I am a regular contributor to GIY’s Grow magazine, where I mostly write articles about my allotment, tips for your garden and how not to make enemies of local barmen by brandishing gardening tools at them. Read below for a copy of my article in 2016’s summer edition.
Glut Instinct: How To Make The Most Of your Harvest
As a gardener, I am fascinated by the movement of time and the cycle of the seasons. Each calendar year begins in the depths of winter, fingerless gloves and wellies as standard; and although the wasteland of muck is a veritable canvas in which to plant the seeds of autumn, I often feel that I will never make it to harvest season.
The vegetable garden calendar works differently to our standard calendar. Instead of a race to get from January to December, my garden cycles from early winter to late autumn. In the cycle of the seasons, autumn is the gold medal. Autumn is the gardener’s Christmas, the bountiful gifts of harvest all wrapped up in reds and golds.
The hot and heady hard-working days of watering and weeding are behind us as prevailing westerly winds herald in the beginning of the end of the garden year. As the grand stretch shortens and the days draw quicker to a close; while all others are lamenting the loss of Summer, gardeners rejoice. For the hard working gardener, where spring and summer are the long days in the office, autumn is the big fat pay cheque.
While we spend the summer months picking the quick crops, the salads and radishes and spring onions, autumn presents us with the big boys. The long growing crops, the squashes and pumpkins, the hearty root veggies, the potatoes, beetroot and parsnips, the onions, shallots and garlic. These are the crops we planted way back when in early spring and could only hope that by the time we harvested them, the year had provided us with plenty of sunshine, plenty of success and plenty of good health and happiness.
Autumn is glut season, as such, it is very easy to fall prey to the deadly sin of gluttony. It is common to find yourself overwhelmed by your crops and wasting them by storing them incorrectly or simply throwing them away. Trust me, I have been guilty of both of these crimes. There have been days when I have just picked a hundred potatoes, eighty onions and sixty beetroot and despite the incomparable joy of harvesting the fruits of my labour, the panic sets it. I find myself swollen with look-what-I-grew-pride, bowed with I’ve-no-idea-what-to-do-with-all-these-shame.
Herein lies the challenge of autumn, how do we avoid the deadly sin of gluttonously wasting our harvested vegetables?
For me, the first real sign of autumn is the onion harvest. The yellowing foliage of my onions in late July and early August is the first glint of autumn gold. Onions can be picked from mid summer as needed but in August, the bulbs stop growing and you need to harvest your full crop once the leaves begin to wilt. In simple terms, when your onion leaves fall, it’s time to pick them up. When you’ve lifted your onions, leave them out to dry in the sunshine for a few days but make sure you protect them from rain with a plastic sheet. I often put mine in the polytunnel. Curing onions is vital if you want them to store well, they need at least two to three weeks of drying. Don’t leave your onions in the direct sun for too long after harvesting, move them to a well ventilated place, a shed or garage is ideal. Spread them out on a wooden or wire rack and leave them to dry until the neck becomes firm and the skin is crispy.
Once your onions are fully dried, bring them indoors and store them in a mesh bag or a basket and they will keep for months. Most years, I’m still using my onions by the following spring. I often braid my onions and garlic and hang them in my shed to store them and bring them home as needed, this is a super space saver, plus, a bunch of braided onions provides a professional chef vibe in a kitchen, which often fools my friends into thinking I can cook. My family sadly, know the terrible truth.
Storing Root Vegetables
I’m going to tell you something pretty cool about root vegetables, you can simply leave them in the ground until you need them. Parsnips and celeriac in particular, store well in the soil and in fact, benefit from being hit by the first frosts of winter. This is especially handy if you don’t have much storage space at home. However, there are some problems with this, they can be nibbled on by slugs and bugs and if your soil is too wet, they could rot. If you are keeping your root vegetables in the ground over winter, ensure you cover the soil with a thick layer of straw or mulch to prevent too much damage.
If, like myself, you have a soil that gets saturated in winter, you can dig up your root vegetables and store them at home throughout winter. I’ve had nightmares about my lovely root veggies swimming around in muddy puddles in the garden and this isn’t quite what I had in mind when I wanted to grow celeriac soup. I have nightmares about my vegetables a lot actually, I may need to seek professional help.
Root vegetables store well in a cool, damp, dark environment. Root vegetables can shrivel up and lose moisture if stored incorrectly. A great way to avoid this is to use a sandbox. Get yourself a wooden crate and fill it with damp sand and layer your root veggies, completely covering them. Don’t wash your vegetables before you do this, just brush the muck off, you don’t want to draw out what moisture there is in the roots and wet food will rot far quicker than dry food. These root vegetables can touch in storage but don’t cram them all in together as the sand won’t have the desired effect. Completely cover the vegetables with the sand and they should store for a few months.
Freezing your Harvests
Many fruits and vegetables can be frozen for storage. French beans, broccoli, cauliflower, peas and carrots can all be frozen but avoid freezing vegetables with high water content like radishes, lettuces and cucumbers as they’ll just turn to mush. I’ve had mushy cucumbers, it’s not a good life experience. Keep in mind, freezing vegetables can diminish their nutrient value over time but I’d much rather freeze my harvests than see them go to waste. I would suggest blanching your veggies before freezing them, place them in boiling water for no more than two minutes then plunge them into freezing cold water. This helps to preserve the texture and nutrient value of you food when freezing. Place your vegetables in sealable freezer bags and label them with the date. Most vegetables will store for up to eight months in a freezer and most fruit for up to six.
Pickling your vegetables is a fun and tasty way to preserve and store them through winter.
Beetroot is one of my favourite vegetables to grow in my own garden as it is a prolific cropper and is amazing pickled. Most years, I have jars of beetroot right through until April the following year. Beetroot pickled at home is nothing like the overly acidic, vinegar-rich beetroot you buy in the supermarket. If done correctly, home-pickled beetroot is sweet, earthy and layered with flavour.
The most important ingredients for pickling vegetables are vinegar and sugar. Instead of using malt vinegar, experiment a bit, try red wine vinegar, cider vinegar or even balsamic vinegar. Beetroot pickled in balsamic vinegar with brown sugar, cinnamon and star anise has a bit of a mulled wine vibe and is lovely during the winter, not to mention its inherent christmas gift value.
Fiona’s Festive Beets
1kg Fresh Beetroot
300ml Balsamic Vinegar
100g Brown Sugar
100g Caster Sugar
1 Cinnamon Stick
1 Star Anise
2 Bay Leaves
Pickling beetroot is pretty simple to do at home, just prepare yourself for the absolute stench of vinegar in your house for about two days. As with any pickles, one of the most important things to do is to properly sterilise your jars to prevent the food from going bad. Get your hands on some good quality sealable jars and wash them in hot water then place in a pre-heated oven at 150 degrees celsius until they are completely dry.
Trim and wash your beetroot and boil until tender. Cool and remove the skin and cut beetroot into slices or small wedges, if you’re using baby beets, leave them whole.
Put your balsamic vinegar, sugar and spices into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Let this simmer for about ten minutes, then strain. Pack the beetroot into hot sterilised jars and pour over your vinegar/home made tear gas and seal your jars. I usually put the jars into boiling water for a few minutes to fully seal them. Spend about two hours trying not to get high on vinegar fumes, open windows, turn on extractor fan, incur the wrath of your housemates and family, flap arms about wildly, burn incense, blame the cat etc.
Nothing says “I grow my own food, feast your eyes upon my wonder” like giving someone a jar of homemade jam from your garden. 2016 has been a berry good year for fruit. With many of my other crops struggling this year, my berries were the star of the show, with my strawberry, gooseberry, blueberry and raspberry bushes all laden down with fruit. So, if you have lots of fruit, make like Bob Marley and get to jammin’
The most important thing to be aware of when making jam is the pectin content of the fruit. Pectin is a jelling agent that occurs naturally in fruits. Some fruits have high pectin content and some have low pectin content. Fruits with high pectin make better jams as they set easier, so it helps to mix low pectin fruit with high pectin fruit. Blackberry (low pectin) and Apple (high pectin) is the perfect Autumn jam as both these fruits are in season and balance each other really well.
Most people use jam sugar to make jam as it’s high in pectin but be aware that this sets your jam so if you want a runny jam, use granulated sugar instead. The general rule of thumb is to use about 60% sugar to 40% fruit. As with pickling, make sure your jars are sterilised and when you’re pouring your jam into the jars, ensure they are piping hot! Just mind your hands for burns, I’ve had a few incidents with burning my hands on jam jars (I refer you back to my above comments about my cooking abilities).
The trick with making jam is to make it as fast as you can. New movie franchise idea alert: The Fast and the Furious 9:Caught in a Jam. You need to warm your sugar in the oven for about ten minutes, adding cold sugar to your cooked fruit only slows down the process. Cook the fruit for about five minutes until the juice runs, then add the warm sugar and bring the pot to the boil, then let this cook for five minutes. Skim the film from the top of the jam then pour while it’s still piping hot into your jars. You can buy lovely jam labelling kits to label your jars and they really do make the best gifts. I tend to go a little overboaord at times but that’s half the fun.
All this aside however, the best advice I can give you about what to do with your harvest, is simply to enjoy it. You’ve planted the seeds, watered them, weeded them, cared for them like children and there is no greater feeling in the world than digging up potatoes or harvesting your onions. It is the reason vegetable gardeners do what we do, harvest is our raison d’être. The sight of onions drying in the sunshine, the smell of fresh food in the air, plunging a fork into the ground and unearthing twenty potatoes, munching on mucky carrots straight from the ground, these are the things that keep us going back for more. Autumn keeps us going through the lean months and compels us to go back to the garden and do it all again the following year. Display your harvests like trophies, wear your autumn gold with pride.
Fiona’s Festive Beets hits all good music stores this December. Featuring hits such as “Baby beets, cold outside” “Jingle Bell Peppers” & “Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow”.