Saving Summer Crops: How to Hold On to Your Harvest

Three ways to preserve your garden's bounty, seeds, and memories

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The school bus is already rolling down the streets here in metro Atlanta, and the seemingly-endless 95-degree heat of summer is starting to break a little. I even wore a long-sleeved shirt for the first time in months the other night, and that means, yes, the seasons are most definitely changing, and summer's bounty in the garden will soon be slowing down and ending. Although an entirely new season filled with what we consider "cool season crops" (lettuces, cooking greens, root crops, broccoli, peas, and more) is equally bountiful here, we won't see our summer favorites again—the tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash on which we've been sustaining ourselves—for months now.

Those of you elsewhere are likely saying goodbye to your summer favorites as well. I know you're busy, but trust me when I say that taking a little time now to capture the essence of summer will benefit you well into the seasons to come. For our friends in even hotter places than Atlanta, I know that, perhaps, summer may be a time when you give your garden a chance to rejuvenate as you head into your tomato season. Save this advice for when that season ends for you as well.

Here are three easy ways to preserve the fruits of your labor this summer:

1. Preserve your bounty. There are a wide variety of ways you can save your fresh food for the future, and they are all fast and easy if you simply have a few supplies on hand and give it a moment's worth of thought or research. A tabletop dehydrator could not be simpler to use—you slice up fresh fruits and veggies, place them in a single layer on the dehydrating trays, and let the machine run for 24 hours or so (follow the specific directions for the model you purchase) while you work, sleep, take care of your family, and basically just go about your life. You then have delectable snack nibbles (dried figs and apples!) and easy-to-store add-ins for future soups, sauces, and more. This is a particularly good way to preserve herbs, by the way. Come winter, you'll be able to sprinkle some nice oregano on your pizza, whether homemade or store-bought, and use herbs for some immune-boosting teas. Additionally, be sure to have freezer storage bags or containers on hand, which makes it easy to save a meal or two every time you cook. Pick up some pickling and canning jars, and you're more likely to get a wild hair and finally figure out how to line your pantry with just-picked goodness, or ferment something in a jar on your countertop. If all of this still sounds like too much work, just pop some jalepenos in a bag in the freezer, and you're nacho-ready all football season.

2. Preserve your seeds. Seed saving makes sense (and saves cents, or rather, lots of dollars). When you continually save and grow seeds from fruits and vegetables that do well in your particular garden, they adapt to your growing conditions. In as little as three years time of growing and saving, they truly become your own custom seeds. These are then invaluable seeds that simply can't be purchased in a store (and you won't have to spend time going to a store). No wonder people have traditionally handed down saved seeds from generation to generation! Saving seeds is easy (although saving tomato seeds gets a little trickier—check online for methods for that). Simply choose your best specimens, remove and wash the seeds, and let them dry on a paper towel for a week or two. Label the towel so you are sure to remember which seeds they are, because as you'll quickly discover, it's hard to tell your butternut squash from your delicata, or your hot peppers from your sweet ones! As for beans, let them turn brown on the vine before removing the pods and savings. Store saved seeds in a cool place in an air-tight container. In general, they are good for about three years (germination rates usually drop off each year) so you'll want to be sure to keep growing and saving every year or two (or store them in the freezer for longer periods).

3. Preserve your memories. It's easy to think your garden will always look so verdant, but it won't. Winter's coming. Plus, it's easy to think your children will always be happy to spend the day playing and picking peas outside your kitchen door. They won't. Children grow up. Finally, you may think that you know your garden inside and out, what you planted where, and how it all did, but you most likely will draw a blank or two next year, because things like work and family tend to fill our heads with lots of important information we're trying to remember, too. This is where preserving your memories comes in. Many gardeners like to keep a journal, which can take many forms. It can simply be lists of what was planted where and how it all performed. It could include a fertility or crop rotation plan through the seasons. Or it could simply be poetry, reflections, or sketches inspired from time spent in this creativity-enhancing environment. I know a gardener who photographs her garden almost every day and now has about six years worth of history preserved in a visual story. She can look back to the exact date from each year and jog her memory about what it might be time to plant at that precise time, or just revel in the joy the pictures revive for her.

What are some of your favorite ways to preserve your bounty, seeds, and memories? Let us know in the comments section. Tap in next week to find out how to use gardening as a moving meditation.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Daron Joffe is a 30-something eco-entrepreneur who lives to make a difference in the world one homegrown organic fruit and vegetable at a time. Known as "Farmer D," Joffe has grown food for celebrities, private communities, and elementary schools in his "town-by-town mission to re-energize the food culture." His products are sold at select Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores. Born in South Africa and based in Atlanta, Farmer D is online at www.farmerD.com.