Margaret Lauterbach

The calendar tells us it’s harvest time, so know the rules of ripening

Know exactly when to pick your peppers.
Know exactly when to pick your peppers. Chicago Tribune

This is a month of early harvest and preparation for fall harvests. For fall crops, transplant cole crops such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and collards soon. Start those seeds indoors, because your soil is too hot for germination. If they’re not ready for harvest before first frost, they’ll still be OK. Those plants are tolerant of frosts. Wait until September, at least, for planting winter lettuce and spinach because the hot weather in late July, August and probably September will cause them to bolt to flower, leaving leaves bitter.

Some potatoes are ready to harvest now. After plants die back, stop water and wait a few days before digging. Wait until October to dig sweet potatoes, though. If you’re growing sweet corn, when ears are ready for harvest, they cock away from the stalk, silks are brown (or if missing, they’ve probably been pollinated anyway), and the end of the ear feels rounded, not sharply pointed. Or peel back some husks and look.

You can harvest peppers (hot chiles or mild bell peppers) when the skin is glossy, but bell peppers are more easily digestible if you wait for them to ripen (usually red). Some colored bell peppers ripen to brown or stay yellow or orange. The dominant vitamin content of peppers changes from C when they’re green to A when they’re ripe. Tomatoes can be picked anytime they start to color (as long as frost isn’t imminent). I do pick tomatoes when they begin to color because I don’t want squirrels to bite into tomatoes in search of water. We don’t maintain an outdoor water source in the backyard because that would attract raccoons and skunks. To pull or dig onions for storage, wait until the necks have completely dried out before digging them. Onions are usable earlier, but they won’t keep as long as those with dried stem necks.

Pick summer squash regularly, because they’ll grow huge in a very short time. Winter squash may be harvested (with as much stem as possible) when you can no longer easily penetrate the skin with a thumbnail. Melons are some of the garden produce that are hardest to tell when ripe. Watermelons are ripe when the tendril nearest the melon is brown and withered, and the melon belly is yellowish, I’m told. I rap on watermelons listening for the tone of the thunk to determine ripeness. Some Boiseans measure the girth of a melon every morning and evening, and when it hits a plateau, not changing measurement for three or four times, they cut into it and find it to be perfectly ripe.

True cantaloupes begin to pick themselves, pulling apart from their vines when ripe. The rind under the netting should be golden tan at that point. Charantais melons won’t slip from the vine like that, but they have a ripe aroma and there’s a little “give” when one pushes against the blossom scar. Or wait for the ants or pet dogs or cats to tell you they’re ripe. Honeydew melons in field or grocery store feel slick when they’re green, softly velvety when ripe. Stroke with the palm of your hand for this test.

Peaches are ready when there is a soft “give” to pressure between indented seam and opposite side, and/or there’s a ripe aroma. Pears ripen from inside out, so all except Seckel pears stay on the tree until they can be easily “picked” by lifting the fruit. Then they ripen off the tree. Seckel pears get a yellowish cast to their coat when ripe, and they may ripen on the tree or off. My pup loves the cores of those I’ve eaten (that’s his seal of approval).

My Gravenstein apple tree ripens in July, and this year it’s very, very heavily loaded with fruit. Could I pick some to lighten the tree’s load before all are ripe? I asked a friend in Norway who has a commercial fruit orchard that includes Gravenstein apples. She said, “Yes, we pick Gravensteins over a three-week period, starting with the largest apples. Store them in a cool, dark room where they’ll continue to ripen.” They pick the largest, and by the following week the medium apples are large so they pick them, and finally they pick the rest of the fruit. Gravenstein sauce is great, with or without sugar, and valued worldwide. Late friends in New Zealand also had a Gravenstein, and it was one of the first trees we planted in 1971 in Boise.

▪  Beneficial insects to treasure and preserve include lady beetles, lacewings (green and brown), hover flies, praying mantis, ground beetles, aphid midges, braconid wasps (usually tiny), damsel bugs, minute pirate bugs, soldier beetles, tachinid flies, mealybug destroyers, and predatory mites. Also useful in controlling garden insects and other destructive creatures are spiders and snakes.

Many of these insects overwinter in garden debris or in bark crevices, so please use good judgment in deciding whether to use a dormant oil spray in winter. Those sprays will kill the good bugs as well as the bad ones. Familiarize yourself online with their appearance, from egg through “generations” (called instars) to adulthood. Providing food and water for them is crucial as well. In general, the adults get food from shallow nectaries on tiny blossoms such as dill, parsley, yarrow, clover, amaranth, evening primrose, mint, lemon balm, caraway, fennel, buckwheat, and above all, dandelions. They don’t need large amounts of water, droplets here and there, or stones in a birdbath give them dry perches from which to drink. Some beneficials eat other beneficials, but that’s just nature.

Don’t tempt newly hatched praying mantises to eat one another by letting them hatch indoors. Leave egg cases outdoors, if possible. If you found an eggcase on an uprooted plant, prune above and below it, and tie it to a permanent branch at about the same height, in the same area the eggcase had been situated.

Send garden questions to melauter@cableone.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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