Picking at the Peak

Expert tips on how to pick your fruits and vegetables at the height of freshness.

By Matt Ernst

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Onions
Do you crave homegrown produce in the winter? Then grow onions—they store for months when properly handled. Dr. Harrison says you should wait until the tops fall over to harvest, then gently dig up the whole plant and dry in a protected place. 
  • Leave the dry, papery outer skin on the onion; removal of that skin almost doubles the onion's rate of decay. 
  • Cut the onion tops off 1 inch above the bulb no sooner than four hours after harvest. 
  • Cure bruise-free onions for up to a month in a well-ventilated, dry, shady spot. 
  • Store onions in mesh rather than plastic bags. 
 
Peas
The word pea should be synonymous with picking. Regular harvesting is vital because peas left too long on the vine arent as sweet and can impair the growth of immature pods. Sugar snap peas and traditional shelling peas should be fully formed but not overly large. 
  • Pick bright green, mature peas daily. 
  • Be gentle when pulling beans and peas from the vine—rough picking can jostle flowers off and damage vegetation. Some gardeners even snip peas off with pruners or small scissors. 
 
Peppers
Personal preference dictates when you pick peppers. Most peppers start out green and turn different colors as they mature. Harvest sweet peppers, such as bell peppers, and hot peppers at the degree of color you desire. And take care when picking—pepper plants damage easily. 
  • Pick pimiento peppers when they're fully red. 
  • Harvest hot Hungarian wax and sweet banana peppers when fully yellow, turning red, or fully red—depending on preferred hotness. 
 
Potatoes
If you want to store potatoes, they need to be cured, says Jo Ann Robbins, Ph.D., University of Idaho extension educator. In this instance, curing doesn't refer to fixing a malady; rather, curing is the process that toughens potato skins for prolonged storage. Dr. Robbins recommends waiting one to two weeks after the plant tops have died back before digging the potatoes for storage. This cures the potatoes in the ground. Just be sure to dig them up before frost. 
  • Potatoes can also be properly cured after harvest if they are stored at 60° to 75°F and 80 to 90 percent relative humidity for one to two weeks. 
  • Don't wash potatoes you want to store—simply brush off the soil after it dries. 
  • Avoid exposing potatoes to light, which makes the tubers turn green and produce dangerous alkaloids. 
 
Spinach
Baby spinach is all the rage for a reason—the smaller leaves maximize flavor. "Most spinach tastes really good when it's 3 inches long," says Sondra Feldstein, who grows spinach and other vegetables on her farm in Bondurant, Iowa. 
  • Cut, don't pull, spinach to ensure multiple harvests. 
 
Summer squash
Summer squash are notoriously prolific producers. "In some small towns, people lock their doors during the summer to keep out the zucchini" deposited by gardeners with a surplus, Feldstein says. Unless you want squash as big (and tasty) as baseball bats, you should pick them frequently. 
  • Small zucchini and yellow squash (6 to 10 inches long) and scalloped squash (3 to 6 inches in diameter) have the best flavor. 
  • Tasty fruits have tender rinds (they should puncture easily with a fingernail) and soft seeds. 
 
Tomatoes
Harvest tomatoes when the fruits are fully colored. At the end of the season, pick remaining mature green or pink tomatoes, put them on a plate or in a paper bag outside the fridge, and let them ripen. 
  • Pick fully ripe, but firm, tomatoes for juicing or canning. 
  • Harvest green tomatoes before a killing frost and ripen indoors. 
  • Store unbruised tomatoes out of the fridge for the best flavor, Dr. Harrison says.
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