Guide to Fall Fruits and Vegetables

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In autumn, your garden, as well as your local farmers market, overflows with fabulous, fresh produce. Here's a quick guide to growing, harvesting, and selecting the top fall crops.

Apples

Probably everyone’s favorite fall crop, apples are easy to grow if you have the space and sunlight. Apples come in three sizes: dwarf, semidwarf, and standard; in most standard-size backyards, dwarf trees that grow 8-10 feet tall and wide are probably your best bet. You’ll need at least two trees of different varieties for sizeable harvests. Apples are available in hundreds of varieties that vary from sweet to tart. There are varieties that lend themselves to specific uses: baking, saucing, and fresh eating. Popular varieties include: Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Honey Crisp, McIntosh, Golden Delicious, and Royal Gala.

Selection and Storage
When buying apples, look for fruit that has a firm, unwrinkled skin with no soft spots or nicks. The fruit should have a fresh apple fragrance. Store apples in a cool, dark location. If you have a big harvest, you can store them in a root cellar or cool basement. Storage times vary considerably by apple variety. For smaller amounts, refrigerate your apples in plastic bags for up to two weeks.

Pears

There's nothing quite like harvesting bushels of your own fresh pears. Pear trees are a snap to grow, requiring well-drained soil and a location that receives at least six hours of sunlight a day. Pear trees are generally available in two sizes: dwarf and standard. Dwarf pear trees grow 8-10 feet tall and 6-7 feet wide, while standards can grow 20 feet tall and 13 feet wide. Some popular varieties include: Seckel, Beuure Bosc, Bartlett, Red Sensation, Moonglow, Anjou, Comice, and Asian. Firm varieties such as Bosc or Anjou are best for poaching, baking, and grilling. Their dense flesh holds their shape. Bartlett, Red Bartlett, and Comice are not good candidates for cooking because they become squishy and their flavor diminishes. Eat these lovelies fresh.

Selection and Storage
Look for pears with no bruises or cuts. Avoid fruit that is too soft because this indicates the fruit is overripe. Pears should be heavy with a slight "give" to the skin if pressed. Choice pears also may have a strong sweet aroma. Pears can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days and if you want to hurry the ripening process, place them in a paper bag at room temperature and turn them several times a day. Do not keep pears in bulk in plastic bags. Kept this way, they will degrade quickly and not be useable.

Potato

First discovered in Peru, this nutrient-rich vegetable is prized for its flavor and its ability to be fried, baked, boiled, grilled, mashed, roasted, or stir-fried. This versatile vegetable needs to be planted in the early spring while the weather is still cool and moist. Requiring rich, slightly moist soil and full sun, potatoes grow about 3 feet tall and wide when they begin producing edible tubers just underneath the surface of the soil. By fall, potatoes can be dug and harvested. Some favorites varieties include Yukon Gold, Russet, Katahdin, Kennebec, Norland, Pontiac, Irish Cobbler, and Fingerling.

Selection and Storage
Choose potatoes that are firm to the touch with no soft spots or green coloring of the skin. Avoid potatoes that have started to sprout. The “eyes” of the potatoes should always be removed as they contain toxins. Potatoes store best in a cool, dark, well-ventilated location at a temperature between 40-50 degrees F. If you buy potatoes in plastic bags, remove them from the plastic and store in a paper sack or cardboard box. Do not wash potatoes before storing. Also, do not store potatoes in the refrigerator or freeze uncooked potatoes. If your potatoes begin to sprout, cut off the new growth and use as soon as possible.

Brussels Sprouts

With a sweet, nutty flavor, Brussels sprouts are one of the tastiest members of the cabbage family. Each plant develops hundreds of small, cabbagelike heads that cling tightly to a tall, thick stalk. Unlike most green vegetables, Brussels sprouts are a protein source as well as a good source of fiber and vitamins C and A. They are also packed with antioxidants and are believed to be helpful in fighting colon and prostate cancer as well as cardiovascular disease.

 

Plant Brussels sprouts in the spring or early summer to give them plenty of time to mature before fall. They require full sun and rich, well-drained soil. The plants have few disease problems, but are frequently attacked by the green larvae of the white Cabbage Butterfly. To protect the plants, spray the foliage with a biological pest control every week to 10 days.

Selection and Storage
The flavor of Brussels sprouts improves after a light frost, so don't worry if cold weather threatens. To harvest, remove individual sprouts or cut the whole stalk off at ground level if you need to feed a large family or dinner party. When buying Brussels sprouts, select firm, bright green sprouts with no soft spots. If possible, buy the sprouts still attached to the stem. Store Brussels sprouts unwashed in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for a week to 10 days.

Onions

Try to imagine how bland our diet would be if onions didn't exist. This humble underground crop can be sauteed into soups and stews, caramelized with sweet butter, spooned on vegetable or meat dishes, or chopped fresh for salads and sandwiches. Plus, different color onions offer a wide range of flavors. Onions also offer a range of health benefits because they contain antioxidants that help reduce cholesterol and reduce blood clots.

 

Most onions need a long time to mature, so plant them in the early spring when the weather is cool and moist. Space plants a few inches apart and mulch to help keep weeds at bay. Onions like rich, organic, slightly moist soil and sunshine at least 6-8 hours a day. Some plants may send up flower buds. Remove them to encourage the plant to send all its energy into the bulb.

Selection and Storage
In late summer and early fall, onion foliage begins to dry up and fall over. This means your onions are ready for harvest. Use a spading fork to harvest the bulbs. Clip away the foliage and store in mesh bags and hang them in a cool, dark location. Some varieties, particularly sweet ones such as Vidalia and Walla Walla, should be used soon after harvest because they do not store as well as standard onions. If you are buying onions, check for firmness and a brightly colored outer skin. Avoid onions with soft spots or bruises or those that have begun to sprout.

Pumpkins

Jack-o-lanterns aren't the only thing pumpkins are good for. These gorgeous members of the squash family are sweet and delicious and can be used in recipes from soup to nuts (literally because you can eat the seeds roasted to crisp, nutty perfection). Just look for pumpkin varieties developed specifically for culinary use. Some excellent varieties include Small Sugar, New England Pie, Autumn Crown, Long Island Cheese, Small Sugar, Baby Bear, and Winter Luxury. Pumpkins are a good source of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as dietary fiber.

 

Pumpkins are frost tender, so plant them in your garden after your soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has passed. Space plants according to seed-pack directions because some varieties will spread and smother their neighbors. Pumpkins are heavy feeders that require soil that's been amended with rotted manure or slow-release dry fertilizer. Be sure to mulch the plants to prevent weed competition.

Selection and Storage
Harvest pumpkins when the vine starts to dry out where it attaches to the fruit. Remove the pumpkin, leaving a few inches of stem intact. Store in a cool, dry location that remains between 45-60 degrees F. Avoid moist, humid locations, such as basements, to discourage mold and rot. Stored in this manner, most pumpkins will last about a month. When buying pumpkins, look for fruits that feel heavy for their size. The skin should have a dull, matte finish. Shiny pumpkins indicate that they were harvested too early. Do not buy pumpkins with soft spots or deep gashes.

Kale

This frilly member of the cabbage family offers a powerhouse of health benefits that few other vegetables can equal. Kale is packed with vitamins A, K, and C, as well as fiber, sulfur, iron, calcium, magnesium, omega fatty acids, and powerful antioxidants. And to top it all off, kale tastes great when used fresh in salads, blended into a smoothie, or roasted to create tasty chips. Like other members of the cabbage family, the flavor of kale actually improves after a light frost. Kale comes in a variety of shapes and colors, all of which are a snap to grow.

 

Plant kale in spring or early summer in a location where it will receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sun a day. Be sure to amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. You also can feed your plants with a slow-release granular fertilizer. If you start to see holes in the leaves, it's probably due to the voracious green caterpillars of the Cabbage Butterfly. Spray with a biological control to keep these pests from destroying your crop.

Selection and Storage
You can harvest kale leaves at any time. Small to medium-size leaves have the most flavor. To store, wrap the unwashed leaves in moist paper towels and refrigerate. They will only last a day or two so use promptly. If you are buying kale at the grocery store or farmers market, look for crisp, dark green leaves with firm edges. Avoid wilted or blemished leaves.

Winter Squash

Unlike summer squash, such as zucchini or patty pan, winter squash varieties have a hard outer skin that gives these delicious vegetables a long shelf life. The flesh of popular varieties such as acorn, butternut, or delicata can be baked, boiled, roasted, and sauteed, and served as a side dish by itself or in soups, pastas, pies, or casseroles. Winter squash also has higher levels of beta-carotene and B vitamins than summer squash.

 

Winter squash loves hot weather, so plant in the late spring after the soil warms up and frost danger has passed. Some winter squash varieties will trail up to 20 feet, so give it plenty of room to spread out. Mulch with a thick layer of straw, newspaper, or compost to prevent weed competition. It's also hard to weed a bed of winter squash once the vines have spread all over. Winter squash has a number of insect pests, such as squash bug, cucumber beetle, and squash vine borer, so inspect plants every few days and use a biological control if you see evidence of infestation.

Selection and Storage
Winter squash is ready to harvest when the stem starts to shrivel and dry near the fruit. Leave an inch or two of stem attached to the fruit when you harvest. Store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location that remains between 50-60 degrees F.  To promote air circulation around all sides of the fruit spread the squash on screens or wire racks. Stored in this manner most winter squash will last for several months. In the refrigerator, winter squash will stay fresh for about 10 days. When purchasing winter squash, look for unblemished fruit with a matte or dull finish. They also should feel heavier than they appear and have some stem still attached. For acorn squash, look for fruit with as little yellow or orange on them as possible; this can indicate it is overripe.

Garlic

Who doesn’t love garlic? This super versatile root crop lends its rich, pungent flavor and fragrance to a wide variety of soups, stews, meat dishes, dips, breads, casseroles, pastas, vegetables, salad dressings, and more. Plus, garlic contains an abundance of important antioxidants.

 

Garlic is best planted in the fall. Choose varieties that are hardy in your climate and plant one or two weeks after the first killing frost. Come spring, your plants will send up shoots and grow quickly in the cool, moist spring weather. Plant cloves about 6 inches apart, pointed side up. Then, cover the bed with several inches of mulch to protect the bulbs from harsh conditions over the winter. Garlic requires full sun and a rich, well-drained soil that’s been amended with compost. Avoid fertilizing with nitrogen in the spring because it will encourage the plant to develop leaves instead of bulbs.

Selection and Storage
Garlic is ready to harvest when the lower leaves start to turn brown. To check readiness, pull a bulb or two and cut them in half. If the cloves fit firmly in the skins, they are ready to harvest. Dig the entire plant, remove any large clumps of soil and hang them in a warm, dry, well-ventilated location for 3-4 weeks to cure. Once cured, you can trim off the roots and clip the stems back to about an inch above the bulbs. Then, place the bulbs in a net bag and hang from a basement or closet ceiling. Stored in this manner, garlic will stay fresh for months. When buying garlic, choose heads that are firm, with no soft cloves. Avoid bulbs with nicks or blemishes and watch for dark, powdery patches under the garlic’s skin.

Sweet Potato

Rich in carbohydrates, fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, sweet potatoes are also low in calories, making them a great addition to a healthy diet. Native to South and Central America, sweet potatoes thrive in hot, sunny climates in rich, slightly moist soil. The edible roots can be yellow, orange, red, purple, or brown, depending on variety. In the supermarket, the terms sweet potato and yam are often used interchangeably, but they are the roots of two different species. Yet, in the United States, virtually all roots sold under these names are sweet potatoes.

 

To grow your own sweet potatoes, buy transplants from your local garden center or greenhouse and plant them in the garden after all frost danger has passed. Sweet potatoes are slow to mature, so if you live in the north and have a short growing season, select varieties that mature quickly. Always mulch sweet potatoes to maintain consistent soil moisture and eliminate weed competition.

Selection and Storage
Sweet potato vines continue to grow as long as the weather stays warm, so there’s no obvious sign when the plants are ready to harvest. Simply dig the tubers in the fall before the first frost. Then, cure the tubers for 10-14 days by spreading them in a dry, well-ventilated area that remains between 80-85 degrees F. After curing, move the tubers to a well-ventilated, dark, humid location that stays between 55-60 degrees F.

 

If you buy sweet potatoes at the supermarket, look for those that feel firm to the touch and don’t have any cracks, bruises, or soft spots. And, avoid any that might have been stored or displayed in the refrigerated section. Never store sweet potatoes in the refrigerator, in plastic bags, or stacked on top of one another.

Cabbage

A dietary staple since the Middle Ages, cabbage contains hefty doses of vitamins C, K, beta-carotene, potassium, and antioxidants. This cool-weather veggie also comes in a wide variety of types including red, green, blue-green, savoy, nappa, and bok choy.

 

To grow your own cabbage for fall harvests, plant in a sunny spot about 6-8 weeks before the first expected frost in your region. Mulch to maintain consistent soil moisture and eliminate weeds. Fall crops generally have less insect pests than spring crops, but you may still have to protect your plants from the cabbage butterfly caterpillar with a biologically safe pesticide.

Selection and Storage
Cabbage is ready for harvest when the heads feel firm and heavy. Remove the head from the stem and remove the soiled outer leaves. Then, place the head in a plastic bag and store in your refrigerator where it will stay fresh for up to 10 days.

 

When buying cabbage at the grocery store, look for heads that feel heavy for their size with a bright color depending on type (red, green, etc.). Avoid any that show signs of discoloration or rotting. Savoy cabbage has looser heads, so it will feel lighter than other varieties.

Root Crops

Fall is a great time to expand your dietary horizons by adding a heaping helping of root crops into your diet. Rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips are three late-season crops that may look boring on the outside, but have superior flavor especially when roasted, boiled, or used in soups and stews. These versatile crops also can be mashed together or mixed with potatoes and carrots. Plus, with turnips you can even eat the nutrient rich greens.

 

All three root crops taste best when they ripen in cool weather. Sow seeds about two to three months before the first expected frost in your region. Keep the soil slightly moist to encourage quick germination and growth. Be sure to thin the seedlings according to seed pack instructions.

Selection and Storage
You can start harvesting root crops once nighttime temperatures remain between 40-45 degrees F. Cooler weather will bring out the sweetness in the harvest. Store parsnips in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator where they will stay fresh for up to two weeks. Rutabagas and turnips can be stored in the refrigerator unwrapped for about two weeks. Or, place rutabagas and turnips in a cool, dark, well-ventilated location for about a week.

 

When buying root crops at the grocery store, look for those that are firm and unblemished. In general, the younger the root crop, the sweeter it will be, so avoid oversize produce.

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