Spring is full of heavy lifting, digging holes and amending soil. I usually build or renew my beds in spring and then switch on and off between: planting/watering and harvesting the first spring veggies. It’s usually beautiful outside and I enjoy the time I’m out there. I end up in a meditative state. I can spend hours outside doing random gardening stuff and it is completely enjoyable.
Then comes summer. Our summers are no fun. I live in south Texas and our summers are made up of weeks above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and enough humidity (blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico) that it is frequently above 90 degrees F well after midnight. (The humidity goes up at night and stabilizes the temperature. We just don’t cool down.) There is no break from the heat and I always seem to remember that I need to do something outside, once the heat has hit its highest for the day.
I drag my hose around watering what needs it. I have soaker hoses on timers for four of my beds but I still have to spend about 20 minutes, every other day, watering pots and trees. And then there’s the harvest. Some days it’s a trickle of fruit and veggies and some days it’s a deluge. When I first started gardening (way back in the way back), I had trouble finding a use for everything I grew and more things ended up in the compost than I wanted, because it went bad in the fridge. Things just didn’t last long enough for me to figure out something to do with them. These are skills that multi generational families would hand down. My mother stopped growing vegetables pretty early in my life and switched to flowers. She got tired of always traveling in summer and losing the fruits and vegetables she’d planted. My parents also moved a lot when I was growing up, (like a whole lot!) It’s how I got to know how to start a garden, from nothing, ad nauseum. My parents moved around about every other year, for my dad’s job. Sometimes across states. You could tell it was time to move as soon as you had fruit ripen and the yard was bursting with flowers. Time to completely start over! The preservation skills (like quick pickling or canning) were things I taught myself, and it was out of necessity. You need to know how to preserve, because this isn’t like the grocery store. You don’t aim at growing a single orange for a snack, or a couple of tomatoes for tonight’s dinner. In the old days: you were looking at saving enough food to make it through the winter without starving. And even if that’s totally not your goal, if it’s just to supplement your grocery purchases, you can always grow more in a garden than you can eat fresh.
As I grew as a gardener I figured some things out, like the best recipes for each of the things I grew. I learned how to waterbath can and then pressure can. And then I figured out what preservation methods worked best for each vegetable or fruit that I grew. This took years, I’m 9 years into Texas gardening. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Because I don’t live near any of my family: nobody was around to teach me, back then. So, I believe learning how to put up your food, ought to go hand and hand with your first gardening growing experiences. You’ll need both.
I’ll take you through my summer harvest and show you how I put up what I grow. In our high heat: some things stop producing and others load my gardening hods up to the rim. Also, some years I grow a ton of something and the next year the very same plants struggle. This year I tried yardlong beans and skipped my regular pole beans. I was so excited about a truly stringless bean! But, I have had a miserably poor harvest of beans and it’s just been too hot to go out and plant more.
My tomatoes have done wonderfully. We’ve had a mild year this year and the tomatoes have never been better.
The armenian cucumbers have been producing 4 or 5 giant cukes a week and the bed that was full of spring corn is full of volunteer, summer, basil plants. I’m still waiting on the canteloupe, watermelon and eggplants.
So with the glut of tomatoes and the regular harvest of cucumbers, onions and okra, this is how I stay on top of everything that comes in from the garden: The first thing to consider is refrigerator pickles and freezer jam. These are not canned for long term storage and need to be placed in the refrigerator or freezer (and eaten), as you take the time to pressure can (or water bath can), other things. I slice my cucumbers and onions in my food processor and put them in some spices and vinegar water. These are the crunchiest, freshest pickles you can make. I am not a big pickle fan, but I enjoy these. You can put just about anything you harvest into a pickle brine for quick pickles. I frequently use okra and beans in quick refrigerator pickles. Whatever extra odds and ends that come in. Look up freezer jam recipes by adding the fruit you are using to your query.
After I put up a jar of quick pickles I waterbath can, dill pickles. I save up cucumbers in my refrigerator until I have enough for several jars of waterbath pickles. I suggest making very simple recipes for canning. I am always disappointed in canning recipes that have tons of ingredients. I usually only use dill and garlic in my waterbath pickles and everyone loves them. When you start adding a bunch of extra stuff, you run the risk of having a lot of jars of stuff that your family dislikes, and then you have “forever” canned food. The ones in the back of your pantry, that you put a ton of time into, but nobody likes them. They stay in the back of your pantry forever, or until you give up and dump the jars.
Another way to preserve cucumbers (or watermelon rind) is cinnamon or vanilla pickles. I’ll post my recipes for those on here soon.
Next is an unusual thing for me (at least here in San Antonio), but that I have experienced in other places I’ve lived, and that is: a massive amount of ripe tomatoes. I do not vine ripen my tomatoes. Even with hardware cloth around my beds, I get field mice (and other rodents) that get into my tomatoes and bite holes in the fruit. I leave the rotting fruit in my beds because the mice tend to eat the ripest fruit (and when they bite into green tomatoes they turn and rapidly ripen). This way the dopey mice can eat the ruined fruit they’ve already bitten into and I go out and harvest anything that is even blushing.
I ripen my tomatoes indoors. Safe from the nasty rodents. If you don’t have this problem: then, yes, absolutely vine ripen your tomatoes. But if you have problems with pests: take tomatoes in at first blush and ripen them on the kitchen counter.
As your ferment sits on the counter it separates. Stir it back up and burp the jars daily. When you get it in the refrigerator, it will stop separating.
I usually have a few types of salsa I’m making. My kids and I like mild salsa, while my husband wants his spicy enough to make tears roll down his cheeks!Fortunately, my husband is a fantastic cook, so I get his peppers, garlic and tomatoes charred and blended and he takes it from there. This year we’re trying to match Pappasito’s salsa (but of course, as my husband likes it: way hotter) So, he’s got charred tomatoes and peppers, garlic, onion, mesquite liquid smoke and a few extra habaneros (because I still didn’t get it hot enough for him.)
I make a probiotic, salsa ferment, for my summer salsa recipe. I really enjoy fermented salsa. It’s very fresh, and if you only ferment it on the counter for 3 to 5 days and then put it in your refrigerator, it stays fresh and bubbly instead of crossing over into a more homemade “wine like” state. Probiotic salsa looks a lot like Pico de Gallo, but it has a much deeper flavor. I get mine chopped up a bit finer than pico by pulsing it in my food processor.
My next item up for canning is tomatoes, just plain old tomatoes. You can get a whole lot of food for future use this way. I find that canning with few (or no) spices, allows me to use canned tomatoes for a wide variety of uses.
I also harvest green tomatoes. They don’t always turn red if you get them very green, and really: there’s only so many things you can do with ripe tomatoes. I bread and fry green tomatoes or make green salsa, just to have something different.
Next is okra. Actually, it’s not next, it’s always and forever. If it’s warm (and you’re growing it): you are harvesting okra. Okra has to be harvested daily as the bigger pods are inedible. There’s only a certain size that works and the pods will quickly exceed that size. I have several volunteer okra that I let grow this year and even with 10 to 20 pods coming in every other day I still refrigerate them until I have enough to do something fun with them. Test your okra for edibility by slicing off the tip. If your knife slices through the okra smoothly, like butter, it’s edible. If you hear the knife cutting through the fibers it’s too late to use them. (It will make popping sounds.) They are good in refrigerator pickles. They need to be cooked, so you can also waterbath can extra as okra pickles (pickled okra are not slimey), they’re also great breaded and fried. I tend to eat young okra pods right out in my garden. Fresh okra is super tasty! You can also freeze them for soups and you can slice them lengthwise and fry them like French fries, with some homemade dipping sauce.
Beans are always good for freezing, pickling or canning. They are another crop, like okra, that needs to be harvested daily. I didn’t have a good year for beans this year, but I’ll just go throw some more seed out and I’ll have a bunch before we freeze (around Thanksgiving.) Canning beans in water requires a pressure canner. If you’ve never pressure canned before: it’s just like anything else you do in the kitchen, practice makes perfect… Or maybe: practice dissolves anxiety. I remembered all of the old “exploding canner” stories from my mother’s and grandmother’s days. Back before they had safety valves. The first few times I pressure canned I was nervous. But I was nervous when I first tried fermented food. There’s all sorts of things that after doing it a few times it becomes second nature. Canning isn’t a big deal. I can almost daily in summer. Sometimes I can as few as 4 pints a day, but everything is fresh and at its peak of usability. If you are new at canning: just go to the Ball/Kerr canning site for instructions and recipes.
Squash is usually a great crop for me, but it was in the bed that had my corn stalks when I got sick this year. I got 0 squash going this year, unfortunately. But it was a two week window where I was feeling pretty crummy and on antibiotics. That was enough time to screw up my planting. Honestly: A garden (and it’s harvest) really is a full time job. That’s why there’s a lot of older gardeners. They are probably retired and that’s what they do with the 40 hours (or more) that they used to spend at wherever they worked. But, this is actually a young person’s game. It’s a shame more younger people don’t run full time gardens. It takes strength and endurance to get things growing. If you are like me, and lucky enough to be a full time, stay at home mom: this should be your hobby! Bring your kids out with you, too. There’s no better way to learn a hobby than to work beside someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s how I learned, how my mom and my grandma’s learned, and that goes all the way back to when man first decided to plant their own crops.
Hand your littler kids a seed catalog and encourage them to fill out an order form with their favorite plants from the catalog (you could do this a couple of times a season. You don’t have to buy the seed, it’s the “dream” part that’s important.) It will get them interested in gardening. And yes, I started out rolling my eyes at my mom, too. Keep trying. Eventually you’ll get through to your kids and most likely they’ll garden as adults, just to remember the times they spent with you in yours!
Back to the harvest: Winter squash keeps forever, as is. I still have a giant butternut squash from last winter that I need to cut up and cook. Summer squash can also be used in pickles. My favorite use for summer squash is a recipe my mom learned in home ec in high school: Cube and cook a couple yellow summer squash and a cut up yellow onion, simmer in a couple of cups of chicken broth. When all of it is soft, put in blender or use a stick blender until puréed. Add cream or condensed milk, reheat. Add salt and pepper and 1/4 cup butter.
Zucchini is great: grated, frozen and added to everything… from soup to bread to spaghetti sauce. It’s a great way to get veggies into your or your family’s diet. It’s the sneaky veggie that disappears into whatever you have made with it.
Another thing that comes into season in the summer heat is basil. I stem and seed basil and whip it up in some olive oil. 9+ highly compacted cups will fill a single ice cube tray (if you are not adding tons of oil.) Once you have basil and olive oil paste from your blender or food processor, put it in an ice cube tray, freeze the tray, then pop out the cubes. Put the cubes into a large zip lock and return to the freezer. This way you can enjoy the fresh taste of basil year round in handy premeasured cubes. If you have any other types of herbs growing: using a dehydrator, microwave oven (per instructions for drying herbs) or you can freeze cubes (like the above use for basil) This can give you a major discount on your food bills by avoiding the extremely overpriced herbs and spices at the store. I tend to grow what I already use. If I want to try something radically new I’ll buy it at the store to see if it’s worth the garden space.
July is also when my fruit trees are bearing. Pear sauce (instead of apple), canned pears, pomegranate juice, figs and fig preserves, peaches and all of the delicious things you can do with those. Fruit is definitely the ultimate prize for patiently tending trees for 5 to 10 years. Don’t have mature trees yet? Pick up fruit from your local farmers market and can that. By the time your trees are bearing, you’ll know exactly how to put up your fruit.
My last tip is to avoid trying to make your own canning recipes. This is serious. Especially if you are new to canning. Use tested recipes for safety. You can grow botulism in improperly canned food and that stuff can be deadly. Stay safe by sticking with popular canning recipes that have been tested.
This is the bulk of what I grow in the high heat of summer and how I process it. Let me know if you have a favorite way to use your summer veggies that I haven’t covered.