So, when harvest time draws near, there are steps growers can take to ensure they harvest correctly and maximize the reward. There are many techniques for harvesting various fruits and vegetables and, in many cases, there is more than one correct way to properly preserve the harvest.
When to Harvest Your Crops
The type of crop being grown and the geographical location of the garden will affect the time of harvest and the techniques a grower can use. However, there are some general rules of thumb that can help growers get the most out of their harvests.
The best time of day to harvest is usually in the morning, right after the dew has dissipated. If morning isn’t an option, try harvesting on a cloudy or cooler day. The idea is to harvest vegetables when they have the highest water content. Grains are an exception to this rule and should be harvested when they are dry.
Many root vegetables have a larger harvest window and some can even be left in the ground into the winter. This is best done if the root vegetables are covered with mulch before the fall frost sets in. Even in climates where heavy snow is prevalent, it is possible to continue harvesting root vegetables far into the winter months. Most herbs and greens are best harvested while the plants are young and before they go to seed.
Plant-specific Harvesting Guidelines
Growers can follow these plant-specific harvest guidelines to maximize their garden’s production:
Asparagus: Cut asparagus spears at ground level (best at a length of 4 to 10 in.). Stop harvesting when spear stems start to thin out or after six to eight weeks.
Beans: Clip the bean pods when they are young. Pods are most tender when beans are still small (1/4 to 1/3 their full size). The larger pods of some varieties can be left on the plant to dry and be used for seed the following season.
Beets: Begin harvesting when beets are 2 or 3 in. in diameter. Spring beets should be harvested before hot weather sets in. Fall beets can be harvested before the fall freeze or mulched for winter harvest.
Broccoli: Harvest the main head before flowers open, while still in a tight cluster and green in color. Once the main broccoli head is removed, smaller heads will develop off side shoots.
Brussels Sprouts: Prepare for harvest by removing the lowest leaves from the stalk. This will increase sprout production. Starting from the bottom of the stalk, harvest the Brussels sprouts when they are firm and an adequate size. Brussels sprouts can withstand a light frost (this may even improve flavor) but all sprouts should be harvested before a heavy freeze.
Cabbage: Harvest when cabbage heads feel solid. Over-mature heads tend to split.
Cantaloupe: There are two ways to tell when to harvest: when the color of the melon turns beige or the blossom end is soft and smells sweet. Once growers identify the smell of a ripe cantaloupe, they will usually use their noses to identify the proper time to harvest.
Carrots: Harvest when the top has a diameter of 1 to 2 in. Spring carrots should be harvested before hot weather. Fall carrots can be harvested before the ground freezes or mulched for winter harvest. Many growers believe a carrot harvested in winter is sweeter and more flavorful than carrots harvested at any other time of the year.
Cauliflower: In hotter climates, the outer leaves should be tied above the head to shade it. Harvest cauliflower heads before they become yellow or show blemishes.
Chard (Swiss): Leaves can be harvested continuously throughout the growing season by breaking off the outer chard leaves.
Cucumber: Most cucumber varieties should be harvested when they are 1.5 to 3 in. in diameter and 5- to 9-in. long. Overripe cucumbers will taste and smell sour. Pickling varieties of cucumbers will be shorter in length and smaller in diameter.
Dry Onions: Harvest when tops have fallen over. Cure onions by braiding the tops together, or placing them in a mesh bag, and hang in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for three or four weeks. Tops can be removed when onions are fully dry.
Green Onions: Harvest green onions when the tops have reached 5 in. or more.
Head Lettuce: The entire lettuce plant should be harvested when the head feels firm and before the center bolts.
Horseradish: Harvest after severe frost, which brings out flavor. Horseradish can be mulched for winter harvest.
Jalapeño Peppers: Jalapeños can be harvested as soon as fruit develops. Some growers prefer younger, greener peppers while others prefer more mature, colored peppers. For long-term storage, plants can be hung to dry in a warm, dark location.
Kale: Harvest leaves and leaf stems when they reach a desirable size. Many growers feel that frost improves flavor. Some kale varieties can be left in the ground during winter months for winter harvest.
Leaf Lettuce: Outer leaves can be harvested as they get to a suitable size throughout the entire growing season.
Parsnips: Harvest in late fall after frost. Parsnips can also be mulched for winter harvest.
Peas: Harvest when pods are light green and filled with mature peas. The yellowing of the pods is a sign of over-maturity.
Potatoes: Harvest after the tops have died, which is usually after the first frost of the season. Potatoes are best harvested when the ground is dry. Carefully dig around the base of the plant to avoid bruising. Allow the surface of the potatoes to dry in a dark, well-ventilated location. Potatoes are best stored at 45 to 55°F.
Rhubarb: Leaf stalks can be harvested when they are ½ to 1 in. in diameter.
Spinach: Break off the outer leaves as the plant grows or cut down the entire spinach plant to harvest.
Squash: Harvest squash before the first frost with a sharp knife and leave at least 1 in. of stem attached. The stem helps to avoid decay around the stem scar. Cure in a dry, well-ventilated area for 10 days at 70 to 80°F.
Sweet Corn: When the tip feels full through the husk, it is time to harvest. Another way to check if sweet corn is ready is by pressing a kernel with your fingernail. If a milky sap comes out, it is ready. Sweet corn should be used soon after harvest or the kernels can be cut from the cob and frozen for long-term storage.
Sweet Peppers: Harvest when fruits are firm and full size.
Sweet Potatoes: This vegetable should be harvested before frost and freezing temperatures. Avoid bruising when digging, as bruised sweet potatoes will rot. Cure for one week at 75 to 85°F in a well-ventilated area.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are ready when fruits are red but not soft. All remaining green tomatoes should be harvested before frost and wrapped in newspaper or placed in paper bags and kept at a temperature between 55 and 70°F. Green tomatoes harvested in this way should be checked regularly for ripening.
Turnips: Can be harvested from the time they are 1 in. in diameter. Turnips can withstand light frosts and many growers feel the frost improves the flavor.
Watermelon: To check a watermelon for ripeness, tap it hard with your thumb or finger. A ripe melon will sound hollow. A visual indicator of ripeness is the underside of the melon, which will turn from white to yellow as the fruit matures.
Storing Your Harvested Fruits & Vegetables
After harvesting your vegetables, it is important to preserve them properly. Proper preservation will extend the time growers can enjoy the fruits of their labor. As with harvesting techniques, there are many variables involved, but following a few general rules of thumb can help a gardener extend the life of produce. Learning which produce stores best in which conditions is a solid first step in food preservation.
Best Conditions for Storing Your Harvested Crops
For produce that will be stored long term in its original state (not processed), either cold (just above freezing) or cool (40-55°F) conditions work best. Not all fruits and vegetables do well in cool or cold storage. Generally, produce with a tough or hard skin will store longer.
Another major factor for both cold and cool storage is humidity. Some produce stores better in moist conditions, while others store best in dry conditions. Long-term storage for produce can be divided into four categories: cold/moist, cold/dry, cool/moist, and cool/dry.
Moist conditions storage (cold or cool) has a humidity level around 90 percent.
Dry conditions storage (cold or cool) has a humidity level of 65 percent or lower.
Cold/Moist — Cold/moist storage has a temperature that is just above freezing and the humidity is 90 percent. Many vegetables and fruits stored in cold/moist conditions will last for two to six months. Fruits and vegetables compatible with cold/moist storage include apples, beets, cabbage, carrots, Brussel sprouts, leeks, parsnips, pears, radishes, rutabaga, and turnips.
Cold/Dry — Cold/dry storage has a temperature that is just above freezing and the humidity level is around 65 percent. Vegetables stored in cold/dry conditions can last up to six months, while some grains in cold/dry storage can last for years. Crops that store well in cold/dry conditions include garlic, leeks, onions, and whole grains.
Cool/Moist — Cool/moist storage has a temperature range of 40-55°F and the humidity level is around 90 percent. Produce stored in cool/moist conditions can last for two to seven months. The fruits and vegetables that do best in cool/moist storage include potatoes, green tomatoes, and some citrus varieties.
Cool/Dry — Cool/dry storage has a temperature range of 40-55°F and the humidity level is around 65 percent. Produce stored in cool/dry conditions can be kept for three to seven months. Cool/dry storage is great for storing frost-sensitive crops, such as citrus, pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes.
Room Temperature — A few vegetables, when ripe, store best at room temperature. These include peppers and tomatoes. Fruits, including ripe plums and peaches, store best at room temperature as well.
Refrigerator — The refrigerator is a good way to prolong the life of many fruits and vegetables that would otherwise need to be eaten immediately. Store vegetables like lettuce, spinach, peas, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, fresh herbs and squash. Apples, pears, muskmelons and watermelons also benefit from refrigerator storage.
Freezing — Freezing the produce is another relatively easy way to preserve your garden’s bounty. Many vegetables can be frozen raw or after a quick blanching. Most frozen vegetables will remain good for up to a year. Some of the most commonly frozen vegetables are corn, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, squash, spinach, kale, chard, and collards.
Consider a Root Cellar for Long-term Storage
Root cellars are structures used to store produce. Many home root cellars are built in a corner of a basement or in a finished crawl space. It may be difficult to reach precise environmental conditions in a homemade fruit cellar. The goal should be to get as close as possible to the optimal conditions to extend the storage life of the produce.
To maximize your chance of successfully storing produce in a root cellar, start by selecting late-maturing, unblemished, healthy produce. Selecting the best produce goes a long way in preservation. Bruised and/or damaged produce can spoil quickly and ruin adjacent produce.
Resist the urge to wash your produce before storage. Wiping it with a dry cloth is all that needs to be done. If the produce is muddy or was harvested while still wet from dew or rain, be sure the surface of the produce is allowed to dry thoroughly before placing it in storage.
Aside from wiping the produce, some vegetables will store longer if cured. Onions and squash can be sun-cured by simply placing them out in the sun for a few days. Potatoes, on the other hand, should not be sun-cured, but, instead, cured in a dark area with high humidity and good ventilation.
A digital thermometer and/or hygrometer are helpful tools for monitoring the atmospheric conditions of a root cellar for both curing and storage.
Preserving Your Harvested Fruits & Vegetables
Preserving the harvest is a fabulous way to enjoy the fruits of your labor for an extended period of time. Learning how to preserve food is also a great way to become more self-sufficient. Growing and preserving your own food gives you more control over what you are putting into your body.
Drying is another useful technique when preserving your crops for the long haul. Fruits and vegetables can last for a year or more when dried properly. Culinary herbs and spices will maintain quality for up to three years when dried.
A dehydrator is a handy tool for drying fruits and vegetables. Some fruits and vegetables, along with culinary herbs, can simply be hung to dry in a dark, low-humidity environment. A solar dehydrator can also be used to speed up the drying process without using electricity.
Some of the most popular crops to preserve by drying are culinary herbs, spices, apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, strawberries, blueberries, carrots, celery, corn, green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes.
If you are looking to preserve your harvest even longer, canning is the way to go. When done correctly, canned goods can last for upwards of 20 years. However, although still likely safe to eat, the texture and flavors of the canned goods generally do not hold for that long. Most high-acid foods, such as tomatoes, will retain good flavor and/or texture for one to two years when canned. Low-acid foods, including most vegetables, will retain their quality for up to two to five years.
The water-bath canning method is pretty straightforward. The produce is packed into glass jars (with canning lids and bands) and submerged in boiling water for a specific length of time (check your recipe for duration). Once removed, the air within the jars escapes and an air-tight seal forms.
Some of the most common vegetables to can are tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn, various fruits, squash, leafy greens, asparagus, and carrots. Processing times vary depending on which produce is being preserved. Always make sure to follow the recommended processing time for the particular produce you are canning.
To preserve by fermentation, the produce is processed and submerged in a salt solution. Naturally occurring beneficial bacteria and yeasts will begin to establish in the mixture. The salt solution keeps pathogenic microorganisms out, while allowing the beneficial microorganisms to ferment the produce.
Fermented vegetables can be left in a crock for long-term storage or moved to the freezer, refrigerator, or even canned to extend storage even further. Sauerkraut and kimchi are perhaps the most well-known fermented vegetable concoctions.
The most popular produce to ferment includes cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, garlic, kohlrabi, peppers, radishes, snap beans, and turnips.
Whether a cultivator freezes, dries, cans, ferments, or uses a root cellar to preserve his or her crops, he or she will have the pleasure of enjoying and sharing the garden’s bounty in the middle of winter.
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