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University of Minnesota Extension

Using your garden's bounty safely this fall

At the onset of COVID-19 many people took up vegetable gardening for the first time, and others expanded their gardens significantly. If you are one of those vegetable gardeners, you are now likely swimming in produce. Your neighbors will only take so many cucumbers, so what can you do with the rest?

Tomatoes grouped in small cardboard baskets on a table at a market.

Preserve it

There are many ways to preserve your garden produce for the winter, including canning, drying and freezing. Whether this is your first time preserving food preservation or you’d like a refresher, we have excellent resources to help you preserve your food safely and successfully.

Check out Preserving and preparing food safely for guides, videos and online courses.

Store it for the winter

Onions, garlic, potatoes, celery, beets and apples are good examples of storage crops. These fruits and vegetables have lower respiration (breathing) rates than other fruits and vegetables, so they take much longer to dry out than things like leafy greens, sweet corn and asparagus.

Each fruit and vegetable has a different optimal condition for storage. Some prefer to be cool and dry, others need higher humidity.

A cool basement is a good place to store many of these crops. If you don’t have a basement, consider trading some vegetables for storage space with a neighbor.

For a full list of optimal storage conditions for different vegetables, see Harvesting and storing home garden vegetables.

Donate it

If you are lucky enough to have a surplus of produce this fall, you might think about donating it to a food shelf, church or other hunger-relief organization. Remember some basic food safety considerations when you are donating produce to others. If the consumer of your food is pregnant, a child, elderly or has a weakened immune system, they are more susceptible to serious complications from foodborne illnesses. We have no way to know who will eat the food we donate, that's why it's important to take safety precautions when donating produce.

Food safety considerations when donating produce

Man harvesting basil into a stacked container.

During harvest

  • Harvest into clean containers, like dedicated totes, that are free from visible soil.
    • Don't use an old bag or other non-food-grade packaging.
    • Don't use a container that had treated seeds, chemicals or other materials that could leach into the plastic.
  • Don't harvest when you are sick. If you have symptoms of illness like nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or those associated with COVID-19, do not harvest or touch produce for others. 
  • Wash your hands before you harvest, every time, using soap and water. The water does not need to be hot.
    • Hand sanitizer is not a replacement for handwashing.
  • Look for signs of animals like scat, fur and nibbled produce, and do not harvest the produce that is close to these signs, or that has visible animal feces on it.

After harvest

Storage temperature:
  • Keep produce cool during storage and transport.
  • Different produce should be kept at different temperatures, depending on the commodity.
  • This Extension web page has useful information about proper storage temperature and humidity for various crops.
Woman using a garden hose to wash many bunches of carrots on a screened table.
  • Not all produce needs to be washed before donation.
    • The washing process can actually reduce the storage life of some products. Water can spread contamination if it is present on the outside of the product, or from sinks or buckets used for washing.
    • Consumers should always wash fresh produce before eating, regardless of whether it's already been washed.
    • Label the produce as “unwashed” when you deliver it.
  • Do not wash: Berries, herbs, storage onions, tomatoes and some other storage crops are generally not washed until consumption.
  • Wash with care: Some products like greens, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, green beans might also not need to be washed, depending on how they were grown, recent rainfall, etc.
    • Check with the location that will take the produce you are donating, and ask about if you need to wash these. Do not wash if possible.
  • Generally wash: Most root vegetables will need to be washed before donation to remove sand and soil.
    • Use a clean washing tank or container, clean water and clean hands when washing.
    • Use a clean bucket or table outside to spray or dunk the produce to remove soil.
    • Avoid bringing the produce into your home kitchen before donation, as there is more potential for cross-contamination.
  • Whatever you will be putting your fruits and vegetables in to transport them, make sure that it will not contaminate your produce.
  • Use new, single-use or clean boxes or bags whenever possible.
  • If you reuse boxes, make sure they are in good shape, or consider using a plastic liner to reduce the potential for contamination.
  • Transport the produce in a clean vehicle that does not have garbage, chemicals or pet hair in it that could be a source of contamination. 
  • Temperature is very important for product quality and food safety. Keep the produce as cool as possible from your farm to the final destination.

Annalisa Hultberg, Extension educator for on-farm food safety, and Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator for fruit and vegetable production

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