Let me be perfectly honest with you. I don’t get everything completely harvested. Whether it be over planting for our household needs or unexpected illness, there is always something that inhibits my ideal harvest results. But every year, I keep trying and refining my approach, always getting a little closer to satisfaction. Some of this satisfaction is a matter of perspective. My version of harvest may not measure up to a magazine photo shoot, but it is mine. I can choose to be constantly frustrated or I can choose to be happy with the best and accept the rest.
There are basically three things you can do to harvest garden produce:
- Process to inhibit spoilage
- Store in appropriate conditions to inhibit spoilage
- Leave in the garden and harvest seasonally
Processing produce is the most labor intensive, tends to alter the form of the produce the most, but is usually more reliable for long term storage. Canning, freezing, dehydrating, and fermenting fall in this category. For me, I evaluate whether or not to process garden product based on these factors:
- Does it taste good? No point in using a method that no one wants to eat. That is why I stopped canning green beans even thought it was so traditional and saved freezer space. On the other hand, canned tomatoes are constantly used at my house.
- Is there reasonable yield for the effort? Everyone in my family likes frozen spinach, but when picking a bushel of it results in one cup frozen, I’m all for store-bought frozen spinach. Call me lazy.
- How easy is it to use the processed form? I am so happy with frozen bell peppers. Not only can they be frozen without any blanching, but they cook up in to fajitas within minutes of being taken out of the freezer. True, we zap them in the microwave for a bit before adding them to the frying pan, but it doesn’t get much easier than that. Of course, things like dried apples can be snacked on without any preparation. However, I have abandoned dehydrated broccoli, as I can’t seem to get it to rehydrate past leathery, even cooked it a long time in liquid.
- Are there reasonable substitutes for it maturing at different times in the garden? I have not come across a good substitute for tomatoes in most recipes, and specifically canned tomatoes. However, asparagus, as good as it is, is reasonably replaced by easily frozen green beans for winter fare.
- How much of it will we REALLY eat during the winter. There are 4-5 cold months here in my part of Idaho, but I am frequently surprised with how few packages of a given vegetable that translates into. We eat our share of vegetables regularly, but five months is only about 20 weeks. So, if a family eats green beans once a week all winter, that is only 20 portions. Most people tend to freeze in meal sized portions, so much more than 20 of those is going to mean too many unless that is what you like to eat nearly every day. That’s not counting leftovers.
- Am I giving any as gifts? Most people love my bread and butter pickles. I am happy to donate jars to happy visitors. This is a good match for me, since I also really enjoy making these pickles. Homemade applesauce is another popular item in my circles, especially if a friend or family member could not can as they regularly do. Although people usually appreciate receiving extra garden produce, it doesn’t quite reach the level of “gift” most of the time.
Storing produce without processing is a little trickier because of temperature and moisture conditions, as well as it taking more space. I got better at non-processed storage when I read the book Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel. Their book helped me to become aware of the micro-environments in my own house and garage. Just as importantly, they point out that not all produce likes the same conditions for long term storage.Here are some of the things I consider when deciding if this is my preferred storage method for a given type of produce:
- What kind of space do I have available? If a pumpkin is cooked and mashed, it can fit nicely stacked in the freezer. Fresh pumpkins take up a lot more room and might be artistic, but they don’t stack practically. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that those same pretty pumpkins actually stored well as decorations in some relatively warm parts of the house.
- How forgiving is the produce? I also learned from experience that just because I don’t have the exact conditions for non-processed storage, it doesn’t mean everything will rot. I have had cabbages waiting in the garage through several solidly frozen months still be quite edible for fresh application, like shredded in tacos. If you don’t experiment some or aren’t willing to try something even though cutting it open might prove disappointing, you will never discover these things. Also, keep in mind that the symphony of variables in a mostly uncontrolled part of the house, like the garage, can yield different results in different years. Another aspect of such experimentation is going ahead and trying to save a few cabbages or pumpkins after a the ideal time of harvesting, which would be before a time of deep freeze. Depending on how long the freeze lasted and how much garden debris insulated them, I have had enough successes doing this to keep me trying. If the item is too far gone for me to eat in good health, the chickens are ready to help.
- Is there anything that needs to be done to the produce prior to storage? Mostly, one has to resist some tendencies. Do NOT wash such produce. Avoid damaging the outer parts by doing things like unnecessarily removing stems. Another key to this type of storage is maturity of the item. For instance, fully mature onions can be cured by minimal drying in a semi-protected place outdoors and then be stored well, but green onions can’t. It can also be a matter of the variety. Green and barely ripe tomatoes can be saved “fresh” in single layers to ripen all the way into December, but this doesn’t work well for the juicier varieties.
I kind of lump
- Leaving produce in the garden with
- Seasonal harvesting.
By seasonal harvesting, I mean, I am learning to be happier with what is growing at a given time instead of trying to save everything for later. Adopting this attitude has led me to find varieties of broccoli that produce well into November. It has inspired me to let my lettuce volunteer, because it invariably produces tons of greens well before I am able to get outside and officially plant specific kinds in the spring. I am also getting better at interval and succession planting, to keep fresh produce available during any possible growing months. Not only does this eliminate the need to plant en masse in the spring, but it reduces overall space needed. By combining seasonal harvesting with more non-processed storage, I can concentrate on the part of gardening I find most enjoyable, which is the growing part.
There are a few classic things, such as carrots and potatoes, that can be left in the ground for continual harvest during the winter, if a few steps are taken. This mostly involves insulating the ground so that it doesn’t freeze. I wrote about one friend’s method for carrots that I have yet to try, but she has been using it successfully for a while. This kind of mid winter digging is also made more manageable if the garden soil is well composted. My garden soil is incredibly easier to dig in than non-amended parts of the yard. It also doesn’t seem to freeze as soon or as hard.
Some plants sort of go dormant, but can be harvested during the winter, enough of a thaw permitting. My bunching onions and garlic fall in this category. If a freeze hits and holds, I’ve had broccoli hold well and provide unexpected meals. Any pesky bugs are dead, too. Hardy cabbages stalks that have been left in the ground after cutting the main head sometimes start to grow little heads during warm spells. Perfect stir-fry size. It seems there are interesting possibilities no matter what the weather does.
I just harvested a lone cabbage that I had missed earlier. This reminded me to try sauerkraut again. My first attempt a couple years ago went well, but this year the first batch spoiled well before it was supposed to be done fermenting. I did some research and decided to order a fermenting crock. I had found the cabbage when doing some late fall clean-up, including giving a bunch of partially thawed rotten tomatoes to the chickens, because I had stopped canning them when I had put away what I think will be enough. I made a note not to plant quite as many next year. I rediscovered a bountiful row of leeks that I had interplanted with the tomatoes. Those are great in soup! I noticed again that the beets were pretty much ignored, hold onto some hope that by tweaking other planting and harvesting, I will get around to drying some beets like I did a couple years ago. They turned out to be a fun, mild addition to soups and stews. I eyed some pumpkins, oversized orange polka dots seemingly defying the weather. My harvest is an ongoing process that will likely blur with spring planting. I’m okay with that.