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Ripe Fruit

by Sharon Morrisey, consumer horticulture agent for Milwaukee County

Many summer fruits ripen from July through fall. Summer raspberries (Rubus) are next to ripen after June-bearing strawberries (Fragaria ananassa). They are ready to pick when slightly firm, aromatic and flavorful. Pick all ripe berries every couple of days. Overripe fruit attracts picnic bugs, which are no picnic when they feast on your fruit.

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Vineyard swathed in netting to protect the ripening fruit

Grape (Vitis vinifera) varieties often look ripe before they actually are. It may take an additional two to three weeks on the vine for the full sugar content to develop. They do not continue ripening after picking, so do not pick until they taste perfectly ripe. Then, use as soon after harvest as possible because they don’t store well.

Stone fruits (Prunus spp.), such as plums, cherries, apricots, and peaches that survived the winter, should not be picked until they are ripe, either. Unfortunately, the birds seem to know the exact minute that occurs. They can devour an entire cherry crop in one afternoon. The only ways to prevent this are to either cover the entire tree with bird netting as soon as the fruit begins developing or use a chemical repellant spray.

As soon as the larger fruits are ripe, birds begin pecking holes in them. A friend of mine checks them daily and at the first sign of pecking, he harvests the entire crop, thus avoiding the use of chemicals and the hassle of bird netting.

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Beautiful, freshly-picked apples

Like grapes, apples often look ripe before they really are, since the outer color often develops first. Start by knowing when the varieties you are growing are supposed to ripen. There are varieties that ripen from early August through October.

  • Lodi – 1st week in August
  • Redfree – 3rd week in August
  • Gala – 2nd week in September
  • Honeycrisp – 3rd week in September
  • Nova Easygro – 3rd week in September
  • Empire – 1st week of October
  • Liberty – 1st week of October
  • Jonathan – 2nd week of October
  • Golden Delicious – 3rd week of October

The best indicator of ripeness is the color of the seeds. When they are completely shiny brown, the fruit is ripe. You may end up sacrificing an apple every couple of days this way, however. Another indicator is more subtle, but involves a change in the shade of green in the skin at the stem end of the fruit. When it turns from a bright, green-apple green to a lighter shade, it’s time to check the seeds for uniform color.

Save your Heirloom Tomato Seeds

'Mr Stripey' heirloom variety tomato

‘Mr Stripey’ heirloom variety tomato

I like to try different kinds of tomatoes each year and, while the hybrids produce really good and generally disease-free fruit, there’s nothing like biting into a tomato that reminds you of your childhood. That happened to me this summer with one that I hadn’t tried before — ‘Mr. Stripey’. Now, we didn’t grow ‘Mr. Stripey’ when I was a kid (not to my recollection anyway), but it has that full, just-from-the-garden sweetness that I remember. As a result, I thought I might try seed saving this year — something I’ve never done. For help, I’m taking the advice to Diana Alfuth, horticulture educator for Pierce & St. Croix County UW-Extension.

Seed Saving

by Diana Alfuth

Saving vegetable seeds from year to year can be fun and economical. Self-pollinating plants, such as beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers, are the best vegetables to save. Vine crops, including squash, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers, are often cross-pollinated by insects, so seeds saved from these crops will likely grow into plants that produce fruit unlike that of the parent plant — often odd shaped or poor tasting.

For tomatoes, scoop the seeds and gel from the middle and put them in a jar of water. Stir the mixture daily and after four to five days, the gel will break down and the seeds will fall to the bottom. Pour off the liquid, collect the seeds, and place them in an even layer to dry. Coffee filters work really well for this purpose since they absorb moisture and you can write the variety name directly on the filter. For peppers, remove the seeds from ripe fruit after they begin to shrivel and put them directly into a filter for drying. Beans and peas can be left on the plants until dry and rattling in the pods, and then shelled for storage.

Once fully dry, store the seeds in a cool, dry place, ideally at 32º to 41ºF. Put your seeds in individual paper envelopes, and then put them all in a glass jar in your refrigerator or other cool place until planting time next year. Be sure to mark the envelopes with the date and variety.

Saving Seeds, Saving Memories

By Master Gardener Tammy Borden

My first experience with saving seeds began with a beautiful hyacinth bean vine that I planted from seed during my classes to become a Master Gardener. I can still recall our entire class lined up with Styrofoam cups and starting mix while Larry and Kay Herried rationed out the seeds, eager to be an agent in allowing life to come into existence. Even the seeds looked intriguing with their matte black surface and white edging.

Within days, they sprouted and it wasn’t long before they overtook a small trellis. The seedpods eventually appeared following the delicate flowers, and it was easy to simply collect the encased seeds and store them until spring. When spring finally came, it brought so much gratification to know I was a part of continuing the cycle of life as the seeds from one plant soon became sev- eral dozen more that I could share with family and friends.

Saving seeds, in general, is not too difficult, and it can save you a lot of money. Here are a few basics that need to be followed for most varieties, whether they’re a vegetable or flower.

STEP ONE

In general, select seeds from heirloom variety flowers and vegetables. As a rule of thumb, do not waste your time trying to save seeds from hybrid plants or exotic species. The offspring will most likely look nothing like the parent plant, be weak, or may not sprout at all. My mother told me how she painfully came to realize this rule when she saved seeds from a hybrid cucumber… the following spring she planted the seeds; they sprouted, grew vigorously and had promising blossoms. But when the fruit began to set, every single tiny cucumber shriveled and fell off the vine, leaving her to resort to roadside stands and tasteless produce aisles.

STEP TWO

Once you’ve selected the plants you would like to save seeds from, allow the flower or fruit to mature on the vine so the seeds can fully develop. Choose from the healthiest and finest produce or flower heads. For most peppers, allow them to go beyond the green stage until they’re red. For cucumbers, allow them to get over ripe and turn yellow on the vine. For flowers, herbs and vegetables that set seed (lettuce, radish, etc.), let them get to that unsightly brown stage or allow them to set seed pods.

STEP THREE

Harvest the seeds. For fruits and vegetables, like melons, it caseed-saving.jpgn be as easy as slicing them open and scooping out the seeds. For flowers, like zinnias, pull the seeds from the center cone that forms. For others like nicotania (flowering tobacco), hold the seed pod inside an envelope and burst it so the thousands of miniscule seeds fall inside. After harvesting the seed, allow them to fully dry out of direct sunlight on a paper plate.

STEP FOUR

Fermenting… Huh? Fermenting is not required for most seeds. However, if you want to save seeds from that mystery tomato that your uncle’s been growing for years, you’ll need to read this part! Tomatoes require an extra step that will bring back memories of growing cultures in Petri dishes in your high school biology class. Tomato seeds are enclosed in a gel-like substance containing growth inhibitors that needs to be removed through a fermentation process. Remove the seeds and place them in a glass dish. Add a small amount of wa- ter to help separate the seeds from the pulp. Then set the bowl of tomato seeds and pulp in a warm spot and allow 2-4 days for the fermentation to take place. As with most fermentation processes, don’t be alarmed if the slimy mixture develops an odor. Wait for a layer of mold to form on top of your seeds & pulp, and for the seeds to fall to the bottom. Finally, remove the mold and rinse the seeds well in a strainer, removing any remaining pulp. Spread the seeds onto a paper plate or glass dish to dry.

STEP FIVE

Storage should take place in a cool, dry, dark place where temperatures remain fairly stable. Glass jars work well, as do paper envelopes. Make sure that seeds being kept in sealed containers are completely dry so that moisture doesn’t cause molding. Clearly label your containers with the variety name and date.

STEP SIX

Some seeds require cold stratification to germinate. Most hardy perennials fall into this category. Baptisia and milkweed are two examples. Cold stratification simulates a winter freezing period and can easily be accomplished by placing these seeds in the freezer for a couple months. Research on-line or use a good reference book to determine if your seed needs this cold treatment.

Saving seeds is fun and easy. There are many seeds that may require a slightly different method for harvesting, so I suggest searching on-line for your particular variety. Or you can purchase a book to help you sort through it. “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, available through Seed Savers Exchange, is one suggestion. Happy harvesting!

Drying Herbs

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Herbs and flowers drying in a warm, dry spot

All herbs can be dried, but not all of them are worth the trouble. Parsley, chervil, chives, and coriander, to name four popular favorites that are widely marketed in dried form, taste more or less like hay that way, no matter how carefully they have been processed. Most of the others, including basil, dill, thyme, rosemary, sage, and tarragon, come through very nicely — changed, to be sure, but still useful.

I’m a bit of a romantic so I like to dry my herbs the old-fashioned way: hanging them in bunches in my dry basement. The scent is heavenly when several different bundles of herbs are drying together.

Most herbs have the strongest flavor right before they start to form flower buds. They should be freshly picked, preferably in the morning as soon as the dew has dried. (Basil, however, is an exception. It’s more flavorful at the end of the day.)

If the herbs have long stems with sparse foliage at the bottom, you can hang them in bunches. Use rubber bands or twine to tie loose bundles of eight stems or so. Hang them in the chosen spot (dark, dry, warm area that gets plenty of air circulation), and keep checking on them. If the herbs have tightly packed leaves (or flowers) that might rot before they could dry, strip them from the stems and spread them on screens. Prop the screens on piles of books or bricks so air can circulate.

Over the past several years, many methods of drying herbs have arisen (including spreading them on a towel in the back seat of your car when it sits out on a hot day). I found a website that details six methods of drying — depending on the amount of time and money that you want to spend. Visit Mother Earth News for some ideas.

No matter which way you dry them, the herbs are ready to store when they are brittle and should be removed from the drying area as soon as this happens. Strip the leaves from the stems, but leave them whole. Store in air-tight glass jars in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year. Color is a clue: a pale look probably means a pale taste.

 

Try Freezing your Herbs

Drying herbs is pretty commonplace and, for me, there’s nothing better than the fragrance of herbs drying in my basement. However, herbs that have been frozen taste fresher than dried herbs, but only for the first 4 months or so after freezing. After that, flavor declines rapidly, so freezing should be an addition to drying.

To freeze lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and tarragon, use whole leaves (discard stems). To freeze dill, fennel, and thyme, use tender sprigs. Basil discolors when it is frozen, so if you want it to stay bright green, dip branches in boiling water, just for a second or two, then remove, discard stems, and gently dry the leaves.

Whatever you’re freezing should be completely dry. Spread it out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place it in the freezer. As soon as the herbs are frozen, usually in no more than an hour or two, pack them in heavy plastic freezer bags and put the bags in freezer-safe glass jars (canning jars) for storage.

Chives don’t freeze well; they don’t dry well, either. Use them fresh or substitute green onion tops.

Another popular method for freezing herbs involves chopping them and adding them to liquid (water or olive oil), freezing them in ice cube trays, and pulling out just what you need to add to soups, sauces, gravies, etc. There are many places on the web with instructions on how to freeze herbs in liquids.

Remember: freezing herbs won’t help you any if you forget to use them, something all too easy to do. As a reminder, post an inventory of frozen herbs where you will see it when you reach for the seasonings.

 

Next time:  Drying Herbs

Bringing the Asparagus Harvest to a Close

640px-Wild_asparagus_cutOh, those delicious spears are one of the great harbingers of Spring in Wisconsin, and it’s a bit heartbreaking when it’s time to draw the harvest to a close! From Diana Alfuth, horticulture educator for Pierce & St. Croix County UW-Extension in Wisconsin, comes the following advice for caring for your asparagus patch.

“You should stop harvesting when the emerging spears are about the diameter of a pencil; this will give the crowns time to rejuvenate for next year’s harvest.

When harvesting is over, fertilize according to soil test results, or with a complete fertilizer such as a 10-10-10, to replenish nutrients used during the harvest season. Let the ferns grow to collect sunlight and restore the root system. In fall, once the ferns have yellowed, cut them back and dispose of them to prevent overwintering of asparagus beetles and rust, two of our most common asparagus pests.

Top-dress your patch with compost or another mulch to reduce weeds. You can eliminate perennial weeds such as quackgrass, with glyphosate (Roundup). For a small patch, put on a rubber glove, then a cloth glove over that. Wet the fingers of the cloth glove with glyphosate and wipe it on the grass blades, avoiding contact with the asparagus. The herbicide will go into the blade and down to the roots, killing the weed, but not harming the asparagus. Tedious, but very effective. If you have a large patch you can try spraying glyphosate in late fall after you’ve cut back the ferns, or in early spring before spears have emerged.”

Diana Alfuth, horticulture educator for Pierce & St. Croix County UW-Extension, teaches the master gardener program and is a frequent speaker throughout the region about gardening and sustainable landscaping. She is a regular guest on WEAU-TV and teaches landscape design at UW-River Falls.

Donate Extra Garden Produce

Appleton East High School Grows a Row for St. Joe's!

Appleton East High School Grows a Row for St. Joe’s!

It is the time of year again where those of us who have gardens start seeing the fruits of our labor! Sometimes we have an abundance of produce and we want to donate it somewhere, but you can’t think of where to go. St. Joe’s Food Pantry in Appleton hopes that you’ll remember them when you’re looking to share your garden produce. Here are some quick guidelines for making sure your donation is acceptable:

  • Fresh produce should be in its whole, natural state — uncut with no signs of mold, spoilage, or severe bruising. The skin should be intact, and it should not be peeled, washed, or processed in any way.
  • Follow these steps when selecting, handling, storing, and transporting the produce you plan to donate:
    • Handle fresh fruits and vegetables safely to minimize the risk of food borne illness.
    • Don’t mix produce types. Keep each type in separate, clean, food-grade containers or bags.
    • Clear off as much mud and dirt as possible from the produce you plan to donate. Please do not wash the produce to help maintain its freshness.
    • Choose produce that has no signs of mold, spoilage, bruising, or insects.
  • It is recommended that harvesting of produce is done early in the morning. If it’s covered with dew, dry it with paper towels. Inspect each item for serious bruising, insect damage, or over-ripeness. Don’t donate produce that you wouldn’t buy or use for your own family.

If you use pesticides in your garden, always read and follow the label recommendations carefully. Pay particular attention to the time to when you should harvest after the last use of the pesticide. If you are not absolutely sure that you followed the label when using pesticides, the food should not be eaten or donated.

For more information about donating food to St. Joe’s Food Pantry, visit the website where you can also find information about the “Plant a Row for St. Joe’s” program.