If you work in an office, you’ve noticed them, those bags of tomatoes or piles of zucchini or cucumbers.
They’re in every break room or common area this time of year, testament to this Valley’s incredible bounty and to people’s inability to eat anywhere near as much as their gardens grow.
Sarah Ortner, a Yakima behavioral health consultant, knows all about it. She’s been giving friends and co-workers yellow squash from her garden every time she gets the chance. And still she’s been eating yellow squash fritters, yellow squash casseroles, yellow squash spaghetti sauce, yellow squash bread and yellow squash pies for weeks now.
“I got sick of squash,” Ortner said. “I put it in literally everything. I appreciate people taking it; I don’t want it to go to waste.”
She’s not complaining. Having too much fresh produce is a good problem to have. It has cut down on the grocery bill at the home Ortner shares with her partner and her partner’s family. And it’s fun to get creative with recipes.
“But for a while it was completely out of control,” she said.
She’s far from alone.
“Right now, if you have a garden, you have too much of something,” said Carol Barany, a Yakima County Master Gardener and gardening columnist. “We have a former Master Gardener in Selah who is just begging people to come out and pick tomatoes and cucumbers.”
And that’s not to mention the most common culprit: the zucchini, a vegetable so likely to grow in overabundance that it has led to (possibly apocryphal) stories of local “zucchini ninjas” silently leaving bags of the stuff on neighbors’ doorsteps, because they’re unable to unload all of it during daylight hours.
“It’s almost a cliche,” Barany said, when asked what vegetable is the most likely to proliferate beyond gardeners’ expectations. “But it is the zucchini. They’re meant to be picked when they’re about 1 inch in diameter and about 5 inches long, but everyone waits until they get enormous.”
Janell Shah of Zillah, an ecological monitoring crew lead with the Bureau of Land Management, has been there. She and her boyfriend, David Reavill, intentionally shrunk their garden this year after being overrun with zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes last year.
“Last year with zucchini, we had probably six to 10 every week ranging from a half-pound up to 7 pounds,” Shah said. “This year we still had too many zucchinis and too many cucumbers.”
That’s not to mention the mulberry tree, which dropped berries in their yard all summer. Shah, who responded to a Facebook post calling for sources for this story, said she hopes to work out a deal with some of the other posters who suggested some kind of produce exchange. That would be better than foisting them on co-workers.
“We were drowning in zucchinis last year,” she said. “It got to the point where I was taking zucchinis to work and leaving them on people’s desks as a surprise.”
Shah’s inability to personally consume six to 10 multi-pound zucchini every week wasn’t for lack of trying.
“I’ve come up with a dozen different recipes,” she said.
That includes zucchini noodles (or “zoodles”), zucchini cakes and even zucchini pizza bites, slices of zucchini topped with tomato sauce, cheese and mushrooms. She and Reavill also dropped off fresh produce baskets at the Zillah Food Bank, 302 Second Ave. in Zillah.
That’s also what Barany recommends.
“All of the food banks are so eager for fresh produce,” she said. “It’s one of the things that’s not in good supply if you’re somebody who goes to a food bank. I know they would take that stuff.”
The Master Gardeners themselves donate about a ton of fresh produce each year to the Union Gospel Mission, 1300 N. First St. in Yakima. It comes from their heirloom garden, which exists primarily as a way of saving and preserving rare and endangered heirloom vegetable seeds. The food is a happy byproduct, said John Strong, co-chairman of the heirloom garden.
“I think that’s something the backyard gardener can do as well,” Strong said.
He sympathizes with local gardeners who end up with more than they can personally use. It’s difficult at planting time to tell how many plants will survive to produce vegetables at harvest time.
“It’s kind of a crapshoot,” Strong said with a chuckle. “A lot of us will plant three or four of a plant when we really only need two, because we don’t know what will survive. Then, of course, we’ll have a bumper crop where if we had just planted two, neither of them would have survived.”
In the end it’s better to have too much than not enough, so that’s the way most gardeners plan.
“It’s pretty cool, though,” Shah said. “In our little Valley, if you need fresh produce all you have to do is ask your friends.”