So you finally feel like a successful gardener and have buckets of produce coming out of the garden. The big question my husband always asks me is, “Now what are you going to do with it all?” In reality, it is generally the same question that bounces through my brain as I am busily snapping beans off the plants, hunting for those sneaky cucumbers hanging from our new trellis or gently cutting ripe to bursting tomatoes off the vine. That is when it happens. Beyond the sweat, dirty knees and constant weeding is the best part – the mouth-watering part of gardening – getting to savor all the flavors you helped to propagate. I will admit after many years of gardening, raising kids and trying to sneak veggies (especially zucchini) past my husband, our garden is a mix all our favorite things. We enjoy our produce all summer when things go right. What is really special is savoring those flavors well after the first hard frosts have happened and the garden is put to bed for the winter. A warm pot of steaming veggie soup on a cold night or roasting a chicken in February with the fragrant herbs that remind you of summer is wonderful.
All those amazing flavors start for me when I am planning the garden each year. My goal is to plant things my family will eat, enjoy and I can preserve using as many homegrown ingredients as possible. Identifying those foods and flavors your family craves and loves is so important. Then plant those varieties with a mind for keeping some for later. I pour over recipe books all winter making lists of veggies and ingredients I can grow the next summer. Your local library is a great resource for those recipes as are fellow gardeners and family gatherings. If you are new to preservation, your county or state extension service has many resources for canning guidelines. Honestly, some of my best recipes are from older members of the community that love passing along their knowledge. They grew up in an era where the grocery store was a supplement, not a staple, of the kitchen table’s offerings.
If you are up for canning then tomatoes for sauces and salsa are great. Cucumbers can yield shelves full of many different varieties of pickles and relish. Winter squash, onions, garlic and potatoes (sweet and traditional) will keep for months in the right basement or cellar. Knowing what keeps and what doesn’t is important for a gardener who wants to prolong nature’s bounty. For me it is not just the big show stopper plants like huge tomatoes that are important; it is the little plants that add so much to what you preserve. Growing your own garlic is a great place to start. It preserves dried into the winter and can be used all summer in pasta sauces, pickle jars, and in, well, anything. Homegrown garlic is more potent and isn’t treated with chemicals. Another area that can yield wonderful dividends is the herb beds. Basil of many varieties, thyme, oregano, sage, dill, lavender, and others are wonderful culinary ingredients as well as companion plants that keep pests at bay. Planting your dill beside your cucumbers can reduce beetles and other pests that try to feast on your future pickles. I process my herbs in many combinations with some good olive oil and pack into ice cube trays for premeasured herb cubes that are easy to use all winter.
If you are fortunate enough to have a berry patch or fruit trees, your canner and freezer are your best options for winter enjoyment. My kids are expert berry and grape smashers for the countless jars of jam we make in preparation for the most epic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all year. A myriad of jam, jelly, marmalade and other chutney recipes abound for those with a sweet tooth or yen for savory flavors. Simply bagging freshly peeled & sliced peaches, or cookie sheets full of newly-frozen berries for the freezer makes for amazing pies and cobblers at the holidays.
Whatever your yields or favorites may be, find a way to preserve those flavors. Savor your hard work all year at the table with friends and family. Knowing it came from your garden with ingredients you can name is part of the honor being a successful gardener.