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URBAN GARDENING: What to do with a bumper crop

Rebecca Cuttler commutes to her food-giving plot and shares the wealth of local gardening info in her new weekly column, Abundant City.

Urban gardener Rebecca Cuttler and her bumper crop of vegetables
An unusually sunny season and an interest in growing her own results in a bumper crop of vegetables. Photo by Jason Margolis

My name is Rebecca and I grow a huge amount of vegetables on a small city lot in Vancouver.

The garden isn’t where I currently live. It’s a 40-minute bike ride away at my parents’ home, because that’s what you have to do to find space in an expensive city like Vancouver. Nevertheless, with six 4’x8’ beds and some side areas, the south-facing backyard provides me and my husband with most of the green vegetables we eat for most of the year, plus plenty to share with friends and family.

Growing our own food is one of the most powerful things we can do to gain resilience in a changing climate and economy. We live in a country where 40 per cent of food is wasted, where our reliance on affordable produce from California is increasingly under threat due to drought.

There is an increasing awareness in the world about the benefits of supporting local farmers. By starting a vegetable garden, we can take our commitment to food sustainability to the next level.

Gardens help to heal our damaged topsoil. They provide a way to connect with the natural world and with neighbours, friends and family. Even a tiny garden, if properly managed, can provide enough vegetables to put a big dent in your grocery budget. Growing food gives us a deep appreciation for the work that full-time farmers do and a further incentive to support them. It gives us a front-row seat to changes in our climate and weather.

Finding garden space in a city as expensive as Vancouver, where so many of us live in apartment towers, is not easy. Fortunately, there are ways to do it, from community gardens to rooftop planters and to even striking deals with neighbours. All of these methods give us a chance to connect with our neighbours, to share gardening techniques and resources, and to share the harvest itself.

The other day, after a couple of weeks of travel, I returned to the garden to discover that it had become a jungle. Our tiny chard seedlings were now full-sized plants. Our tomato vines had sprouted multiple stems. The carrots I'd seeded were badly in need of thinning. It took me two nonstop days to put the space in order. By then, I'd harvested a garbage-can worth of chard, two storage totes filled with mustard greens and lettuce, an armful of radishes, and big bunches of chives, dill, beets, parsley and basil.

In June, when the days are long and warm, plants grow quickly. We need to manage this by harvesting promptly, when crops at their peak of ripeness and nutritional value, and before they start to get bitter or diseased. This means that it’s not unusual to have to pick more than you can eat, even if your garden is small.

The good news is that most crops can be preserved for winter eating, or shared with others. It’s a powerful experience to be able to eat your June harvest in December, or to give some of your bounty away. Here are my favourite ways to cope with the abundance. These techniques can also be used for produce purchased from a farmer’s market or CSA (community-supported agriculture) program.

Make freezer-friendly pesto

Pesto isn’t just for basil. It’s the ideal way to preserve delicate or strongly flavoured herbs and vegetables for long-term frozen storage, including arugula, parsley, cilantro and kale, amongst others. 

There's no need for a recipe. Simply chuck freshly washed, destemmed greens into a food processor with a generous glug of olive oil, plus garlic, salt and any kind of nuts or seeds. If you don't have nuts or garlic, that’s fine. The important part is that you’re coating the herbs in a protective layer of oil. Divide the pesto into portions — ice cube trays are great — and freeze it. To serve, simply thaw in the fridge. The vibrant, fresh colour and flavour will come back perfectly. It's delicious on salmon, salad, sandwiches and soups, not to mention the classic pasta.

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