It has been an interesting and fun year with the solar food dryers. As you can see from the picture, I made a summer home for my solar dryers in my garden, laying down pavers which can be easily moved if I change my mind. That area is 44 feet north of a maple tree. It got plenty of sun throughout the summer, but in September the shade started to creep in and I had to move the dryers. When the dryers were in the garden, we didn’t have to worry about mowing around them. Although I had a grill cover for the small one, I usually left it uncovered out in the weather. Now, it is in its winter home in the barn with the grill cover on to keep it clean. The large one will be moved back to the garden, wintering there, ready for next summer. For information about the cost of these dryers and how I made them, take a look at my post on May 31, 2011.
I had the privilege of having the solar food dryer from Acorn Community in Mineral, VA at my place for comparison. As you can see, it is similar to my larger dryer. It has a deeper angle to the collector and the collector box is shallower. Also, the back legs fold up under the collector, which made it easy to transport in my pickup. It seemed to heat up a little quicker in the morning than my large dryer, but other than that, they worked pretty much the same. I assume the steeper angle of the collector caught that early sun. I had it here in early August. I imagine that steeper angle would have made even more of a difference if I was using it in September and October when the sun was lower in the sky. My solar oven has a leg in the back that can be adjusted to raise the oven to more of an angle to catch the sun. I needed to do that during these fall months.
My friends Susan and Molly, and daughter Betsy decided they each wanted to build a dryer this summer. We had a series of work days to accomplish that. If you want to build one, get a friend involved. It’s a lot more fun and it helps to work out the challenges that are sure to pop up. Susan added handles on the sides of hers to make it easier to move around. I like that and would do it if I didn’t occasionally have to load mine in the car to take it somewhere. On my large dryer, I had a piece of plywood across the handles to make a shelf to put the trays on when I was moving them in and out.
Those handles of Susan’s made a built-in support to rest the trays on. When not in use, Susan kept her dryer in a covered work area. Molly kept hers on the front porch and brought it out in the yard to use it. There are so many trees where Betsy lives, she put hers in the middle of a field to avoid shading.
Before she had it at that location she had some problems with ants crawling up the legs. She moved it to the field and put it on a pallet and had no more problem with ants. Just in case, she put Vasoline on the legs to stop the ants. It promptly melted in the summer heat and ran off. Betsy’s dryer stayed out in the weather for the rest of the summer. They finished their dryers in July. Another friend made one, following the directions in The Solar Food Dryer book. His only regret was that he didn’t make it sooner.
We all enjoyed success and agreed we are all still learning. July had 5 inches of rain and August had 6 inches, with the accompanying humidity. Most summers are drier. You can never predict, so it is good to have a variety of food preservation methods to use. Of course, the best way to eat your food is straight from the garden all year. So, we have carrots in the ground and row covers over collards and kale now in late November. Garlic and onions from summer harvest are stored, along with sweet potatoes, winter squash, and any Irish potatoes that may be left.
I found that I didn’t have much success with green beans in the solar dryer. They are so easy to pressure can and the home-canned beans have been my convenience food for a long time, so I think I’ll stick to canning the beans. I used to can spaghetti sauce using my tomatoes, peppers, basil, parsley, garlic, and onions. I would check through my onions and use the ones that wouldn’t store as well. Now that I dry most of my tomatoes, I have turned to drying those onions that need to be used first. I determine that by pushing my thumb into the center of the onion where the top comes out. The hardest ones, with no give, are set aside to braid and store for winter use. The softest ones are used first in spaghetti sauce and summer cooking, and now, solar drying. They dry beautifully, as do peppers. I chop the peppers before I dry them. Of course, we used fresh peppers from the garden until frost, which was not until Oct. 30 this year. I had some Ruffled Hungarian peppers that were loaded in late October and I chopped up some for the freezer. We still have a few green peppers in the crisper drawer of the fridge from that last harvest. By choice, we only have the freezer space above our refrigerator, so I don’t depend on it for preserving the harvest, but it was nice to put some late peppers in there. The peppers dried through the summer will be used as needed this winter and spring.
We bought two bushels of apples from an orchard in late September. I solar dried several loads of them, filled the crisper drawers in the fridge, and left the remaining ones in a basket on the porch. Once the basket was empty, we started using the ones in the fridge, which are half gone now. When those are used, I’ll get into the dried apples. They are great for applesauce or to eat as is. Peaches dried quicker than the pears I tried. I bought the peaches from an orchard. I made raisins from both seedless grapes and ones with seeds. I cut the grapes in half first, so they don’t look like the raisins from the store. I would like to propagate more vines from my seedless variety for raisins so that I don’t have to cut out the seeds like I did with the second variety. That variety with the seeds made great mead with our honey. Each variety has its best uses. Sorry, I planted those two vines years ago and don’t remember the names of the varieties.
Tomatoes are a given for solar drying, however, since you could have a bumper crop and the climate doesn’t always cooperate, you may want to have alternate plans. I like to can tomato soup, another convenience food, and it doesn’t require long cooking down like spaghetti sauce. Tomato juice is easy and relatively quick to can, not heating the kitchen up too much. It can be used in so many dishes.
This year I had a harvest from some of the filbert trees I planted in 2007. I was busy when the harvest was coming in and I didn’t want to lose them on the ground or to the squirrels, so I harvested some of the nut clusters when they were on the tree. Wanting to make sure they were dry, I put them in the dryers. I grew some cotton this year and got it in later than planned. Some of the bolls still hadn’t opened when the frost killed the plants. I put those bolls in the solar dryers and many of them opened. Another time I used them to dry seeds. I was happy to find so many uses for these dryers so late in the season. Having the dryers out in the garden ready to go, I used them as often as I could. Next year, I want to dry more okra, raisins, and onions, among other things. It would be nice to grow some mushrooms for drying. This winter I want to experiment with sauce and soup mixes from my dried supply for quick meals.
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