Harvesting: when are crops ready?

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It’s time to bring in the harvest and prepare crops for storage. Photo: Shutterstock

Lots of vegetable patch crops are ready for harvesting now, but how do you know when to pick them – and which ones can be harvested and stored?

Follow our harvesting guide and don’t let a single bean, pumpkin or pepper go to waste. Knowing when and how to harvest different fruit and vegetables – and especially how to treat different crops so they can be stored and kept for longer – is a key way to preserve the vegetable garden’s bounty.

Most crops fall into one of three groups. The first is hardy, wintry vegetables that can be left on the vegetable plot throughout the coldest weather. Harvest as and when they are needed (some even taste better after a frost).

Brussels sprouts spring to mind, as do parsnips and leeks, another tough crop that can be lifted to order. Leek varieties that have blue or purple tinged flags, such as ‘Northern Lights’ tend to be hardier than greener cultivars.

Which vegetables can I keep and store?

The second group are fruit and vegetables that need to be harvested or they will deteriorate, but they will happily store for months in the right conditions. Not many gardeners dig Victorian straw-lined vegetable clamps these days, but the principle of storing produce in a cool, dark place holds true. A cellar, garage or outbuilding is perfect.

Harvesting
Don’t let apples in store touch each other by wrapping fruit in tissue. Photo: Shutterstock

Apples are the perfect candidate for such storage, ready for harvesting throughout autumn depending on cultivar. Cup one and if it is ripe it will come away in your hand. Only store blemish-free, undamaged fruit as brown rotting patches will spread throughout the crop. Lay the apples out so they don’t touch – a purpose built store is ideal – or wrap each one in tissue paper. Only a few will keep in the fridge’s salad drawer.

Harvesting
Lay harvested onions out until skins turn bronze and crisp for storing. Photo: Shutterstock

Onions and shallots have great keeping qualities, ready to harvest when their leaves have completely died down naturally. If the foliage is dying back but the weather turns wet, lift them. Onions don’t store well if they have been allowed to get damp. To get onions ready for store, they need to be dried until their skins ripen to a bronzy-orange. A chicken wire rack that lets air circulate is ideal. Keep them in the sun if possible, but if it’s raining, dry them off in the shed or greenhouse instead. Once dry and crisp, hang them somewhere cool, dry and dark. Garlic can also be stored like this. They will last for months but check regularly and discard any that feel soft.

Harvesting
Store potatoes in a hessian sack in a dark place to stop them sprouting. Photo: Shutterstock

Potatoes will store for months, as long as blemished or rotting tubers are banished. Keep sound tubers in the dark so they do not shoot or turn green. Hessian potato sacks are handy for a big harvest. Although they’ll survive in the ground, it is better to lift potatoes. They do not fare well in wet, autumnal soil, slugs can cause damage, and they could help carry blight over to next year.

Root veg such as carrots and beetroot are ready when you are and most can be left in the ground for a little while. Once lifted, they’ll keep in a simple version of a clamp made by simply filling boxes with damp sand and storing the roots in layers in them.

Pumpkins and squashes are ready when they make a hollow sound when you tap them. To reach that point they need plenty of sun so cut away leave to expose the fruits. Once cut, leave them on a greenhouse bench to soak up the sun and cure and harden the skin, then they will store throughout winter.

Which vegetables need harvesting and using up?

The last group are crops that do not sore. These need harvesting when they are at the pinnacle of ripeness, and are often those that tend to come in gluts, requiring deft kitchen ingenuity or a large freezer.

Brassicas such as cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli need harvesting when they’ve developed a heart or curd that justifies picking. Leave them any longer and a slug or cabbage white will find them. Courgettes should be picked small and are best eaten straightaway but will keep in the fridge. Don’t delay with sweetcorn: the moment the tassels turn brown and the kernels release a milky sap when pierced, harvest and whisk to the kitchen before their sugars turn to starch. Soft fruit such as raspberries lend themselves to being frozen or made into jams or jellies.

Harvesting
Drying chillies creates a long-lasting kitchen ingredient. Photo: Shutterstock

Deal with a bumper crop of chillies by drying them, either hanging them up in a warm, dry place, or putting them on trays in a very low oven until crisp. They can also be frozen whole. Sweet peppers are best eaten fresh when picked.

If at the end of the season there are still green tomatoes on your plants, cut the plant off at the bottom of its stem and hang upside down in the greenhouse. The fruits should ripen. You can also try leaving ripe bananas among the plants, or putting picked green tomatoes in a bowl with a banana. Ripe tomatoes won’t store, but can be made into sauces, soups and passata to enjoy the taste of summer for months to come.

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