Harvesting and Seed Saving

So you have been working hard in your garden weeding and fending off the pests and it’s now time to enjoy the fruits of your labour. Here are a few tips for harvesting your bounty and saving your seeds.

Harvesting

The biggest question here is: “How do I know when to harvest?” Bigger is not always better: many vegetables taste better and are more tender when they are smaller. If this is your first time gardening, you may have trouble with this concept. It can be tempting to watch your vegetables get as big as they possibly can. If you take this road, be prepared for not only tough produce but also to share your crop with insects and other garden pests. To help you make that decision of when to harvest, check out this harvesting guide put together by the University of Indiana Extension. Cornell University also has a handy downloadable guide. As you gain experience, you will be able to tell when to harvest by inspecting your crop and sampling the vegetables as they mature.

Harvesting doesn’t have to mean the end of your crop. This is especially true for lettuce. If you harvest lettuce mixes and arugula by just cutting it off the plant and leaving the roots it will grow back. This should provide you with a lasting supply of greens. In this short video clip, the Urban Organic Gardner shows you how.

Preserving

Pickling and canning

This may be a practice you associate with your grandmother but it has now come back in fashion. Canning and pickling does not mean that you need to set aside enough food to feed an army, you can preserve smaller amounts of produce with the help of a number of “modernized” home preserving books that have recently come on the market. These books speak to the cosmopolitan palate and the scope of the urban garden. Eugenia Bone’s Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods is a good starting point. 

To learn more about preserving food from a hands-on perspective, you might consider taking a canning class. BU Gastronomy alumna Allison Carroll Duffy runs workshops and short course. Check out Allison’s web site, Canning Craft, for more details.

Freezing

Not everyone has the luxury of a big freezer but most people can put away some of their summer bounty in the freezer. Although not the most energy efficient form of food preservation, freezing allows you to enjoy nutritious produce long after the growing season is gone.

Some important pointers for freezing produce include:

    • only freeze the freshest produce–it does not get better once frozen
    • do not overfill freezer containers
    • freeze quantities you know you can use (try small batches if you know you can’t consumer 3 pounds of carrots at once)
    • date and identify your frozen produce–it won’t last forever and you may not recognize it in the frosty depths of your freezer

There are a number of practical freezing guides that you can download. For example, the Montana State University Extension guide offers general types and specific guidelines for different crops.

Drying

Sun drying tomatoes and other crops could be a little challenging with all the summer humidity in  Massachusetts, but fortunately there are other methods for drying produce.

Small home dehydrators can be purchased for under $75. Dehydration works particularly well for fruits and herbs. Dried fruit makes a wonderful healthy snack and dehydrated hers are a great way to supply your panty with the taste of summer in the dead of winter. The University of Florida offers a number of guides for dehydrating vegetables and fruit.

If you are not ready to invest in a dehydrator, you can also use your oven. Colorado State University has a useful guide full of drying tips, techniques and nutritional information.

Seed Saving

Saving seeds is an important part of wrapping up the gardening season as it is a means to create continuity. A previous year’s seeds sets up for the next season by capturing and preserving the results of both the plants and the gardening experience. Through careful selection, gardeners can express their skills and knowledge moving forward. 

photo credit: Chiot's Run via flickr creative commons

The University of Maine provides basic information to get you started and Brooklyn Botanic Garden provides directions for a practice run. Fedco Seeds has several resources for seed saving, including a chart for beginners, terms, reasons why to save seeds, and an activity guide book for school use.

photo credit to The U.S. National Archives

The practice of saving seeds is not only ecological, it is also economical, political, traditional, and social. There are organizations dedicated solely to the topic and practice, especially for heirloom varieties, such as Saving Our Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange.

Once you have saved your seeds, you can host or participate in a seed swap. The National Gardening Association has a resource for searching and posting seed swaps.

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