Helpful Harvesting Hints

Follow these helpful hints for the best flavors and yields from your harvest in late summer and fall.

The best way to decide when an apple is ripe is observation and sampling. Take a bite! If the apple is juicy and tastes good it is ready. Color can be helpful, but some varieties turn red long before they are mature. Pick all similar appearing apples, leaving less ripe ones to more fully ripen. To store apples, loosely wrap them in newspaper; making sure apples do not touch each other. If stored in a cool, dark space they can be kept for up to five months.

Harvest cabbage when the head is firm and almost full. Using a knife, cut just at the base of the head. Leave roots and a few leaves on the plant and a second crop of smaller cabbages may grow on the stem.

Cantaloupe or Muskmelon
Muskmelons will not get sweeter after they are harvested, so don't rush to pick them. Check fruits every other day. Varieties with netted rinds should be harvested when the rind turns tan, they have a nice aroma, and the fruit stalk just starts to slip away from the fruit.

Pull or dig up carrots as the weather cools down. Mulch late-maturing carrots heavily and they can be harvested into the early winter months. Be careful digging or pulling them out so that you do not scrape or break them.

Harvest cucumbers regularly to keep fruit coming. If the fruit is left on the vine or bush too long after it has ripened, it may cause the plant to stop producing new flowers and fruit. After plants have set fruit, remove side shoots to send the plant's energy to the fruit. It will help them grow faster and larger. Pinch off the ends of the vines about two weeks before the first frost date. This will allow the fruit on the plant to mature before the frost.

Clip foliage throughout the season. Use fresh leaves or refrigerate for two to three days in plastic bags. To harvest seeds, cut off flower heads when dry and light brown. Collect in a paper bag. Store thoroughly dry seeds in airtight, dark glass jars.

Harvest when the skin is smooth and shiny. Cut fruiting stems with pruners -- never pull from the bush.

Harvest garlic when most of the plant's leaves have turned brown. Do not leave garlic bulbs in the ground for more than two weeks after the leaves have browned because their papery coverings will deteriorate and the bulbs will eventually break apart, reducing storage life.

Dig up roots after cold weather. Or mulch plants heavily with straw to stay in the ground for harvest throughout the winter. In very cold areas, leave parsnips in the ground to dig up in the spring, before growth begins.

In the summer, harvest tiny, new potatoes as soon as your plants bloom. Search the soil with your fingers to locate them. The main harvest is ready when the tops of the plants turn yellow and die back. Use any nicked potatoes immediately. For long term storage, cure potatoes for 10-14 days in a dark location with high humidity at 55-60 degrees F; then store at 40-45 degrees F in a location with good ventilation and moderate humidity.

Cut peppers off the plant at mid-stem using a sharp knife or pruning shears. Trying to pull peppers off the plant can break the branch and reduce yield for the season. For the best yield, pick the first set of peppers when they are green, then let the next set ripen to their mature color and size. This tricks the plant into thinking that it has produced too few peppers, so it then produces more. Keep the yield strong by picking peppers as soon as they reach their mature color, rather than letting them age on the plant.

Pumpkins are ripe when the vines die back, but be sure to harvest before frost. Pick when the skin does not dent with your fingernail. Cut pumpkins free from the vines with a small saw. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the usually quite prickly stems and underside of the leaves.

Sweet Potatoes
Begin harvesting smaller tubers as soon as they reach usable size. Those that remain will continue to grow. Harvest the final crop before fall cold sets in as a sudden cold snap will kill the plants and can damage the tubers. Start digging a foot out from the main plant to avoid damaging tubers. Flavor improves with storage. Cure them at 80-85 degrees F for two weeks before storing them at 55-60 degrees F.

For the best flavor, pick the fruits after they have fully ripened on the plant. Pick up and wash dropped fruits. If frost threatens, pick all fruit and ripen indoors or use green tomatoes. Green or ripe tomatoes can be frozen for use in cooking throughout the winter.

Harvest turnip greens with a sharp knife as soon as they are tall enough. Pull roots by grasping plants at the base of the leaves. Turnips are best when harvested when the roots reach between two and three inches in diameter. Turnips will keep best when harvested before a heavy frost. Store the turnips in a cool place in boxes of damp sawdust or sand. Greens can be frozen. Winter crops harvested after frost have best flavor. In mild climates, plant in fall and grow over winter.

Harvest melons when their curly tendrils are brown and shriveled and the fruit sounds hollow when tapped.

Winter Squash
Cut fruits from the vines with clean, sharp pruners when the rinds are hard enough that they cannot be dented with a fingernail. Leave one inch of stem attached to the fruit. If you have a problem with rotting squash, place young fruits on boards to keep them off the ground. You can also use small cans like tuna cans, with the top and bottom removed.

Harvest when zucchinis are two inches in diameter and six to eight inches long. Check every day and harvest to keep the plant producing and to keep zucchinis from becoming large and tough. Use a sharp knife to cut the stem about one inch above the zucchini itself.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.

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