You prepped the garden beds. You planted the seeds. You celebrated—and coddled—every seedling. You watched for leaves and flowers and bees. You waited, you watered, you weeded, you watered, you waited.
And sometime in late spring or early summer, something was finally ready to pick. Garlic scapes or snap peas or strawberries—an early crop, aromatic and colorful—and it was a treat, a long-anticipated reward. You ate it fresh from the garden or you added it to a favorite family recipe or you packed it in your child’s lunch. Maybe you even took photos for your Instagram. You did it! You grew something and it was so, so good!
And if you are like most home gardeners, sometime around midsummer, that magic became mayhem. When vines start churning out cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash by the pound, when tomato plants are pulled down by their bounty, when herbs and greens begin to bolt, sometimes even the most dedicated gardeners start to revolt. There’s only so much green salad, pasta primavera, or grilled vegetable kabobs you can eat, right? And as the unused produce piles up, it’s hard not to feel guilty about it. You are busy and you are tired, yes, but you don’t want all that hard work and delicious, nutritious food to go to waste.
As one of the few seed suppliers selling non-GMO, heirloom seeds in people-sized packets, we hear a lot about the seasonal struggles of home gardeners, and we sympathize. And over the years, we have developed some sound strategies that help us keep up (and stay sane) during the height of harvest season.
Harvest is supposed to be the good part! You worked hard for this, so here are five easy ways to get the most out of what you can’t eat right away.
Our Guide to Getting Through the Harvest
HAVE SOME FARMSTAND FUNShare your summer bounty and make some pocket money! People are willing to pay for local, organic, fresh-picked produce. Depending upon where you live, you may be able to sell some of your extra produce without asking for permission or applying for any kind of permit.
If you own your own home or live in an apartment complex that allows it, set up a small table in a safe spot at the end of your driveway, your parking area, or your street. (Make sure you are in a highly visible spot but that you aren’t blocking any kind of traffic or obscuring drivers’ views.) Make a big, bold sign on a piece of poster board. Arrange your “pick of the day” attractively, decide on your prices, and see what happens.
You can do this even if you can’t staff your farm stand every day. Ad hoc farm stands created by avid home gardeners are not uncommon where we live in rural Maine and quite a few are run on the honor system. Our friends and neighbors simply set out an empty coffee can and seed it with a few dollars to help folks make the change. And they are pleasantly surprised by how honest—and how generous—their new customers can be.
If you have children (especially children who have helped you with the garden), a farm stand is a fun update on the traditional summertime lemonade stand. Let them keep the money they earn and see how quickly they can convince passersby to take home your extra parsley or potatoes!
MAKE SMALL BATCH PRESERVESWhen the days are long, hot, and humid, the idea of cooking your excess produce and standing over a boiling pot to can it in a hot water bath may not sound all that attractive. Canning has a learning curve, requires specific equipment, and can be hard, hot work in high summer. But what about refrigerator pickles or other types of quick preserves? You can extend the life of your harvest by up to six weeks when you make small batches of quick pickles that cure in your refrigerator and for months if you make something like freezer jam.
There are simple and delicious recipes that turn carrots, green beans, red onions, radishes, turnips, and more into a tart, tasty quick preserves and refrigerator pickles all over Pinterest and your favorite food blogs. In just 10-15 minutes, you can turn your garden produce into pickles, salsas, and jams that will keep in the refrigerator for several more weeks! Freezer jam is another smart, no-cook way to keep the summertime sweetness strawberries and other fruits going well into winter.
If you have a glut of something good, Google your ingredients and “quick pickles” or “refrigerator pickles” and see what tempting ideas turn up.
STOW IT AWAYCertain types of fruits and vegetables need to be picked right when they are ripe and won’t keep for very long afterward—like tomatoes, or berries. But there are several popular plantings that can stay in the ground even after they are ripe, a technique called “overwintering,” and others that, under the right conditions, will keep well into the autumn, an easy preservation trick called “cellaring.” And some plantings can provide a different experience entirely depending on when you harvest them.
- Your overwintering options will depend on your microclimate but in most gardening zones, you may be able to leave many crops in the ground past first frost—even over the winter! In fact, certain root vegetables like carrots and parsnips actually sweeten after a good cold snap. Arugula, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and spinach will stay fresh through a couple of hard frosts if protected by row covers or a cold frame. And parsnips, carrots, garlic, leeks, kale, and some types of spinach can be overwintered under the same conditions. If you do decide to overwinter some of your crops, you will definitely need to protect them from the cold and pests. Dirt does insulate plant roots but floating row covers, greenhouse plastic, or cold frames are needed to keep them cozy until you are ready to harvest your last batch of crops.
- A traditional root cellar is an underground space, deep enough in the ground to stay relatively dark, cool, and moist all year round—summer and winter. If you are lucky enough to have a root cellar, you can store produce like apples, carrots, potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, and more for months under these conditions. But you can simulate a traditional root cellar without hiring a backhoe. Unfinished basements, pre-fab root cellar kits, even trash cans can be transformed into root cellar-like conditions—and cellaring can let you keep and enjoy your hard-earned harvest longer without a lot of extra work.
- Certain crops can be picked at different times in their growth cycle so you can choose a harvest time that is most convenient for you. For instance, some types of pole beans and bush beans can be picked early and used as whole pods in salads or soups or they can be left to mature and be used for dry beans. You can pick tomatoes green or ripe and make something delicious out of them either way, and lots of crops can be harvested in “baby” form—potatoes, carrots, beets, and greens.
GIVE IT AWAYYou may be tired of tomatoes, but not everyone who wants a garden can have one. Giving someone sun-warmed tomatoes picked at the height of ripeness that very day can make their day (and make you feel great). When you find yourself with more fresh vegetables than you can keep up with, it’s time to share.
Ask around the office, talk to your child’s classroom teachers, put up a post on NextDoor, or simply leave a basket on someone’s stoop. Is there someone in your neighborhood who has moved in recently or recently been ill? Do you know someone who used to garden when they were younger but no longer has the same mobility or energy? A goodie bag filled with garden goodness can be such a nourishing and welcome gift—and you will feel great about it.
Another wonderful option is to donate extra produce to your local food bank or church or community resource center. Because they are asked to do so much for so little, food banks use their donations primarily to stock up on non-perishable items. Their shelves are filled with staples, not strawberries. Many food banks will gratefully accept garden produce if you call in advance and ask, and you will know your delicious, fresh food is helping families who truly need it—and appreciate it.
These are our go-to tricks for managing (and enjoying) an over-abundant harvest. We know you must have more, so share your ideas in the comments! And remember that having an excess of organic, heirloom, non-GMO fruits and vegetables is a wonderful problem to have. Happy harvesting!