Garden Mama: Lessons from the Garden

gardening

Whether you have a garden of your own or are enjoying beautiful flowers in your neighbor’s yard or sampling fresh produce from local farmer’s markets, you have probably noticed that this has been an exceptional year for gardens in Kansas City! Our small backyard garden has produced more this year than we ever thought it could! We had a couple of crop fails, but have been blessed with a bumper crop of tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, butternut squash, zucchini, strawberries, cantaloupe (a first for us!), lettuce, jalapeños, green and red peppers, and green beans.

We have eaten a lot of our produce fresh, straight from the garden. We had an abundance of zucchini this year, so in addition to sharing our harvest with our neighbors, I tried out some new recipes:

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Parmesan Zucchini Crisps, via // Turkey Sausage Stuffed Zucchini, via (modified)

What we haven’t been able to eat fresh, we have shared with neighbors, co-workers, and friends, or we’ve preserved. My favorite preservation method is water-bath canning. I come from a family of “canners,” and I love the aspect of carrying on family tradition through canning. Both of my grandmas “put up” food for the winter using this method, and my mom, who taught me the tricks of the trade, has been canning for over 40 years. I did some basic canning last year, but this year is the first time I have really gotten creative with it. Once you get the hang of it, it’s addicting! Here are a few things I canned this year:

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Zucchini Pepper Relish, via // Balsamic Cherry Tomato and Caramelized Onion Conserve, via // Peaches, via

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Jalapeño Salsa, family recipe // Tomato Basil Jam, via // BBQ Sauce, via

If stored in a dark, cool, dry place (we have a small linen closet in our basement where we keep ours), home canned goods will keep for 12-18 months. If you have never canned before but are interested in learning more, there are many great resources to help you learn. The best two books I own on the subject are Ball’s Blue Book Guide to Preserving and Better Homes and Gardens Can It! There are also some great local classes available through University of Missouri Extension, The Culinary Center of Kansas City, and BADSEED (BADSEED did not offer classes in 2014, but plan to resume in 2015–I have heard nothing but great things about the classes they they offer!).

I have definitely canned more than our family can eat, but I have done so with the intent to share our garden goodness year round! Canned goods make great gifts for co-workers, friends, or daycare providers. Dress up your gift: remove the metal ring, add a colorful circle or paper or cloth on the lid, replace the ring; or tie a small serving spoon or spice packet around the neck of the jar using baker’s twine or ribbon. Canned goods are also easy to take to work treat days, potlucks, or parties. Is there anything easier than grabbing a can of salsa and a bag of chips? For something a bit more fancy, you can spread conserve or jelly over a wheel of brie cheese, bake until heated through, and serve with crackers or breads.

Now that cooler weather has come to KC, our garden crops are almost done for the year. Every year, but this year especially, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for our garden; having a garden, no matter what size or what you grow, is filled with reward – not only because you are harvesting something that you have nurtured and grown, but because for us, it’s become precious family time and a way to connect with family and friends.

Most nights this summer, I watched from the kitchen window as my nearly two-year-old daughter and my husband walked out to our garden, buckets and bowls in hand, excited to see what had grown or changed since the night before. My spirit was filled with pride as he taught her to gently pluck the cherry tomatoes from the vine, showing her the difference between the green, unripe tomatoes and the plump, red ones.

My husband and I stood side by side in the kitchen one date night, blanching, peeling and chopping tomatoes, jalapeños, and onions to make homemade salsa, following his mom’s family recipe with wine in hand and jazz playing in the background.

We pulled our little red wagon around the neighborhood, our daughter proudly giving peppers, “you-cchini” and “matoes” to our neighbors.

I spent countless hours at the stove, canning anything that can be canned. While I work, I think of my Grandma Mills and how everyone fought over jars of her fabulous sweet pickles in the annual family Christmas “gift war.” I think of my Grandma Axdahl and how I can faintly remember she and my mom cutting corn off the cob for freezing, while my sisters and I sat under the kitchen table, eating the kernels that would fall to the floor.

And I think of my mom, dad, and sisters. How countless hours in our garden growing up truly did build character – but it also built family traditions, relationships, and love. I hold fast to the hope that my own gardening endeavors will do the same for my children.

Truly, garden has doubled my joy.

This post and the Garden Mama Series is dedicated to my grandpa and grandma, Herman & Sarah Axdahl, in loving memory; my grandpa Chuck Mills and his ability to grow watermelons like no one else; my grandma Thelma Mills and her wonderful sweet pickles; my mom, Judy Mills, for her patient teaching and super-canning skills; my dad, Dale Mills, for teaching us to bloom where we are planted; and my sisters, Emily, Eli, and Eva, for all the time we spent together in the garden growing up … building our character.

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