Handling an Overwhelming Harvest without Waste

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Here in the Midwest, it’s harvest season. People’s gardens are full of produce which is currently being picked, and many kitchen tables are full of vegetables. For a gardener, this can be the best part of the year – the sheer possibility of all of these fresh vegetables and fruits is intoxicating.

But it can also be overwhelming.

For some people, after several months of keeping a vegetable garden in tip-top shape, collecting giant baskets of vegetables means just the beginning of another round of work – often a round that they don’t enjoy as much. The deep, frugal pleasure of spending hours out in the garden with your hands in the dirt is often far separated from the work involved processing the harvest.

So what can you do with all of the vegetables?

The worst choice is to let them go to waste. You’re far better off doing something with the vegetables you harvest than letting them grow old and unusable. Thus, if you’re unable or have no desire to do anything with the vegetables, consider one of the first options on the list below.

Here are seven methods my family uses for dealing with the abundance of a large garden harvest.

Eat it fresh – go vegetarian.
There’s truly no better time to dabble in a vegetable-heavy diet than when fresh vegetables are coming in out of the garden. Just eat them, as many as you can!

It’s surprisingly easy to find creative and tasty ways to use an abundance of vegetables. Slice up cucumbers and onions and put them in a bowl of water with a bit of vinegar mixed in and some salt and pepper available and just leave them out on the table – you’ll find they quickly become your snack. Prepare dishes using all of the vegetables you’re bringing in – go beyond salads to preparing things like tomato pie. Slice zucchini and squash, dip them in olive oil, and grill them.

The possibilities are endless. Try going vegetarian – or almost vegetarian – and sock those veggies away. They’re good for you – and in a few months, you’ll wish you had all of those fresh veggies again.

Give it away.
If you have extra produce, give it away. Give it to your friends. Give it to your neighbors. Give it to the local food pantry. Leave it on the doorstep of families that could use the food.

This is the simplest way to handle the produce – and it has its own benefits as well. First, it provides a great opportunity for social interaction as well as a chance to get to know the people around you. After all, if you’re giving vegetables to your neighbors, there’s a perfect chance to have a conversation and build a relationship a bit. Second, it simply feels good to donate food to people who truly need it.

Dry it.
Yes, bust out the ol’ food dehydrator. It enables you to take garden-fresh fruits and vegetables and put them into a form where they can be stored dry. This works really well for some items, like tomatoes, but not as well for others. You can also dry them outside on a screen, if you’d like.

The advantage of this method is that dried fruits and vegetables are incredibly easy to store while also being very flexible in terms of consumption and cooking. The work to dry them is also quite passive – you mostly just let them sit. The disadvantage, though, is that it requires some equipment to dry (you either need a screen to do it in the sun or a food dehydrator).

Sell it.
Drive around Iowa in the middle of August and you’ll see countless roadside stands with people selling corn and other vegetables, and the farmers markets are loaded with people selling produce. Similarly, August seems to be the month when people really buy these things by the ton – you’ll always see people at the sweet corn stands, buying a dozen ears.

Perhaps the best tactic I’ve seen was a large pile of corn in front of an old farmhouse. The sign said “Peaches and Cream Sweet Corn Here!” I wandered over, only to find that there was simply a box with a slot on top with a sign attached that said, “Take what you need. Pay what you can.” I dropped in a five and took a dozen ears. This is a great way for them to get rid of their excess corn, giving to people who need it and selling to people who can afford it without a ton of additional effort.

Freeze it.
If you have a large freezer, many vegetables can easily be frozen for a few months, particularly if you just intend to use them as ingredients in other dishes. Freezing vegetables is incredibly easy – just soak them in water for an hour, dry the surface, spread them out on a baking sheet, and stick them in the freezer for a few hours. Once they’re frozen, put the whole veggies right into bags or other storage containers.

Obviously, the big requirement here is a freezer for long-term storage. Without a large freezer, vegetable freezing isn’t really an option. Another drawback with this solution is that vegetables last at most several months before beginning to have serious taste and texture degradation, making them unusable.

Still, you’ll find quite a few vegetables in our own freezer. We make sure to use these frozen vegetables during the following winter so stale veggies don’t build up.

Have a party.
You’ve got a harvest, so why not have a harvest party?

Not sure what to do? Boil up fifty ears of corn. Get some cheese, grill the tomatoes, and put a bit of cheese on each one. Use the cucumbers and onions idea from earlier in the article and make a giant bowl. Slice zucchini and squash, rub them in olive oil, and grill them. Make coleslaw. Have a gigantic salad bowl.

In other words, use simple techniques to make these vegetables as delicious as you can and share the results with everyone around you. It takes the idea of giving away your vegetables to a whole new level, creating a great social event out of your harvest bounty.

Can it.
We usually have an abundance of tomatoes and, as a result, we often end up making a lot of different things with the tomatoes: whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce, ketchup, tomato jam, salsa, pasta sauce, and so on. Given the acidity of the tomatoes, it’s incredibly easy to can these items without spoiling them – just get some jars and lids, sterilize everything, boil what you’re going to cook, fill up the jars, put rings and lids on them, bathe these in boiling water for half an hour or so, then allow them to sit. When they cool, tap the lids – if they spring back, then eat what’s inside right away – otherwise, they’ll keep for years.

My parents tend to grow acres of tomatoes and put away so much canned tomato items that, frankly, we don’t have to do this ourselves – they give us jars regularly. We intended to can some salsa this year, but we had a disastrous year with our tomatoes and it didn’t quite work out.

Another good idea – if you’re able to can salsa or hot sauce or pasta sauce, the jars can easily be decorated and given as wonderful Christmas gifts. It’s a great thing to give to your neighbors during Christmas season, for one.

These are merely the techniques I’ve used myself in my own life to handle an abundance of garden vegetables. What do you do with yours?

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34 thoughts on “Handling an Overwhelming Harvest without Waste

  1. Another option might be to barter it for something else that you need.

    For all the people who have gardens growing vegetables, in most parts of the country the majority don’t and might be willing to trade something of equal value.

  2. I love the vegetarian idea! My roommate planted tons of veggies and then moved out. While walking around the back yard, I realized she had planted tons of squash behind our shed. I had a big haul that day getting in all the zucchini and summer squash that had been growing since she moved. My boyfriend and I have never cooked with those, but we looked it up on the internet and proceeded to have some great stir-fry. We made one zucchini and one summer squash stretch for 3 nights by adding in other veggies on different nights (bell pepper, corn, onion, garlic, peas, mushrooms etc). On the last night, we added in some left-over brats. It’s the best I’ve eaten all summer long, and I never would have bought the squash from a grocery store.

  3. I guess suggesting “Eat It” was too obvious so you said go vegetarian? You don’t have to call yourself a vegetarian to eat a lot of vegetables from your own garden. You’re just smart for doing that.

  4. We’re having a “harvest” party with friends where we have a potluck using all the vegetables from our respective gardens. We’ve never done this before, and we’re looking forward to trying out some new veggie recipes. Our tomato crop was almost non-existent (and I even bought canning jars at a yard sale in preparation for canning all the tomatoes we were going to get), but I have an overabundance of Swiss chard. My friends have lots of tomatoes, but didn’t plant Swiss chard. Of course, we both have lots of squash so squash will probably be the cornerstone of our dinner.

  5. Just a tip about the freezing… with most vegetables, you can blanch them before freezing and they will last much, much longer. Blanching kills the enzymes that are responsible for ripening/rotting, so you’re essentially saving a snapshot of the vegetables’ ripeness for later. :) It works really well.

  6. Adding to what Joyful Abode said about blanching…

    For “vegetables” it is almost a must. If you don’t blanch them, then both the texture and taste of them will degrade with time — even in the freezer. If you don’t blanch them, you had better use them in a few weeks or you will be disappointed with them (which will turn your off of freezing veggies).

    But it is important to note that this only applies to certain types of “vegetables.” In particular, those types of vegetables that are leaves or stalks are what really need blanching. Fruits do not, in general, require blanching, so there is not need for this step for the “vegetables” that are actually fruits (ie. tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, etc).

    Just thought that was important to mention.

  7. As a kid, we lived what folks now call a self-sustaining lifestyle. Back then, it was called poor. We didn’t have a choice.

    We spent most summer and fall evenings (and some early mornings) processing green beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, beets, cabbages, onions, okra, apples, cherries, pears, grapes, berries, etc so we could eat throughout the winter and into late spring when fruits and vegetables were ready for fresh consumption again.

    Willful waste made for woeful want.

  8. One thing we do at the end of the week if vegetables are left over is to just chop up whatever’s left, throw it in a pot to simmer for an hour with a little vegetable or chicken bullion (we love Better than Bullion) and serve with rice. Perfect fresh ratatoutille.

  9. Trent these are all awesome ideas – particularly love the “give it away” as sharing food is just so nice.

    One thing we do at the end of the week if vegetables are left over is to just chop up whatever’s left, throw it in a pot to simmer for an hour with a little vegetable or chicken bullion (we love Better than Bullion) and serve with rice. Perfect fresh ratatoutille.

  10. You can also dry tomatoes in an oven at the lowest temperature for several hours. 170 is the lowest mine goes although 150 degrees s/b better.
    I then freeze the dried tomatoes to preclude mold from getting to the remaining moisture. Google search will get more detailed directions.

  11. We don’t have room for a large garden, and the few things we did plant (tomatoes and peppers) have not done well. However, I was able to purchase 22 pounds of green beans, 60 ears of corn and 40 pounds of heirloom tomatoes for a very good price.

    I agree with Joyful Abode about blanching. That’s what I did. I boiled all that corn and all the green beans for about 3 minutes, then put them into a cold water bath to stop the cooking process. I let the beans dry on towels, and cut the corn off the cob before bagging and freezing.

    I boiled the tomatoes just long enough for the peel to split (about 30 seconds to 2 minutes), then cooled them in cold water. Working over a colander in a large bowl I peeled them (very easy), then diced, bagged and froze them. I collected 2 quarts of tomato juice in the process, and strained and froze that too. No store bought canned tomatoes for me this winter.

    Of course I saved plenty for fresh eating that week too. I LOVE the summer harvest!

  12. The growing season here in Maine has been terrible this year so not getting the usual bounty from my garden I usually do. The only thing I’m going to have a big surplus of is green beans which I plain to mostly pickle.

    My bigger dillema right now is what to do with the 10 eggs a day my chickens are laying. 70 eggs a week is a lot, selling or giving them away when I can.

  13. We have been eating the abundance from our garden.Our neighbors grow things we don’t so we swap the abundance. One of the best meals we had so far was using the produce from the gardens. I sliced up some potatoes, carrots, onions, trimmed some green and yellow beans. I tossed all of these with some crushed garlic, a little olive oil, oregano and at the last second tossed in a couple spoonfuls of capers. I poured this onto a large sheet of heavy duty aluminum, folding the edges in to make a packet. This was placed on the upper shelf of a low temp grill for about 1 hour. It was amazing!

  14. Sigh… my garden grew a lot of lettuce, tons of squash/melon vines that haven’t bloomed, and a lot of weeds. I think it’s because it’s so far away from where I live, I didn’t take good enough care of it. Wish I had a ton of produce now!

  15. Um… you can only can tomatoes in a water bath if they have lemon juice added. Otherwise they don’t have enough acid and you run the risk of botulism. So, salsas can be canned in a water bath (most salsas contain lemon juice as an ingredient), so can stewed tomatoes as long as you add lemon juice. Pasta sauce CAN NOT be canned safely in a water bath. Especcially since most pasta sauces add some sort of sweetener to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes. The only safe way to can pasta sauce is in a pressure canner. Freezing pasta sauce is a much safer option, and it will keep for at least a year, that I know by experience! So in other words…

    Do Not can pasta sauce in a water bath! Botulism can grow and botulism will make you very, very sick!

  16. My husband and I have a huge garden. Way too big for the two of us but we just love being outside in the garden. Right now we’re spending next to nothing on food as we eat from the garden and only buy a few things to supplement our veggies.

    We also have a produce table at our church and fellow members buy our produce. All the money goes to a local charity which helps feed those in need. This morning we brought in $66. It’s a win win for everyone. Our church has a large number of older members who love having access to fresh produce and don’t mind donating to a good cause. We could give the produce directly to a food bank but in our medium sized Iowa town they don’t have refrigeration to keep it fresh so money is much more appreciated.

    We’ve had a lot of rain and our tomatoes are tasty but ugly so I made up fresh salsa for this morning. We had samples and it was gone quickly. In the past couple of years we’ve been able to give about $500 to charity with our excess produce and we eat like kings in the summer with all our fresh produce.

    Labor Day we’re having a pick your own toppings pizza party. Our guests will be able to go into the garden and pick veggies to top their own pizza. We’re anticipating a good time for everyone.

    Everyone should have a garden even if it’s tiny. No other hobby gives you exercise, good nutrition and fun. And if you don’t get caught up with all kinds of gimicks it is a frugal hobby too.

  17. Here in Pennsylvania, there is a program that allows you to donate fresh produce to organizations like senior citizens’ centers for their use in cooking healthy lunches. Certainly there are requirements that have to be met, and it would vary state to state, but to add to Trent’s suggestion that you “give it away,” I’d recommend you try senior centers, small private schools, etc. I’ve found them to be very receptive to even small donations.

  18. If you know someone who doesn’t have room for a garden and loves fresh produce, you can dump all your garden surplus on them. I grew up with a garden but now live in a dark apartment, and love it when people ask me to take stuff off their hands.

  19. Dear Michelle -
    If you could figure out a way to sell the botulism to the companies making botox you might be able to turn a profit ;)

    *absolutely not recommended and intended for humorous purposes only*

  20. I’d like to second comment #12. Canning tomatoes IS relatively easy but she’s right you need to add some lemon juice. If you google how to can tomatoes, you can get to the USDA website to get tested recipes for canning – will give you all the right ingredients and processing times to make sure you’re safe. For the record, I have a “safe” recipe for spaghetti sauce that can be done in the water bath canner but it has to be meatless.

    Trent gives a pretty general idea of how to can but if you’re interested in starting, you want to look for more precise directions. :) The USDA site is good or the canning book put out by Ball.

  21. If you plan to can, check the webpage for the University of Georgia home ec department or other college web pages for full canning instructions. Water-bath canning is limited to low-pH items–most but not all fruits, some tomatoes, and pickles. and relishes. That still gives you a bunch of wiggle room, but if you intend to can veggies, get a pressure canner. They are not cheap, but they are a lifetime investment. The All American is gasket-less and will set you back a cool $300, but you payback period should be two years after a full season’s run of green beans and meat-based pasta sauces or soups.

  22. I want to second the suggestion of the canning book by Ball – it’s called the Blue Book. The Blue Book offers wonderful advice for canning, has easily understood directions for beginners, and very tasty recipes. I also have an old-time recipe for Spaghetti Sauce that uses the boiling water method. And we have never had a problem with the sauce spoiling!

    I just canned my first batch of salsa yesterday using bought tomatoes as I lost all of my tomato plants this year to blight. I enjoy canning, boiling and pressure, and freeze some veggies too.

    I will wait until the snow flies the first time before I will open anything canned for that year – the anticipation makes it all taste even better!

  23. We generally freeze extra veggies from the garden, but this year we also started canning. I was a little intimidated by it at first, but found it was surprisingly easy. We bought a water bath canner at Westlake for $20 and a few jars. Then we bought a Ball canning book with a couple hundred recipes in it. So far we’ve canned salsa, bruschetta, jalapeno jelly and pickled hot peppers. If you buy the right jars you can use them for canning and freezing so they are dual purpose and should last for many years. I think it’s a worthy investment and am really looking forward to eating all this stuff during the cold winter months!

  24. You can actually dry some things (including tomatoes!) in your oven. This is most useful for those of us who live in humid areas, where actual sun-drying doesn’t work so well. Google will give you lots of instructions if you type in “oven-dried tomatoes.”

    The National Center for Home Food Preservation has specific instructions on how to dry, can, and freeze all kinds of things, and I’ve found them pretty useful and reliable.

    If you regularly grow a lot of food, a chest freezer can be a good investment: we got a super-energy-efficient model for under $200. It costs us $20/year to run and means we pretty much always have homemade “convenience food” available!

  25. 2 slices bread; a teeny dab of mayo; big thick slices of ripe tomato; salt and pepper…best summer sandwich for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
    Lightly steamed just picked green beans; a pat of butter; salt and pepper; toss and enjoy the best summer supper.

  26. I do a little canning (tomatos, applesauce, pickled things, vegetable soup mix) and as much drying as I can get done (mostly apple slices – we just eat those). We freeze some stuff – corn mostly, but also tomatillo salsa, pesto, and some other processed stuff.

    But the thing that has made August & September bearable the last few years is freezing stuff to process more later, when it’s not so hot. So I have frozen pitted plums that will be jelly sometime in October, frozen raspberries & blueberries that will go into smoothies, jelly, or fruit leather…it’s great to be simmering jelly or running the dehydrator later in the season when it’s cold but we don’t have the furnace on yet.

  27. You don’t even need a food dehydrator to dry out your harvest. Sometimes the heat from the dehydrator can be harmful if all you want it DRY, not COOKED. Get a box fan, a couple of bungie cords, and a stack of paper-only furnace filters. Slice your produce, lay it across the ribs of a filter in a single layer, and stack another on top. I find that three rows (four filters) is best. Bungie the stack to the tan and let it run for 24 hours. It works especially well on herbs.

  28. Drying food is easy, fast and cheap. You can make normally expensive sun dried tomatoes this way: Get a piece of new screen from the hardware store WHICH IS APPROXIMATELY THE SIZE OF THE DASHBOARD OF YOUR CAR. Stretch this over a frame of four scraps of lumber, making this screen just slightly smaller than your car dashboard. Spread a layer of microwave safe paper towels, a piece of clean dry old sheet, or cheesecloth over the screen, cover with a layer of thinly sliced tomatoes or other veggies or fruit you wish to dry, POSTION THE CAR SO WINDSHIELD IS FACING SOUTH on a sunny day, place the screen full of produce slices on dashboard, roll up windows, AND LET THE SUN GENERATED HEAT DRY YOUR PRODUCE FAST AND FOR FREE. You don’t need to pay to heat up your oven in the summer to dehydrate food, use this car trick for no cost. You don’t need a lot of fancy tools to garden and preserve your garden surplus, and most tools can be picked up at yard sales for pennies on the dollar. People will give you canning jars and jelly jars if you ask around. Just returned from Germany where we picked free elderberries which grew wild outside the village, and made elderberry soup and four batches of elderberry jelly.

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