Harvesting & Storage
There are four steps to a successful harvest: proper garden planning, timing when to pick, storing vegetables to keep them fresh, and choosing the right method to preserve the crop's flavour.
We have put together some useful information on how to plan for a successful harvest, general harvesting guidelines, and how to store food in preparation for preserving.
When To Pick
The main point behind growing your own vegetables is how much better they taste fresh from the garden. The only failsafe way to guarantee harvesting vegetables at the optimal time is to taste test. However, there are some guidelines for judging when vegetables are ripe and ready for harvest. Keep in mind that great flavor isn’t a simple matter of size or color. Without the right combination of soil, sun and water many vegetables can vary greatly in taste and performance.
There are no precise guidelines as to when to harvest your vegetables, but there are some rules of thumb to guide you. Most vegetables are harvested just before full maturity, for maximum flavor and the most pleasant texture. The following are vegetable harvesting criteria for judging whether your vegetables are ready for picking.
General Harvesting Techniques
- Harvest at the proper stage of maturity, not before. You can harvest most vegetables several times if you harvest only the part that is ready.
- Harvest on time. Harvest okra every 1 or 2 days. This also applies to summer squash, beans, and cucumbers.
- Harvest when the foliage is dry. Tramping through wet foliage spreads diseases.
- Don’t damage foliage by stepping on vines or breaking stems. This creates wounds and entrances for diseases.
- Don’t harvest when plants are wilted. Wounds made by harvesting permit water loss, which increases water stress inside the plant.
- Immediately move freshly harvested vegetables into the shade and keep them cool.
- Use freshly harvested vegetables as soon after harvest as possible.
- Don’t injure the plant during harvest. Gently remove the part to be harvested from the plant. Cut eggplants and watermelons with a knife. Cut okra that won’t snap off.
Time to Harvest
In general, try to harvest during the coolest part of the day - either early morning or late afternoon. Harvest when crops are dry.
If you're harvesting a vegetable for fresh eating, pick it just before mealtime. This preserves its flavour and nutrients. The sugars in the vegetable start turning to starch within minutes of harvesting. Pick an ear of corn and pop it straight into the cooking pot, for example, for optimum sweetness. If you're harvesting a vegetable for preserving, harvest it as soon before processing as possible.
Pick Early and Often
Many vegetables should be picked young, when they're at their sweetest. As vegetables mature, their sugar turns to starch. Root crops can become bitter and woody if grown too large. Check days to maturity and expected root size of each variety to gauge the best time to pick root vegetables.
With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more they'll produce. Fruiting vegetables such as cucumbers contain the seeds for the next generation. As soon as there are enough mature seeds, the plant gets the signal to stop producing fruit. If you keep picking the fruit while its seeds are still immature, the plant is tricked into thinking it needs to keep producing more fruit to propagate itself.
When Older is Better
Some crops should be harvested at maturity. Winter squash and tomatoes, for example, should be left to ripen on the vine. Some vegetables, such as carrots, can be harvested at any stage.
Don't Let Them Bolt
When the heat of summer hits, the natural tendency of cool-weather crops such as flowering brassicas and leafy greens is to reproduce and go to seed, or bolt. Pick these vegetables before they bolt and become bitter or otherwise unusable.
The only way to experience vegetables at their prime is to grow them yourself. For best results, harvest your vegetables the day you plan to eat them, preferably early in the morning. Sprinkle them lightly with water and store them in a cool place until you're ready to prepare them.
Some vegetables, such as parsnips, carrots and potatoes, keep well in the ground until needed. Others have a short harvest window and should be picked promptly when ripe.
Planning for a Successful Harvest
The first step to a successful harvest is to plan your garden. Determine the desired yield for each vegetable. Don't grow more than you and your family - and friends and neighbours - can eat. The second step also starts at the planning stage. Choose several varieties of the same vegetable that mature at different times. Plant early, midseason, and late season varieties of tomatoes, for example, to stagger the harvest. This not only provides you with fresh tomatoes throughout the growing season, but it keeps you from having more tomatoes than you can eat, process, or give away at any given time.
Successive plantings of a single crop can accomplish the same purpose: for example, planting a row of lettuce every two to three weeks. Another option is to select varieties that bear over a long period of time rather than all at once, such as beans.
Even if you've planned ahead and spread out the harvest, you'll still have times when you have more produce to harvest than you can eat or have time to process. In a pinch, you can tray freeze many vegetables. See "Freezing Your Vegetables" for instructions.
Finding a place to store all your produce during the peak harvesting season can be a challenge. Most vegetables, with the exception of tomatoes, can be refrigerated for a short period of time before processing.
A cooler or other insulated container filled with ice is a good temporary option if your refrigerator is full. Keep your freezer well-stocked with ice - either cubes or water-filled plastic containers with screw-top lids - to use for this purpose.
With a little knowledge and planning, you can make your life a lot easier at harvest time!
How can you make your homegrown vegetables last longer? The last thing you want after all your efforts is your yearly carrot consumption to be squeezed into an overloaded fortnight, or your cucumbers to rot before you pick them. Well, here’s some good news: storing vegetables wisely can make their ‘use-by’ date much longer.
Follow our simple steps to help prolong the life expectancy of your home grown vegetables:
Drying and cold storage
This ia an easy and inexpensive way to preserve and store vegetables. Onions, garlic, and hot peppers are usually dried. Winter squash, potatoes, and root crops are best kept in cold storage. General Guidelines:-
- Plant vegetable varieties bred for winter keeping.
- Don't wash vegetables before putting into cold storage - use a brush to remove soil.
- Cut tops off root vegetables.
- Check vegetables in cold storage frequently and remove any that are spoiled.
Choose your location and preservation method for storing vegetables based on the vegetable's preferred temperature and humidity, as listed below:
- Cool and dry: onions
- Cool and moist: root crops, potatoes, cabbage
- Warm and dry: winter squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, dried hot peppers
- In-ground Vegetable Storage
Roots, tubers, and bulb vegetables require little effort to store. Some vegetables - including beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips - can be left in the ground until you want to use them. Cover with a 1-2 foot (30-60 cm) layer of mulch such as straw or hay, which will trap air and won't become saturated with water, an easy way of storing vegetables. You can also use wood chips or leaves if you remove them before they decompose in the spring.
The upside of in-ground storage is that it's easy. The downside is that vegetables can be damaged if it's too cold or too rainy, and harvesting is difficult to impossible if the ground is frozen - a case where cold storage isn't the best option. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are not suitable for in-ground storage.
Root Cellaring And Storing Vegetables
Storage spaces in the home can approximate old-fashioned root cellars. Your "root cellar" should be a cool, dry, dark space, such as a cool cupboard, closet, basement, or garage. Optimal cold storage temperatures are 45°-50°F (7°-10°C). The best storing vegetables for root cellaring are beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins, rutabagas (swedes), turnips, and winter squash.
As a type of cold storage, some vegetables store well packed in layers of damp sand or sawdust in wooden boxes, crocks, or plastic buckets. Beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips can be preserved this way. Place boxes where they will be stored - they've heavy when full - and alternate layers of vegetables and layers of damp sand.
Freezing is a fast and easy way to preserve your the vegetables you've grown in your garden. You can also freeze store-bought vegetables that you can't use right away, or you can chop and freeze vegetables to have ready to add to soups or stews. Freezing vegetables is easy, and in most cases you don't need special freezing equipment.
The Advantages Of Freezing Vegetables
- Freezing retains 100% of the vitamin C in vegetables
- The colour, flavour and texture of frozen vegetables is more like fresh than other preservation methods
- Freezing is quick and easy
- Freezing doesn't require specialised freezing equipment
The Problems With Frozen Vegetables
- Freezing vegetables causes the loss of vitamins E and B6
- You may not have enough space in your freezer compartment
- The cost of buying and running a standalone freezer can be expensive
General Tips For Freezing Vegetables
- Set your freezer temperature at 0°F (-18°C) which keeps vegetables safe and is energy efficient
- Freeze only good-quality vegetables that are on the young side; larger vegetables are better canned or stored in a root cellar
- Squeeze air out of plastic freezer bags: air promotes oxidation and freezer burn, affecting vegetable quality
Blanching Vegetables Before Freezing
Most vegetables should be blanched (immersed in boiling water) before freezing unless they will be consumed within three months. Blanching destroys enzymes that affect the vegetable's flavour, colour and texture. Blanching times vary by vegetable.
Basic Procedure for Freezing Vegetables
Consult a good book on food preservation for appropriate blanching times and details on freezing each vegetable. Below is the general procedure for freezing vegetables:
- Assemble your freezing equipment
- Start boiling water in your kettle
- Thoroughly wash vegetables with a vegetable brush; remove all traces of dirt, stems, or other debris
- Drain vegetables on absorbent toweling and pat dry
- Cut up vegetables if desired (slice, dice, etc.)
- Fill large bowl or pot with cold water and ice
- Place vegetables in sieve or wire basket
- Plunge basket into rapidly boiling water and blanch vegetables for recommended time for particular vegetable
- Pour the blanched vegetables immediately into the bowl of ice water to stop cooking
- When cooled, lift vegetables from ice water, spread out on towelling, and pat dry to remove excess moisture
- Put vegetables in a shallow pan and freeze solid
- Pack loose vegetables in resealable plastic bags or other containers
- Label container with contents and date (labelling before filling is easier)
Tray Freezing For Vegetables
If you're pressed for time, tray freezing is a quick alternative to traditional freezing methods. Wash and dry the vegetables, cut them up (the smaller the pieces, the quicker they'll freeze), spread them out in a shallow pan and freeze. Once they're frozen, pour them into freezer bags and keep as per other frozen vegetables. Use within 2 months, preferably in sauces or stews.