For gardeners, late summer and early fall are the seasons of peak abundance. Everything from tomatoes to winter squash are ready to be harvested, processed and put up for the winter. It is, in short, a time of chaos when a garden’s demands can become unreasonable. It’s easy to see why agricultural families tended to be so large.
One of my favorite strategies for dealing with the demands of the harvest is to have friends over to help with all the processing. Inviting someone to spend an afternoon weeding is a big ask, but hosting friends for dinner and spending some time afterwards sorting garlic or stringing up peppers is a good time. If your friends are also gardeners, they’ll understand your need. And if they’re not, they’ll be sure to enjoy the novel experience of interacting with their food in a hands-on way. Here are four main harvest activities your friends can help out with this season, or you can kindly volunteer to do for your gardening peers.
If you’re like me and always wind up with an overabundance of hot peppers, this is a great job to get your friends to lend a hand with. In my experience, hot peppers explode with productivity late in the season. I go from harvesting a few here and there to hauling away basket after basket in September.
Although there are numerous ways to preserve hot peppers, drying is my personal go-to. Freezing is undoubtedly easier (it’s almost too easy), but I always find myself unexcited about cooking with thawed peppers. In my experience dried peppers are much more versatile. I typically remove the seeds (making sure to wear gloves) and add them whole to flavor stocks or broths, making sure they get fully re-hydrated. If I plan on making a hot sauce or a romesco I’ll soak them in a bowl of water to rehydrate them before processing them with the other ingredients. Finally, if I have a real surplus of dried peppers, I’ll chop them up to make my own dried pepper flakes. I recommend chopping your peppers by hand since using a food processor will create a red-pepper dust that’s deadly to inhale. Trust me.
A week or so before you plan to host your friends, begin to store your hot pepper harvests in the fridge, keeping individual varieties separate. Peppers won’t last indefinitely in there, but about a week should be fine. Just make sure that you’re checking and rotating them so that the ones on the bottom don’t get crushed. After saving up for a while, you should have a sizable pile of each of the varieties you’re going to dry.
There are numerous ways to string up your peppers for drying, but I usually opt for one of the simplest methods. Begin by washing all the peppers you plan to dry, setting aside any with bruises for the compost pile or immediate use in another project. Dry the peppers thoroughly and cut a slit in the side of each one. Then, cut a piece of string several feet long and thread one end with a needle. Tie the other end of the string around the stem of a pepper, using a knot that you feel confident in. After that, it’s simply a matter of threading the needle through the stems of as many peppers as you want on the string. I usually go for around a dozen. Once the string is full, orient the peppers so that their flesh is touching as little as possible. Better airflow around the peppers will help ensure that they dry instead of rot. (Refer to these guidelines from the University of California for food safety considerations when drying peppers: https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8004.pdf.) Your peppers should be dried fully after 3 to 4 weeks, depending on your local humidity and microclimate.
In terms of preparation, all you need is a bunch of peppers, a few needles and some string. I recommend putting everyone to work once dinner is over and you’re gathered around a table or a fire outside.
Processing garlic for next year’s seed crop is another one of my favorite activities to share with friends. Partially because it genuinely is helpful to have a few additional sets of hands, but also because people tend to really enjoy it. And, in my experience, most non-gardeners don’t have any idea how garlic is grown and are fascinated to learn that the process is (almost) as simple as sticking a clove of garlic in the ground.
To process garlic for fall planting, you first need to have this year’s garlic crop harvested and fully cured. If you’re preparing to plant garlic in your garden for the first time, the work-around is to go to your local farmers market to buy your seed crop. Or, ask your favorite farmer at the market if she has any of her own seed garlic that she’ll sell you. (She’ll have to really like you to say yes, though. Most farmers are reluctant to part with their seed garlic).
With a group of friends, begin by sorting all of your garlic bulbs into three categories, being careful to keep individual varieties separate. The best looking heads—those that are uniform, large and have the expected color for that variety—are the lucky ones that meet the criteria for seed garlic. In short, these bulbs have the genetic traits you want to pass along to the next generation. The second best heads—those that maybe a bit small or otherwise misshapen–will be the actual “harvest” from this year’s crop: The garlic to eat over the coming months. Finally, the third pile is for all of the “reject” garlic that’s too misshapen, small or damaged to eat. I usually plant these as next year’s green garlic.
Next, begin to break apart the green and seed garlic heads into individual cloves, keeping the two piles separate for each variety. Don’t do this until a day or two before you plan on planting the garlic, though, because once the cloves are separated they’ll dry out quickly. At this point you’re done processing your seed garlic and your friends will most likely be itching for other harvest tasks to help out with. Get them another round of drinks (fresh garlic bloody marys, perhaps?) and refer to the rest of this article for more ways they can help you process the abundance of fall.
Making big batches of tomato sauce is a classic garden activity to invite people over for. The problem is that making tomato sauce doesn’t require many cooks and also isn’t much of a spectator sport. If you’re looking to store away a large amount of tomatoes and spread around the fun (and labor) of doing so, invite a group of friends over to help freeze tomatoes. And, if you want to, you can simmer a pot of marinara sauce at the same time so that everyone can have a bowl of spaghetti once you’re done.
There are a variety of different methods for freezing tomatoes, but I personally prefer peeling them before packing them away in the freezer. Since almost every application for frozen tomatoes requires that they be peeled (think sauces, salsas and soups), I find it easier to remove the peels in advance.
Starting about a week or so before your friends come over, save up your harvest of sauce tomatoes. Tomatoes won’t last indefinitely, but a week should be fine. On the big night, set up a large pot of water on a propane burner outside if you have one. If not, use the largest burner on your stove.
The process begins by sorting through all of the tomatoes to make sure that you’ve discarded any that are bruised or rotten. Next, wash all of the tomatoes under cold water to remove any harmful bacteria from the skin (and follow all of the food safety protocols from the University of California: https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8116.pdf). Working in batches, dunk the tomatoes in
the boiling water for about one minute. This quick blanch won’t cook the tomatoes, but will loosen the skin making it easier to peel off.
Each friend can have a different station along this production line: One can wash while another dunks and another peels, etc. If your friends are also gardeners, invite them to bring over their tomato harvest as well to process everything at once.
Processing Herb Seed
Although herbs don’t always get that much attention in the gardening world, processing herb seed towards the end of the season is the perfect activity to invite friends over to help out with. The work is fun and engaging, but can also be a bit tedious — so why not form a community around some of it?
Beginning with all the annual herbs in my garden–like basil, cilantro and dill–I typically have one large, “blowout” harvest late in the season before I pull all of the plants from the ground and prepare the beds for winter. Your friends can help you pull out the last round of plants, making their own bunches to take home as they go. I wouldn’t recommend trying to dry herbs like these without some specialty equipment like a dehydrator, but your friends are sure to be excited to have an abundance of fresh herbs to use up.
If you’re planning on saving any herb seeds, sorting the dried seeds can be another great group activity. Cilantro seeds are one of my favorites to save for next year’s crop. After letting all of the cilantro go to flower, I wait until the seeds have set on the plant and started to turn brown. Then, I cut off the entire umbels and place them in a brown paper bag for several weeks until the seeds are dry.
The next stage is when additional hands are helpful. Once all of the seeds in the bag have dried, pour them out on a tray and get a few friends to help you sort, removing all of the stems, leaves and undried seeds. You should be left with coriander seeds that look like they’re right out of the seed packet.
Although gardening is obviously largely about growing food to eat, it also forces us to experience our food in other ways. Stringing up peppers or processing garlic can be fun, educational and meaningful. Inviting friends to take part in activities like these is a great way to introduce them to the joys of gardening, and help them deepen their own relationship with food. It can also help to make your workload a little lighter.