Harvesting, Storage, and Preservation

November 1, 2014

Author: Ian Whittington

Category: General News Stories from the Garden

The fall session is just about over, which means something important is about to start happening.


Or to be more precise, fall harvesting.

Because I first started planting in the spring I’ve been picking veggies for months. Those following my blog know that it was late summer when my beans exhausted themselves out because I didn’t harvest enough. But some things planted in the spring are just getting to the point of picking. Or in some cases, digging.

With the help of a pitch fork and trowel I dug up sweet potato tubers. The amount of clay in the ground made it difficult.

With the help of a pitch fork and trowel I dug up sweet potato tubers. The amount of clay in the ground made it difficult to dig deeply.

After four months, it’s finally been time to harvest my sweet potatoes. I’d been waiting a long time to get my crop, and earlier this week I decided it was ready. But that decision wasn’t an exact science.

Back in the summer Joe told us that the time to harvest sweet potatoes would be September. Easy right? Well, not really. That assumes conditions are normal.

And weather wise this summer was anything but.

Rather than the time of year what you really want to look at are the vines: ½ a sweet potato plant’s vines should have turned yellow before digging for tubers. Unfortunately while some of my vines had started changing, most of them were still green. The reason I decided to dig everything up was because of the other factor Joe told us about: rain. If the ground is too wet your sweet potatoes can rot, so after heavy rains it’s prudent to dig them up assuming that it’s already been a decent amount of time since planting.

A potential clump of rotted sweet potato I found while digging through my patch.

A potential clump of rotted sweet potato I found while digging through my patch.

I ended up having mixed results.

My haul of sweet potatoes. Could I have gotten more if I had harvested earlier? Or perhaps later?

My haul of sweet potatoes. Could I have gotten more if I had harvested earlier? Or perhaps later?

My haul wasn’t every big, possibly because I found evidence of sweet potato rot. I say possibly because I couldn’t really tell if what I found were rotted sweet potatoes or lumps of clay; I am going with the former though. At the same time I also found a lot of sweet potato roots that looked like they didn’t even start to thicken-up. If I had waited long could I have ended up with not only more sweet potatoes but bigger ones as well? Perhaps. But I also could have lost more to rot. Either way, at least I got enough for a few dishes.

A gratin I made with various root crops, including sweet potatoes from my garden.

A gratin I made with various root crops, including sweet potatoes from my garden.

Besides sweet potatoes it’s also pretty much time to harvest my turnips. I know this because the tops are already sticking up out of the ground, which is a good general rule for deciding when to pull root crops. I’ll probably leave them in until I need them though because at this time of year it’s cold enough where the earth can be used as a refrigerator for root crops (excluding sweet potatoes and potatoes). Of course there are limits; at some point the ground will be so cold it’ll be too difficult to pull anything out.

Besides aiding storage, the cold can help make crops sweeter. This is because root crops such as turnips and carrots produce sugars that act as a sort of antifreeze. In other words, the longer I wait to pull them the more delicious they’ll be. There is a trade off though. The cold of winter also reduces growth to almost zero, so at a certain point things just won’t get any bigger. After thinning earlier this week I know the carrot of my carrot plants are practically non-existent, so hopefully it’s a bit before that point happens.

One of my turnips ready for harvest.

One of my turnips ready for harvest.

Besides sweet potatoes and root crops, now is also the time for brassicas and winter squash. The name winter squash is a bit of a misnomer. While it refers to the fact that they’re harvested towards winter, they actually grow all summer. So like sweet potatoes they’re a long-term investment. I didn’t grow any this year, but next year I’m thinking about trying out pumpkins in my garden at home. If I do grow them then this time next year I’ll keep in mind that:

  • Winter squash can be harvested at any point once the fruit are fully formed.
  • I can use the thumbnail rule: to know the best time to harvest you can press your thumbnail into the skin of the squash. Once the skin is tough enough not to be pierced its ready to harvest.
  • Like with root crops leaving winter squashes on the vine until one or two light frosts arrive will sweeten the fruit. BUT don’t leave the squash laying in constantly moist conditions.


I have only one brassica in my plot: a red cabbage. Even though it was one of the transplants provided it’s far from ready. Before I can harvest it I’ll want a fully formed head, pretty much what you’d expect to see in a grocery store. It’s warm enough where growth shouldn’t be an issue, and luckily the brassica family can handle seriously cold temperatures. Other things to remember about harvesting brassicas are:

  • Broccoli should be harvested as soon as the flower head begins to swell, looking like it will soon flower or when the head is a desirable size. The leaves and stems are also edible.
  • While broccoli will reform smaller heads in the spring they do not do this in winter.
  • Other brassicas can be harvested more or less at your leisure or when needed. But remember at this time of year growth is so slow that once harvested the plant is pretty much done.
  • When harvesting kale harvest from the bottom. Avoid the terminal bud (top of plant) as that’s where new leaves form.
  • Also when harvesting kale cleanly cut or snap off leaves from the stem as leaving fragments connected to the stem gives pests a place to rest. This isn’t as much of an issue in winter but is a good habit to have for next spring. (Okay, its also a huge pet peeve of mine from Love & Carrots!)


My red cabbage. It still needs some time before it can be harvested.

My red cabbage. It still needs some time before it can be harvested.

So after you harvest all your fall crops, what do you do with them? Eat them of course! But there’s only so much you can consume in one sitting. That’s why you may want to store them away for the winter. Some tips on winter storage are:

  • Brassica vegetables must be stored in the refrigerator and used relatively quickly before spoiling. Side note, even though I’d still use it as soon as possible I was surprised that the kale I got with as the CSA Intern with FRESHFARM Markets was still good a week later.
  • Ideal conditions for other fall vegetables include temperatures around 50 degrees F, and low humidity. Basements usually meet these conditions. Vegetables should be able to last 2-4 months like this.
  • Some vegetables, especially root vegetables, may need to be stored in sawdust or ashes to keep them from rotting. If you have them apples can also be stored this way.
  • Sweet potatoes and winter squashes (acorn squashes are an exception) last longer in storage when cured. Curing both removes excess water and hardens the skin, thereby reducing the risk of rot.


Taken from Simply Resourceful

Taken from Simply Resourceful                                                                                                              Carrots packed in away in sawdust for winter storage.

Besides storing vegetables, you can also preserve them. Ways to preserve your veggies include:

  • Freezing: Most fruits and vegetables can be sealed in a freezer bag and preserved indefinitely. Most of the nutrition, flavor, and texture should remain intact. In my experience leafy greens aren’t the best for this. Once I put a Caesar salad from Costco in the freezer and when I took it out the lettuce ended up mushy and slimy. Yuck!
  • Drying: The leaves of any plant can be dried and stored for later. In low humidity drying can be done outside in the sun while in a humid climate a “drying oven” is better.
  • Canning: Depending on the pH level of what you’re canning you would either use the boiling water bath method or the pressure canning method. If done improperly canned goods can become contaminated and cause botulism, so it is absolutely vital you do your research and use the proper method.


Taken from Oregon State University Extension

Taken from Oregon State University Extension                                                             Tomato sauce boiled with the boiling water bath method.

For more depth on storing, curing, and canning, check out the last two blog posts I wrote for Love & Carrots. There you’ll find some great videos I found that go step by step on the two canning methods. They may seem involved, but after a season of eating straight from your garden, eating things you canned yourself is the next best thing. Unless of course you have hoop houses. But that’s for next week.

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