Harvesting Your Fruits and Veggies
Updated: Nov 2
It's harvest time! The most wonderful, and busy, time of year. (Hence my absence from publishing articles lately. Sorry! I am back in the swing of things now.) This is the first article in a whole series on harvesting. After all, we need to do something with all those beautiful fruits and vegetables we have grown!
We are going to start with this general overview, giving you some good tips and tricks for picking your produce as well as how to tell when they are at their best for harvesting. Successive articles will cover the four major methods of storing and preserving all your goodies: cold storage, drying, freezing, and canning. Lastly, we will publish a comprehensive list of the best ways to store each item, one for vegetables and one for fruits. Hopefully, these articles will be a great reference for you every harvest season to come.
Getting Ready for the Harvest
Before we begin to think about picking our fruits and veggies and bringing them inside, we need to make sure we have room for them. This means a good clean out of our freezer, pantry, and fridge. We will need the room! We also need to stock up on all the supplies we will need to preserve that produce. If we are going to be doing some canning, we will need mason jars, lids, and screw bands. If we will be doing some freezing, we will need zip top bags, vacuum seal bags, or freezer containers. For pickles we need pickling salt and vinegar. For both canning preserves and for baking we will need sugar, and all of our baked goods need flour. Pull out all your favourite recipes, and maybe a few new ones to try out. Make a list of all the equipment and ingredients you will need and stock up. The last thing you want to do is to have to rush to the store in the middle of a monster tomato sauce making marathon!
When To Harvest
Once we have everything together it's time to harvest! But how do we know when the best time to harvest each fruit and vegetable is? There are a couple of considerations when making that decision.
We live in a pretty cold climate, and regardless of whether things are ripe or not, we often have to harvest them if frost is predicted. This is the time of year to keep a very close eye on that weather forecast! Nighttime temperatures are what we are most interested in. Many weather apps will give you an alert if frost is predicted, and as gardeners these are well worth downloading.
When frost is predicted, we need to make a big decision. If this frost is only for one or two nights and warmer temperatures are predicted for awhile after that frost, it may be worth covering our plants to protect them for that short period of time. This will give them some more growing time this year and hopefully allow a few more things to ripen before cold weather really sets in. You can cover with special frost cloth, old bedsheets, or cardboard boxes; whatever you happen to have on hand. Plastic sheets aren't a great idea in this application. Put them on in the evening and remember to remove them in the morning, once it warms up a bit. If there is chance of frost the following evening, put everything back on again that night. You must take off you covers during the day so that your plants get light and air for at least a few hours.
If the frost warning is part of a longer trend and it looks like we may be done with warm temperatures for the year, we need to take action! All of our frost tender fruits and vegetables will need to be picked and brought inside (see the list below). Don't stress if these are not fully ripe when you pick them. Many of these will continue to ripen on our counter tops. Tomatoes, for example, will continue to turn red and have great flavour if they are past the breaker stage (their shoulders have just begun to get a red or pink hue). If they are not at the breaker stage, they may also ripen, their flavour just won't be quite as yummy. When we have an early winter, I usually have a huge number of green tomatoes laid out on newspaper in my furnace room waiting to get their summer colours.
Frost tender vegetables include: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, ground cherries, summer squash (like zucchini), beans, cucumbers, corn, most greens (lettuce, spinach, Asian greens, etc.), peas, apricots, plums, berries, cherries, some apples, and some pears (depends on variety).
Fortunately, there are many vegetables and fruits that will easily survive light frosts. In fact, many of our root vegetables will taste even better after a light frost. Things like carrots start to convert their starches into sugars with low temperatures, making them super sweet. It's that sugar that makes them tolerate frost better; it acts as an antifreeze, preventing plant cell walls from bursting.
If a hard frost, or a killing frost is predicted, it is time to pick and bring in all of our produce, even the frost tolerant ones. A hard frost occurs with more than 4 consecutive hours below -2 C or when the ground freezes to a depth of 2" - 4". This is the end of the growing season for us and it's time to pack it in.
Is It Ripe?
The very fist thing I always tell people when deciding if your produce is ripe, is to check your seed packages. Most of the time there is a pretty, colourful picture on it that will show you what a ripe vegetable looks like. Use this to judge colour and, to a certain extent, size. There is another piece of important information that is on every seed package, and that is the days to maturity. This is a range of days that your plant takes to grow from when it is planted outside (either from seed or as a transplant) to when it is ready to be harvested. Keep in mind this amount of time is approximate! Every year is different so it is best to use this as a guideline only.
There are also specific indications of ripeness for certain fruits and vegetables.
Colour is one of the most obvious ones. Things like tomatoes, peppers, and berries are ripe when they are fully saturated with their designated colour. Note that this is not always red for tomatoes. We have green, purple, pink, yellow and even black tomatoes out there too!
Size is another way to tell when some vegetables have reached their peak. Zucchini, cucumber, carrots, beets, okra, and rhubarb all have and ideal length at which they should be picked. They may grow bigger than this (zucchini is a prime example) but they will be tastiest at the size indicated on the package. Different varieties of a vegetable will have different ideal sizes, so check each variety separately. For greens, an ideal size in terms of height is often given. Spinach, chard, Asian greens, celery, and collards all have their prime flavours when they are tall enough to make them worth harvesting, but not so tall that they have gotten tough or bitter.
A plant with browning leaves and drooping stems is the indication to pick our alliums and many of our winter squashes. Garlic and shallots are ready to pull when 1/3 to 1/2 of the leaves have gone dry and brown. Onions are ready when the stems soften and fall over. Corn is fully ripe when the silks are dry and brown (although you should peak at the kernels to double check).
For apples and pears, it can be really hard to tell if they are ripe just by looking at them. Colour and softness don't work well for them. What we need to do is actually cut them open. It's the seeds that tell us if they are ripe. Dark brown or black seeds tell us the fruit is ripe. White or yellowish seeds mean they need some more time on the tree.
Lastly, for most of our fruit, including our fruiting vegetables, softness and sweetness are the indication of ripeness. This includes tomatoes, eggplant, plums, apricots, and cherries. Tasting is a tough job, but someone has to do it!
When to Harvest Early
Okay, so we know when our produce is perfectly ripe. Is there any situation when we may want to harvest them before they are fully ripe? Well, yes there is. Thanks for asking! Many people harvest vegetables early that tend to get munched on by garden pests. Tomatoes are a prime example. They always tend to get little bite marks in them from insects, rodents, or birds just before they are perfectly ripe. So frustrating! The solution to this is to harvest them before they are ripe, any time after the breaker stage. Remember, they will ripen just fine on our counter top, and they will do so without any nibbles taken out of them. (Unless your pets and kids have a taste for unripe tomatoes. I will leave you to figure out that situation!)
Fruits and vegetables that will continue to ripen on the counter include: tomatoes, peppers, pears, ground cherries, plums, and apricot.
Another great reason to harvest early is when we want baby vegetables. These are pricey treats from the grocery store that we can get for cheap when we grow them ourselves. There is another advantage to harvesting vegetables at the baby stage. It often leaves us enough time to plant another succession of vegetables in that garden location. Take beets, for example. Most beets have a days to maturity of 50 to 65 days. That typically means one round of plants per season here in our climate. However, if we were to harvest them earlier than that, when they are still relatively small, we have a good chance of replanting seed and getting a second harvest in before the end of the season. Twice as many beets!
In contrast to harvesting early, there may be occasions where we want to wait to harvest. While some vegetables will easily over ripen if left out in the garden, some will be absolutely fine for a few extra days, or even weeks. Harvest season is really busy! And, honestly, it is more important to get those tomatoes dealt with before they turn to mush than to pull up those carrots from the garden. They will be just fine out there in the ground, even if we get a frost, until we are ready for them.
How To Harvest Tips
Besides picking our fruits and vegetables at their peak ripeness, there are a couple other ways to ensure our produce is at its best when we bring it to the table. Here are some tips and tricks for harvesting and storing for the yummiest produce possible:
The absolute best time of day to harvest almost all of our vegetables and fruits is in the late afternoon or early evening. This is when they have their highest levels of sugars and are therefore at their tastiest. Berries are an exception to this rule. They tend to get too soft and mushy in the heat at this time. Try to pick them in the morning if possible. You also want to harvest everything when they are dry. Damp produce equals poor storage, due to increase chance of rot, mold and mildew. Wait for a dry day.
The best tool for harvesting is a sharp pair of scissors, pruning shears, or knife. Sharp is the key word here. A sharp tool will cut cleanly and prevent excess damage to our plants. The exception to this one is rhubarb. We want to pull and twist rhubarb to harvest the stems. This will stimulate the plant to produce more stems, which means more for us to harvest. Cutting stems won't give us the same result.
When we are harvesting root vegetables, we always want to loosen the soil before pulling. I don't know about you, but I have pulled the tops off a million carrots, leaving the tasty roots in the soil. So annoying! Just use a shovel or pitchfork right from the beginning. It will save you time in the long run and keep you from missing topless root vegetables when harvesting. Alliums should also have the soil around them loosened before pulling, but for a different reason. Garlic, onions, and shallots all have papery coverings around their bulbs, and we want to keep as many of those layers as possible. When we loosen the soil, the maximum number of layers are retained. The more papery layers that are on the them, the longer they are going to last in storage. One warning, make sure you don't stab your veggies in the process of loosening the soil.
Any produce that is squishable should be picked into and stored in shallow containers. Too many layers and you will end up with mush. Berries, I'm looking at you here.
Don't forget to use as many parts of the plant as possible! All those broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and turnip leaves are edible. So are carrot tops and apples peels. For example, when I make apple juice, I use the leftover mush to make apple sauce. Apple peels easily turn into vinegar. And carrot tops make a great pesto. The result is less food waste and more delicious food for us.
Hold off on washing until just before freezing, drying, processing, or eating. Washing introduces excess moisture that will speed up the decaying process, especially when being held in the refrigerator or at room temperature.
Only store your very best ones, especially for long term storage. Any produce with bruises, spots, or physical damage should be used up immediately. They just won't store well. Those imperfections will begin to rot or mold quickly and potentially ruin the surrounding fruit or vegetables as well.
Coming Up Next
Hopefully I piqued your interest here and have you wondering about all the ways you can store and preserve the bounty of your edible gardens. The next few articles will go into details on the four ways we can preserve our harvest. We will start with cold storage, then go into freezing, then drying and finally canning (that's going to be a big one!). Which method you choose will depend on which fruit or vegetable you are preserving, how much time you have available and the quality of finished product you need. We will finish up this series with a comprehensive listing of each vegetable and fruit, with information on the best time and way to harvest, as well as the best storage and preservation methods for each. Are you ready for a productive harvest season? I hope so!
Yummy gardening everyone!