Wasting a Harvest

For avid vegetable gardeners, bringing in the harvest is the highlight of the season. It’s the culmination of effective planning, hard work, and a series of inevitable, unexpected setbacks that must be overcome. The colors, tastes, and textures of fresh fruit and vegetables are unrivaled by pale and pasty retail offerings and a successful harvest helps to accent those differences.

I am certainly a gardener who strives toward a good harvest and revels in botanical successes, even the small ones. You see my photos and read my stories as I share the accomplishments. Regretfully, painfully, I also share the failures.

Gardening failures encompass many subject areas and are often quite personal. One gardener’s brilliant, blooming rose is another’s failed experimental hybrid. A perceived poor harvest in one garden may far exceed the results in a neighbor’s plot. It’s all relative. For me, today, the failure comes not in the actual harvest but in how it was used, or rather how it wasn’t.

Beets were the most successful crop in my garden last summer. They exceeded all my expectations and I harvested many, many pounds. I documented some of that success in my article “How to Pickle Beets” (Aug. 27, 2011). I’m a food preserver and pickling is one of many ways I save the harvest for later use.

This year, the first I grew beets, I saved many of them after the harvest with the intent of eating beets through the winter. Roasted beets, boiled beets, baked beets, and fried beets. I’ve never really eaten beets before, but now I had the opportunity to try them in every incarnation.

Beets for storage

I painstakingly layered the purple bulbs in alternating rows on straw and stored them in a cool, dark spot in my garage. And forgot about them.

Sure, every now and then, late at night, I’d have a passing thought about the beets and how I needed to add a few to our diet. Those thoughts would be resurrected occasionally in similar circumstances, always at a time or place when actually retrieving a few beets was impractical. Beets never seemed to enter my thought process when I was standing in the kitchen staring into the refrigerator trying to conjure up ideas for dinner.

Last week as I was carrying in logs for the woodstove, stumbling around the cardboard box for the umpteenth time, it was finally time to deal with the beets.

Beets should be stored in cool, humid conditions. My garage supplied the cool part easily, but there are few locations in Colorado that remotely venture into a humid environment. I knew that when I laid the beets on the moist straw back in September, but proceeded nonetheless. Even in ideal conditions beets are only expected to store well for two to five months and I was certainly at the back end of that range when I finally took action.

As you’ve probably guessed, they were no longer usable. I peered into the box to see the little cadavers appearing to be laid out for a mass burial. They gave their lives for a cause that in the end was wasted. An unceremonial dumping on the compost pile punctuated the failed experiment.

I was only marginally more successful, or less of a failure, in my use of parsnips. Parsnips can overwinter fairly well in many gardens and I left many in the bed to see how they’ll do in my location; we’ll know when the ground thaws. I harvested a good sampling of big healthy roots, washed them, and stored them in a plastic bag in the produce drawer of the refrigerator.

Parsnips at harvest

Stored like that they should last about two weeks. Within a couple days I used one nice firm parsnip in a blend with potatoes for dinner. Three months later the rest were still resting at the bottom of the drawer staring up at me every time I stood with the refrigerator door open contemplating the evening’s menu. They ended up in the compost pile too.

I always feel a pang of guilt when the compost pile grows at the expense of potentially beneficial produce that I failed to use appropriately. There are people who could have benefited from a donation or contribution of my harvest. I had sincere intentions when planning storage for my own use, but realistically, and in hindsight, giving away my gardening success would have been a better solution.

Growing a garden is only part of the journey. Harvesting should be part of the plan too. If you do as good a job with your garden as you hope, what will you do when you succeed? Many gardeners plant and grow much more than they can possible use for themselves. I strongly advocate food preservation for much of the excess. Pickling, freezing, drying, and canning can all provide food for months after the harvest. But if you don’t plan on preserving or if you have leftovers after preserving, try to avoid waste.

Let someone else enjoy fresh produce. A neighbor, a friend, a stranger, a food bank. Every community has people who need healthy additions to their diets. You can make a difference.

Those of us who act selfishly often err in those actions. We want the best for ourselves. By saving the good stuff for our personal use, some times no one enjoys anything. I like to think that I learned a valuable lesson with the loss of my beets and parsnips.

This year donating a portion of my harvest is part of my garden planning. I suggest other gardeners who aren’t already sharing their bounty consider the same. Let’s hope that next year we have fewer stories of failure to share.

Read “How to Pickle Beets.”


2 responses to this post.

  1. I really like this post. You’re so right to say, “We want the best for ourselves. By saving the good stuff for our personal use, some times no one enjoys anything.” I think gardening really does teach generosity, because it becomes a question of practicality. If you’re not going to let things go to waste, you HAVE to give them away! Thanks for writing about this.


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