Garden Salvage

Sharon October 14th, 2009

In her superb book _This Organic Life_ writer Joan Dye Gussow talks about making do with flood damaged produce – and why she doesn’t just go out and buy fresh, perfect stuff. 

“We harvested 37 pounds of onions, but despite my best efforts, some of them cured with soft spots where mold had gotten underneath the outer layers and would work its sway through the whole onion if we didn’t stop it.  So we had to cut up many onions and freeze teh good parts – or cook them.  All of which accounts for the fact that a year and a half after we arrived in Piermont, I found myself one morning cutting up a half-rotten onion to salvage, and realized that a year earlier ?I would have thrown the whole thing away.” Gussow, 103


“The lesson I take away from the realization that our crops will sometimes be drowned is not that those of us who live in the colder states can’t be relatively self-reliant; we can.  And although Alan and I would have been wise to choose higher ground, I’ve seen no sensible agricultural scenario that suggests that anything can be done to insulate food production from the vagaries of nature.  If we wish to feed ourselves from our own regions, and allow others to do the same, we will need to try and adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature will provide in a given year.  We need accept the fact that in some years we won’t have al the potatoes and onions we want.  On the other hand, we will sometimes have more raspberries than we can eat, and the crops that succeed will be both safe and tasty.” Gussow, 107-108

Yesterday, I was reminded of this passage as I set myself to salvaging food from my garden.  In my case, it was my sunflowers and dry corn.  I’d noticed that blue jays after my sunflowers, but hadn’t seen that they’d gotten to the corn, too.  The sunflower damage seemed minimal when I checked a few days, so I optimistically elected to leave the sunflowers up a few more days, until our expected first hard frost down in the insulated lower garden.  This was a mistake, big time – yesterday, after our frost, I went out to gather the heads, only to find that most of them were very nearly empty.

Now this was non-trivial because those sunflowers are one of the ways I’m trying to minimize my dependence on the feed store and purchased grains – my chickens and turkeys will happily empty a head in a few minutes flat, and each seed reduces my grain costs.  The corn is an even bigger issue – this was food for us, a sweet grinding corn I love – there is no comparison with the bland cornmeal corns available most places.  Fortunately, the jays didn’t get the majority of the corn – but I was still out there, pulling any ear that had even a short row of kernels around it.

Ours was a tough garden year – we had over 20 inches of rain alone in June – you can tell the history of the year by my garden – I have two long areas that were planted in the lower garden after the beginning of July – these areas are flourishing. Everything else…well… there was a lot of salvage this year.  It doesn’t matter – we still cut the bird pecks out of the tomatoes, break off the slug damaged bush beans, eat the stunted vegetables, dehydrate potatoes or sweet potatoes too wet to store well.  It is food, and you don’t just waste it.

And this, I think, is a mindset that is worth getting into early on.  It would be easy to say “oh, it was a terrible crop, why bother.”  Or perhaps to say that the birds can have the last of the sunflower heads – after all, they are, we are told in the Torah, entitled to a share of the grain as well.  Fair enough, but now they’ve had their share, and I’m taking mine.  Even if it is imperfect.  Even if it wasn’t what I dreamed of.

The ability to make something of vegetables caught by frost, flooded, stunted by drought, partially eaten by some creature is one of our gifts – food preservation methods can mean that something that would otherwise have been lost can be saved – onions that won’t store well can be dehydrated or frozen, as Gussow points out.  Or new recipes arise for green tomato pickles, the outer leaves of cabbage and green pumpkin pie.  It is food, and you don’t waste it.

Today, in front of the woodstove, my children and I will draw back the husks of our corn, and hang it up to dry further in the house.  Most of the ears are full, some are not, but we will save what we can – because it is our food.  When we committed to growing it, we committed to this – that we will regard our food as primary.  I’ve no sorrow in buying to replace a lost crop, or to expand upon our gardens – that is normal and natural.  But if I grow it, and I possibly can, I will eat what I grow before I rely on other sources. 

It is hard to believe how differently people who live through food scarcity regard food – in some cultures, to tread on a piece of dropped bread is a sin, and a deep one.  In Elizabeth Erlich’s superb memoir of Jewish food, and of learning from her Holocaust survivor mother in law, she observes her mother using her thumb to ensure that every drop of egg white was removed from a shell, and when she enquires, her mother in law observes that her own father died of starvation – how could she ever waste food.

We are told that the only good and safe and healthy food is perfect – we are lied to and told that perfect looking is better for us, even if it has been doused with chemicals.  Up to 20% of all produce in the US is discarded and wasted simply because of cosmetic imperfections.  We thus lose the old habits of thrift and care, and the value that says “this is food, we do not let it go to waste.”

I don’t want to lose that. Asher came out with me to pick the corn, in a cold drizzle.  We picked the little ears and put them in bushel baskets.  We picked the big ones. He helped me spot the last few, and when he said “are we all done?” we didn’t stop until we were sure.  Not because I don’t want to feed the jays – but because it is food, and if I choose to feed the birds, it will be consciously, with intention, not because I let food, good food, go to waste.


18 Responses to “Garden Salvage”

  1. Susan in NJ says:

    Having spent a lot of time recently salvaging bits and pieces of tomatoes this year, I definitely hear you on this one.

  2. Ann says:

    I used to eat everything I could find in the garden, but I don’t anymore. What is left in goes to the “spirits” [soil organisms] Halloween night, and what comes inside and doesn’t get used is composted. We have a huge garden, so we can afford, at the moment anyway, to be generous to the wild folk and soil organisms. We plant the previous years vegetable garden with buckwheat to replenish the soil, choke weeds and feed birds. We compost all of our kitchen waste [just bury bones and meat scraps very very deeply] and animal bedding. We grow sunflowers specifically for the migrant birds, as well as cosmos. Goldfinches love the chicory flowers, so we just take what we need fresh of their leaves. There will be new leaves for us next spring when we’re really hungry for them. Feed that we buy contains nutrients transfered to our soil, as does ash from the woodstove. Everything we have does get eaten by someone hungry, even if it is “just” a worm. We’ve taken so much from the wild folk I believe I owe them something. I love them very much. We’re all family here.

  3. Mary says:

    The most tasty tomatoes were cracked and scarred from the rains this summer. We roast every last tomato not eaten fresh and freeze them for later. We ate everything we could out of our garden this year. I am very lucky to have a second growing season just beginning here in Florida.

    Dirt and seeds are amazing. All that power packed into the tiniest of seeds!!

  4. cecelia says:

    I too don’t mind sharing my crop with the wild folk – and after years
    of gardening have come to accept the vagaries of crop yields

    This year though was a stinker – too cold for the hot weather crops to do much
    and too rainy and hail which ruined apples, pears and peaches ( knocked the buds
    right off). Got me to thinking bout what would happen if I
    had to rely on what we grow to feed us. We’d starve this year.

    The other thing that really hit me this year is how important
    the ability to predict weather is – if I had known we would
    have this sort of summer – I would have planted differently and had
    a more successful year. Climate change creates unpredictable
    weather patterns – bad news for the future

    Never the less, we had a great tasty chicken soup last night made
    with stuff we grew (well – someone else grew the chicken).
    Besides tasting good – it is so satisfying to make a meal with
    stuff we grew.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I glean apples every year and am thankful to get them from neighborhood trees. They fall off and land by the curb sides and rot otherwise.
    I have to cut off the worm holes and bruise, but they are fine and taste better than store bought. I am sad when they are gone for the season.
    Free wild food and grow your own is a great way to supplement your food bill.

  6. MEA says:

    Last night I made soup with the last of the chicken stock (which had been frozen) from the High Holidays, walking onions from the garden, and a hen of then woods from a neighbors oak tree. Also soup from pumpkins salvaged either from other people’s decorations or the soup kitchen’s table decorations (also frozen last year), more onions, 3 very dried garlic cloves harvest goodness knows when, and some bottled apple sauce from a friend’s windfalls.

    I felt like I was using the last scraps well. The soup in now in salvages plastic icing container in the freezer part of the fridge at work — lunches for weeks to come.

    I’ve frozen what seem like tonnes of insect chewed greens this summer–and if the insects inadvertently come along, well it’s all extra protein.

    Truth to tell, if I had to use only the perfect produce from my garden, it would be pretty slim pickings.

    However, our society’s horror of less than perfect food has given me hope that we may be able to feed a few more people if we are willing to salvage the brused apple, the cat faced tomato, lalalalal

  7. Maya says:

    The cardinals ate all my grapes and had a wonderful time with the blueberries. The blackberries are scant this year after last years bumper crop. I let the birds eat what grew.

    The only thing annoying was the raccoons taking all the ripe melons. I put cages over the remaining few, but the little beasties managed to claw the rinds tying to get the melons out of the cages. They had to be thrown away. Our raccoons carry rabies here in the south, and I won’t chance any contamination, even on the surface of the rind. At least they dislike collards, kale and cabbage so my winter crops will grow “unmolested.”

    All in all though, we had a great year despite the heavy rains.

  8. NM says:

    At the moment, the only reason I grow sunflowers is for the pollinators, and the fun of watching the birds turn upside down to eat the seeds. But someday, I’d love to try pressing our own oil, and if/when we have poultry, then I’ll need to come up with seeds and grains I can grow to feed them. At which point, I’ll have to figure out how to fight the birds; it’s amazing how fast they can empty a sunflower seed head!
    Good reminders about the importance of not wasting food. This season always brings out my inner squirrel; I have the urge to put away as much food as possible. It clashes with my inner couch potato, loudly shouting, ‘damn it, I’ve been doing this all summer and I’m tired now!’ The couch potato must not win, however, because my kitchen is still filled with tomatoes and eggplants and peppers and grapes … oh my … and then there are the quinces a friend has promised …

  9. Stephanie says:

    I wish we could salvage imperfect produce here. The garden such as it is was a total loss (ok, perhaps not a total loss as we did get one tomato and two raspberries) this year due to rain, flooding and deer. We were given a ton of late season berries and stone fruit so we have been eating it every day and it is nearly gone. My stepson is getting very tired of this for school snacks and was asking why we are still eating it instead of buying other fruit- I responded that we are very lucky to have fresh food to eat and we do not waste food. He was still grumbling and I also explained that lots of people do not have enough food and one of my friends who he has met got to watch her most of her family starve to death during an Afgan winter when she was six because there was no food at all.
    He is now eating the fruit without complaining and explaining to his one year old sister that she should not leave a trail of cereal on the floor because it is a waste. We are also starting to plan next year’s garden and letting him pick a few things to plant.

  10. Emily says:

    I’m about halfway there. I found myself cutting up a cauliflower last night, which i eventually just composted. I found myself thinking, “If I were short on food, I’d pick this apart and get the last edible bits. But tonight, I’m just too tired, and I’m not going to starve without it, so I’m letting it go.”

    Every year, the amount I’m willing to work to save increases and the amount I’m willing to pitch decreases.

  11. Brad K. says:


    Part of the allure of grocery store food, back when nationally distributed fresh vegetables became the norm (1950s an 1960s), was that everyone could bring home “perfect” tomatoes, pickles, lettuce, etc.

    So now we have a couple-three generations used to thinking blemishes mean the product is damaged and unsafe – instead of suffering a mere inconsequential cosmetic defect.

    Learning again about the difference between unsafe and blemished is an important part of realigning expectations. If you haven’t run short of money and food before the end of the month, or haven’t done so a couple months running, you may not have had reason to consider that there are other realities besides the grocery store veggie aisle.

    It may not help when Miracle Gro commercials teach everyone that a *real* gardener uses Miracle Gro commercial fertilizer, and *real* gardeners always get big and beautiful garden results. Just like farming, barring insects, vagaries of weather, poor luck at picking the right part of the season to plant and harvest – why, you always get a bumper crop! Kind of like Lake Woebegone, where all the kids are above average, a *real* gardener always gets great produce.

    There are lots of reinforcements for thinking only the best will do, and that store ‘X’ has the best. Or only this garden fertilizer/pest control/garden tool will result in useful produce. (The important part of garden tools, is to use what you have, use it well, and use it often! Usually.)

    As you say, part of the skill and craftsmanship of gardening is judging the quality of your produce, and estimating the preservation process or use that is most appropriate for that produce in that condition, at that time.

    But I still hate it when I bite into an apple, and find half the worm flopping about. Or crack a pecan to find a white grub wallowing around.

  12. I totally “get” this post. My little square foot garden boxes struggled this summer with so much rain in the Northeast. My butternut squashes only produced four fruits . . . and two of them had slug bites in them. I was happy to cut them up and throw them in a veggie stew. Same thing with the pie pumpkins. I pulled my tomato plants up yesterday in anticipation of snow (!!) and hung them over an old futon frame in the cellar in hopes they will continue to ripen. My parents gave me a paper sack of their tiny, tiny potatoes–all the rain stunted the growth I guess, but I’m happy to have them. Yes, in harder times, this would be a lean year indeed. We’d be happy for everything we could salvage.

  13. Claire says:

    It looks like tomorrow I will go to the basement and pull all the husks off the popcorn ears I am leaving there to dry. Your post reminded me that they will probably dry better and faster if I husk them. Today I bit into a kernel and it was very soft, clearly nowhere near ready. I’ve lost corn before by putting it in storage containers before it dried. No way to salvage it once the whole container is full of mold, at least no way I know about.

    I used to waste more food before I started growing it. Now, I know full well how much effort goes into growing good food, on my part or someone else’s. Not only do I get all the possible food value out of the produce I grow (we cut around the bad spots and eat the good parts, we eat the potatoes I cut while harvesting first, and so on), but I eat every bit of food that I take, and it is a point of honor with me and my DH to not let anything into the fridge go uneaten so long that it spoils. He was always like that, having grown up in a family that had little extra money. I have learned to be like that.

    I have plenty of food for the critters too, because I have native flowers that I let go to seed, berries just for them, and plenty of grasses to make seed. So I work hard to keep them out of the small space of the veggie garden. The birds got my sunflowers, too; all I could rescue was a small part of one head. On the other hand, the hull-less pumpkins did pretty good this year. I think for me, hull-less pumpkins make a better crop for our seed-eating pleasure than sunflowers do. Part of garden wisdom is to figure out what works best given our very particular conditions. Next year I’ll expand the pumpkin patch. I’ll probably grow sunflowers just because I enjoy them, not as a crop to eat.

    I’m still hoping that eventually I’ll have enough hazelnuts that the squirrels will leave me a few … but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve yet to come up with a successful squirrel defense, unless it’s growing so much that they can’t eat it all. (No, I don’t believe it either. But I’m going to keep trying to find a nut crop I can grow.)

  14. Yvonne Rowse says:

    What is Elizabeth Ehrich’s book called? I looked on (UK) Amazon and there was no author of this name.

  15. Sharon says:

    It’s Erlich, not Ehrich and the book title is _Miriam’s Kitchen_.

    BTW, I should clarify that I’m not opposed in any way to feeding the birds or other wildlife. But I also know that is do the generous quantities of food allotted to me now.


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