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What to pick and harvest for the start of fall

Love the taste of a farmers market? P. Allen Smith lists  how to harvest and spot the freshest produce from your garden.
/ Source: TODAY

August is the month when all the work in the vegetable garden really starts to pay off, but if you did not have an opportunity to till the soil this summer, there are always farmers markets and the produce section of your favorite grocery to satisfy your hunger for the freshest fruits and vegetables.

Warm-season crops like corn, tomatoes, watermelon and eggplant are ready to harvest. And the zucchinis! They seem to be everywhere. This summer I have been trying many different varieties of produce in my new organic vegetable garden at the Garden Home Retreat, an environmentally friendly home and garden that will serve as a teaching center and the basis of many of my TV shows, Web and magazine articles. 

So because I have been spending so much of my time this summer focused on fruits and vegetables, I am getting pretty good at recognizing the signs that indicate something is indeed ready to harvest. I thought you might like a few pointers as well about harvesting and picking the best produce. Bon appétit! Harvest: First-year asparagus gardens should not be picked. Removing the spears weakens the plant while it is still trying to get established. So after the first year, harvest asparagus when it is about 3/8-inch thick and 6 to 8 inches high. Be sure to cut the spears below the soil line, about half an inch, to prevent pests and disease. Store: Sadly, fresh asparagus does not keep well. Soon after harvest it begins to lose sugar content and becomes fibrous. If you cannot prepare your asparagus immediately, trim the stem ends about a quarter of an inch, wash and pat dry, and then place the stalks upright in a glass of water. Cover them with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. Asparagus will stay crisp this way for about 3 or 4 days. CANTALOUPEHarvest: Cantaloupe is ready to harvest when it pulls easily from the vine. The area around the stem may also appear cracked. Smell is also a good indicator. If the melon smells fragrant and musky, it is ripe. Store: Store unripe melons in a cool, dry location and move them to the refrigerator once ripened. CORNHarvest: Corn can be tricky to gauge because there are several variables that determine how quickly it matures. The days to maturity listed on the back of the seed pack is a good guide, but you also need to factor in your climate and whether the variety is open pollinated or hybrid. Sweet corn has a fairly narrow window when the flavor is at its peak. I've always been told to watch the silks; once they turn brown or black, it is time to harvest. In addition, the tip of the ear should feel round, not pointed, and punctured kernels should pop, producing a milky liquid. Store: Corn should be eaten as soon after harvest as possible, but it can be frozen to use in soups and other recipes. Read more about freezing corn. CUCUMBERS Harvest: Cucumbers are best picked before they are fully mature. Gather pickling cucumbers when they are 2 to 6 inches and slicing cucumbers when they are 6 to 10 inches. Pick in the early morning before the day gets hot. To help retain moisture, take an inch of stem along with the cucumber. To keep the plant producing, it is important to remove over-mature fruits. Store: Cucumbers placed in a loose bag will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat: Lemon, Armenian Yard Long EGGPLANT Harvest: Harvest when 3 to 5 inches long or 4 inches diameter. The skin should be glossy. Cut a bit of stem as well. Store: As with most fresh vegetables, it is best to use eggplant the day of purchase, but given modern-day schedules, this is not always feasible. You can store eggplant for about 3 days in the refrigerator. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat:  Black Beauty, Early Long Purple OKRA Harvest: Pick okra frequently because it matures quickly, especially during hot weather. It only takes about 4 days for it to go from flower to harvest time. The pods should be tender, about 2 inches long and easy to cut with a knife. Remove old pods to keep the plant producing. Cover your skin when harvesting to protect yourself from the irritating bristles. Store: Keep okra in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. Store in the crisper in a perforated bag. Do not wash okra before storing because wet okra will mold quickly. Browning of the pods indicates that they are past their prime. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat: Long Pod Dwarf, Emerald, Clemson Spineless PEPPERSHarvest: Hot peppers can be picked at any time. Sweet or bell varieties need to mature on the plant. These are ready to harvest when they are 3 to 4 inches long and firm, with even color depending on the variety, either green, red, purple, orange or yellow. Store: Dry or pickle hot peppers for storage. Bell peppers will keep unrefrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat: Cascabella, California Wonder, Jalapeno POTATOESHarvest: Early potatoes or those collected in spring or summer can be dug when the vines are in bloom, about 10 weeks after planting. Mature potatoes are ready for harvest when the vines have died about half-way back. Lay the potatoes on the ground in a shady spot for a day to dry. Don’t cure in the sun as this will make them turn green. Store: Early potatoes can be stored unrefrigerated. To store potatoes long term (5 to 10 months), first cure for 1 or 2 days, then store in a single layer in a dry, cool, dark place. PUMPKINSHarvest: A pumpkin is ready to harvest when it has reached the desired color and the rind is hard. You can test its readiness by jabbing your fingernail against the outer skin, or rind. It should be strong enough to resist puncture. Also, you can tell a pumpkin is ripe if you hear a hollow sound when you thump it. Pumpkins are usually ready to harvest by mid-fall. Bring them in before the first frost or when night temperatures are expected to drop down into the 40s for an extended period of time. Store: Gently clean the pumpkins by brushing off any excess dirt and then place them in a dry, warm area for 7 to 10 days. This will heal scratches and further harden the rind, which helps reduce moisture loss. If a frost is expected, cover the pumpkins with a frost blanket overnight. After they have been cured, keep your pumpkins in a cool location (about 50 to 60 degrees F), out of direct sunlight, with plenty of good air circulation. Stored this way, they should last up to 3 months.

SUMMER SQUASHHarvest: Gather summer squash when they are young and tender, about 4 to 5 inches in length. Old, large fruits with tough skins should be removed from the vine and thrown away. This will encourage more flowers and fruit. Pattypan squash is ready when it is 3 to 4 inches in diameter and the skin is still soft enough to puncture. With the exception of Hubbard, squash should be cut with about 1 inch of stem. Store: Squash will keep in a loose plastic bag in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days. Do not wash before storing because water droplets will cause decay. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat: Early Prolific Straightneck, Early White Bush Scallop, Gold Rush Hybrid, Dixie Hybrid

SNAP BEANSHarvest: Pick snap beans while they are young, before the beans become visible inside the pod. All beans, including snaps, should be harvested continually to promote more bean production. Harvest early in the day after dew has dried on the leaves. Store: Beans will keep for 3 days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Do not wash before storing because wet beans will decay quickly. You can also freeze snap beans. Blanch before freezing. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat:  Gold Wax Bush, Royal Burgundy, Blue Lake, Asparagus Yard Long (Dow Gauk) TOMATOESHarvest: Tomatoes should be uniform in color and firm. During hot weather tomatoes soften quickly, so pick them often even if they are slightly immature. If a killing frost is predicted, go ahead and bring in the green tomatoes. Those that have started to lose their chlorophyll will ripen off the vine. They will be light green to yellow in color. Immature green tomatoes can be used for relishes and chowchow. Store: Store ripe tomatoes unrefrigerated. Green tomatoes can be kept in a paper bag with an apple to ripen. The apple produces ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening process. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat:  Celebrity, Yellow Pear, Beefsteak WATERMELON Harvest: When the curly tendril opposite where the melon is attached to the vine turns brown and shrivels, that’s the sign it’s time to harvest the melon. The underside may also turn a cream color and the skin will be dull and tough. Store: Store uncut watermelons at room temperature. They will keep for about 2 weeks. Cut pieces will keep, tightly wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat: Mickeylee Bush WINTER SQUASHHarvest: The rind of winter and autumn squash should be hard and deep in color. You should be able to press into the skin with your fingernail and not leave an indention. Harvest in early to mid-autumn, before the first hard freeze. Store: Gently remove any dirt and set the squash in a warm, sunny location to cure. It usually takes just a few days for the skin to harden and any scratches to seal. Store them in a cool, dry location in a single layer with a bit of space between each squash. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat: Hi Beta Gold Spaghetti, Table King Bush Acorn, Waltham Butternut, Sweet Meat, Improved Green Hubbard, Vegetable Spaghetti ZUCCHINI Harvest: Like summer squash, zucchini should be harvested while young and tender, although the fruits should be about 6 to 8 inches long. Old, large fruits with tough skins should be removed from the vine and thrown away. This will encourage more flowers and fruit. Store: Place unwashed, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Use in 2 to 3 days. Varieties growing at the Garden Home Retreat:  Cocozelle, Black Beauty

P. Allen Smith is the CEO of Hortus Ltd., a media production company responsible for two nationally syndicated half-hour television programs, numerous magazine columns, a popular Web site, a best-selling series of garden-design-lifestyle books, lecture series and news reports that air on stations around the country as well as on The Weather Channel. He is also the principle in P. Allen Smith and Associates, a landscape design firm.