by Jan Cashman
During our 30 years of vegetable gardening in the Gallatin Valley, we have learned a few tricks to picking and preserving our fruits and vegetables. Some we learned by trial and error; others friends and other gardeners have shared. If you are getting started with vegetable gardening, maybe these hints will help you.
Plant successive crops of lettuce, spinach, and other greens, starting early in the spring, to extend their season. Harvest greens before they go to seed for mildest flavor. Wash and dry them well and refrigerate in a closed container to crisp.
Peas and Beans
Harvest peas and beans when they are young and tender. Freeze peas or beans by washing them, blanch in boiling water, cool in ice water, and freeze in freezer bags or plastic containers.
Old-timers say they don’t pick their sweet corn until their cooking water is boiling for the sweetest flavor. But newer varieties of ‘sugar enhanced’ corn are sweeter, even after storage. To preserve corn, I blanch the cobs, cool in ice water, and cut kernels off, then freeze it. To us, corn frozen on the cob doesn’t taste as good as fresh corn-on-the-cob.
Indeterminate tomatoes (vining tomatoes that continue to grow) should be pruned when the plants get too big, to put the plant’s energy into ripening the green tomatoes before frost. Store tomatoes at room temperature for the best flavor. In the fall, when we are tired of covering our tomato plants every time a frost is forecast, we pull the whole plant and hang it in a cool place. The tomatoes will continue to ripen. For use in soups or stews all winter, I simply wash the tomatoes, cut out the stem end and any imperfections, plop them into freezer bags, and freeze.
Carrots are ready to harvest when they turn orange. Barb Paugh told me she always digs her carrots at World Series time, but before the ground freezes. If you have quit watering your garden, give the carrots a good soaking a day or two before you harvest them. There is more than one method to storing carrots from your garden. I have talked to gardeners who store them in a barrel of sand in a cool place. I think it’s easier to wash them, cut off the green tops (I don’t cut into the meat of the carrot.), and lay them out to dry. Then, I store them in plastic bags with holes—mesh bags would probably work, too—in my refrigerator drawer. They keep for months this way.
Red potatoes mature earlier than white potatoes. You can dig potatoes when the tops cease growing and turn brown and the skins are brown and thickening. Don’t wash potatoes; brush them off and store them in a refrigerator drawer or root cellar where air can circulate around them.
You can thin your onions by pulling the smaller ones and using them for green onions. The rest are ready to harvest when the tops tip over. Sweet onions, such as Visalia and Walla Wallas, do not store for long. Others can be stored in a mesh bag in a cool place or braid the tops and hang.
The same procedure is used to harvest and store garlic as for onions. Wait till the tops tip over and the leaves are withered to harvest garlic, but don’t wait too long. Do not wash garlic; dry before storing.
Pull the leaves over heads of cauliflower as they ripen to keep the heads from yellowing. Don’t let it get overripe or it will discolor. Keep the outer leaves on to store cauliflower heads in your refrigerator.
Don’t pick broccoli, or any other fruits or vegetables, for that matter, in the heat of the day. Early morning is better. Harvest the middle bunch of broccoli first, before the flower buds open, so side shoots will develop. Blanch broccoli before freezing. You may freeze the flowerets on a cookie sheet to retain their shape and then move them to a freezer bag.
Late maturing cabbage keeps best. Heads can be harvested at any size. Store cabbage in the refrigerator.
Brussels sprouts mature late in the fall, so be patient. They can be frozen or the whole stem can be pulled and hung in a cool place.
Zucchini and other summer squashes should be harvested when they are 6 to 8”. Pick them often and you will increase your yields. If they get too big before you get around to picking them, use them for zucchini bread or cake. (Or enter them in Cashman Nursery’s Zucchini Festival contest for the biggest zucchini!) Summer squash doesn’t store very long.
Harvest winter squash and pumpkins after the vines die. The flavor of squash is improved after a light frost. The rind should be hard and a deep solid color. If the temperature is going to fall below 25 degrees, pick them or cover them. Store in a cool, dry place.
Harvest herbs before they flower for a milder flavor. I hang herbs with string or rubber bands in my cool, dry basement. Or you can use a dehydrator. Annual herbs can be dug up, potted, and brought inside for use during the winter.
Pick only the sweetest, dark red, ripe raspberries and strawberries. You can tell if they are ripe if they pull off the plant easily. I wash strawberries, but not raspberries. If you want to maintain their shape, freeze the berries on a cookie sheet first, and then transfer them to plastic bags with or without sugar.
Wait until pie cherries are very dark red for the greatest sweetness. I wash them, pit them, and freeze in plastic bags—each enough for one pie, with the sugar added. Sugar acts as a preservative. (Our meteor pie cherries need a lot of sugar.) Open up a small paper clip for a handy cherry pitter!
Our prune-type Mount Royal plums mature later than other plums—around October 1. They make wonderful fruit leather without adding any sugar—or we just pit them and dry in our dehydrator.
Apples ripen from mid-August to mid-October here, depending on the variety. Taste your apples to tell if they are ripe. The seeds should be dark brown. If outside temperatures are going to drop below 25 degrees, you may have to pick your apples, even if they are not ripe, to keep the fruit from freezing. The later in the season an apple ripens, the longer it will store. We store ours in our cool root cellar with good air circulation around them. Long-time customers Jan and Bob Remer use their not-so-perfect apples to make applesauce. They don’t peel them, but quarter them, cut out the stem, cook them till they’re soft, put them through a sieve, and freeze the sauce in plastic freezer containers. They don’t even add sugar!
There may be other methods to preserve your produce which will work well. Whatever method of preserving your garden vegetables and fruits you prefer, use only freshly picked, ripe, but not overripe, flawless produce. And enjoy this healthy, delicious food all winter long!