The hard work of maintaining your vegetable garden is nearly over. Now comes the most satisfying part — harvesting your bounty.
How do you know when to harvest, and how to store the vegetables you've picked? Here are some tips:
- Garlic — First, cut back on water as maturity approaches to help eliminate staining and molding. When only three or four green leaves remain, check a plant to see whether skins have formed between the cloves. If so, dig the plants and let them dry in a shady, airy place for two or three weeks. Then tie them in bundles, and hang them in a cool, dry place to let them cure, which brings out the full flavor. Depending on the variety, they'll keep for three to 10 months.
- Onions — As onions reach maturity, the tops fall over. When at least half have fallen over, push over the rest and dig a week later. Dry in a shady, well-ventilated place. This curing process is necessary if you want your onions to keep well. When all leaves are thoroughly dry and brown, clip them off about two inches above the bulb. Store in mesh bags or in a single layer in shallow boxes. Like garlic, keeping ability depends on variety; store for three to 10 months.
- Potatoes — After vines dry, if you have well-drained soil and stop watering your potatoes, they will keep in the ground until fall rains begin. However, if they get watered, they may begin to sprout while still in the ground. If you decide to dig and store them, let the surface dry completely for a few days, then store at 40-45 degrees. It is very important to keep them completely in the dark to prevent them from turning green, which makes them unfit to eat. Do not store in the refrigerator, as this turns their starch to sugar, and the potatoes will not have a good flavor.
- Pumpkins and winter squash — These hard-rind fruits should be harvested when fully mature, but before a killing frost. One way to check maturity is to see whether you can penetrate the rind with your thumbnail. If not, it's mature. Cut them from the vine, leaving about an inch of stem attached. Store in a dry place at about 60 degrees; a cool room in the house is fine. People often laugh when I say I store squash in a shallow box under the bed, but it works very well.
If you have trouble with squash molding, wipe them with a weak bleach solution, let dry, then store. They'll keep for several months.
- Root crops, including carrots — These can be left in the ground all winter and dug as needed, as parsnips and carrots sweeten nicely after a couple of frosts. A thick layer of straw or leaves will give them all the protection they need in our Rogue Valley winters.
- Tomatoes — Keep ripe tomatoes picked as the end of the season nears. If frost threatens, pick maturing green ones and store one-layer deep in shallow boxes at about 55 to 60 degrees. Check weekly for decay; you should have fresh tomatoes at Thanksgiving. Remember that tomatoes, like bananas, should never be refrigerated at any stage of ripeness. It ruins the flavor.
You can register now for the Master Gardener's annual Winter Dreams/Summer Gardens all-day gardening symposium. The date is Saturday, Nov. 7, and the place is the Higher Education Center in Medford. Check your local nursery or call the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center at 541-776-7371 for a registration packet.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. E-mail her at email@example.com.