility of a splash. Just keep an eye on them and as you see the skins start to split, then fish them out and take them over to your cold bath, which is your big bowl of water that has ice in it. The cold water acts as a shock which, again, assists with the skin coming off easily.

KAYTE YOUNG: This is a point where it can be really useful to have two people working on this project, because one person can be focused on blanching the tomatoes, another person can be focused on coring and cutting them. Once they're all blanched, you can both focus on coring and cutting them, and then you can both work on getting them canned, getting them to the jars. It just goes a lot faster with two people.

KAYTE YOUNG: I find that the easiest way to do this is to put my knife in and go around the stem part of the tomato and just take out that core. A lot of times the peeling will just come with it and then it's quick. In terms of cutting the tomatoes, you don't have to make them pretty, you don't have to cut them in any particular way. Just think about the fact that you're going to be cooking with them, usually in soups or sauces. They don't need to be pretty, but you do want to get all the core out and you want to get all the peels off.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so I've got some of these tomatoes peeled and cut up and now I'm going to put them in this big pot that I'm going to keep on the stove on a low simmer.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, I've got my tomatoes blanched, peeled, cored, cut up, and they're now heating up, and I ended up having to use two big pots on the stove. I've got my hot jars ready, and it's about time to start filling the jars and getting ready to do the actual canning. For the amount of tomatoes that I had, which was close to 30 lbs, it took me one and a half hours to process them. That includes blanching them, peeling them, coring them, cutting them up, and now they're heating up on the stove. Definitely want to keep an eye on them while you're heating them up. You don't want them to scorch on the bottom and ruin your whole batch. Just keep an eye on them, keep the heat on low, have the lid on, keep stirring them every now and then, just to make sure that they're not scorching on the bottom.

KAYTE YOUNG: One thing I will say about heating up the tomatoes first; some people just cold-pack their tomatoes and can them that way. They don't bother to do the stage of heating them up in a pot on the stove before canning them. I did that once. I think it might have been the first time I did tomato canning. I did a cold-pack of, I think, pretty much whole tomatoes. When that cold tomato in those jars hit that hot boiling water in the hot water bath, several of them broke. I mean, the bottoms just fell out of them; all the contents of the tomatoes went into the boiling water bath. It is what you would call a cantastrophe. It was very upsetting to go through all that work and have all of that product ruined; it happened to several of the jars.

KAYTE YOUNG: I did some investigating, found out what I did wrong, and now I always make sure that my tomatoes, whatever product I'm putting in the jar, is hot so that there isn't that temperature differential that can cause a jar to shatter.

KAYTE YOUNG: Next, you want to set up your canning station. What you're going to want is a dishtowel folded in half, laid out on your countertop, and that's where you're going to put your hot jars when you take them out of the hot water bath; empty hot glass jars. Next to that, you're going to want to put a hot pad, you're going to put your pot full of hot tomatoes right next to the towel and you're going to need a ladle. The other thing that comes in really handy for canning, in addition to the special jar lifter, is a special canning funnel. This fits right into the jar and it has a little bit wider opening so it just makes the filling of the jars much easier. You're going to want all those things plus your small cloth made of t-shirt material that is damp and ready to use, and your jar lifter. Then it'll be time to start moving the jars from the canner onto the countertop, and then start filling them up.

KAYTE YOUNG: The other thing that you're going to want to have ready is some measuring spoons: you want a teaspoon and a tablespoon. You're going to want either bottled lemon juice - not fresh, needs to be bottled lemon juice - or, citric acid. You'll be adding 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice to one quart jar, or, if you're using the citric acid, it's just one half teaspoon. The citric acid comes in a crystalline form. It looks a lot like sugar or salt, and you can find it pretty easily; I buy mine at World Foods Market, here in Bloomington. It has no flavor so it doesn't affect the taste of your tomatoes, but I have also used lemon juice and it also does not affect the flavor. Once it has been canned, it kind of boils out that flavor; you don't really taste it.

KAYTE YOUNG: The only foods that you can can in a hot water bath canner are high-acid foods, and that includes all fruits. Now, tomatoes are also considered a fruit, they're also considered high-acid. The problem is that over the years, tomatoes have been bred to be sweeter and the concern is that perhaps not all varieties of tomatoes are acidic enough to be safe for hot water bath canning. As an extra precaution, you add some acid to each jar to ensure that they are safe. The reason you don't want to use fresh lemon juice, you want to use bottled lemon juice, is because it is stable and regulated and has a specific amount of acidity that will work for lowering that pH or raising the acidity, however you want to look at it, to make sure that it is the proper amount for safe water bath canning.

KAYTE YOUNG: The other thing that you can add to your tomatoes is a little bit of salt. That's not required; most people just choose to add the salt when they're cooking with the tomatoes. Do not add any other ingredients to your tomatoes.

If you do, you are running the risk of botulism. Don't do it. Enough said.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, my jars have been boiling, they're hot and they're ready. I'm going to pull them out of the canner.

KAYTE YOUNG: You just grip the jar with the canning jar lifter, tip the jar over to pour out that hot water, and transfer it to your towel on the countertop.

KAYTE YOUNG: You can either put the lemon juice or the citric acid in the bottom of your jar before you've put the tomatoes in, or you can put it on top. It doesn't matter, it will get mixed in during the boiling process. I'm going to go ahead and put it at the bottom because I don't want to forget.

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm adding a half teaspoon of the citric acid to each jar. I'm ready to fill the first jar, I'm going to put the funnel on top of the jar. I have my pot of hot tomatoes next to the jars. I've got a slotted spoon and a ladle and I'm going to start filling. What I usually do is try to pack it mostly with tomatoes and not get a lot of the juice in there, so that each jar is fully packed with tomatoes. You don't want a lot of extra juice in there. You fill each jar, leaving a ½" head space. You want to take something like a wooden spoon or some kind of plastic utensil and go round each jar to make sure that you get out any air bubbles.

KAYTE YOUNG: Once all the jars are filled to within a ½", leaving about a ½" head space, which is about the height of the screw-top of the jar, then you're going to take your soft, damp cloth and go around the rim of each of these and get it ready for your lid. You want to wipe all of the threads of the jar and that top part where the glass meets the lid. This is a really important step, you do not want to skip it.

KAYTE YOUNG: Your lids should be warm. You can dip them in some boiling water or pour some boiling water over them, then set the flat part of the lid on top. Get your screw bands and screw those down, and you're just screwing them down hand-tight. You're not using all your muscle or getting out a vice or anything, they just need to be hand-tightened.

KAYTE YOUNG: Now, the moment we've all been waiting for, it's time to lower the jars into the canner.

KAYTE YOUNG: You want to make sure that there is at least 1" of water covering the tops of the jars. They need to be fully submerged, the lids cannot be sticking up out of the top. If that is the case, if some of your water has evaporated, then you just want to be sure to add some boiling water. Just quickly boil some water in a kettle or in a pot on your stove, and pour it in there. Do not start timing it until they are fully submerged and have reached a full boil.

KAYTE YOUNG: Turn your heat up to high and make sure that they reach a full boil, and once they have fully started boiling, then you can set your timer. Quart jars of tomatoes need to be in the hot water bath, boiling, for 45 minutes.

KAYTE YOUNG: For now, while those jars are processing in the canner, we can tidy up the kitchen and take a break. This is Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young, teaching you how to can your own tomatoes at home. We'll be back after a short break.

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. And today we are taking a deep dive into the canning kettle, learning how to preserve Indiana home-grown tomatoes in jars, to enjoy all winter long.

KAYTE YOUNG: Whenever I talk about home canning, it's important to include warnings and safety information. There are a lot of myths out there about home food preservation. I'm here to tell you that home canning is a perfectly safe practice, but you have to follow instructions and those instructions need to come from trusted sources, namely, land-grant university extension offices. Places like Purdue Extension and the University of Georgia's extension office, they offer hundreds of publications with research-backed information on canning and preserving any food grown in the United States. Those are trusted sources. Or the book Putting Food By, and I'll put links on our website.

KAYTE YOUNG: This is not the project to consult YouTube about. I have watched videos with unsafe canning practices, which is why I feel the need to give the following lecture about hot water bath canning and its limits. Bear with me.

KAYTE YOUNG: When you add other ingredients to your tomatoes, such as garlic or onions or herbs, or other ingredients that you might use to make, say, a pasta sauce or a pizza sauce, you are changing the acidity level, and that can make it not safe for hot water bath canning. What makes hot water bath canning safe is that the acidity level of the food that you're canning makes it an inhospitable environment for any pathogens to grow inside the jar after the canning and after the sealing. There are some pathogens that can survive the heat of a hot water bath and the anaerobic environment of a sealed jar. Those pathogens include botulism, which is deadly. So do not mess around with this.

KAYTE YOUNG: Let me repeat it again. The only thing you can can in a hot water bath canning method are high-acid foods without low acid foods being added. So that is going to be all fruits, tomatoes with added acidity, or pickles. Once you've got vinegar involved, then your acidity level is also safe for hot water bath canning. So, pickles, ketchup, chutneys, those products have enough vinegar in them that you can safely do those in hot water bath canning. Otherwise, you've got to use pressure canning. If you want to make some pasta sauce and you want to can it, you're going to need to investigate pressure canning. That's a different process than what I'm teaching here. It's not that hard, but you do need a special pressure canner and you do need to follow instructions and know what you're doing. But it's fine, you can do that, just don't try to hot water bath can your pasta sauce.

KAYTE YOUNG: One of the things that's sort of on the border of what's safe to can and what isn't safe to can is salsa. You can do salsa in a hot water bath canner, even though it's got the added onions, garlic, and peppers. You can only do that if you follow a specific canning recipe, which includes the addition of a sufficient amount of either vinegar or bottled lemon juice. But you've got to follow a canning recipe, preferably from an extension office or from the book Putting Food By. Those would be the two resources that I would recommend.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, lecture over. Let's get back to our jars of tomatoes. I think they're ready to come out.

KAYTE YOUNG: Our timer has gone off, the jars have been in the boiling hot water bath for 45 minutes and it's time to take them out. Grab our handy-dandy jar lifter. When you pull them out of the bath, you want to pull them up straight. There's the temptation to tip them a little bit to knock off the extra water, but I have been taught that you should keep them straight and the water on the top will evaporate because they're very hot. The seal happens when they're cooling, not when they're in the bath boiling.

KAYTE YOUNG: Transfer your jars of tomatoes to a baking rack. Leave them there to cool completely and your jars will seal. They'll make a little sound, a little clicking sound when the domed part of the flat lid will suck down in there and make that seal. You'll hear that and you'll see it. Once they are completely cool and all the lids have sealed, at that point you can remove the outer ring of the lid, carefully, not disturbing the flat part of the lid. You want to wipe down the threads of the jar and then they're ready to store, and they can store at room temperature. I think a basement's a good place to keep them, but you can also keep them in your cupboard and they're good for up to a year.

KAYTE YOUNG: If, for some reason, one of your jars doesn't seal, then just use that one right away. If you want to go to the trouble of completely re-canning it, you can, but you need to do the whole process over again.

KAYTE YOUNG: Which, to be honest, I ended up doing this time. No regrets.

KAYTE YOUNG: That's it, so easy. Okay, yes, there are a lot of steps, but once you've done it a few times, it really clicks and everything falls into place. I've been canning for almost 15 years. I've taught many people how to preserve food, and some of them have become avid canners themselves, and it's a fun project to do with a friend or with family. Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions, I'm happy to help. You can write to or follow the contact link at

KAYTE YOUNG: The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenaur Payton Whaley, and Harvest Public Media. Special thanks this week to Ann Schertz and Alan Schertz. The show was produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

A man and woman outdoors in the fall, with brown leaves and a rake, in front of a wooden fence.

Ann Schertz and Alan Schertz pack autumn leaves around the fig tree in their yard. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

 “Every year, we get about twice as many figs as we did the year before.  And this year we got something in the ballpark of 200 figs.”

This week on the show, rivers and trees and fresh food packed in glass jars.

We have a story from Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert about an ancient fish struggling for survival in the Missouri river. And we revisit a favorite story about a beloved fig tree and the measures taken to protect it. Then, we head into the kitchen for a step-by-step guide to preserving tomatoes. 


A large fig bush in front of a wooden fence with a white, historic garage in the background.
The fig tree grows outside of the fence in Ann and Alan Schertz's side yard. The tree has sparked conversation and fellowship with neighbors, and surprisingly, the deer don't touch it.(Kayte Young/WFIU)

Ann Schertz lives with her husband Alan Schertz in the Bryan Park Neighborhood in Central Bloomington. She purchased a fig tree at May's Greenhouse, on whim in 2012. It requires very little care, and has offered a bounty of fresh figs, year after year. In the fall Ann and Alan set up a fence around the fig tree, and pack it with dry leaves they gather from neighbors, and from their own pecan tree. Hear the story of the joy their tree brings them, and how to care for a fig in Indiana.


The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

Canning Tomatoes

quart ball jars filled with tomatoes

Follow these steps for safe, hot-water bath canning.

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