In the final installment of this series we will focus on our garden harvest: what worked, what didn’t, how we preserved the harvest. If you haven’t read parts 1, 2, 3, & 4 you can check those posts out as well. This is likely the longest post we have created to date. There is so much to recap and process, it can’t be done in a few short paragraphs.
Previously in this series, we discussed the planting of our brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage) and the Mother’s Day Freeze that could’ve ended in disaster. Although that potential crisis was averted, we were dealt another nasty set of circumstances: continually wet soil followed by hotter than ideal Spring weather. Neither of these conditions bode well for most brassicas, and ours were greatly stunted. As the bumper cole crop I had been hoping for was beginning to become more of a pipe dream than a reality, something finally happened. One, just one little gorgeous crown of broccoli appeared almost overnight. In August, nonetheless. As the days dragged on, a few more spindly heads presented themselves, several of those being rapidly overtaken by cabbage moth larvae. I salvaged as much as I could, but we only ate about 3 small heads and a few offshoots in total. Most of which I used to make one pot of broccoli cheddar soup. Not exactly a bountiful harvest considering we’d planted almost 30 broccoli plants between the Waltham (pictured below) and the Purple Sprouting variety. Speaking of the Purple Sprouting broccoli… it produced NOTHING… nothing except enormously thick stalks and huge leaves. A total disappointment.
In addition to the broccoli, we had planted cabbage and cauliflower. The cabbage produced fairly enough, though the heads were a tad small. And the cauliflower? We harvested one measley head. Another head formed, but was very small and so eaten up by worms that I didn’t even bother trying to save it. The chickens enjoyed a treat that day, of cauliflower and cabbage worms.
Closing out our discussion on brassicas: what worked? Well, the seed starting stage was a roaring success. And planting them in the woven ground cover greatly helped suppress the weed pressure. What didn’t work? Moisture. We had SO MUCH RAIN early on that the clay soil they were in stayed a sopping wet mess constantly. I also believe we should try planting them in the Fall rather than the Spring. It got hot here too quickly and the plants that did survive were bolting to seed faster that we could shake a stick at. The moisture issue has been drastically improved due to the drainage tile we installed later in the growing season and improving and amending our soil in that area.
We planted a few items such as Mesclun lettuce, kale, and carrots in large containers as an experiment. Everything in the containers grew exceptionally well. As a result, we are attempting to grow a plot of carrots in the sandy soil area of our in-ground garden in 2021. Fingers crossed!
What was my biggest complaint about growing green beans in 2020? Not growing nearly enough! The green beans got off to a rocky start: it took three attempts at sowing them before we finally got decent germination, which was still spotty at best. In the past, tradition had reigned supreme and “the only beans worth planting” were half runners. While that may be the opinion of some, there’s just one issue: I despise bean strings. There’s not much worse than enjoying an evening with friends over for dinner, being so proud to serve them food you’ve preserved yourself… only to have a bean string nearly gag you to death. As you discretely attempt to dislodge the nasty string from your uvula and discard it, you look around in silent horror to see if anyone else has made the discovery prior to yourself. How embarrassing. But nevermore to fear, for the solution was simple: stringless beans! The varieties I grew in 2020 were Jade and Top Crop, both of which performed amazingly well and were overall fairly pest and disease resistant. The taste is right up there with the best of them, and they’re a breeze to grow. We will be planting many bean seeds of these varieties in the future. Our green beans were preserved mostly by pressure canning, but I did freeze a few pounds as well.
Another heavy hitter in the 2020 garden was, as always, zucchini. I have so much grated zucchini in my freezer, I may not even sow any in 2021. I have tried freezing zucchini medallions in the past, but they get soggy. I’ve found if I shred the zukes and freeze them for use in meatloaf, breads, and brownies, the texture and consistency are just about right for those applications.
Speaking of zucchini bread, a little PSA here, I’m NOT a baker. I typically leave that task to someone that enjoys it much more than I. (I will cook for you until the cows come home, but don’t expect me to bake very often at all…) However, being brave, I tried several new zucchini bread recipes in 2020. This lemon zucchini bread with sugared lemon glaze was a huge hit in our house. Tender, sweet, with just the right amount of citrusy tang. You could never tell it was made it zucchini.
The ultimate winner for the 2020 garden was tomatoes. Hands down. Maybe it was just a good tomato year, or maybe it’s because I’ve become a tomato plant pruning machine, but they performed extremely well. I canned so many tomatoes that we’re still comfortably eating from the harvest nearly 9 months later. (Granted we might eat a tomato dish once every week to 2 weeks, not nearly as often as many folks.) We planted several different types, all started from seed here on the homestead, including chocolate cherry, Bonny best, Rutgers, and big rainbow. We also grew tomatillo plants from seed, which will not happen again. More on that later.
All of our tomato harvest was either eaten fresh or diced and canned.
I use a pretty straightforward canning method for tomatoes: wash, core, blanch, skin, and dice. (I try to remove as many seeds as I can.) I fill the sterilized jars with diced tomatoes as I go, add citric acid and salt, top with lids and rings, place into the canner and process according to USDA food preservation guidelines.
It’s a lot of messy work, but the finished product is both beautiful and delicious.
Previously I mentioned that we grew tomatillos for the first time this year. I know some people love them, but for me they are too much hassle for the small amount of product you end up with. Rather than using tomatillos for salsa verde, green tomatoes are a much simpler and plentiful option. The flavor is very similar, and our family loves this salsa! Before our first fall frost, I gathered every tomato I could find in the garden, green or otherwise. The green tomatoes were what I used to make this tasty salsa. I also included some hot peppers that we grew in our garden, although they weren’t from the seeds I’d started. All of my peppers sprouted, graduated to the cold frame, and hardened off well, but after I planted them, they every one died except about 4 cayenne pepper plants. I need to figure out what I did wrong so I don’t end up buying overpriced pepper plants again.
Another experimental crop in 2020 was dried beans. We grew light and dark kidney beans, pintos, and painted pony beans. Once the seeds were sown, it really was as easy as watering, weeding, and waiting. When the pods were brown and dry enough that the seeds inside rattled when shaken, they were picked, shelled, and washed.
At that point, a portion of the beans were left to completely dry out and the remainder were soaked in water overnight, drained, rinsed, and pressure canned in fresh water, just as green beans are. The dried out beans were “dry canned” in the oven. Apparently this method isn’t approved by the USDA, although folks have done it successfully for decades. Do your own research and use your own judgment on how you preserve your dried beans. Both methods have kept very well in our pantry.
In addition to beans, we also experimented with peanuts, potatoes, and popcorn. the popcorn was beautiful, mini blue and glass gem varieties. We didn’t get much of a harvest however. The peanuts were an educational experience, learning how they grow. Lastly, the potatoes were kind of a joke turned into a pleasant surprise. I had 6 potatoes in my pantry that were getting some pretty big eyes, so I decided to give them a whirl in the garden, although I fully expected them to rot instead of growing. Five out of the six potatoes I planted produced really nice looking plants and enough potatoes to give us 2 meals. Not too bad!
Finally, we can talk about our pumpkins. These little beauties were a joy to grow, and their blossoms were the backdrop for some amazing native bee photography. They made the silkiest puree I’ve ever tried, as well as some very scrumptious pies. These pumpkins stored well for many months in our cool, dry garage before the last of them were consumed. I’ve saved their seeds and intend to grow some more in 2021. In the recipe, I misspoke and stated that the variety of pumpkins we grew were New England Sugar Pie; the variety was actually Winter Luxury.
With the 2020 garden harvest firmly behind us, we prepare for our next growing season with high hopes for yet another plentiful reaping. We feel so blessed to be able to grow some of our own food, to know exactly where it came from, that no harmful chemicals were used… each year our goal is to produce more of our family’s food on our own. Through careful planning, learning from our our past experiences, and the good Lord giving us favorable weather, we hope that our 2021 harvest will be our best yet!
If you’ve never tried to grow vegetable before, I encourage you to give it a try. Even if it doesn’t produce anything, you will still gain valuable knowledge, be exposed to fresh air and sunshine, and gain a greater appreciation for your food and the effort that goes into high quality produce. You can’t go wrong.