The bountiful summer harvest is finally here, which means you’ll soon be overwhelmed with tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and other prolific crops. While it’s always exciting to pick the first squash of the season, a few weeks of constant picking can start to drive you a little crazy, especially when you realize you’re running out of storage space. After a while, you find yourself giving away baskets of garden goodies just to put a dent in the backlog, or worse, you accidentally let a lot of fresh produce go bad.

What does one do to save all their summer yields? Well, you might want to try creating a produce preservation plan. Knowing what to do with your harvest before it arrives will help you make the most of your gardening skills and significantly cut back on food waste. For many people, the planning process sounds more complex than it actually is. In reality, it only requires the creation of a simple roadmap, which you can reference later on when you're wondering how to use the produce and herbs you've picked throughout the summer. With a solid plan of attack at your disposal, you'll never feel swamped with cucumbers and can enjoy the products of your hard work long after the summer has ended. Wondering how to get started? Look no further.

Think About What You Eat Throughout the Year

dried herbs

Chances are, the garden varieties you’ve planted are either personal or family favorites. While fresh tomatoes and lettuce are easily accessible throughout the summer, they start becoming quite scarce in the wintertime. With a good preservation plan, you'll be able to enjoy “fresh” foods like these for three additional seasons, until the start of next summer. Before breaking out the canning jars or the dehydrator, think about the things your family is going to eat the most of throughout the year. If spaghetti dinners are a common meal in your home, then drying your herbs and canning some tomato sauce will be the best ways to utilize your summer surpluses. If someone in your home can’t stay away from pickles, you'll already know how to use up all those extra cucumbers.

Consider What Preservation Methods Are Available To You

canned produce

If you’re already an experienced home canner, you know that the garden is your oyster when it comes to filling your pantry with freshly preserved foods. Of course, canning isn’t the only way to save your summer harvest for seasons to come, and it can be an especially difficult preservation method if you're new to it. Whether you’re interested in canning, dehydrating, or freezing, your preferred technique is going to factor into the creation of your plan. Be realistic about your abilities, the materials available to you, and the amount of time that each process will require.

Once you've considered all of your options, you'll want to start using these preservation methods alongside those earlier ideas regarding your family's eating habits. For instance, if you're a skilled canner and your family enjoys relishes, you'll definitely have the option of making some of your own out of your extra peppers and cucumbers. Even if you aren't so skilled, you should never be afraid to try your hand at something you've never done before. With a great teacher, course, or book at your disposal, you’ll be well on your way to mastering a skill that will save you a lot of produce in the long run.

Having a definitive plan in place before the season gets into full swing will give you ample time to gather any preservation materials you might be lacking. You’ll be one step ahead of the game and ready to start storing some fresh food just as your produce begins to ripen.

Create a Harvest Schedule

creating a harvest schedule

Thanks to the handy "days to maturity" estimates printed on the back of seed packets and plant tags, most gardeners now have a general idea of when they'll need to harvest their fruits and vegetables. For an added heads-up, you'll want to jot these approximate ripening dates down using a calendar, an online spreadsheet, or just regular old pen and paper. A harvest schedule will not only remind you of when to expect produce but can also be used to harvest crops in their peak condition. Just like a chore chart, a gardening guide will tell you when things are ripening on a weekly basis, which can help you pick lettuce before it bitters in the heat or prepare for a busy week of freezing and canning mature produce.

Ultimately, your harvest schedule's level of detail is up to you. While some gardeners prefer to have a thorough, week-by-week guide that outlines specific tasks, others may choose to only take note of their crops' days to maturity estimates. Whatever you decide to include, it's always a good idea to keep track of the days on which you pick or preserve crops, as well as their condition and quantity on each occasion. You'll find all of this information extremely useful when deciding on what to plant in your garden next year. If you keep a harvest schedule for several years, you can even gain a better understanding of how particular varieties respond to your region’s climate.

Know When Your Pantry is Full

gifting a produce basket

Produce preservation can be a lot of work, but it’s worth having the taste of summer at your disposal all year long. Nonetheless, a prolific garden can fill your pantry up before you know it. To avoid having too many crops on your hands, you'll want to decide what to do with the surplus when forming your plan. What could be better than sharing the bounty with friends, neighbors, and community food banks? Sharing your harvest isn't just friendly — it keeps you from preserving a lot of food that you wouldn't otherwise be able to eat in the appropriate amount of time.

Alternatively, you could consider swapping produce with other gardeners. If you're a green-thumb squash grower and your neighbor excels at pepper picking, why not trade specialties with each other? You'll finally be relieved of all the extra zucchini you had, and you’ll get to enjoy fresh food that comes from somewhere other than a supermarket. Isn’t that one of the biggest perks of vegetable gardening anyway?