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Time for the last harvest of the year

TOOELE — It is never a question of "Will winter come?" — but a question of when.

The annual fall garden cleanup is inevitable. Getting the garden ready for winter is a rite of passage that brings closure to the growing season and, hopefully, some great produce.

Wayne Lowery is an enthusiastic gardener who keeps his family, friends and neighbors supplied with many kinds of fresh produce. He also is a regular supplier at the local farmers market in Tooele.

Lowery has always loved gardening. He has completed the master gardener class from Utah State University Extension, and he has taken courses in landscape design, greenhouse construction and plant growing. These have made a dramatic change in how and where he gardens. And now that he's retired, he can indulge in his passion even more.

Putting his garden to sleep involves many tasks, including harvesting and storing produce, general cleanup and soil improvement. Lowery carries them out in the fall for an even better garden next season.

Lowery's well-rounded collection of tree fruits includes apples, apricots, peaches, plums and cherries. Each gets used in various ways during the season, and many are preserved for later use.

"The peaches go into bottles," Lowery said, "and my wife, Verneal, makes a wicked bottle of apricot jam." The produce from one of his apple trees, which suffered extensive hail damage this year, was used "to make a nice pink applesauce."

Fresh apples should be stored in a cool, moist area. Never store damaged fruit since one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

The easiest way to store apples is in boxes, especially ones with liners like the ones used in grocery stores. (Ask the produce manager to save some boxes for you.) Place your best apples in the individual compartments and store the filled boxes in a refrigerator or other cool place. Never store apples with potatoes, as they will pick up an undesirable taste.

The smaller fruits in Lowery's gardens — grapes, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries — are done for the season, but the plants will soon drop their leaves, which he'll use as mulch.

When I visited Lowery, the vegetable-garden cleanup was proceeding nicely. Some of the tender vegetables were ready to be turned under, but several varieties of hot peppers were mature enough that the frozen plants were still supporting great crops.

Although Lowery didn't grow potatoes this season, he did have a crop of sweet potatoes. When I asked him how he planned to store them, his reply was short and sweet. "I don't have to worry about storing them because we ate them all as soon as we dug them," he said.

If you did grow potatoes, harvest them and remove the excess dirt. They're best stored in a cool root cellar that stays moist, which prevents the tubers from shriveling. If you have damaged tubers, use them first, and don't put them in with the good tubers. If they spoil, they will damage the others. Potatoes also turn green and become bitter if they are exposed to light, so store them in a dark area or put them inside boxes or brown plastic bags.

The cabbage heads in Lowery's garden were also awaiting harvest. "I sometimes pick these and use them to make coleslaw," he said. "I might even get brave enough sometime to make another batch of sauerkraut."

Sometimes Lowery just pull the plants up by the roots and hangs them on a rope in the greenhouse. "I have to use them fairly fast, but they will usually last until January."

As for his carrot crop, it will "more than likely stay in the ground. If I leave the carrots in the ground and dig them as fresh carrots all winter, they really taste good." Several large banana squash were already harvested and sitting under the porch. After letting them dry for a couple of weeks, they will go down into the fruit room where it is not too warm but stays dry. That way the squash will last for several months.

In addition, the nut harvest was in full swing. "With the almonds, I wait until they are about ripe, and then I shake the branches to knock off the nuts," Lowery said. "I usually have to get my son to help me on the bigger branches, and then I try to get the grandkids to help me rake or pick them up."

Other fall preparations include turning the soil under. Not only does it make the beds look more attractive, it "puts everything underground so it can turn to compost for next year's garden," Lowery said.

Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist for Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.