Early September in the vegetable garden can be a time of late summer bounty when the cooling breezes of fall energize you into completing the season’s work with a heart full of joy and purpose. Or, perhaps more likely, your garden may be an overgrown fungal jungle full of humid air, rotten tomatoes, and waist-high weeds. (I hope that’s not just me. I only looked away for a second, I swear.)
But even if you’re organized and tidy, you may have experienced the dreaded glut. Just too many, of whatever it is. Zucchini, beans and tomatoes are the usual culprits, but you might also have overdone it on the peppers or the eggplant. You may manage to harvest everything, only to have no idea what to do with all of it once it reaches the kitchen. Or it may never find its way out of your garden to begin with. What to do?
Let’s start with the garden. Take a deep breath, look around, and make a mental list. What are the priorities? Zucchinis like baseball bats and peppers of a perfect and precarious redness need to be harvested first. Maybe you don’t need to do it all today; maybe this is an emergency and you’ll be in bean vines to your elbows for an hour. Get yourself two containers (or more if this is a big job) and attack one area at a time, dividing as you harvest into usable and unusable vegetables. Has it fallen off the plant, or split open? Is it soft when it should be firm, or hard when it should be yielding? You don’t want to leave those items in your garden to rot; they may attract undesirable animals or insects, or spread disease. Collect them and either compost them (if you have a closed compost container that isn’t inviting animals to visit) or throw them away. Be honest about this step; there’s no point keeping what you’re not willing to eat, and in fact spoiled food can be dangerous.
Move on to what can still be eaten. When you’ve picked those veggies and brought them inside, you need to decide what to do with them.
- First get a handle on how to store your produce and what needs to be used up first. Should you wash the vegetables right away or are they better stored unwashed? Should they be refrigerated or stored on the counter? Do you need to cure them (onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, winter squash)? We have information on specific vegetables.
- Of the vegetables that need to be used soon, which can go into meals this week, or be cooked and frozen for later use? Don’t forget the zucchini bread!
- Are you interested in learning more about preserving food? Visit the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation. Here you can learn about safe canning, freezing, drying and other methods of preservation.
- Just can’t deal with all that food? Someone else may want it. If your neighbors have had enough of mysterious zucchini manifestations, please consider donating your bounty to people in your community who are having a hard time right now. In Montgomery County, we have a new organization called HarvestShare, started by MG Cat Kahn, that has organized home and community gardeners to donate over 5000 pounds of produce this summer. Wherever you live, your local food bank or other community groups may accept fresh produce; ask first and find out if there’s a best time to deliver it.
All of us have had our gardens get out of hand, so you’re not alone if this happens to you. Just remember that harvesting every day or two is better than only once a week, that squash are more tender and delicious when picked small, and that tomatoes can be ripened indoors rather than on the plant. (Yes, really. Pick them when they start to blush color and they will be just as delicious and much less likely to crack, split, or be sucked on by stink bugs, pecked by birds, or bitten by squirrels.) And if you’ve ever grown okra, you know they sneak up on you. End the scourge of enormous wooden okra: visit your garden now!
And if you’ll excuse me, I have some tomatoes to pick…
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener