How To Harvest and Store Fresh Vegetables

Our tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other plants are finally producing and we’ll be adding gradually to the selections we offer at the Alamogordo Downtown Farmers’ Market. One of the biggest challenges for us is to keep food fresh for our buyers. And we want to help customers enjoy their fresh produce for as long as possible.

farmers market table
Our first harvest for a Farmers’ Market this year in Alamogordo, NM.

When I’ve researched information, I’ve often found long-term storage tips, which can differ from just keeping food fresh for your family all week. The storage tips below also apply to fresh produce from a stand or grocery store. The harvesting tips help you know when to pluck that yummy fruit and how to make sure it stays fresh.

farmers market in New Mexico
The Alamogordo Downtown Farmer’s Market has plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Seed packets, plants and extension publications have great information on when to harvest vegetables, but days to maturity can vary by region and even seasonal weather, so rely on solid information and your gut if you’ve grown and harvested an edible in the past. When I say not to wash a vegetable, I mean before storage. It’s always a good idea to wash produce you grow or buy before eating, especially if the produce is not grown organically and comes from the grocery store.

Beets: You can harvest beets anytime, depending on whether you want to work with small roots. The optimal size is slightly over 1 inch to about 2 inches in diameter. They taste best picked before summer heat kicks in, or in fall if you plant them in summer. Cut the greens off down to about one inch above the shoulder of the root and brush the root dry (if you wash it before storing, let it dry completely). You can also store fresh beet greens in the refrigerator for about 3 days wrapped in plastic.

Beets for sale at the farmers market
These multicolored beets were a hit this year.

Carrots: Brush aside a little dirt and see if the carrot’s top, or shoulder, is at least 1/2 inch in diameter. If the top is emerging from the soil, you can bet it’s probably time to harvest. After pulling up the roots (so fun!), cut the leaves about 1/2 inch above the shoulder. Either leave the soil or brush off with a clean cotton towel, or wash and dry completely before storing carrots in an unsealed plastic bag.

Cucumbers: Harvest in early morning but not while the plant is wet. Cut the fruit from the stem, leaving up to 1/2 inch of stem. Cucumbers store best at 50° but absent a perfect spot, keep them in the refrigerator crisper drawer, unwashed and wrapped in a few layers of cotton towels. Check them every few days for moisture and dry off. They’ll keep up to 10 days.

cucumber ready to harvest
This yummy cucumber is ready to harvest. You can tell by the flowers that we’ll have lots more soon.

Green beans: Harvest when they seem firm and long and snap from the vine. The best time is morning if it’s dry. If the beans are lumpy and long, they won’t taste as well (but can be frozen and used in soups). Don’t wash beans before storing. Keep in a plastic bag in your crisper drawer for up to one week. Snap peas follow similar methods, but let the peas form inside sugar snap peas and keep up to 3 days in storage.

Lettuce: Harvest before the plant bolts, or explodes in growth, for freshest flavor. Cut leaf lettuces such as Mesclun mix from the outside first, leaving some stem for the plant to grow and produce a second time. Cut head lettuces just above soil level. Wash and dry lettuce immediately. We triple-wash our lettuce, spinning after each rinse. Store lettuce in a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Either puff the bag up with air by blowing into it (we don’t use that method for lettuce we sell…) or add a paper towel inside the bag to soak up moisture.

Mesclun lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty. Harvest from the sides first and the leaves will grow again.
Mesclun lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty. Harvest from the sides first and the leaves will grow again.

Okra: Harvest when 2 to 3 inches long. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to one week.

Summer squash: Harvest with a knife or sharp cutters when 4 to 7 inches long. Cut the stem carefully, leaving no more than an inch on the fruit. Wipe clean; don’t wash before storing. They do best in a dark room at about 59°, but can be kept in the crisper drawer in a plastic bag.

yellow summer squash
Summer squash ready for Saturday’s market.

Tomatoes: Pick while the fruit is at the peak of color; the green has disappeared but the red or yellow is rich. If you wait too long, tomatoes can crack. Wash and dry before storing. Tomatoes are so easy to store right on a kitchen counter. Of course, a cooler room might be better, but they do not need refrigeration. Store tomatoes with the stem scar pointed up to avoid spoiling around the scar.

harvesting-and-storage-tips-farmers-market-vegetables (4 of 7)
The top yellow cherry tomato is ready to harvest. The ones below are a little green and should be ready in a few days!

Here’s a fruit bonus: Harvest watermelon when the vine’s tendrils begin turning brown or when the ground spot on the fruit turns from white to yellow. You should keep them in a cool area (about 60° to 70°) and it’s best to only refrigerate watermelon after cutting the fruit open.

5 Ways to Protect Edibles from Critters

I don’t mind feeding birds and deer in the winter when they really need our grass, flower seeds and insects! But once we plant herbs and vegetables, it’s time for the critters to move on, or at least be selective.

Getting wildlife to move on is not so easy. If only we could post “Keep Off the Grass” or “Do Not Touch Our Tomatoes” signs. Instead, we have to deter them as best we can. Here is more info about our latest attempts, and an update on our repurposed post fence.

deer fencing
This fencing is made from old ranch posts. We hope to replace many of our metal poles with these supports.

Our vegetable garden/microfarm needs protection from hooved, underground and above-ground munchers. Here, that means deer, elk, gophers, skunks, squirrels and cottontail rabbits. It takes some work to fence out all of the pests and wildlife, but we’ve been pretty successful. My opinion is that wildlife should be able to roam freely on our place and it is up to me as the farmer/gardener to either protect plants or install plants that they don’t eat. Gophers are exceptions. They are not wildlife to me, but destructive underground rodents. If we don’t use control and deterrents, we will not have a lawn or any living plant left.

gopher mound
Example of gopher damage. Multiply it by 1,000!

Here Are Five Ways to Keep Critters Off Your Food

1. First, we surrounded our entire vegetable garden area with cattle fencing. We only went to six feet in height, but if we ever make the space larger, we realize we might have to go higher. We’ve had no attempts so far by deer (or elk) to jump the fence, although I’m sure they can. I don’t really believe in products that use sounds or scents, although I am open to ideas supported by evidence!

jack russels
Domestic critters. In some cases, you have to protect them from critters. But sometimes, they are the pests that can destroy plants.

 

dog kennel for garden fence
This kennel keeps dogs safe and confined until we let them out to run. A kit like this can work well in a garden. The gate is nice and wide and the holes small enough to keep out most critters.

2. Before we could put up the new high fence to discourage deer and elk, we had to protect roots underground. I don’t know how those little rodents dig through our soil and rock so easily, because it was not fun. We used grub hoes and a digging bar to create a trench at least 20 inches deep. We placed metal lath into the trench, and carefully overlapped each piece to leave no holes for gophers. Believe me, they will find the holes.

Metal lath runs nearly two feet below and a few inches above ground inside of the deer fence.
Metal lath runs nearly two feet below and a few inches above ground inside of the deer fence.

We also bent about three inches of the lath 90 degrees all the way along the bottom. This should help prevent going just under the metal and back up, but it remains to be seen. Along one fence, we used metal roofing material, which costs more but is solid. This was mostly to keep gophers out, but also to shore up sawdust, sand and fresh manure from our neighbor’s horse pen just next to our garden. Horse manure is a great fertilizer, but only after several months of composting. I don’t want it near our vegetables!

This is what the horse thinks of our fence. It might not look like much, but it works.
This is what the horse thinks of our fence. It might not look like much, but it works.

3. We left several inches of lath above the ground as an extra barrier. It’s possible a bunny, or especially a squirrel, could get through the holes in the cattle fence, or that a gopher would venture above ground to get around the lath. We placed the cattle fencing against the lath.

Cattle fence also works well around fruit trees. We set it no more than about a foot high, and cut, then bend, pieces in the fence for easy opening and closing.
Cattle fencing also works well around fruit trees. We set it no more than about a foot high, and cut, then bend, pieces in the fence for easy opening and closing.

4.Raised beds can provide another layer of protection. We added three new horse troughs to our garden this year, and plan to add more troughs or raised beds next year. They’re extra protection from gophers in particular, help warm soil for our short season, grow fewer weeds, and help save my old back. See how we prepped our first carrot trough here. Containers can work, as can placing metal screen or lath at the bottom or the bed.

garden fence and troughs
The fence surrounds our vegetable garden. Four cattle troughs are pegged for root crops this year to reduce temptation from underground critters.

Row covers discourage insects and little critters. I’m pretty convinced that birds gather some of our garden seeds and we definitely have evidence of snail, grasshopper and other insect damage to seedlings each year. So I’ll use hoops, rocks, buckets, PVC, whatever I can find to secure row covers around seedlings, even those that already have their double fencing layer of protection.

attractive fence and trellis
Fences can be attractive and functional, if you have the money. We loved this fence/trellis/arbor we saw in a Pasadena back yard last fall.

If you put buckets around vegetables, be sure to remove them as soon as the weather warms and the plant seems sturdy, especially if the bucket seems to be restricting stem growth at all. Remove row covers as soon as plants flower so the good guys can do their job pollinating. When putting up deer fencing, be sure to think about how high they can reach from their hind legs and how high off the ground to start your fence. We have had several fawns get into our ranch post fence this winter, but it seems to have kept out adult deer.