Throughout the world, autumn is celebrated with harvest festivals. Nature is taking care of us by providing a glorious bounty of fruit and veges to prepare and store for the lean winter months ahead. If you’ve been bitten by the 'grow your own' bug and have enough fresh produce to stock an entire Farmer’s Market, here are a few tips on how to handle it…
Tomatoes have been ripe for picking for weeks now and it will soon be time to pull plants out to make way for winter crops. About a month before the first expected frost or pulling plants out, cut off top of the plant or remove new flower clusters. This directs energy into ripening existing fruit instead of producing new fruit, which won't have time to mature. When plants are eventually pulled, those that are still in fruit can be hung up in a in a cool dry shed. Fruit will continue to ripen, although flavour will be compromised. Fruit can also be picked and placed in a single layer in a cool dark place (or warm spot to ripen more quickly). Check regularly for damage and remove any spoilt fruit. Never store unripe tomatoes in the fridge as this inhibits ripening and diminishes sugar content, which enhances flavour. Turn excess tomatoes into sauces, chutney and relish to use as a handy condiment over winter.
To aid ripening, trim off any foliage shading your pumpkins. Don’t pick until fruit have coloured up and always test for ripeness by gently knocking with your knuckles. Ripe pumpkins sound hollow and have very hard skin resistant to denting. Another good indicator of ripeness is when vines begin to die off. Cut pumpkins with secateurs, leaving a 10cm stem, to prevent disease entry and storage rot. Handle them with care as they bruise easily. If storing for prolonged periods, wash or spray pumpkins with a 10% bleach solution. Leave them in an open sunny position to dry out for about 2 weeks and protect with frost cloth if necessary. Store by standing them upright in single rows in a cool, well ventilated, dark place for up to 6 months. Check regularly and discard any showing signs of rot.
Onions should be left in the ground until their tops die down naturally. Once 80 – 90% of the tops have dried off, bend the rest over and leave for another 10 - 14 days for onions to mature. Pull them from the ground on a dry sunny day and lay them in the sun for another 2 – 3 days to dry out. Before curing, check the root system is dry and brittle and trim tops to about 3cm long. Spread them in a warm dry, well ventilated place out of direct sun. Turn a few times during curing to aid drying. Leave for 2 – 3 weeks until the skins rattle and roots are dry and wiry. Store by hanging in mesh bags in a dry garage, shed or cellar.
Autumn is time to harvest main crop potatoes. Wait until the tops of the plants have completely died down and dig tubers out on a dry, windy day. The skin should have set (i.e. does not rub off easily). Separate out any damaged tubers as you dig. These should be eaten first and only healthy tubers stored. In warm areas keep a few tubers from the highest yielding plant to re-sow for an autumn crop. When storing, don’t wash off the soil as this may damage the skin allowing disease entry. Spread tubers out in a shaded, well ventilated place to dry for a day or so. Never leave them in the sun as this causes potatoes to go green and produce toxic solanine making them inedible. Place tubers in paper bags or Hessian sacks and store in a cool, dry, well ventilated place. Check regularly for rotten potatoes and remove immediately. Well stored potatoes should last for up to 6 months.
Peppers, including chillies, start ripening quickly in autumn. Harvest them at any stage from green to red, depending on the required flavour. Sweet bell peppers (capsicums) change from a tangy pungent flavour when green, to a sweeter, mellower flavour when red, orange or yellow. Chilli peppers increase in hotness as they ripen from green to red. Harvest frequently as peppers deteriorate very fast when past their peak ripeness. Excess peppers can be sliced and frozen for later use or turned into delicious relish and chutney. Chillies can be strung in "ristras" to decorate the kitchen where they will slowly dry for use throughout winter.
Autumn is peak season for apples and pears. Fruit is ready to pick when it reaches full colour and separates easily from the spur without breaking the stem. Fruit beginning to drop from the tree (windfalls) are also a sign of maturity. Early maturing varieties have a short peak maturity period and lose quality quickly. Try picking them slightly early (softening but not rock hard) and ripen indoors. Later varieties last longer but can also be picked slightly early if they are to be stored. Extended storage requires refrigeration, so excess home crops really need to be bottled or cooked and frozen to use in delicious winter crumbles.
Figs need to be fully ripe before picking. But as the birds also know this, it pays to cover trees with bird netting so you get to the figs first! Ripe figs are soft to the touch with full colour development and bend at the neck. Unripe figs exude white sap from the stem when picked and will not ripen once picked. Fresh figs have become quite fashionable, so look out for recipes in the newspapers and magazines over autumn. Fallen fruit are perfect for drying, simply lay them in the sun for 4 – 5 days or use a dehydrator. Dried figs last for 6 – 8 months and make a nutritious winter snack.
Olives can be harvested at the green (unripe), black (fully ripe), or in-between stage depending on desired taste. Fruit intended for pickling must be hand-picked to avoid bruising and damaged fruit must be discarded. Preparation must begin within the first three days of harvest, as olives quickly begin to oxidise producing inferior quality pickles or oil.
Feijoas are an amazingly productive crop, often left to rot on the ground because there’s too many. Rather than waste them, get the kids to set up a street side stall or give them away to friends and neighbours. ‘Touch picking’ daily is the best method of harvest to avoid feijoas falling to the ground where they quickly begin to rot. Fruit is ripe when it comes away from the stalk cleanly and easily, when gently pulled. Fallen fruit must be eaten or processed immediately by stewing and freezing or being made into scrumptious chutney.