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For winter storage, potatoes are best left in the ground until late September or early October. David Samson / Forum News Service

Commentary: Harvesting late summer crops

FARGO — Have you ever tried leaving for a summer vacation with someone who enjoys vegetable gardening? While everyone else is busy packing the car, they're busy picking the last of the string beans.

Maybe the cucumbers should be checked one more time because they'll stop bearing if they get too large. It'll only take a minute. An hour or two later, you're on your way.

Obviously, I'm a guilty party, and my wife, Mary, is the world's most patient woman, tied with Mother Teresa. By late summer or early fall, many of the daily harvests are replaced by vegetables that can remain in place awhile.

Following are tips for harvesting late summer and fall garden produce:

• Muskmelon: When ripe, the rind becomes more golden and less green. Harvest as soon as melons separate easily from the vine when given a gentle tug, called the "full slip" stage.

• Watermelon: Always tricky, harvest when the wire-like tendrils near the attached stem turn from green to dry brown, the ground spot turns from white to cream-colored or yellow, depending on variety, and the rind's waxy "bloom" becomes dull.

• Onions: From the time the green tops begin to fall over until they are brown and dry, bulb size and yield can increase 30 to 40 percent. Delay digging for two weeks after tops are withered and dry for best storage.

Cure by spreading in shallow containers in a warm, dry, airy location, such as the garage, for two to four weeks. Lightly rub away excess dry tops and loose skin that's falling away. Store at 40 degrees in dry, airy containers, open trays or mesh bags.

• Potatoes: For winter storage, leave in the ground until late September or early October when plants are dead-dry and potato skins are well-set and not easily rubbed off.

After digging, keep potatoes in darkness to prevent greening and cure at 50 to 60 degrees for two or three weeks. Then store unwashed at 40 degrees with high humidity, such as a root cellar. Refrigerators are usually too cool for potatoes.

• Carrots: For winter storage, leave in the ground as long as possible. Cool fall temperatures promote sugar production, making carrots sweeter.

After digging, cut tops to about ½ to 1 inch, gently rub away excess soil and store unwashed at 35 degrees and high humidity. Refrigerators are ideal, with carrots packed in plastic bags. In root cellar-type basements, carrots store well in earthenware crocks or plastic tubs. Cover loosely and keep humid-moist, but not wet. Some gardeners pack carrots in sand.

• Squash and pumpkins: The skin of fully mature fruit loses its glossy appearance, becoming dull and hard, not easily punctured with a thumbnail. Harvest when foliage has died naturally or after a light frost. Store at 50 to 55 degrees.

• Apples: With most types, the non-red "background color" changes from green to creamy yellow and seeds change from light tan to blackish brown when apples are ripe. Apples develop a natural "abscission" layer at the stem that allows fruits to fall when ripe, so check additional indicators when fruit begin to drop.

Varieties have specific ripening dates as follows: Beacon, State Fair and Hazen (mid- to late August); Zestar and Chestnut crab (early September); Red Baron, Sweet Sixteen and Honeycrisp (mid- to late September); Haralson (late September to early October); and SnowSweet, Fireside and Connell Red (mid-October).

Fall's cooler temperatures promote increased sugar buildup in late-ripening apples, which can remain on the tree down to 25 to 28 degrees.