This is the time of year when everything is reaching its zenith of production.
Big harvests are already starting, with massive ripening of peppers, tomatoes and melons. Picking crops like beans and harvesting potatoes and carrots are ongoing. Yet, soon the fall will be fully upon us, and storage crops will be lifted and put away for a winter supply.
Sweet potatoes and onions will need curing. And winter squash will need a timely harvest to ripen fully but not be left out for the frost.
The fall is also the time when all the spring crops come back into season. You can grow lettuces, radish and spinach of good quality in the cooler days of autumn.
One of the biggest fall jobs, though, is harvesting. So here are 9 tips for autumn harvest success.
1. Proper Maturity
Every crop has proper storage maturity. Under-mature squash won’t store, for example, while over-mature carrots are bitter.
Every crop variety has a “days to maturity” (DTM) marked on the seed packet. In some cases, this is the days to harvest from seed. Sometimes it is the days to harvest from transplanting into field, though, so make sure to read the seed packet.
Follow this closely as an indicator of when to harvest a crop, and mark approximate harvest dates on a calendar.
2. Indicators of Ripeness
Every crop has signs of its maturity and indicators that it is ripe for harvest. Eggplants, for example, will be a rich color and, although firm to the touch, will depress a little when squeezed slightly.
Watermelons have at least a dozen “indicators of ripeness.” We could write a short novel about whether or not a particular melon is ripe enough to suffer the harvest of outrageous fortune.
Some say it is the yellow spot on the bottom, or the distinct division between the dark green lines and light green skin. Or perhaps it is the sound it makes when you play drums on it. I usually go with the dried-up first leaf that is connected just past the where the stem meets the main vine.
Garlic is ripe when 40 to 50 percent of its green leafy material is dry or yellow.
3. Harvest Gear
Always have the right tools to harvest properly. When it is time to harvest—and especially if you have a big harvest—you will want to have tools to help you. You also need containers to hold the fruits of your labor and the proper equipment to process your harvest.
Carrots and garlic need a good digging fork for an efficient harvest. Apple picking can benefit from a Joey Apron to prevent bruising while picking. And a quality wash gun can help clean off soil.
4. The Weather Outside Is Frightful
Timing your harvest to coincide with good weather conditions is important.
Crops that need to cure (garlic, onions, etc.) are better harvested in drier soil. Otherwise, they come out dirty and require more drying to meet ideal storage requirements.
Overall, you should avoid harvesting in the rain as much as possible. Unless you have very sandy soil, rainy harvest days produce dirty crops that need more aggressive cleaning for use or storage. Even if you store your carrots dirty, you don’t want them caked with mud.
Excessive cleaning and muck removal can damage your crop in post-harvest handling procedures. This results in shorter storage times and a lower crop quality.
5. Avoid Harvest Damage
It is easy to damage a crop while you harvest, before it is even out of the ground. The classic example is piercing your carrots, garlic or potatoes with your digging fork.
Proper tool use can help you avoid this problem. Put your garden fork tip into the ground 2 to 3 inches away from your row of crops and push it fully into the soil with your foot. Then, and only then, pull back on the handle and tilt the tines under your row of root crop to help lift them out of the soil.
6. Helping Hands
A crop harvest can be a big activity. We often underestimate the amount of labor needed to get the crops out of the ground in good condition and in a timely manner.
Plan for adequate people power to get the crops out before fall rains come and ruin the onion wrappers or frost destroys the squash.
7. Avoid Frost Damage
Jack Frost may represent a slowing of the garden season and a time for rest and planning the next season. But make sure you harvest before he comes and ruins your hard work.
Know your frost-sensitive and frost-tolerant crops. Hardy crops like kale and cabbage can be left in the garden for later harvest while you prioritize sensitive crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. You can bulk up on harvesting these crops slightly under-ripe to let them ripen indoors to maximize your fall harvest.
In other cases, you can avoid a mild frost by using row cover to protect a crop, gaining another 7 to 14 days of frost-free harvest. On the other hand, crops like pumpkins and carrots can handle mild frost.
In the case of squash, a little frost kills off the foliage and reveals the squash for easy harvest. For carrots, a mild frost results in a sweeter crop. But leave either too long and you can get damage and a loss in storability and quality.
8. Cure and Clean Your Crop
Some crops require curing, the process of subjecting them to proper humidity, temperature and air flow, and light conditions.
For onions and garlic, curing dries the wrappers. You cure crops like sweet potatoes and squash, though, to harden the outer skin.
All crops need a little cleaning to remove excess dirt, debris and bugs. Research the best cleaning and curing procedures for your crops to ensure they last as long as possible in storage.
9. Store it Properly
Proper storage—meaning both the right containers and conditions—is the last and critical step in fall harvest preparedness.
If you don’t have a storage plan for your harvest, you could end up losing your harvest to rot, mold and spoilage. You will no longer have the delicious fall veggies to enjoy over fall and winter.
You also will have lost your crop after the point of maximum investment. All the work of growing a storage crop—from seeding to weeding to harvesting—maxes out just before storage. So, whether you store it in a fridge, a root cellar or a dry cellar—or even if you process or freeze it— your crop is only safe when it has been stored properly.
Keep growing, and have a great harvest!