How has your garden grown? Did the native shrubs you planted during our wet spring survive summer’s heat? Did you remember to water the new plants every week? And how about those vegetables? Are the zucchini and tomatoes pouring in?
This is the time of year we celebrate the harvest. The ripe red tomatoes are delicious in a salad, but how many can one really eat? What can we do with the extras?
Luckily, the successful gardener has several options for the excess bounty of the garden. Preserve, or share! Many vegetables can be frozen. Canning is another option for preserving your harvest. The University of Maine’s Extension Service (https://extension.umaine.edu/food-health/food-preservation/) offers information on how to go about preserving your extra fruits and vegetables. Kate McCarty, a master preserver, spoke to the Harpswell Garden Club last fall, and shared a great deal of information on canning, freezing and drying the harvest. The extension’s Cumberland County office in Falmouth is a terrific resource for food preservation.
Jams and jellies, sauces, pickles, relish and salsa: these are high in acid and are good candidates for hot-water bath canning. Pressure canning can be used for foods that are low in acids, such as meats and vegetables. Beans, corn, carrots and peas all work well in the pressure canner, although botulism is still a possibility. The pressure cooker uses steam to sterilize the contents, and this results in less water being needed than in the hot-water bath process. Chicken stock and spaghetti sauce are two other items that can be preserved with pressure canning.
For any process requiring jars, use ones made specifically for the canning process. These jars and rings can be sterilized and re-used, with new lids purchased each year. Once the crop is canned, store the jars in a cool, dry place. Once a jar is opened, use its contents within two weeks. There are no preservatives in this process, so the shelf-life of an opened jar’s contents is short.
Freezing is a great substitute for pressure canning. For fruits, there is no need to blanch the produce, and be sure to use freezer-grade containers. If using plastic freezer bags, remove the excess air before sealing the bag. Vegetables usually require blanching prior to being frozen. Scald the vegetable, then immerse it in a colander dipped into an ice bath, and allow the vegetables to dry. Again, freezer-grade containers are needed. If you are freezing peppers, tomatoes or onions, do not blanch them at all. They can go directly into the freezer, once rinsed and dried.
Have you tried drying as a preservation method? One source of information on this is from the Penn State University Extension Service. (See https://extension.psu.edu/lets-preserve-drying-herbs) for details. When you have dried your herbs, be sure to place the dried product in an air-tight container (plastic or glass is fine) and be sure to label it with the product’s name and the date stored. These are best when used within a year.
Some vegetables do well in “root cellars.” The “root cellar” may actually be part of the fridge, the basement or the attic, depending on the needs of the harvest. Beets, carrots, lettuce, and broccoli can be stored in the refrigerator. Potatoes and apples also do well, but not together! Other vegetables, such as onions and garlic, prefer a cool, dry location while dried beans, winter squash and pumpkins do best in a dry, warmer location, with temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees. Green beans, cucumbers, sweet peppers and tomatoes do best in warm, moist conditions, in temperatures of 50-60 degrees.
And if all this sounds too complex or time-consuming, sharing your garden’s bounty is always an alternative. Have your neighbors reached the limit on accepting these gifts? Many organizations that work to feed the hungry will appreciate your contributing the harvest. Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention Program will accept items from your garden. Here in Harpswell, the Community Garden at Mitchell Field has a “Common Good” garden plot in addition to 25 individual plots. This year, the Garden also planted two un-rented plots for the common good.
This summer, the Community Garden has donated to the Food Mobile and Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention Program. The vegetables were a bit later ripening after the cool and wet start to the summer.
In 2018, a record-breaking harvest from the Common Good Garden, as well as surplus from gardeners’ plots, was donated to local organizations addressing community food needs: in addition to weekly donations to Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s Food Mobile, there were weekly drop-offs to the MCHPP food bank in Brunswick (which also serves Harpswell residents); and Harpswell Aging at Home was supplied with fresh vegetables for “take-out” at its “Lunch With Friends” events. In summary, the community garden distributed 1,394 pounds of fresh organic food in Harpswell at seven monthly Food Mobiles and eight Harpswell Aging at Home luncheons in 2018. Over the last five years, more than 6,000 pounds of organic vegetables have been grown and donated. Foods harvested included onions, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, peppers, beans, radishes and eggplant.
The New England Garden Clubs’ Region Project for the 2019-2021 term deals with fighting food insecurity. To achieve the goal of this project, members and clubs in the six New England state garden club federations are asked to donate excess produce grown in either individual or community gardens to local food banks, soup kitchens, or any other organization which accepts donations of produce. These organizations are making an effort to share the bounty!
The University of Maine’s Extension Service offers a service called “Harvest for Hunger.” Check their website (https://extension.umaine.edu/cumberland/maine-harvest-for-hunger/) to see what you can do to help provide fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need.
The days may start to cool, nights are longer, but the harvest continues. Keep those weeds down, hope for a late frost, and preserve or share the results of your gardening! And after all is harvested, get out the seed catalogs and start planning your 2020 garden.