The gardening season is coming to an end. Yes, it’s still August, and Labor Day is a week away. But sunrises and sunsets come at about the same time now as they did in early April. Anything you plant in an unprotected garden is for harvesting next year, not this fall.

Now is the time to make the most of what you planted this year. My wife Nancy and I eat lettuce and tomatoes every day; cucumbers and zucchini whenever we have them; new potatoes regularly; and beets, beans and carrots when we feel like it. All that produce comes from our own garden. The only vegetable we buy is fresh corn.

Even so, we can’t eat all that our garden produces. Some vegetables we give away, others we store until winter. In this column, I’ll discuss only how we store untreated produce, not items we’ve frozen or canned, which are Nancy’s domain.

The only winter squash that columnist Tom Atwell grows is butternut. It’s easy to grow, and he likes the flavor. Stefan Rotter/Shutterstock

Starting with winter squash, the only kind we grow is butternut because we like its flavor best, it’s easy to grow, and we have been able to store it successfully until March. Typically, I have left the squash on the vine until the first frost or, if a frost doesn’t come by mid-October, about then. My squash calendar isn’t very scientific, I recently found out, but it has worked.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association recently sent out a bulletin quoting Eric Sideman, the organization’s semi-retired crop specialist, and Brent Loy, famed University of New Hampshire squash breeder, on how to harvest and store squash.

First, if the leaves die because of mildew, harvest the squash. Direct sun hurts the squash, and it won’t develop more without leaves to feed it. If the plant is healthy, however, you should harvest butternut 55 days after the fruit set – if you happened to notice it then. They reach full size at about 20 days, but look green. They turn tan at about 35 days, but unless a frost is coming, let the squash continue ripening on the vine for another 20 days after that.

For Hubbard and buttercup squashes, harvest 40 to 45 days after fruit set or when the leaves die, because this rind is also hurt by sunlight. For acorn squash and most pie pumpkins, the timeline is also about 40 days after fruit set, or when the rind is bright orange where it touches the ground.

If you must pick them early, winter squash will continue to ripen if kept for a bit in their ideal storage conditions – high 50s with low humidity – which in my case is out in the open in our cellar.

Garlic also has specific requirements. We harvested ours in early August, although some people harvested in July. You’ll plant some of the cloves in October and reserve the rest for eating. After harvesting the garlic, leave it in an unheated shed or garage until planting time. According to a 2012 MOFGA article by Tom Vigue, garlic will produce best if, before they are planted, the bulbs spend a couple weeks at temperatures between 43 and 50 degrees. Whatever you don’t plant, bring inside to store and cook with over the winter.

Atwell harvests his onions when the tops turn brown, then he stores them in mesh bags in the cellar. Alsu/Shutterstock

We harvest onions shortly after their tops fall down and turn brown. We dry them on screens in our garden shed, cut off the tops, and hang them in the cellar in mesh bags (bags that originally held grapefruit and oranges), separated from the butternuts.

Potatoes like cool, moist areas for storage. After taking a Cooperative Extension course from Richard Brzozowski about 10 years ago, I insulated our bulkhead so that it stays moist and above freezing – a 5-gallon pail filled with water helps with that, adding moisture and, if it gets really cold outside, freezing before the vegetables do. The potatoes stay edible until late April. Some of those we haven’t eaten become seed potatoes.

In theory, carrots and beets should store well in the bulkhead, too. They don’t. This year, I have given up. We won’t try to store as many as we have in the past, and instead we’ll rely on the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator.

We also store black beans. This spring, I planted two varieties, Mitla and Coco Noir, left over from a crop a few years ago. We store them in cleaned-out peanut butter jars in the cellar. Beans from the same jar can either be eaten or planted.

A garden is more than vegetables. Beauty is important.

We harvest flowers several times a week, including dahlias, gladiolus, tithonia and zinnia that we plant specifically for cutting. We also cut and bring inside the blossoms that come from our perennials and shrubs. Some can be preserved either by hanging to air dry or through a process using silica granules in closed containers.

Most years, we merely cut some of our better-looking hydrangeas, put them in a vase with about an inch of water and leave them until a couple weeks after the water has evaporated.

The dried flowers will last all winter. A reminder of the warm times.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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