The other day, after a couple of weeks of travel, I returned to the garden to discover that it had become a jungle. Our tiny chard seedlings were now full-sized plants. Our tomato vines had sprouted multiple stems. The carrots I’d seeded were badly in need of thinning. It took me two nonstop days to put the space in order. By then, I’d harvested a garbage can worth of chard, two storage totes filled with mustard greens and lettuce, an armful of radishes, and big bunches of chives, dill, beets, parsley and basil.
In June, when the days are long and warm, plants grow quickly. We need to manage this by harvesting promptly, when crops at their peak of ripeness and nutritional value, and before they start to get bitter or diseased. This means that it’s not unusual to have to pick more than you can eat, even if your garden is small.
The good news is that most crops can be preserved for winter eating, or shared with others. It’s a powerful experience to be able to eat your June harvest in December, or to give some of your bounty away. Here are my favourite ways to cope with the abundance. These techniques can also be used for produce purchased from a farmer’s market or CSA (community-supported agriculture) program.
1. MAKE FREEZER-FRIENDLY PESTO
Pesto isn’t just for basil. It’s the ideal way to preserve delicate or strongly flavoured herbs and vegetables for long-term frozen storage, including arugula, parsley, cilantro and kale, amongst others.
There’s no need for a recipe. Simply chuck freshly washed, destemmed greens into a food processor with a generous glug of olive oil, plus garlic, salt and any kind of nuts or seeds. If you don’t have nuts or garlic, that’s fine. The important part is that you’re coating the herbs in a protective layer of oil. Divide the pesto into portions — ice cube trays are great — and freeze it. To serve, simply thaw in the fridge. The vibrant, fresh colour and flavour will come back perfectly. It’s delicious on salmon, salad, sandwiches and soups, not to mention the classic pasta.
2. BLANCH AND FREEZE IT
Blanching and freezing is the perfect solution for spinach, kale, zucchini, peas, tomatoes, corn and other “main crops”. Wash your veggies, remove the stems, chop them into portions and dunk them briefly into a pot of boiling water to deactivate the enzymes that can destroy flavour and nutrients, followed by an ice-water bath to preserve colour. Then squeeze out the excess water and freeze in portions. Better-yet, make your own ready-to-eat frozen meals like stir-fry mixes, spanakopita or stuffed zucchini. The work you put in now will be well rewarded with a freezer stocked with healthy, cheap year-round convenience foods.
3. PICKLE IT
Cabbage, mustard greens, cucumbers, carrots, beets and radishes are all perfect candidates for making probiotic lacto-fermented pickles. All you need is some salt and a collection big glass jars, and you can be like me, living with a fridge stuffed with pickled things that will stay fresh for a long time. For a wealth of information on how to pickle things safely and deliciously, I recommend reading The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.
4. CAN IT
Unlike the methods above, canning doesn’t require energy-intensive fridge and freezer use. You can do so much with it, from salsas to jams and beyond. It’s getting easier to access the training and equipment needed to make canned goods.
5. GIVE IT AWAY
There’s only one thing to do with lettuce and other delicate salad greens, and that’s give them away. Pre-wash them and package individual portions for your friends, family and coworkers. If they hesitate about taking it, emphasize the fact that they’re doing you a favour, and ask them to make a donation to a favourite charity. Or, cook a garden-to-table dinner and share the bounty.
6. DRY IT
Strong herbs like mint, fennel, sage, lavender, thyme and oregano are notorious for yielding far more than most of us can eat. Hang freshly washed bundles in a cool, dry place with lots of airflow, and crumble the fully dried leaves into jars, discarding the stems. You’ll never buy mint tea again!
7. COMPOST IT OR LET IT GO TO SEED.
If you can’t keep up with the harvest, that’s okay. Let your plants bolt and allow the flowers to attract beneficial insects to your garden. Once the seed-pods have dried out, save them for planting next year or just shake them in place and allow them to self-sow. Or, simply pull your plants out and compost them to maintain soil fertility.