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Prolong shelf life of garden-fresh produce with good harvest habits

Freshly harvested garden tomatoes should be cleaned and stored quickly to preserve quality.
Freshly harvested garden tomatoes should be cleaned and stored quickly to preserve quality.

URBANA, Ill. — The fruits of our summer labors have been ripening, and soon more fruits and vegetables will be ready for harvest. As gardeners, overplanting is a common problem, and it is a struggle to get the longest life out of the harvest.

“Most of us end up with more produce than we can use,” said Bruce Black, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Neighbors, friends, coworkers and others usually benefit from the overflow.”

The quality of harvested produce follows an 80-20 rule. Most of what happens after it is harvested, 80%, is decided by pre-harvest factors such as genetics, environmental and cultural factors. The remaining 20% is determined by how the produce is handled after harvest.

Home gardeners often pick specific fruit and vegetable varieties for their flavor, fresh consumption, or preservation needs. They don’t pick varieties for their built-in resistance to diseases or response to natural environmental conditions.

“Unfortunately, we have yet to figure out how to control the weather or the amount of sunlight yards receive,” Black said.

How gardeners respond to fluctuating natural conditions, such as high winds or drought, can give plants a fighting chance. These cultural responses are the things we can control: irrigation, fertilizing, pulling weeds or using pesticides and choosing when and how to plant and harvest.

While the 80% pre-harvest factors may have more influence, the post-harvest 20% can actually make a significant difference with produce.

Tips to improve post-harvest quality and extend shelf life:

• Take care to prevent dropping, bruising, or picking injuries.

• Harvest produce during the cool part of the morning to limit heat damage. Shade fruit left outside if picking large quantities at once.

• Store similar produce together for optimum temperature and humidity requirements in refrigerator crisper drawers.

• Store ethylene producing produce such as apples, melons and tomatoes and ethylene sensitive produce such as peppers, green beans, cucumbers and lettuce separately.

Ethylene is the natural gaseous plant hormone mostly responsible for ripening. When a fruit or vegetable is injured, four things happen: increased ethylene production, increased rate of respiration, increased water loss and the creation of an entry point for pathogens.

Taking these factors into consideration as you harvest should help your produce have a longer post-harvest life and give you time to plan how to best enjoy your harvest. Given the investment of the time, money, sweat and even tears you put into your garden, getting extra time to savor their flavors just makes gardening sweeter.

For more information on postharvest, check out University of Illinois Extension’s Watch Your Garden Grow website at web.extension.illinois.edu/veggies.

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