If you have not started seeds for your garden yet this year, you are thinking about it. The thrill starts when you open that seed catalog and start dreaming.
Then they come in the mail and you stare at your calendar until the day you can start putting them in the soil and giving them water. You spend your hours trying not to check on them as often as possible until they finally germinate.
The day eventually comes when you can take them outside—and finally—plant them into the ground. These are your babies. Pride swells as you watch them grow. Then one day, they are ready.
If you are like 99% of the vegetable growing population, you have planted too much of something at least once in your journey. Maybe you even plant too much of one thing (or several) on a yearly basis. (You would not be alone my Friend.)
We may grow different fruits and vegetables in our gardens, but the one thing we have in common is that we all have to figure out how best to utilize our loot or else watch it rot. Here are some tips to make sure you are making the most of your haul this year.
Grow What You Will Eat
It goes without saying that you should not grow what you know your family will not eat. But it’s really worth stating here because during the dreaming and planning stage, nearly everyone is tempted to grow something they might like—or at least try.
How many people grow that super cute squash and wiggle with excitement as the plant grows larger and larger only to watch it rot because they do not like squash or know how to prepare it?
If you have a list of plants (or a stack of seeds) that you want to grow this year, go through them again. Be honest. If no one in your family is going to eat them, do not grow them.
Just say no.
Have A Plan
You know you like parsnips because your grandma cooked them for you. One time. When you were four. And you think you remember not hating them.
They look like carrots, so they really can not be that bad, right?
You grow them, and grow them, and grow them, and near the end of your harvest, they are finally ready to eat. You pick the first one–super excited–and realize you do not know how to cook it. Or maybe you know how to cook it one way.
You start looking at recipes, and collecting them, and after a few days finally pick one. You try it, and realize you don’t like it.
You immediately become dismayed.
You have spent months babying these plants, days finding recipes, time over the stove preparing them, and now you are in full panic mode—what will you do with all these useless vegetables?
This right here, is the reason you need to have a plan.
Your plan could be as simple as writing a different vegetable on the top of a corresponding piece of paper, and then filling each paper with ways you will eat that vegetable. Or it could be as quick as making a Pinterest board for each crop (like my onion, carrot, and potato boards). Fill each board with ways you will utilize your crop.
Whatever it is, you need to have a list of ways you will eat that crop—and you need to make sure your family will like how you plan to serve it.
I write new vegetable recipes and ideas I want to try on 3″ x 5″ index cards. I’ll try them when I have the time and ingredients. Sometimes we decide we do not like a lot of the recipes and I get rid of them. Other times, we gather a lot of good recipes.
Make A Menu
Now that you have planned out all the ways you will enjoy your produce, it is imperative that you put them on the menu.
It can be so easy at the end of a busy day to just grab the most convenient ingredients already inside your house to make dinner instead of purposefully going out to the garden and picking fresh ingredients and then trying to figure out what you are going to make.
You will tell yourself you’ll use those vegetables tomorrow. But then tomorrow will be busy. And hard. Again, you will just grab what is in the kitchen or pantry, and that garden will lie untouched. Again.
It is so important to have a menu–even if you only make it for a week, or three days at a time. When you see that a crop is coming into it’s time, pull out your list or bring up that Pinterest board, and start planning how to use a lot of that crop.
Those 3″ x 5″ cards I mentioned earlier? I pull them out and go through each individual crop as it comes into season. I sit down with a 14 day menu, and put meals/dishes (from crops as they are in their prime) onto it.
What I do not do, is make sure I have a breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the menu every day. We need (and want) plenty of room for spontaneity. But I do make sure if I have 3 pounds of asparagus this week, that it’s all on the menu.
In the morning, I will look at my menu and keep that day’s items in my mind.
This works best for me in case I realize that another crop is maturing faster than I thought—there will be plenty of space to stick it on the menu.
(Even though it is not yet asparagus season, my husband and I have already pulled out the asparagus stack of cards and are talking about which recipes we want most—or might just skip all together—this year).
Make Regular Scouting Trips Through Your Garden
It can be easy to get excited about one vegetable that is ready right now, and enjoy it so much that you miss another vegetable that is ready. If you have two things ready, make every effort to use them both—not just one. If you have got three or four crops ready, you will need to know that, so some are not getting ignored and rotting away.
Although asparagus is the first crop we will have fresh each year, I know that wild mushrooms and rhubarb will be next. As soon as I find mushrooms or the rhubarb gets close, I will pull out those two stacks of cards, and start sticking them on the menu as well.
Have A Preservation Plan For Everything You Grow
Alas, the best laid plans occasionally end in an abundance of loot. Make sure you know how to preserve everything you are going to grow.
Even if you think your family will eat all the peas you planted, there is always a possibility that you will have a bumper crop this year (or–gasp–get busy and miss them). Make sure you have an idea what to do with what you could have leftovers of, in addition to the crops you plan to preserve.
I started 100 asparagus plants this year. In four years I will have an abundance. However, we have an extremely short season. That means I need to have a plan not only on how we are going to eat them fresh, but also how I am going to preserve all the ones I have not used at the end of the season.
I keep a list in our homestead management binder every year of the crops we will grow and forage for. They are in the order that I anticipate harvesting them.
During the winter (while we have the time), we sit down as a family and I ask everyone how they want to eat each crop one by one and make the plan on how we will preserve them.
When each one comes into it’s season, I already have the preservation plan for when we are either sick of eating it, or run out of time.
Be Ready To Preserve Your Loot
Knowing what and how you will preserve your crops is a great start, but there is nothing worse than harvesting 40 pounds of beans only to find out you do not have any canning lids. For me, that is a choice between a 120 mile drive to get them, or ordering them on-line and waiting for them to come. Who has time for that?
During the winter when our family makes our preservation plan, I make a second list (as soon as I am done with the first) of the spices and other necessities I will need to make that list happen. When the season comes, I will have everything in my pantry I need to wake up and hit the day running.
Be Honest, And Be Generous
It is really hard to admit to yourself that you are at the end of a specific crop’s season, but do not have the time to either eat it fresh or preserve it. This is where you have to be honest with yourself.
You have to be able to admit you are not going to get to it, and then let someone else know as soon as possible. Is there a single mom near you who hasn’t the time for a garden, or budget for fresh produce? Tell her immediately that you won’t be utilizing something and that she is welcome to it.
Remember that no matter how badly someone else might want or need fresh produce, they often need time to come and get it. This is why it is so important to be honest with yourself early. You will need to give that person time to plan too.
You will also have to be honest about the harvest. If you don’t have time to eat it or preserve it, very likely you do not have the time to harvest it.
Give yourself grace. It is okay for someone to harvest their own produce if they are getting it for free. You do not need to feel guilty that they have to harvest it themselves. You honestly do not have the time.
Understand No Plan Is Perfect
Luckily for our family, we have been at this game for a while.
In the beginning of my efforts to grow our own food, I felt the failure of not eating enough fresh, not knowing how to preserve what was left, and just simply not having a plan.
I still have the occasional pumpkin that goes bad in the cold cellar before we get to it, but I am definitely a lot better than I used to be. I know that when we are not keeping up on pumpkins or cabbage, I should accept it, and give the chickens treats. It is better than holding on to them and waiting for them to rot.
Do you have a plan to use your entire garden each year? Or do you just wing-it?