The Nickel Pincher: Holiday Gifts From Summer Gardens

Canning and preserving your garden's bounty now can save you a bundle this holiday season.

August 4, 2010

Your garden can serve as one-stop shopping for holiday gifts.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—August is officially here, bringing with it the dog days of summer. So naturally, it's time to start worrying about Christmas.


Free Newsletter


Right now, gardens and farmer's markets are overflowing with fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers that could make great gifts for the upcoming holiday season. If you can spend an afternoon canning and preserving now, your resulting garden pickles and fruit butters will be sure to please in the dead of winter. Plus, these gifts are virtually free, and you can personalize them based on your giftee's preferences.

Here are some of my favorite recipes to try:

Sweet Squash Pickles

"Pickles" are almost synonymous with cucumbers in supermarkets, but you can pickle just about any veggie, and even some fruits, with delicious results. Zucchinis make great pickles, and goodness knows we can all use more ideas for using up an overly generous squash patch.

Makes about 3 pints


2 pounds zucchinis or other tender summer squash (I especially like the Italian heirloom Costata Romanesco, which has lengthwise ridges that make for pretty slices)
1 pound onions
¼ cup non-iodized salt
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon ground tumeric
1 Tablespoon mustard seed
¼ teaspoon ground cloves


Slice small squash into ¼-inch rounds. Or quarter larger squash lengthwise, peel, seed, and slice the long strips into ¼-inch slices; it's OK to use those extra-large squash that grew too big to eat. Peel and core the onions. If using small onions, halve or quarter them, and if using medium to large onions, cut into rings ¼ inch thick. Layer the squash and onions in a stainless steel or ceramic bowl, sprinkling each layer with salt. Add remaining salt and just cover with cold water. Put a plate on top to weight down the veggies and let them soak for 2 hours (this pulls some moisture out of the veggies for crisper pickles). Rinse and drain.

After your squash have soaked, prepare your pickling brine. In a large non-reactive pot (glass, stainless steel, enamelware), combine the remaining ingredients (vinegar through cloves). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add drained veggies. Cover and let sit for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Bring to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes. Then, pack into sterilized jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. (Follow the canning instructions the jar manufacturer has provided, or use our suggestions for hot-water-bath canning.)

Zippy Zucchini Dills

Similar to the previous recipe, these spicy zucchini pickles can stand in for ordinary dill pickles, and they taste especially good on burgers!

Makes about 3 pints


3 pounds zucchinis or other tender summer squash
¼ cup non-iodized salt
2 cups cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon mustard seed
6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin
3 fresh dill heads (flowers or seeds), plus 3 big sprigs fresh dill weed, or ¼ cup dry dill seed

Slice, soak, and drain the zucchini the same way you would for sweet pickles, allowing it to soak with the salt in some water for 2 hours.

Combine all remaining ingredients. If you're using the ¼ cup dry dill seed, add that as well, but if you're using fresh dill, exclude that until the very end. Follow the same process you'd use for sweet squash pickles. When filling the sterilized jars, put one fresh dill head and one fresh sprig of dill weed into each jar before adding the hot pickles.

Foolproof Fruit Butter

Lower in sugar and much easier to make than preserves or jam, these tasty treats contain no butter. Their name simply refers to the smooth, creamy texture. Perhaps the best-known fruit butter in this country is apple butter, but you can also make peach butter, plum butter, apricot butter, pear butter, berry butter, and even tomato or pumpkin butter.

Makes about 4 pints


5 pounds fruit (use apples, peaches or whatever is abundant); use an extra pound or two if you're using fruits with a high water content, such as berries
2 cups cider, fruit juice, or water
Sugar or honey (optional)
Spices (ground cinnamon, cloves, ginger)


Peel, core, and seed fruit, and cut into 1-inch hunks. Put the fruit and your liquid (cider, fruit juice, or water) into a large non-reactive pot, bring to a boil, and simmer (covered) for 20 minutes until the fruit is soft and mushy. Stir occasionally, and add a little water if the fruit begins to stick to the bottom, to prevent scorching.

Pour the mushy fruit into a large slow cooker. If possible set the cooker in a sheltered outdoor area so the heat and evaporating water won’t be indoors making an already hot day harder to bear. Cook, uncovered (turn a sieve upside down as a lid if insects are a concern), on medium or low for 10 to 12 hours, stirring occasionally, or until the butter is as thick as you like it. It will get brown and rich. You can’t overcook fruit butter, and in the slow cooker, you can’t scorch it as you can on the stove. If you don't have a slow cooker, use the thickest-bottomed pot you have on your stove's very lowest setting and be vigilant about stirring, especially as the butter starts to thicken up. There's no set time for stovetop cooking; you just need to cook the fruit until it reaches your desired consistency.

When the butter is as thick as you want it, taste it to see if you need to add sugar or honey. I rarely add sweetener, but if you prefer sweet butters, add up to about 2 cups of sugar or 1 cup of honey. This is also the time to add spices if you like. Apples go well with 2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon and a ¼ teaspoon of ground cloves; peaches go well with cinnamon and ground ginger. Stir until the spices are completely dissolved or blended.

Ladle the butter into hot, sterilized jars, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath to seal them.

For more holiday gift ideas, see our articles on canning and preserving fruit and pickling cucumbers

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on