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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Winding Down the Harvest

Whether we like it or not, it's time for a vegetable gardening reality check. In spite of our summer-like daytime temperatures here in late September (easily 10 degrees above normal), the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting cooler, and our plants know it. So let's take some steps to start winding down the harvest, and help our plants do their best in the home stretch.

Take a realistic look at your veggie plants. Focus on which individual vegetables stand a chance of growing big enough, quickly enough, to amount to something usable before our first frost. Lop off the small fry, unless they can be used as "baby" veggies. (More on that in a moment.) This way, the vegetables that have time to mature will get all of the plant's energy, rather than wasting water, nutrients and sunshine on individual veggies that will almost certainly be too little, too late.

Take squash, for example. The "summer" squashes.... zucchini, crookneck, patty pan.... the types of squash with a tender skin... can often be used as "babies." High-end restaurants charge extra for these, so there's no need to waste them, as long as the variety you're growing tastes good while it's small.

But with winter squash like acorn and hubbard, the tough-skinned types, the juvenile fruit aren't very flavorful or sweet. I cut them off and toss them into the compost pile....or in my case, let Vinny, the yellow Lab, proudly carry them around all afternoon like some kind of prize, then toss them into the compost pile. With winter squash, the mature, full-sized fruit can take a light frost. Some folks say a few colds nights actually improve their flavor. But you don't want to leave them out if a hard freeze is expected.

Same with potatoes. Leave them in the ground 'til a frost has killed back their leaves, then harvest. Or if baby potatoes fill the bill, go ahead and gently dig them out now. Rub off the soil and let them air dry a bit, so they last longer in storage.

What about other veggies that are fully or mostly underground, like beets, turnips and carrots? As long as they're not crowding eachother, and they're being watered properly, no need to worry. They'll be fine well into our colder temperatures.

Picking tomatoes is a judgment call. As we covered in my last blog, full-sized tomatoes will generally continue to ripen at room temperature. If it's green tomatoes you want for pickling, it's easy enough to leave the larger ones and can the smaller fruit. Either way, I wouldn't leave all of them on the plant. Remember that you may see their rate of ripening slow down significantly as our overnight temps drop below ~ 50 degrees. Maybe pick some, leave others, and see what works best for you.

Other sun-loving plants like eggplant and peppers can be harvested once they reach an acceptable size, although they may be far less "meaty" than the mature fruit. Once again, favoring the larger fruit and sacrificing the smaller ones may be your best bet. Ditto for cucumbers. Pick the small ones, and use them if they taste good. Melons don't seem to sweeten up
at all 'til they're close to their mature size, so the smaller ones may not be usable.

A lot of the leafy vegetables.... spinach, kale, Swiss chard... can easily handle some light frost. And most lettuce varieties can take a bit of cold. You might even get away with planting some of these from seed now. They all grow better in cooler, rather than hotter, daytime temperatures.

The cold-loving veggies like cabbages, brussel sprouts and broccoli.... as their name implies, they're fine with cold nights... even a not-so-hard freeze.

So in general, make your harvest the best it can be by doing some selective picking. Continue to water thoroughly, but don't over-water. Deep and infrequent watering is best for all but the most shallow-rooted crops.

As much as I hate letting go of the last of the tomato crop, I actually welcome the change of seasons. Everything... and most everyone... can do with a little break.

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