Nestled in the corner of our basement laundry room is an old refrigerator. I don’t have a whole lot of use for it most of the year, but during gardening season, it houses baskets of produce picked from my vegetable garden. Right now, the shelves are full of cucumbers and zucchini, and I’m quickly running out of room.
Perhaps one of the best problems to have is a bumper crop of fresh produce. In the moment, it may seem a little overwhelming — like all your free time has been consumed with harvesting, washing and preserving tomatoes. But we have to remind ourselves that this is the reason we planted last spring, and letting our produce go to waste is not an option.
So what do we do with a bumper crop of tomatoes, summer squash, okra or herbs? There are many options, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise. Preserving, donating, adjusting weekly meal plans and sharing the overabundance with others are all options.
Canning and preserving are perhaps the best ways to deal with an inundation of certain crops. I was raised in a family that canned and preserved many different crops. We didn’t can because we had to — we canned because the generation before us had to. Modern-day grocery conveniences weren’t available a generation or two ago, which is why the tradition has fallen away.
I was exposed to the preserving process by my mother, aunt and grandmother — who taught me that if you want to eat well, you’ve got to work hard. Corn, green beans, tomatoes, okra and cucumbers were always harvested by the half-bushel basket out of large vegetable gardens. When the crop started coming in, you adjusted your schedule to accommodate it. Needless to say, there were no beach vacations in August.
Canning is a luxury
Nowadays, canning is more of a luxury than a necessity — but I still feel an obligatory connection to the crops I chose to plant in my home garden. I plant only enough beans to eat fresh, and I plant extra cucumbers so I can make pickles. It’s all about balance in the harvest.
Simply put, canning is a way of preserving fresh produce by heating to a certain temperature — thus eliminating bacteria, molds and yeast. There are basically two methods of canning — the boiling-water method (using a water bath) and the steam pressure method (using a pressure cooker). Each of these methods is based on the level of acidity in the particular crop you’re canning. Growing up, I was taught both methods, but now only use the boiling-water method, as it best suits my preserving needs.
There are many starter canning kits available, which will provide you with everything you need to get ready to can produce. Necessary items include an enamel pot and/or a pressure cooker, jars, lids and bands, and a jar lifter. And of course, you’ll need the Ball Blue Book, which serves as the bible for those who preserve produce. This book will provide you with instruction and recipes for preserving lots of things from your garden.
The process of canning produce can be overwhelming at first, especially for those that weren’t exposed to the process in the past. But with the proper tools at hand, canning fresh produce can be a very streamlined and enjoyable process. Local cooperative extension offices offer classes and instruction in canning and preserving, which is a fantastic, hands-on way to learn. Jami Lawhon, a family and consumer sciences extension agent in Forsyth County, can advise on any instructional workshops. Lawhon can be reached at 336-703-2867.
Other than canning, there are other methods of preserving bumper crops. Freezing and drying are options. Certain crops freeze nicely, including corn, berries and okra. Freezing is very convenient and less time consuming than canning. Many crops need to be cooked or blanched to prepare them for freezing. The Ball Blue Book or cooperative extension can advise on the proper methods for freezing specific crops.
Herbs are also very easy to freeze, by using ice-cube trays. For example, a hefty harvest of basil can easily be turned into pesto. The pesto can be poured into ice-cube trays, frozen and then transferred to freezer bags for storage. Herbs can also be harvested and dried. Bundled herbs can be hung to dry in a warm, dry location, or you can dry them in the oven on a low setting. Once they’ve dried, you can store them in jars for future use.
Donating excess produce is always welcomed by food-focused organizations. Forsyth Community Gardening’s Pantry Project is a great source for finding a local donation site. The Pantry Project is a way for community gardens and local gardeners to donate excess produce to food pantries. Visit forsythcommunitygardening.com/pantryproject to find the closest food pantry and contact person.
Of course, a bumper crop can be shared with those around you. Friends, neighbors, coworkers and family would all welcome fresh fruits and vegetables in their lives, right? Consider trading off with other gardeners that have a bumper crop of something else — a basket of figs for a basket of beans.
And let’s not forget the delightful act of “zucchini bombing” your closest neighbors. Don’t even ask, just leave a bag full on their doorstep. It’s sneaky, yet effective.
Whatever you do, just try not to let your fresh produce go to waste. There is always someone out there who would be delighted to receive a fresh bounty. You might even meet a few new neighbors in the process.