Harvest Ending Well

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by Jim McCausland | Photo © Alex Raths, iStock

Vegetable gardening is like a long road trip: fun to plan, fun to do, and a bit of a relief when it’s over. Now that the season is winding down, here’s how to finish well—and get a jump on next year’s garden at the same time.

The beginning of the end is the harvest, which peaks in late summer and early autumn. Pick with care (see “When to pick” for timing), and once a plant stops producing, rip it out, chop it or shred it with a mower, and compost it. Then fill the empty space to keep weeds from moving in.

There are two good ways to do that. Sow beds with a crop like crimson clover, Austrian field peas, or vetch, which will create a living winter cover. An alternative option is to spread a 3-inch mulch of compost or rotted manure over the beds.

Next spring, till in the cover crop or mulch a month before planting. The organic matter improves the soil’s air- and water-holding ability and increases its fertility.

To get rid of spent vegetable plants and weeds, make a compost pile. In a 4-foot circle, spread a 3-inch layer of green matter (mown grass, tomato plants or squash vines, for example), then a 3-inch layer of brown matter (like shredded dry leaves). Add a sprinkling of animal manure or old compost. Repeat until the pile is 4 ft. high. Keep it damp as a wrung-out sponge, and turn it weekly with a pitchfork.

You’ll get blackish-brown compost in a couple of months; it’s ready when you can’t recognize its original ingredients. Use compost as mulch or dig it into garden beds. Either way, it improves soil and boosts plant growth.

The first hard frost usually comes in October or early November. It can burst plumbing and crack pottery. Prepare for it by disconnecting hoses, draining irrigation systems and bringing unglazed pottery indoors.
You’re done. Enjoy winter.

When to pick

Beans: Pick green beans as soon as they’re large enough to cook. Harvest every few days to keep new beans coming: if you let beans mature, vines stop bearing. If you want dry beans, leave pods alone until they dry or split, then harvest and shell them.
Cantaloupe: After the skin has started turning yellow, watch the stem. When it’s cracked halfway through, lift the fruit and twist. Don’t force it: cantaloupes picked too early never ripen.
Corn: When ears are filled out and silk tassels start to dry, peel back the husks enough to pop a kernel with your thumbnail. If it’s milky inside, it’s perfect; if it’s watery, you’re early; if it’s pasty, you’re late.
Cucumbers: Harvest by size: small for sweet pickles, larger for dills and salads. Frequent harvests keep plants producing.
Eggplant: Pick when fruit is colored and glossy, with tight skin.
Squash: Summer squash (like pattypan and zucchini) are at their tender best when they’re small. Pick winter squash (acorn, butternut, and pumpkins) after they’ve sized up and hardened; take an inch of stem with each.
Tomatoes: Harvest after fruit has colored up. But when the weather gets chilly and wet in October, pick all tomatoes that have changed from dark to light green. Bring these indoors and let them ripen on a windowsill.
Peppers: You can pick peppers green, but they’re more flavorful if you harvest after they’ve colored up.
Watermelons: Look for withered tendrils on the stem end; make sure the underside of the melon has developed a moonlight-yellow cast; and listen for a hollow sound when you thump the melon. Then cut it free. Watermelons don’t ripen after harvest.