Eating fresh fruit right from your garden is the reward for the weeks of taking care of them. Get tips on harvesting fruit at the peak of perfection.
You’ve slaved over pruning, feeding, watering and weeding. And finally after what seems to have been ages, your fruit plants and trees are finally producing!
But now there is more work as you realize you need to harvest all this abundance.
The trick is to keep up with the harvest and not let it go too long. You know what can happen? Finding lots of fruit that has fallen on the ground and has been damaged. Or finding that racoons, squirrels or birds have decimated your crop before you could pick it. That happened last year with our plums so we didn’t get many.
So let’s look at what you need to know to harvest your abundant crops when they are ready.
When To Harvest
The key to having the freshest, best tasting vegetables is to pick them at the right time.
If you pick them too early, often they will not be as sweet as they can be due to the sugars not yet having formed. And they may not be big enough.
If you pick them too late, you may end up with rotting fruit, sun scorch or maybe nothing if the birds and mammals have been at them.
One way to get at least a rough idea of when your fruit is ready for harvest is to see when local fruit is available at farm stands and farmer’s markets.
However based on weather, soil conditions, how much you fertilized and watered, your fruit may need more or less time to be ready for harvesting. Every year for instance our peaches ripen at different times although usually in about a four week window.
So use the following indicators to know when the most common fruit is ready:
And it is important to keep up with the frequency of harvesting. It is easy to forget, so write it on your calendar. Otherwise you’ll end up with rotten, overripe fruit!
Usually every two days is fine for most fruit. This is a time when it might pay to do your maintenance walks more frequently through the garden so that you don’t miss anything.
Of course you can also go out when you have a desire to eat a certain fruit or need a recipe ingredient. Just be flexible enough to substitute something else if what you wanted to pick is not ready yet.
You probably want to stagger picking the various fruit, so that one day you pick apples, the next day berries and the following day apples again. Otherwise you’ll have one day where you need to pick too much and then spend time to preserve or otherwise deal with the harvest.
What Do You Need
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I often will simply pickup from the ground or pick ripe fruit as I’m doing a maintenance walk through the garden. No tools required and I’ll balance the fruit in my hands until I can bring them to the kitchen. Or in the case of berries, they might not make it to the kitchen as they disappear into my mouth!
However if you are harvesting a lot of berries, have a lot of fallen fruit, or need to pick fruit from a tree, you may want to prepare and have a few things on hand to make the job go faster and avoid losing fruit or damaging them.
I prefer bringing a large wicker basket with me into the garden. Then I can literally fill it with all kinds of fruit as I go through and find ripe, fully-grown produce. Think Red Riding Hood but hopefully you don’t have foxes in your neighbourhood!
However in order to corral berries such as strawberries, raspberries or blueberries, I also like to have a bunch of clean, empty plastic containers that once held tomatoes or berries. Or a plastic or glass storage container with or without a lid works too.
If you are picking apples, pears or other large fruit, cardboard boxes work well. They are also good for storage as you can layer the fruit in one layer and be able to see at a glance if something is rotting. I also use small buckets with handles for when I am picking fruit on a ladder, as I can hang the bucket from a ladder rung to save time climbing up and down.
For soft-fleshed smaller fruit such as figs and plums, cleaned egg cartons work well to protect the fruit from damage.
Most fruit can simply be pulled off or snapped off with just your fingers.
However I find sometimes that a pair of scissors or snips works better for some fruit such as watermelon or other melons like cantaloupe. It’s an easy tool to throw into your collection basket before you head out into the garden. Or some people put a pair of scissors close to their vegetable garden on a post (so long the scissors can withstand rain and water from irrigation).
You will definitely need scissors or snips for grape bunches.
This is the most important tool in my opinion for picking tree fruit. It allows you to reach fruit from the ground which is safer than climbing a ladder. When you do need to use a ladder, the fruit picker will allow you to stay within the limits of the ladder so you are not overextending your reach and in danger of falling.
There are many styles available but this is the one I prefer. The prongs allow you to catch the stem of the fruit and then pull to remove it from the branch. And the bag allows you to pick a few apples or quite a few plums up to the limit that your arm can bear.
You will need to add an extendable handle to extend your reach even further, but make sure you have strong arms!
If you are blessed with dwarf fruit trees you likely can reach everything with the aforementioned fruit picker. However if you have any trees over 6 feet (~2 meters) a ladder is the only way you will be able to safely pick your fruit.
A three-legged orchard ladder is the safest to use, especially on uneven ground. Avoid using a stepladder as that can be hard to stabilize, other than on concrete.
Most home centres, nurseries and garden centres should have a good selection of ladders of all heights.
Make sure to secure the ladder when not in use so that no one can use the ladder to access second floor windows to break into your house. I use a heavy chain and padlock to lock it to a fencepost at the side of my house.
How To Harvest
These usually just pull off. Sometimes the stem may come with them. In order to not accidentally pull of unripe berries next to the ripe berries, it helps to hold the stem with one pair of fingers and pull off the berry with the other pair of fingers on the other hand.
You will know when you have an overripe berry as it will squish under the pressure from your fingers!
The bunches of grapes need to be snipped off the vine with scissors or snips. Sometimes it can be a bit tricky, especially if they are very ripe, not to lose grapes off the bunch. So expect to lose some this way. And the birds will surely get some of them as well, so toss any that have been pecked at.
Most tree fruit like apples, pears, peaches and plums will come off very easily when you lightly grab them and twist. Or you can also try tilting the fruit up slightly to break it off the stem – this works well for apples and pears. If the fruit doesn’t come readily, it means that it is not quite ripe, so you may want to wait at least another day or two.
Fallen fruit just needs to be picked up. However BE REALLY CAREFUL! Usually wasps will crawl into any cuts or splits to eat the fruit and you could get a nasty sting if you are not careful.
You may need some scissors or snips to snip off the melon from it’s vine in order not to damage the vine.
From my experience with my young daughter, children love the game of finding fresh fruit in the garden and are usually willing to help you out in picking once they are old enough.
The main problem with having children helping is that they may not know what is ripe or not. So you will have to show them “this is a ripe strawberry and this isn’t” and then guide them along the first few times they help you picking.
Have them pick the easy fruit first that don’t require tools and can just be plucked off the plant such as strawberries. They also will have fun picking a melon but you might have to help with the scissors to snip them off.
If you bring the aforementioned basket, you can have them help put the fruit into the basket as you pick the more difficult ones. There will occasionally be accidents as your child drops a full container of raspberries! All part of the process of learning.
Usually it is not a problem to get children to eat fruit. Some of the more tart ones may need a bit of help with some ice cream or baked into muffins or other baked goods.
What To Do With Your Harvest
Using and preserving your harvest is a separate topic in itself. I’ll just list some ideas here but will link to specific articles over time as they are written.
Freezing is the only storage method that costs you money until you eat the harvest. Every other method costs money when you preserve or use the harvest.
However you might find that freezing fruit is the quickest way to preserve it for a month or two until you have time to make jams, jellies and other recipes with the fruit.
This works best for berries and peaches. With peaches, you cut them in half, remove the pit and optional skin them (depending on the variety this is either easy or hard – you might need to blanch them briefly to get the skins off).
Using baking sheets, you freeze the berries or peach slices individually and then transfer them to bags. Excellent in smoothies or in oatmeal!
I have also frozen apples (core and peel if desired) but just popped them into a bag without pre-freezing on baking sheets. Usually apples are frozen so that you can make applesauce, apple butter or apple jelly in wintertime when you have more time.
Jams, jellies and more
Fruit is great cooked down into a delicious jam, jelly or sauce. Berries are easy to make into a jam or jelly and plums make a great plum sauce. And homemade applesauce where you can control the sugar used is much healthier and tastier than the pale-looking jarred applesauce you find in the grocery store.
It is labour intensive, especially if you decide to can the jam, jelly or sauce. However you also could freeze it, keeping in mind that texture might be affected when it is thawed again.
By essentially heating and cooling filled glass jars, you can vacuum seal jams, jellies and applesauce so that they will last months if not years. It can be a bit intimidating, as doing it wrong can cause spoilage. And it requires some special supplies and tools.
Removing most of the water out of fruit will allow you to store them for a long period of time without spoiling. If you really want to be cheap and environmentally conscious, you can use the heat of the sun to dry food just like our ancestors did.
Or buy a dehydrator or use your oven at a very low setting. This allows you to dry the fruit even during wet and cloudy weather.
This works great with apples. Mix the dried apples with some seed and nuts and you have a healthy snack.
Very watery fruit such as plums and even peaches are not the best to dry. Nor are berries like raspberries as they have too many seeds. Grapes are the most popular to dry to make raisins but only if you have seedless grapes. Our grapes have big seeds so are not suitable for making raisins.
An alternative to drying fruit whole or sliced, is to puree the fruit and then make fruit leather or rollups by drying the puree. This is popular with kids as they might eat the rollups but not eat the fresh fruit.
The harder tree fruit such as apples and pears can be stored in a cool, dry place. It helps to check regularly for spoilage and remove any fruit so it doesn’t spread to the other fruit.
It can be as simply as layering the fruit in a single layer in a cardboard box. Or you can buy or build your own storage cabinet out of wood which allows air to circulate between the shelves to keep the fruit from rotting.
Cooking or Baking and Freezing
The other alternative is to cook or bake something with the fruit. This way you can combine fruit in delicious ways such as blueberries and peaches or mixed berries.
I’ve already covered jams and jellies and other cooked fruit. The other alternative is baking. The list of possible baked goods you can add fruit to is almost endless but here are my favourites:
- Sheet cakes
- Upside down cakes
- Decoration for regular cakes
And in many baking recipes you can substitute pureed fruit or applesauce for part of the fat to make the baked good healthier.
Most baked goods can be frozen for a few months if using freezer bags.
You are probably wondering: what about vegetables? Vegetable harvesting is in some ways similar but a bit different and I have a very similar post on that. It sometimes involves using other tools such as spades or forks for root crops. And there are many more types of vegetables that need special consideration when harvesting.
Do you have any other tips for harvesting fruit? Please share in a comment below.
Wishing you all the best and happy harvesting!
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Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC