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Harvesting and Preserving Vegetables

By John Pohly, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture

You've watered, weeded, fertilized and cultivated. Now you are standing knee-deep in cabbage, squash and tomatoes wondering just when and how to harvest them.

Here's a harvesting primer that will guarantee maximum nutrition and flavor from the crops you tended so carefully all season.

WINTER SQUASH AND PUMPKINS: Harvest when these vegetables have reached their full ripe color and when it is difficult to penetrate the skin with a thumbnail. Pick before a frost and store in a cool, dark place that will not reach freezing temperatures. Leave stems on to prevent disease invasion.

POTATOES: For "new" potatoes, harvest any time and use for cooking. For storing, wait until the vines die down and store the same as squash.

ROOT CROPS (beets, turnips, rutabagas, winter radishes and kohlrabi): They store best where grown until there's a danger of soil freezing. You can delay harvesting by hilling soil over the shoulders of carrots and beets; To further protect from freezing, you can pile straw and soil over the rows, thus delaying harvesting even longer. This group of vegetables store best at home in an area of near freezing with a high relative humidity.

ONIONS: Harvest as soon as the tops fall; this will prevent basal rot. Pull, remove tops and store onions in mesh bags until the necks have dried down. During this drying time, hang the bags outside in a protected area where they'll get good air circulation. When the onions rustle while handling, they are ready to move into indoor, protected storage where it is cool and dry.

PARSNIPS: They will withstand freezing which means you can leave part of the crop in the ground to be dug in the spring when the flavor will be greatly improved.

CELERY AND LATE CABBAGE: Harvest after the frost has stopped their growth. Pull celery with roots attached; cut cabbage and remove loose outer leaves.

Store celery by packing into a trench in an upright position; backfill with soil to cover the celery; place paper, boards and more soil on top of this. The celery will root, bleach, tenderize and develop a nutty flavor when removed at Christmas time. Pack the cabbage in a pit upside down so the covering soil doesn't work its way into the head.

TOMATOES: Harvest tomatoes if they've started to turn light green or blush. If they are a dead green, they probably won't ripen. Wrap individually in newspapers, place in a box in a cool place and check periodically. The tomatoes probably will ripen within 2 weeks depending upon the temperature of the storage area and the maturity of the tomato.

GREEN BEANS: Harvest snap beans when there's a slight bulge to the seed, but before it becomes firm. If they get lumpy, they've gone too far. The bean will be too firm and tough and the pod will be stringy.

SHELL BEANS: Let them go all the way. They are specific varieties that are meant to be left until the pods dry on the vine. If you pick them too green, they'll begin to mold and will be difficult to dry.

Store only top-quality vegetables. Don't store vegetables that show deterioration from a disease, bruising or insect damage; such damage could spread and cause, not only the loss of one vegetable, but the loss of adjacent vegies.

Photo: Judy Sedbrook

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010