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Extension: Handling your harvest
Photo courtesy of Shannon Kennedy.

It is the time of year where the fruits of our labor are finally paying off. Berries, squash, zucchini, and beans are ripe for the picking, but sometimes after your produce and putting it on the counter for later use, it begins to soften before you ever get the chance to use it. I like to think that home harvesting was the original source of the phrase “use it or lose it”. Whether or not this is the case, the principle still applies, so let's discuss a few gardening tips that will help ensure the longest shelf life of your hard-earned produce.

Something many people overlook is that food safety begins during harvest. If you wouldn't prepare dinner with dirty hands, you shouldn't pick fruits and vegetables without first visiting a bar of soap. Washing your hands or using a clean pair of gloves ensures that you are not transferring any food-borne illnesses to the food you plan to eat. Similarly, be sure to place your fresh-picked produce into a clean container. Having a bucket that you regularly use but do not clean may cause premature rotting due to pathogens or bacteria in the container. Good sanitation practices ensure that you stay healthy, and your produce lasts longer!

Next, know when to pick your fruits for optimal ripeness. Some fruits such as tomatoes can be picked at the first sign of blush; once they have been picked you can leave them on the counter to continue ripening. This method of harvesting gives pests less time to damage the fruit before you can get to it. Other fruits such as blueberries have to be left on the vine until they reach peak ripeness because they will not ripen after they are picked. If you harvest a fruit with a little rot on it, you should cut out the rotten portion and either use it or discard it immediately. Damaged fruits and vegetables will degrade faster and if you store them with other fruits or vegetables, you risk spreading disease to the unaffected crops.

Timing your harvest is important because you need to harvest during the coolest and driest part of the day. Cool temperatures slow the ripening process, so you will achieve a longer shelf life if you pick produce in the morning or evening. Also, many fungal pathogens spread under moist conditions, so try to harvest when the garden is dry.

To ensure a long harvesting season, treat your plants well. Avoid injuring your plants by using sterile and sharp tools to harvest fruits like peppers. Another good harvesting practice is to avoid harvesting if a plant is showing signs of drought stress. Fruit on a wilted plant will not be high quality and harvesting will cause a wound on the plant where water loss will occur. So, it is a good harvesting practice to water the plant and wait until it looks healthier before you harvest parts from it.

As soon as you have picked fruits and vegetables from your garden, place them in shade to slowly cool them down. Plant cells will continue the process of respiration using a stored energy and sugars while the plant is warm. By cooling the plant material you are slowing the respiration process, thus preserving as many of the carbohydrates and sugars as possible. Most produce keeps well in cool and dry conditions; this includes root vegetables, squash, onions, and celery. Other produce such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries need humidity, otherwise they will collapse.

If you have too much produce from your garden, try to share some of those hard-earned veggies with family or neighbors. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to dust off the mason jars and start canning! If you would like more information on food preservation you can always visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation website here. Happy harvesting!