Dealing with Overabundance

Gardening is never a precise science. In fact, there isn’t any way to make it a precise science, despite the best efforts of growers worldwide to do so. There are too many variables to consider and each season is unique. A heavy snow winter can delay spring, which reduces the time in which you can plant some early season vegetables. A humid, cool summer favors some vegetables; a dry, hot summer others. The presence or lack of insects makes a difference too. Too many cloudy days changes the environmental landscape, as do myriad other environmental factors. Every season is unique and brings unique challenges.

It’s hardly surprising then that some seasons tend to produce an overabundance of certain vegetables. For example, last year was an especially good year for okra. I don’t think I’ve ever seen our okra plants get that tall or produce such an abundance. That has partially meant having a lot of gumbo this past winter. Rebecca also made pickled okra for me, a delicacy I seldom get.

In many cases, overabundance means having leftovers at the end of the year. In fact, we usually try to plant with a three-year plan in mind. The tomatoes that grew so well this year, very likely won’t grow all that well next year. (Tomatoes are one of the few vegetables that you can count on producing something every year, even if they don’t produce enough to meet your annual needs.) So, during a good year, we can the excess because canned foods have a longer shelf life than frozen and once canned, they require no electricity to keep them fresh. According to eHow you can store high-acid foods for a year and low-acid foods for two to five years without any problem.  Practical experience shows that canned goods will keep longer than that when stored properly, but we throw anything over five years old into the compost heap to become new vegetables.

Try canning your food in various ways. For example, tomatoes are easily canned as whole peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, tomato juice, tomato jam, ketchup, and in many other forms. Rather than buy these items from the store, make them up in advance during canning season so they’re ready whenever you need them. Now, whenever you need a quick meal, you already have it stored in your larder; making that trip to the fast food restaurant unnecessary.

Some food items won’t can properly or the loss of vitamins is so exorbitant that canning makes the result less desirable nutritionally. Anything that’s high in vitamins A or C, thiamin, or riboflavin is less desirable canned than frozen. Consequently, we try to freeze these foods more often than not to preserve their nutritional value. However, this choice has consequences too. Freezing incurs a constant storage cost and there is limited space for freezing in the typical home. Frozen food also has a significantly shorter shelf life than canned food. We try to empty the freezer by the end of each season and will can some remaining foods just to keep from losing them.

This is where many people end their efforts to store excess food. There are many other techniques you can use, however. One of the techniques we use is dehydrating the food. zucchini cans terribly and the frozen result isn’t much better. However, zucchini plants typically produce very well and they’re quite nutritional when you choose larger plants (rather than the baby zucchini favored by stores, which aren’t much better than drinking water). I’ve found over the years that much of the food value in squash is in the seeds. Dehydrated zucchini served in place of potato chips is an exceptionally nutritious (and tasty) snack food that I love and it provides an outstanding way to preserve excess zucchini. Eggplant also preserves well this way, as do many other plants. We dehydrate them and eat them as a low calorie snack food during the winter months.

Another interesting way to use excess vegetables is to make wine. I tried my hand at tomato wine this year for the first time and the results were amazing. Each gallon of tomato wine requires an entire quart of tomato juice, so it’s possible to preserve quite a few tomatoes using this technique. I’ve also made wine from excess pumpkin, along with all of the usual (and a few unusual) fruits. I understand many people use other vegetables to make wine. A friend of mine makes turnip wine.

You can always give your excess to other people. It’s interesting to note that not everyone in a particular area will have your success in a given year with a given vegetable. Last year was a horrible year for tomatoes and zucchini for us. Yes, we received some of each, but not nearly enough to meet the year’s requirement, much less enough to put away for the future. We were able to trade extra food such as potatoes with other people for extra food they had gotten from their gardens. The result is that everyone ended up with a more balanced larder.

These are just a few of my ideas for dealing with overabundance. What are the techniques you use? Let me know at

Calculating an Hourly Wage

Yes, I know that most people work in the garden for the sheer joy of doing so. In fact, many gardens do really end up as places to putter around; there are a few of this and a few of that, but not a lot of anything. However, when you begin looking at your garden as a means to feed your family all year round, it takes on added importance. The garden is suddenly larger and consumes a great deal more time. It’s entirely possible to get sucked into a black hole of activity and to begin wondering what you’re really getting from your efforts.

It won’t help that many people won’t understand the obsession to produce the majority of your own food. Some people will make snide remarks about how much it must cost to garden in the first place and how you could better spend your time working a second job. A lot more people won’t make any comment except a halfhearted, “Wow” and think something completely different. So just how do you handle the naysayers?

Well, there is always the argument that food from the garden is significantly fresher than the food purchased in the store and therefore more nutritious. It’s almost certain that someone will rebut your argument with the latest article saying there is no significant nutritional difference between the food you grow and the food in the store. Of course, you can break out your equally compelling article, but fail to convince the other party of anything except that you must be a fanatic. The truth likely is that there are instances where your garden grown food is indeed superior, but that the effort in growing it will eclipse any benefit for most people. In short, they really don’t want to hear that your food tastes better or is better for you.

You could also make the argument that the food grown in your garden is pesticide free. Whether such an argument holds any weight with the person you’re talking with depends on their knowledge of the adverse effects of pesticides. Many people are of the opinion that the media has done a good job of denigrating pesticides and that they can’t possibly be as harmful as many people seem to think; some people simply don’t care.

The only argument that appears to hold weight with many people is how much you make when working in the garden. So, just how do you figure it out? The best approach is to start by weighing the food you bring in from the garden. For example, one year we brought in about 50 pounds of green beans from our garden. At the time, green beans sold for $1.50 a pound in the store (they’re over $3.00 a pound now, but that’s not an appropriate comparison; I don’t have any fresh green beans now either). So, it would have cost me $75.00 to purchase the green beans in the store.

Of course, I have costs when raising the green beans. The seed packet was $2.00. I also had to water the green beans. Computing the value of the water is a little harder when you have a well; you need to approximate the amount of time the water is used to water the green beans, multiply by the flow rate of your hose, and multiply by the electrical rate for your area. I estimated that I spent another $5.00 on water (mulching significantly reduces the cost of the water). I didn’t have any cost for fertilizer; my rabbits supply all I need free of charge. (Well, not precisely, but where else would I use it?) We also don’t use any pesticides on the green beans, so there is no cost there. The profit from our green beans then is $68.00.

My wife and I worked about ten hours total on the green beans. So, you take your profit and divide it by ten to come up with an hourly rate of $6.80. That’s below minimum wage, but you’re definitely not working free of charge. Now, you need to consider the supplementary benefits of gardening. For example, the cheapest gym membership in our area is approximately $43.00 a month. Because we were in the garden, there was no need for a gym membership and we can add that cost to our hourly rate. By working in the garden, I’ve also reduced my weight, which has reduced my blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Instead of four pills each day for my diabetes, I now take one; another cost savings I can add to my hourly rate. There are also fewer runs to town, which means a cost savings in gas. By the time I added everything up, I figured that I had earned about $8.00 an hour gardening.

Just how is it that I can say that I earned $8.00 an hour growing green beans though? After all, there isn’t any additional money in my pocket. The gain comes from not spending money. By making the money you have now go farther, you don’t have to spend as much time worrying about where to get more. In short, the benefit is real. By saving the money I did, I was able to use the money I earned for other things that I can’t produce myself.

There are some pitfalls when your self-sufficient and you need to consider them as well. For example, when you only grow food for the summer, you don’t need to worry about storage. If you’re like me and grow food to last all year, you need to consider the storage costs as part of the cost of the food. Many people turn to the freezer for storage. Some foods do require freezing if you want to keep them (some foods don’t store well at all). However, you need to consider other means of storage. The lowest cost long term storage method is canning. When you can your food, all you need to consider is the cost of the electricity or gas used to can the food, the partial cost of jars (they last nearly forever), and the cost of lids (around $2.50 for ten of them). However, don’t overlook techniques such as drying. My wife dries a number of vegetables in the form of chips. For example, nothing tastes better than a bag of zucchini or egg plant chips in winter; it’s a taste of summer from vegetables that don’t store particularly well in any other way.

I’ll discuss storage techniques in a future article. In the meantime, think about how much you make each hour growing your own food. You might be surprised at how much profit there is in having fun!


Health Benefits of Self-Sufficiency

I remember the discussion well; my wife and I were on a short vacation in the mountains of California one day (Julian for those of you who know the little town in Southern California) and we were talking about gardening. It sounds like a topic that is a long way from self-sufficiency or health, but there is a connection; even we didn’t know it at the time though. That discussion happened over 15 years ago. Today, we’re living a different sort of reality, much of it stemming from that innocuous discussion.

At the time, I weighed in at a gargantuan 365 pounds (perhaps a little more) and had a 54 inch waist. It was hard to find time to exercise and even harder to find money for a gym membership. Exercise consisted of walks, when time allowed. Today, I’m much lighter, having lost 127 pounds (so far) and my 42 inch waist is much smaller. My blood pressure has gone way down, my heart rate as well. In addition, I take far less medication today than I did at one time and my diabetes is under control. The technique I’ve used has also naturally decreased my LDL cholesterol and increased my HDL cholesterol.  The entire process has required a little over 12 years to complete; a long time granted, but the process has been slow and continuous.

You might wonder how much it cost to lose that much weight. That’s the interesting part. My wife and I now grow about 95% of our own food. We eat higher quality and fresher food and spend a whole lot less money in the store. In short, instead of paying for a gym membership, we exercise and earn money (in the form of store and medication savings) while doing it. You won’t find that sort of deal anywhere on TV.

The interesting thing about the approach I’ve taken is that my weight loss has been slow and continuous. The exercise I get by producing the things I need has actually increased my stamina and strength, while reducing my weight. I never get bored exercising this way because each day brings something new. One day I’m stretching while picking weeds in the garden, another day I’m lifting bushel baskets full of produce. Each day brings something new and the tasks I perform change by season. There is no falling off the cart because the change I’ve made is a part of my lifestyle now; I wouldn’t consider living any other way.

This entry has been short, but I wanted to introduce you to the idea behind self-sufficiency. It’s a method of producing what you need, gaining some substantial health benefits, and making money while you’re doing it. No, you won’t get a pile of cash from your garden, but wouldn’t you like to spend less at the store? What would you do with the money you save by reducing the groceries you buy in half? That’s what self-sufficiency is about; it’s about doing for yourself.

Keep your eyes peeled for additional posts in this category as I have time to write them. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts about self-sufficiency. Write me at