October is the time of the year when the days get shorter, the temperatures get cooler, and the leaves start to change color. It is also the time of the year when us “garden folk” madly gather the bounty of fruits and vegetables that we labored over during the summer months. Harvesting vegetables certainly seems easy enough; if a tomato is red, you pick it. There are, however some vegetables that are a little more difficult to judge when they are ready to harvest. There are also “tricks of the trade” to help us know exactly when to harvest that red tomato.
Once we successfully harvest our crops, what do we do with them? After all, eating 100 pounds of tomatoes right out of the garden seems highly unlikely. The purpose of this article is to inform you about some of the best ways to harvest and store your favorite end-of-the-summer produce.
Bush and Pole Beans
Also known as snap beans, these are primarily grown to eat with the pods intact.
As a general rule of thumb, bush beans are quicker to mature than pole beans. Harvest when the pods are nearly full sized, but the seeds are still approximately 3/4 immature.
To maintain freshness, bush/pole beans should be refrigerated immediately after harvesting. The optimum storage temperature is 40-50°F.
There are two common ways to harvest:
1) Pick when the seeds are fully formed but still soft and green and then dry them on a screen, away from moisture.
2) Allow the beans to dry fully on the vine and harvest when 90% of the leaves have yellowed and/or fallen off, and the pods are dry. When this occurs, pull the plant out of the ground by the roots. Dry fully under cover in rainy weather.
There are three options when it comes to thrashing (obtaining the dry beans from the pod).
- Shell pods individually by hand.
- Hold plants by the roots and bang back and forth inside a barrel.
- Beat small piles of plants with a flail.
Make sure that the beans are fully dry and store in a cool place. Bean weevils, a common pest of shelling beans, may be eliminated from the crop by placing the beans in the freezer for 2 weeks after they have dried.
Carrots are best harvested any time that they have a bright orange color. They are usually best tasting when not fully mature. Make sure to water well during the harvesting period so that the maximum amount of water can be stored in the root. Leaving the tops intact greatly reduces water loss and increases storage life. If you notice that your carrots are odd shaped or look like they came from another planet, chances are they were fed “too well”. Most root crops prefer a minimal amount of fertilizers.
Carrots usually store very well. The key to maximizing storage time is to keep carrots cool (around 34°F.) and to keep them in a very humid environment (95% humidity). Mature carrots can be stored for up to 9 months while the immature types can be stored for about 1 month. Something else to keep in mind is that carrots tend to be bitter if they are stored with such produce as apples and pears since these fruits release ethylene, a gas that expedites the ripening process.
Melons will not ripen off of the vine so it is important to when the fruit is fully developed. Cantaloupe will easily slip off the vine when ripe. For other melons, check the leaf at the same location as the fruit. When the leaf begins to yellow, the fruit is mature. Some gardeners find that melons are ready to harvest when the blossom end of the fruit is soft.
In the case of watermelons, there is no surefire method to tell when the fruit is ripe. Some people determine ripeness by the browning of the tendril that is closest to the fruit while other people judge ripeness by the sound that is made when the watermelon is tapped. Experiment with these different techniques to see which works best for you, or if you have a different way of telling when a watermelon is ripe, be sure to let us know!
Keeping melons cool and away from direct sunlight are the two key factors that increase the storage life. Ideal storage temperatures range from 40-55°F. and melons prefer high humidity environments (90-95%). Another factor to keep in mind, melons are sensitive to frost damage so make sure that you do not store them in too cold of an environment.
When the tops begin to dry out and are falling over, withhold watering if possible, so the bulbs mature in dry soil. After about half the tops have fallen, push over the remainder and wait about 1 week. At that time, pull the bulbs from the ground and spread them out in the sun. Place a sheet or tarp over the bulbs at night to prevent dew from remoistening them. Cure for about 1 week to toughen the skins. If it is rainy during the curing process, move the onions under cover.
Sometimes due to cold or rainy weather conditions, it is necessary to pull your onions while the tops are still green. When this is the case, it is best not to expose the onions to sunlight since they will green up rather than harden off. In this instance, it is best to dry your onions in a shaded, dry, cool area.
Keep in meshed sacks so they get plenty of ventilation and hang the sacks where the air is cool (55-65°F.) and dry. Periodically check to see if any onions are sprouting or rotting and immediately remove them from the sack.
Summer and Winter Squash
If you have ever gone out of town for a few days when your squash have been fruiting, you know how quickly they can mature. Within days, a 4-inch long squash can turn into a 2-foot long monster. With this in mind, it is important to catch the squash when they are still young and immature. The rinds should still be soft at the time of harvest.
Summer squash does not store as well as some of the other squashes and should be eaten relatively soon after harvest. The best storage environment is at 45-60°F. in a well ventilated area with 50-70% humidity.
Unlike summer squash, winter squash should be harvested when the fruit is fully mature and the rinds are hard. We like to use the “thumbnail test”. Take your thumbnail and puncture the fruit. If it is very easy to puncture, then the squash is not ready. If there is resistance, then it is ready to harvest. Cut the vine about 1 inch from the fruit when the vine starts to dry. Allow the fruits to air cure in the field for 7-10 days, making sure that the fruits are protected from heavy rains and frosts.
To avoid rot during storage, wipe the fruits with a solution of water and bleach at a 10 to 1 ratio. Store at 45-60°F. in an area with good airflow and 50-70% humidity.
Pumpkins and Gourds
Pumpkins can be harvested after their rinds are hard and their skins have turned orange. Prolonged temperatures in the field of 50°F. or less can result in chilling damage. When harvesting pumpkins, make sure to leave at least 3-4 inches of the vine attached to the fruit. This will allow for better storage ability.
Gourds should be allowed to mature on the vine for as long as possible keeping in mind that they will also succumb to chilling damage. One to two weeks of temperatures below 50 degrees F. is enough to damage the plants. To prevent your gourds from rotting, wipe the fruits with a solution of water and bleach at a 10 to 1 ratio.
Both pumpkins and gourds should be stored at 55-70°F. and at 70% relative humidity. When drying gourds, it is best to store them in a warm, dry location and make sure they are not touching each other.