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Early autumn is time for harvest, spring prep

Early autumn is harvest time in the vegetable garden. It’s easy to know when to harvest a tomato, but other crops can be more challenging.

Winter squash and pumpkins start to look ready in August. Cool morning dew encourages powdery mildew on the large pumpkin and squash leaves. The plants start to die back, revealing squash and pumpkins with color. Are they ready to harvest?

The key to ripeness with these storage squash is a hard rind. Without an impermeable skin, the fruit will not store and until that skin develops the squash or pumpkin will not have full flavor.

If a thumbnail punctures the skin, it’s not ready. Keep in mind, however, an unripe squash or pumpkin with a fingernail wound may start to rot at that place. Other indicators of ripeness are a woody stem on each fruit and a subtle deepening of color on the skin.

We usually wait to harvest our winter squash and pumpkins until close to the first frost. Late September or very early in October is a good time for this.

You don’t want to leave these crops out in the frost, because the skin will develop damage where it has been touched by frost and may start to mold in these places.

After harvest, it is ideal to cure your winter squashes indoors for two weeks. Fourteen days at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit will help to further ripen and stabilize the crop. After that, store pumpkins and winter squash at about 50 degrees in a relatively dry environment. A garage that doesn’t freeze is perfect. Treated this way, they will keep most of the winter.

Delicata squash seem to be particularly good keepers. A side benefit to storing squash is that they often gain fuller flavor in storage.

Potatoes are another storage vegetable that can be challenging to harvest. It’s hard to see what’s going on until they’re dug up. In general, it is fine to wait until the potato vines die down before digging.

Depending on when the potatoes were planted, they may stay green despite your best efforts.

In this case, cut the tops off before digging the plant in early October. As with squash and pumpkins, the skin of storage potatoes protects them. Let the tubers dry a little after harvest to help set the skin. Unlike squashes, potatoes store best at refrigerator temperatures and high humidity. Protect spuds from freezing.

Fall is the time to start cleaning up garden plots, taking out weeds and finished crops and sowing cover crops. Cover crops are nitrogen-fixing plants that root in the fall, holding soil in place and enriching it through the winter.

In spring, as they begin to bloom, they are tilled into the soil, creating compost in place. Some good choices for cover crops in our climate are crimson clover, a mix of rye grain and vetch, or fava beans. Broadcasting the seed over empty areas in your vegetable garden before a fall rain provides innumerable benefits.

Cover crops, or more precisely the bacteria that live on their roots, pull nitrogen from the air and put it in the soil. Cover crops feed the bacterial populations of garden soil, which will feed gardeners in the next season. They help stem erosion and nutrient loss during winter rains. They provide organic matter as they break down, improving soil structure.

For a small investment in seed, cover crops provide a generous return.

The lesson of autumn in the vegetable garden: “As you reap, so should you sow.”

Polly Gottesman teaches classes on year-round gardening at Portland Nursery and in North Plains.

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