It’s that time of the year again. The end of August is upon us and, after watching the garden grow in agonizing slowness from seeds and seedlings in May, I am looking at our latest harvest on the kitchen table and asking, “What, oh what, were you thinking when you planted six 30’ rows of green beans, a 4’ x 6’ square of broccoli (and about the same amount of cauliflower) and six varieties of cucumbers (two plants each)? Who did you think you were feeding? The Third Infantry Division?!”

The problem is that I grew up in a large family. I’m the oldest of eight children, and all our gardens were big so that my parents could feed a family of ten. I just never learned to garden small.

Now, with my daughter in her own apartment and one son in college for nine months of the year, my husband, my seventeen-year-old son and I just can’t keep up with the garden’s bounty. Frankly, it wouldn’t be possible to eat all this produce fresh even if my husband and son were willing to abandon all meat in favor of a vegetarian diet for the next three months.

The chances of that happening are about the same as the odds of one of us being struck by lightning (576,000 to 1) or a meteor (700,000 to 1)!

So, what’s a chronic “over-planter” to do?

To begin, it helps to know when to pick your produce for the best flavor and ripeness. Check out the web site from Cornell University under my “Favorite Links” for a handout that describes when a wide range of fruits and vegetable are ready to pick, pull or pluck.

However, once you’ve harvested those peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, etc. at peak perfection, then what? We’ve already agreed that eating it all fresh ourselves is not practical, so the obvious answer is preserving part of our excess for winter eating.

Preserving food for later use can be done in several ways. The three most common methods are:

Freezing – If you don’t have a freezer, now may be the time to consider such a purchase. Newer models are energy-efficient and allow you to store small fruits (blueberries, raspberries and strawberries) and vegetables for later use in favorite family dishes.

Remember that, with the exception of fruit, any vegetables you freeze will need to be blanched (immersed briefly in boiling water or steam). According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, blanching “…stops enzyme actions which can cause loss of flavor, color and texture.” The National Center for Home Food Preservation web site (see my “Favorite Links”) is a wealth of information on a number of different food preservation techniques and well worth a visit.

Canning – If you’ve never canned fruits or vegetables before, start by helping an experienced friend, do some research and/or take a class on food preservation. There are several good books out there on the subject. My favorite is Stocking Up III by Rodale Press. It’s a great “how-to” reference on all types of food preservation including canning. To find out about available food preservation classes, contact your local county extension office (Bonner County – 263-8511, Kootenai County – 446-1680). Once you’ve got some canning know-how under your belt, you can make your own salsa, pickles, jams, jellies and pie fillings. The sky’s the limit!

Keep in mind that there are two basic types of canning: hot water bath canning and pressure canning. Hot water bath canning is appropriate for high acid fruits, vegetables and condiments like peaches, tomatoes and salsa. Pressure canning is required for the safe preservation of low acid foods like string beans, meat and tomato sauces that include ingredients like basil, garlic, etc. In addition, cooked jams and jellies and most pickles require a brief dip in a hot water bath canner to seal your jars.

Drying – You can buy a dehydrator, use your oven or take advantage of the heat of Indian summer to dry herbs, fruits and vegetables. When my three little darlings were younger, I made fruit leather in the fall because they loved it, I saved a lot of money over the store-bought kind, and I knew exactly what they were eating (fruit and nothing but the fruit!).

Lacto-fermentation is another tried and true method for preserving food, but it’s one I haven’t tried yet. My friends, Carolyn and Sheila, use this method to make sauerkraut, and Sheila makes lacto-fermented vegetable pickles of all kinds. With all the cauliflower I’m staring at, this may be the year that those little devils end up in a pickle crock! Check out the “Fermentation” section of the National Center for Home Food Preservation web site for more information on this technique.

Of course, you don’t have to preserve all of the harvest for your own use. You can share your excess with our local ABC Food Bank and give the less fortunate in our community a chance to enjoy some fresh produce on the table. For information on how to donate produce to the ABC Food Bank, call the Athol City Clerk at 683-2101.

I have to get busy pickling cauliflower this morning, but, before I go, let me offer you a tasty solution to excess basil. Remember how I described my usual habit of killing multiple successions of basil plants providing one of our local greenhouses with her primary profit margin for the year? Well, all those basil plants that usually die on me didn’t this year (heavy sigh). So, I’ll be using this recipe to turn my excess basil into a gourmet treat – pesto! Check out the Fresh Basil Pesto recipe (under “Favorite Links”). I have had excellent results freezing this pesto in half pint jars to give as gifts or to savor over pasta when the winter winds blow.

And that’s the whole point of food preservation, isn’t it? To save a little taste of summer for the cold, dark days of winter ahead.