The ultimate goal of growing a garden is to enjoy its bountiful harvest.
All too often we put in the effort and tend the garden all season long and then miss out on the ‘enjoying the bountiful harvest’, partly because of poor timing or not handling the picked crop with proper care.
Harvesting too early or too late can make a crop taste average or worse, and making a mistake in storing it can cause it to spoil too early or suddenly without even having a chance to taste it.
Proper harvesting (Part 1) and storage (Part 2) make all the difference between having an abundance and falling short.
Part 1. Harvesting
To get the best-tasting vegetables from your garden, you’ll need to harvest them at the right stage of maturity.
The perfect time to pick varies from plant to plant and the indications will be different. For example, root crops such as onions, garlic, and potatoes are ripe when the plants die back. Some other vegetables are at their peak of tenderness and flavor when they are relatively small, and some when their fruit turns to a specific color.
When the right time comes, you’ll need to look for signs of ripeness in your garden daily and harvest the vegetables when they are ready.
STEP 1: Check the days to maturity dates (optional)
Since timing is everything, check the required days to maturity for the vegetable you plan on harvesting.
1. Look at your garden journal and see the date when you planted the vegetable.
2. Check the required days to maturity for the vegetable in column D of the Harvesting/storing spreadsheet.
3. Calculate the general date for when the vegetable should be ready for harvest.
STEP 2: Check your garden daily and look for signs of ripeness
When your garden starts to ripen there’ll be a variety of vegetables to harvest daily. You don’t want to miss out on the produce, and leave it to rot in the garden. This will invite pests and diseases.
Moreover, a regular harvest encourages some plants to produce even more.
1. Take your basket out to the garden and check what has ripened.
2. Use the information from column D of the harvesting/storing spreadsheet to find out what a vegetable ready to be harvested looks like.
STEP 3: Harvest
Action step: Use your hands, a small knife or pruning shears to harvest the vegetables.
If you plan on storing the crop, pay special attention to the quality of the crop and that you are handling it with care. Damaged and sick vegetables are more likely to suffer mold and bacterial decay, and spread diseases to other stored veggies.
Follow these guidelines to ensure maximum quality and minimum spoilage of your stored food.
- Harvest only produce that is free from all visible evidence of disease.
- Harvest only vegetables that are free from severe insect damage.
- Leave an inch (2.5 cm) or more of stem on most vegetables to reduce water loss and prevent infection.
- Handle the harvested vegetables carefully to prevent cutting and bruising.
Part 2: Storage
You can store all the surplus food you cannot eat fresh indoors. This way you can spread the abundance of your garden throughout the year, instead of being overwhelmed by all the produce that you have to eat at once.
When storing vegetables for later use, in addition to special harvesting guidelines (see Part 1, Step 3) you need to:
- Begin with the preservation process immediately after the harvest so that the vegetables don’t deteriorate, and
- Provide the right storage conditions so they can last as long as possible. Some vegetables can store for months on end, and some only for week or two.
The two most important considerations when storing vegetables are temperature and relative humidity. By lowering the produce temperature as soon as possible after harvest (preferably within four hours) you decrease the respiration rate, water loss, ethylene production and sensitivity, and microbial activity. By maintaining a high humidity you reduce water loss and consequent wilting, shriveling and weight loss.
Different kinds of vegetables require different storage conditions and, in general, this means providing three different combinations of temperature and humidity:
- COLD and MOIST —> 32 °F – 40 °F or 0 °C to 4 °C, 80-95% relative humidity.
These conditions are ideal for root crops that can store for months (e.g. beets, potatoes, leeks, carrots…) and cut leafy greens (e.g. kale, spinach, endive…) that can store for up to 2-3 weeks.
- COOL and MOIST —> 40 °F – 50 °F or 4 °C to 10 °C and 80-95% relative humidity
These conditions are ideal for most warm-season crops (e.g. cucumbers, eggplants, watermelons, tomatoes…) that can store for up to 2-3 weeks.
- COOL AND DRY —> 50 °F – 60 °F or 10 °C to 15 °C, 60-70% relative humidity).
These conditions are ideal for alliums, squashes, sweet potatoes, etc., that can store for months.
Note that, in addition to proper temperature and humidity, all vegetables must be kept in a dark, aerated environment.
What you’ll need?
- Freshly harvested vegetables.
- Appropriate storage (see Step 2).
STEP 1: Note each vegetable’s storage requirements
To maximize storage life and maintain the quality of your harvested vegetables you’ll need to provide them with proper storage conditions – temperature and humidity.
–>Action step: Use the information from column F on of the harvesting/storing spreadsheet to understand the optimal conditions in which you should store specific vegetables.
STEP 2: Find the right spot to store your vegetables
For indoor storage there are many areas in the home that naturally provide a variety of temperature and moisture conditions for storage.
–>Action step: Assess your specific situation, use a thermometer to monitor temperatures in various areas of your building during the fall and winter months. Try to find locations that are convenient and most readily adaptable for food storage.
Note: many areas can be adapted to provide the conditions that are needed. As long as you find a spot that is sufficiently and evenly cool (32-60 °F or 0-14 °C) you can store your vegetables there. Specific modification of the space to provide moisture can be achieved on a bin level without having to create a special room.
Here are some practical options for storage:
Your basement is probably cool and dry. These conditions are best suited for storing vegetables like winter squashes, sweet potatoes…
The coolest part of the basement is a logical place to potentially construct a separate room or place an extra refrigerator that can provide cool, moist conditions.
Root cellars/damp cellars
Cool, damp cellars or root cellars can provide the right conditions. This is a perfect spot to store root vegetables, cabbages, canned goods…
Ideally, this place is also dark so that you can store potatoes.
Refrigerators can provide cool, moist conditions. Naturally, the temperature in the refrigerator is between 32 and 40 °F (0 to 4 °C ) but the air tends to be very dry. You can change this by packing the vegetables in plastic bags that have holes for ventilation so that you increase the moisture levels.
Ideally, locate the second refrigerator in an out-of-the-way, cool location, such as a basement.
Outdoor sheds and garages
Sheds, breezeways, enclosed porches, and garages can be used to store insulated containers. This way you can provide your vegetables with cool, moist conditions.
Note that in some of these locations you’ll have to be cautious about temperate swings and freezing temperatures. To mitigate these effects be sure to provide 6-8 inches (15-20 centimeters) of insulation on the bottom, sides, and top and additional covering as necessary.
A closet in an unheated room can provide cool, dry conditions. If the temperature stays around 50 °F or 10 °C, then that’s the right condition for vegetables such as winter squashes…
STEP 3: Store it in the right medium/the right way
Finally, make sure that you store your vegetables in the right way.
General tips on storage:
- Keep some space between your produce, no matter where it’s kept. You can alternate layers of produce with packing materials; this will help reduce disease transmission.
- Be sure that the produce is protected from rodents.
- To conserve moisture use moistened sand, sawdust, peat moss, or perforated plastic bags. Use these materials for a single storage season only, because they can become contaminated with mold and bacteria.
- Keep produce that produces high levels of ethylene gas, which speeds up ripening, away from other produce.
–>Action step: Use the information from column H on of the harvesting/storing spreadsheet to find out the best way to store specific vegetables.
- The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live
- The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming
- The New Organic Grower, 3rd Edition: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, 30th Anniversary Edition
- The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, 2nd Edition: Discover Ed’s High-Yield W-O-R-D System
- The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land