I may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I do know there five seasons in the year: planning, planting, maintaining, harvesting and preserving. Though clearly distinct, these seasons, familiar to vegetable gardeners, frequently overlap. For example, I am still in the midst of harvesting, but the bulk of the harvest is being preserved for consumption at a later time.
Unfortunately, food preservation in the form of canning, freezing and dehydration is a lost art, or science if you will, to most people. This I conclude based on the number of times I get questions about preserving the harvest. However, I admit that I am not an expert on this subject and typically refer such questions to my wife, CEO of food preservation in this household. Much of her knowledge on food preservation has come from my mother and others, who were willing to share their expertise. In addition, she has garnered information from such publications as the Ball Blue Book of Preservation. Another valuable source is the National Center for Home Food Preservation, available on line at nchfp.
Get with the season and start preserving your garden harvest, but don't neglect these seasonal tasks:
• Harvest grapes only when they are fully ripe. Grapes will not ripen further after they are picked. The best way to check for ripeness is to taste one. If the flavor conjures visions of Dionysus, god of grape harvesting and winemaking, it's ripe; if it conjures images of Chronos, god of time, wait a few days and taste a sample again.
• Be alert to premature fall color and early leaf drop of deciduous trees. This is to be expected given the summer drought, but such changes are also an indication of stressed trees. Some people react to this situation by applying fertilizer in the mistaken belief this will aid the trees' recovery. Such a response may do more damage than good. A better option is to apply a 3-inch deep layer of organic mulch around affected trees. Grass should be removed before applying mulch. If there are no outdoor watering restrictions in your town, water the soil deeply before mulching.
• Harvest pumpkins when they are uniformly orange and the rind is hard. Leave a 3-inch long section of stem attached to the pumpkin. If pumpkins are to be stored for any length of time, wipe their surfaces with soapy water and then allow the pumpkins to dry in a warm, well-ventilated area for two weeks.
• Harvest winter squash when the skin is hard and the fruit is dull in color, as opposed to bright and shiny. Leave a 1- to 2-inch piece of stem attached to the fruit. Treat winter squash the same as for pumpkins prior to winter storage.
• Don't discard partially ripened tomatoes that have fallen to the ground or have been prematurely harvested. Cut large tomatoes into thick slices and plum tomatoes in half lengthwise, sprinkle with salt and herbs, drizzle with olive oil, and roast them in the oven.
• Harvest dry beans when the pods are brown, feel papery, and the beans rattle in the pod. Harvesting may also be done by pulling up entire plants and hanging them in an airy, dry location such as a garage, barn, or garden shed.
• Dig and divide irises and daylilies. Since there are so many cultivated varieties of these two perennials it's great fun to trade these among friends. It's also a good way to meet new gardeners. "Hi! I don't know you, and you don't know me, but let's trade daylilies."