Friday, September 6, 2013

Managing the Harvest

There's a post up at one of my frequently-visited news sites, Resilience.Org, about the frustrations of a gardener who can find plenty of information about sustainable (and small/urban) farming, but not all that much to help him in sustainable gardening.

The article by Erik Curran, "Sustainable Farming Mania is Frustrating Me," was originally published at Transition Voice.

He points out that there is a lot of information available right now (for example) about  the usefulness on small farms of including animals in the loop, which, as a suburban gardener, he just can't manage. As for many of the rest of us, keeping chickens and other livestock is not legal where he lives. This isn't the only sustainable-farming method/tool that doesn't apply to his little garden, but it's one he mentions.

A second, huge issue seems to be about handling the super-abundance of tomatoes (and other vegetables) that won't wait until he actually has the time to process them into a storage-able form. As someone who has spent time canning innumerable tomatoes in years past, I can sympathize. When we lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we brought in tomatoes by the 5-gallon-bucketful (Every day! Day after day...). Over time, I've learned to plant fewer tomato plants.

Besides learning to "just say no" to too many tomato plants, part of the answer to managing the harvest at our house has been the use of a dehydrator. Canning take a lot of time and our full attention, but we can slice tomatoes, dice peppers, and cut up other fruits and veggies while watching something on Netflix ("Star Trek" episodes, Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl," BBC's "Rosemary & Thyme"), let it dry in the dehydrator overnight, then store the dried produce in canning jars until we need it. This time of year, the dehydrator is "on" several nights each week.

Another part of the answer has been to plant some crops that don't need a lot of special processing for storage. This strategy saves a lot of time. Winter squash, onions, potatoes, garlic, shallots, sweet potatoes, and the kinds of corn that are stored dry -- the ones that are for popping, parching, or grinding into flour -- are stored pretty much "as is." No chopping or blanching is required. Cowpeas and other beans need minimal processing; they can be shelled when dry, left for a few days in a thin layer on something like cookie sheets to make sure they are Really Dry, then stored in canning jars like the other dried veggies.

Another part of the answer at our house has been to stagger the planting of big producers like tomatoes so that we are not overwhelmed. The former mountains of ripe tomatoes have become more manageable hills that appear sporadically all the way to the first frost. Right now in my yard, we are in a bit of a lull with regard to tomatoes, but there are two plants of paste-type tomatoes (Wuhib), planted in June, that currently are loaded with green fruits that will begin ripening soon. I've pulled up most of the earliest-planted tomatoes that had slowed in production due to disease issues (the Amish tomatoes are still in the ground and producing, and a late-planted cherry tomato is just now kicking in).

Managing the planting with the end in mind is hardest for new gardeners who haven't yet experienced how much food a tomato plant or a short row of pole beans can produce. Hopefully, the demanding piles of fresh food won't deter new gardeners from trying again in following years, with slight alterations in the mix and timing of the planting.

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