“Backyard gardening can inspire you to take an interest in the origins of your food and make better choices about what you put on your plate. When you grow your own food, you savor it more because of the effort it took to get to the table.” That’s according to Dr. Helen Delichatsios of Massachusetts General Hospital. If you planted a garden and are thinking about harvesting and storage, this information is for you, or it may inspire you to grow a garden next year. When it comes to harvest time, each crop truly has a very unique set of practices. Some crops should be left out for a frost, while others should be brought in when the nighttime temperatures approach 50 degrees. An acronym for this time of year to help explain fall harvest is appropriately named “THIS,” which stands for temperature, heat, in the soil and sweeten.
Cool and covered storage is for crops such as carrots, beets, potatoes, cabbage, rutabaga, kohlrabi and radishes, among others. Wash all these crops before storage. They will dry out over time and get rubbery. However, every month, rewash, sort through (peel back cabbage layers) and put them back in storage to lengthen their shelf life.
Room-temperature storage (60 degrees) applies to such crops as winter squash and sweet potatoes. These two crops should also be air-cured (to protect their skins) in a single layer for a few days before boxing them up in a well-ventilated area. While they can be eaten immediately, notice that after a few months they will definitely sweeten. Onions and garlic can be stored at room temperature, but they do last longer if you can keep them in the fridge.
Know your heat-loving plants. Pull them in once the temperatures get below 50 degrees, day or night. Once cool weather hits, they may “survive,” but they aren’t really going to grow, and their flavor does deteriorate (examples include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, basil and winter squash, among others). Green tomatoes can be pulled off the vine and ripened on the counter.
In the soil
Root crops can be harvested at any time, but if you need to, leave them in the ground. Most all root crops — sweet potatoes are an exception — are very cold-tolerant and can handle even light freezes. However, before the ground starts freezing, harvest them to avoid rot and splitting. Unprotected produce above the soil’s surface (beets, kohlrabi, etc.) should be harvested first.
Some vegetables (Brussels sprouts, kale and others) sweeten once they are hit by a frost. These plants have different cell structures, water content and sugars that allow them to keep from freezing in increasingly cool temperatures. Important: Harvest these plants during the day once they have thawed.
My final rule is: When in doubt, pick it! You will rarely hurt something by picking it too soon in the fall, but you certainly stand to lose something by waiting until it is too late.
Happy autumn to you all!
Jake Lambrecht and his family ran an organic, CSA farm, Garden of Weedin’, for eight years. He is currently the Urban Farm Manager at Nourish and manages the Educational Urban Farm on Geele Avenue.