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.
Here 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: 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.