What To Do With Your Autumn Produce and Herbs

September is here and for many of us our gardens are starting to wind down. Much of the main thrust of growing has happened and our annuals are starting to finish their life spans, and our perennials are showing signs of slowing down and having a nice winter nap.

Before we say good-bye to all the fabulous plants of summer and fall, in our gardens and in the wild, let’s take some time to harvest what we can dry or preserve or make into helpful medicines.

marigolds in basketHere are some suggestions for what to do with the late summer and autumn bounty of fruit, vegetables, and herbs:

(Note: I use an Excalibur dehydrator for dehydrating. I believe it is about the best one out there, and worth spending the money to get. If you dehydrate in the oven, it will be at a higher heat than a dehydrator, and will be faster and must be watched carefully.)

Tomatoes: Most people know what to do with extra tomatoes—make sauce! But did you know you can also throw them whole into the freezer and when you take them out, the skins will slip right off and you can make sauce with them when you feel like it? Did you know that you can slice them thinly and dehydrate the slices in a dehydrator or very low oven (no more than 175 degrees F.) and have your own sun-dried tomatoes all winter?

Kale and Similar Greens: If you have an abundance of kale, collards, beet greens, or other similar greens that you don’t want to leave in the garden, you can cook them up (chop it before or after cooking) and freeze it in portions to toss in soup during the winter. Or you can dehydrate then and keep them in a paper or plastic bag. Since I don’t have much freezer space, this is my favorite thing to do, as dehydrated fruits and veggies take up relatively little space.

Carrots: They can be sliced and dehydrated. Fabulous in winter dishes!

Apples: If the apples are in decent shape I leave the peels on and just core them, then slice them thinly and dehydrate. If in less good shape, I do peel them. Another great thing to do with apples is core and cut out any bad parts and cook them until very soft. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger and put in the blender for a fabulous apple sauce. Or cook further to make apple butter (for apple butter you may want to peel the apples first).

I rehydrate my dried apples and use them in desserts during the winter.

 Winter Squashes (Hubbard, Butternut, etc.): If you don’t have room to store your winter squashes, you can actually dehydrate them! I cut them in half, usually lengthwise, plp them cut side down on a cookie sheet—as many halves as possible on a sheet, and cook them at 350 degrees F. until a fork stuck in them goes in easily. When cool, I scoop out the seeds, which can be dried and eaten or composted, and scoop out the flesh. I use a blender or food processor to make a puree out of the squash, and them spread it thinly on baking sheets to dehydrate. The fewer the lumps, the more quicker the dehydrating. I then take the sheets of dried squash and store it in paper bags or glass jars. I love squash soup and squash pudding, so it gets used up quickly.

Herbs: Many herbs are very easy to cut near the ground, gather into small bundles, and hang to air dry. You can then strip the leaves off of the stems and keep the herbs in paper bags or glass jars (plastic is fine if you want to use it).
If you have any herbs whose roots you are drying, chop the roots up first and then spread them on a plate of wicker paper plate holder to dry. If you wait until the roots dry before doing any chopping you may find the roots too tough to cut.

 Basil, Oregano, Mints, Garden Sage, Thyme, Rosemary, Lemon Balm, etc.: Even if your basil, oregano, or mints have gone to bloom, you can still harvest, dry, and use them. Why? Because the flowers of all of them are edible, and are fine to use in your cooking or your teas. Drying any of your herbs and using them in your cooking will give you far more flavorful results than anything you buy already dried at the store. If you don’t grow your own, buy herbs at the farmers market to dry and use during the winter. You will be thrilled with yourself for doing so.

A note about Rosemary: If you live in zone 6 or colder in the United States and you hope your rosemary will stay alive outside over the winter, it won’t (though there are rare exceptions, you are probably not one of them). Unless you can bring it in and give it the right care to keep it alive, just cut all the branches off and dry them for fabulous rosemary seasoning all winter.

 A Pesto Note: You can also make pesto with your extra basil (include the flowers if they’re there, I always do) and freeze it in cubes or small quantities. You can add other herbs to your pesto if you like to change or enhance the flavors. I believe parsley is a good herb to include in your pesto, and one solution to the extra sitting in your garden.

Chives and Parsley: I am not a big parsley fan, and I use only my chives in the summer, so I haven’t tried preserving them. But from what I have read, both parsley and chives can lose most of their taste if just air-dried. Apparently, you are much better off chopping them up, spreading them in a single layer on a baking sheet, freezing in the freezer, and then putting them in a container in the freezer until you need them. You will get much more flavor this way. You can also use this method with other of your culinary herbs.

Roots of Dandelions, Burdock, etc.: If you want to harvest the roots of these edible/medicinal plants for medicinal use, wait until October at least. You want the plant to have started to die back so that the energy is going back into the roots for the winter. This will give you the most nutrients and constituents for health that you want for your medicines and health. Remember to chop them up before drying.

Evening Primrose Oenothera biennis

Evening Primrose–Oenothera biennis

Evening Primrose: This marvelous native plant gives us several wonderful foods in autumn and even winter, depending on the snow cover and how frozen the ground is. Most people are familiar with sight of the seed pods. Contained within the pods are many tiny little seeds that can be shelled out and used in your baking and soups. When you see how tiny the seeds are, you will understand why evening primrose oil is so expensive! In autumn and through into spring, the roots of the first-year plants are edible, with a sharp peppery taste that comes through even after cooking. The roots can be eaten raw or cooked into soups and stir-fries, or used in winter root veggie medleys. The rosettes of leaves that crown the first year roots are also edible, again with a peppery taste, and can be eaten raw mixed into salads or cooked into soups and stir-fries. I find them a bit too strong on their own, so I prefer to mix them with other greens or ingredients.

Wintering Over Tender Plants

Lemon verbena and geraniums in patio garden

Lemon verbena and geraniums to be wintered over.

Most of us have at least one or two tender perennials that we cannot bear to part with at the end of the summer. Some of us have practically a whole garden’s worth! Whichever it is, it’s good to know a simple, inexpensive way to get those plants through the winter, short of building a greenhouse.

A visit to a hardware store, like Ace, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, can supply you with all that you’ll need to set up a winter nursery in your basement or a corner of your living room or dining room. (Note that you can do a simple version of this if you have just 1 or 2 plants. Remember to place your plant on a very sunny windowsill or provide a small plant light for adequate light [plants get very unhappy with lack of light]. Also make sure you have adequate ventilation [some plants, like rosemary, are very unhappy and get sick if they don’t have enough air flow]).

What you’ll need:

  • A set of sturdy storage shelves
  • Shop light fixtures that plug in
  • Fluorescent plant lights, or fluorescent bulbs one warm, one cool, for each light fixture
  • Lightweight chain
  • “S” hooks
  • Plastic bags or sheeting
  • Outlet strip (optional)
  • Timer (optional)

After you have potted up any plants that are not already in pots, you will need someplace to set your plants.

Utility shelve
s are cheaper than specialty light benches, and are also available in a range of heights.

Make sure you get shelves that are designed for major poundage; I first got the cheap grey metal shop shelves, and they are definitely not up to the task of holding heavy plants.

You can also set up a table or bench, wooden skids on the basement floor, or (as one friend did) shelves attached to the wall above the kitchen sink or your toilet.

Just be sure there is access to an electrical outlet and somewhere to secure your light.

One of the advantages of using utility shelves that you put together yourself is that you can place the shelves at heights that work for your particular plants. I usually leave one shelf out to give me more space for taller plants.

If you have your plants on metal or composite shelves, or somewhere that will be affected by water seepage, line your shelves with plastic.

Also, you can find old plastic cafeteria trays or heavy-duty baking sheets to place under your plants.

You can fill spaces around plants with seashells, gravel/stones, or decorative marbles.


Shop lights usually come in 4-foot lengths, though you can find fixtures in other lengths as well. Plant bulbs (with the right light spectrum for plants) for fluorescent fixtures are available again in different lengths to fit your fixtures. They last a surprisingly long time. Mine have given me about three winters before needing to be replaced. One gardener I know suggests using 2 ordinary fluorescent bulbs, one warm and one cool, to give the same light spectrum and save on costs.

The simplest way to hang your lights is to use lightweight chain. Your light fixture will be hanging from the shelf above it, shining on the plants on the next shelf down.
Run a length of chain lengthwise over and along the shelf from which your light will hang (the chain will be covered by the plastic you put under your plants). Leave a tail of chain hanging down from each end of the shelf.

Use “S” hooks to attach your light to the chain, hanging it at whatever height you want. You can then easily adjust up or down, depending on your plants’ needs. The ends of your light fixture may extend beyond the ends of your shelves. This shouldn’t be a problem. If you have just one or two lights, it’s simple to plug them into an outlet or extension cord.
I find it easiest, however, especially with more light fixtures, to use an outlet strip.
I have attached my strip to the support leg of my shelves with duct tape.

Remembering to turn your lights on and off at regular intervals can be a challenge. If you’re like me, your plants can be subjected to a wildly lit night life and a very dark daytime. To give my plants a nice, steady light diet, I quickly started using a timer. I set it to run from 6:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., so my plants get about 16 hours of light a day. They seem to do well with this. I plug the outlet strip into the timer to regulate all the lights together.

What Plants Can You Winter Over?

There are many plants that will die in New England’s Zone 4 to 6 winter temperatures that can be cared for inside until the next warm season arrives. Here are a few of the plants that I have wintered over or seen being wintered over.

Geraniums/Pelargoniums–everyday geraniums and scented geraniums
Rosemary (the only way to get it through the winter in New England,     where winter temps will kill it otherwise)
African blue basil (this is a more sturdy basil, regular sweet basil isn’t         happy to come inside)
Lemon verbena
Bay tree
Myrtle (Myrtis communis)
Citrus trees

I used this method for many winters and found it to be simple and manageable. I hope you will, too.

Comment below and let me know how this worked for you, and if you had any problems or revelations. What will you be wintering over?


(This post was edited in September 2015.)

Flower Salad

I love using flowers and herbs in salads and cooking.

They give me an involvement with the dish I’m making that is different – more intimate, more interesting, more exciting.

Making salads in the summer involves a little routine.Nasturtium
I take the flat basket I use for gathering herbs and go into the backyard.
In late spring there are chive blossoms, violet flowers, dandelion flowers. In summer there are nasturtium blossoms and leaves, lemon gem and tangerine gem marigold flowers, chives, wood sorrel, violet leaves, and purslane. Chickweed grows where it’s shady and cool and is unobtrusive in salads.

And there are more weeds to eat, flourishing where I let them grow in my garden.
A few years ago I discovered the tasty pleasure of adding a few leaves of herbs like lemon balm, bee balm, thyme, and basil. And oh yes! the johnny jumpups! They don’t have a lot of taste, but the flowers sure are pretty in with the other colors in the salad.

I’m not always a big fan of salads, but adding in these flowers and herbs makes the salad more appealing and flavorful, so I eat it much more readily.


The Zen of Weeding

The Zen of Weeding

With all the gardening I’ve been doing this summer I’ve done a lot of weeding. I’ve started to think of weeding as a meditative activity. It can be tedious, tiring, boring. It can also give you contact with plants in ways you otherwise wouldn’t have.

I find that when I’m “in the zone”, just pulling out weeds (plants growing where they are not currently wanted) I don’t feel like there’s anything else I’d rather be doing. MugwortI am enjoying the feel of the plants and the earth. I love studying the plants and learning more about their structure and how they grow. It is really amazing to start pulling out a plant like mugwort (a common “weed” that is actually a sacred plant in some cultures and a very good women’s herb).

I pull out the part of mugwort that’s growing above ground and a bit of the root and I think I’ve got all of the plant, but then I pull out another one and find that it has a l-o-n-g root that goes running for several feet under the surface of the soil.

A yard or two away I find that the plants growing there are actually attached to the root that I am pulling here. Who knew mugwort had such a large, connected system of roots? It makes me think of the connectedness of all beings, a connection that is hidden to everyday sight.

When I pull out plants I can see close up how the leaves grow out of the stem, where the flowers attach, how the seed pods look.

Did you know that ragweed, that much-reviled plant (yes, I’m allergic to it) actually has beautiful leaves, and tiny little green flowers? There are separate male and female flowers, both on the same plant. The pollen gets blown by the wind to other plants so they can be pollinated and make seeds. It’s this wind-blown pollen that gets in our eyes and noses and makes us so miserable every August and September, and the pollen can travel for hundreds of miles on the wind.

I generally leave a few ragweed plants in my garden because I know I’ll be subjected to pollen from everywhere anyway.

The quiet connection with the plants that I feel when I am weeding is grounding and is its own sort of meditation. I say little prayers for the plants are going to the compost heap, as well as the plants that stay in the ground and continue to grow.

July 2002

10 Steps to a Container Garden

container garden1. Planning.

Look at where you will be placing your container(s) and note:
–how sunny or shady the area is
–how much rain it will receive (is it on a porch under a roof? on a roof top?    somewhere in the garden or by the sidewalk?)
–how windy is the location (wind can be very drying and make an enormous difference to your gardening efforts)

2. Decide on size, shape, material (plastic, resin, clay, ceramic, metal, wood), and number of containers.

3. Know your local climate and microclimate.

What USDA zone do you live in (climate)?
What are the conditions in your little corner of the world, city, apartment building (microclimate)?

The answers will influence your choice of plants and whether and which ones will winter over, come inside, or die with the frost (in colder areas).

4. Use good quality soil.

Use a container mix, which may have soil or be a soil-less mix.
Do not use potting soils that are full of chunks of wood and stones, or that harden when in the pot (experience will tell you!). They’re useless for good results and a waste of your money.
In the Northeast, a couple of good brands are Fafard’s and Coast of Maine.

You can also make up your own potting mix, and many people eventually do.

Don’t get soil out of your back yard or garden. It will turn to cement in your pot and have many weed seeds ready to sprout.

5. Decide what kind of plants you want to grow, and what sort of display you want.

–Do you want to be strictly ornamental?

Herbs in happy profusion in containers

Herbs in happy profusion in containers

–Grow herbs for your kitchen?
–Have an urban mini-farm on your porch?
–Just get a few tomatoes?

This will help you make your choices.

Make sure to consider the needs of your plants.
If you have a very sunny location, don’t use plants that need shade unless you can provide it.
If you have a shady locale, you will have poor results with sun-loving and needing plants.

How much will you be able to water? If you can’t keep up with the watering needs of your pots, then use plants that don’t need much water, or use self-watering pots (which still will require you to water sometimes, otherwise your plants will dry out – I know from experience!)

6. Time to plant!

If you use a really large container you can reduce the amount of soil you use and the overall weight of the container by using styrofoam peanuts placed in a bag (not loose – very messy) or put upside-down empty plastic containers at the bottom of your potting container.

Decide how to want to position your plants.

–Do you want only one plant or one kind of plant per container?
–Do you want several plants or kinds of plants per container?
–Do you want to use one large container and put several plants together or place several small containers together?

To plant: Place soil in the bottom of your container and fill about halfway.
Take your plant(s) out of the pot(s) it/they came in and pull apart the roots.
Spread them on top of and into the soil and continue to add soil to about 1” below the rim of the pot.

Follow directions for your plant for where on the plant the soil needs to sit.
Gently tamp down the soil.

7. Place your container where you want it to live.

You may want to move it around, or move around several containers until you get the best placement for beauty or catching the sun or shade.
Put your containers in place before you water!
They will be much easier to move, since they are much lighter then.
With large containers you may want to place them before you even fill with soil and plants.

8. Watering.

This is extremely important! Your plants are basically dependent on your for most of their needs!
Always water your plants after you have planted them. This gives them much needed water and also settles the soil.

Know the water requirements of what you have planted, whether the plants require a lot of water or little. You must keep up with watering or your plants will die. Conversely, some plants can drown with too much water, so be aware of their needs.

9. Feeding.

Believe it or not, your plants don’t generally get all their nutrients from the soil or potting medium, especially if you’re using a soil-less mix. You must provide them with nourishment.
Again, your plants are basically dependent on your for most of their needs.
Contrary to what many books and experts say, I like to feed my plants lightly when I plant them. I feel this gives them something to eat while they spread out their roots and settle in.
After this initial fertilizing, feed every couple weeks, or follow the directions on your plant food of choice.

Remember: If your plants are close together in your container, you must feed, and also water, them more often.

Beverly flowerbox10. Maintenance.

Besides watering and feeding, it’s important to keep your containers clean of dead and decaying matter.
This helps reduce the chance of disease and insect infestation.
You can also dead-head for longer bloom time. You may want to prune some plants, or pinch back riotous growth.

Watch out for pests and diseases. There are many organic and conventional solutions for these plant problems.
Remember that even pests are ‘ normal’, and just because you may see them on your plants doesn’t mean that you are a bad gardener!

And, lastly, have fun!