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You don't need to wait until the harvest moon to start harvesting fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs. Our quick-hit guide will help you get the most from your garden.

Photo: Jane Friedmann, Star Tribune

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HARVEST HOW-TO

Pick early. Bigger isn't better. Most fruits and vegetables get tougher and seedier as they get larger.

Pick often. If you continue to pick, your plants will continue to produce. But if you stop picking, it won't take long for your plants to take the hint and start going to seed, literally.

Know when they're ready. "There's no right time to pick carrots and peppers," said Deb Brown, local garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota. "They taste good at any stage." But tomatoes should be an evenly ripe color. Peas should be fat and puffy. Beets should be pushing their "shoulders" through the soil. If you're unsure whether a veggie is good to go, try it.

Dry up. Water can spread bacteria and disease and speed rot, so don't wash your produce until you're ready to eat it. Also, try not to harvest in the rain. "If you pick beans or tomatoes off a wet plant, you can bruise the plant and open it up to bacteria," said Brown.

Cool it. Don't leave just-picked produce in the hot sun. Get carrots, peas and beans in the refrigerator. Store ripe tomatoes on the counter away from a sunny window. Wipe the dirt off squash and pumpkins and put them in a cool spot.

Preserve or give away what you can't eat within a few days or a week. If you have too much, arrange an informal produce exchange with friends, relatives and co-workers, or donate your produce to a foodshelf. (Contact Second Harvest Heartland at 651-484-5117.)

Pull plants that are no longer producing. Get them out of the garden and onto the compost pile. To improve the soil and prevent weeds from sprouting, plant a cover crop. (See www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/M1228.html for more information.)

Plant a fall crop of green onions, leaf lettuce, radishes, spinach or mesclun mix.

HARVESTING FOR KEEPS

Pick at the peak. Unless you have a thing for green tomatoes, don't waste your time preserving unripe fruit and veggies. "What you end up with is only as good as what you start with," said Brown.

Don't put off "putting up." If you're planning to preserve, do it as soon as you can. Flavor fades surprisingly quickly.

Only preserve the best. Bruised fruit and overripe veggies won't keep well. Instead of trying to hang onto them, eat them up in a soup or salad.

Use it or lose it. Preserve only as much as you can use in a year. "A year is a general rule of thumb because the quality of what you preserve degrades over time," said Shirley Mah Kooyman, adult education manager at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Gift away what you can't use. Homemade is hot. So jams, jellies, salsas, chunteys, even canned vegetables and baked goods, are coveted gifts these days. Zucchini bread, anyone?

HERBAL HARVEST

Don't wait to harvest herbs. Pick them as you need them. But don't pick more than 1/3 to 1/2 of a plant, advised Theresa Mieseler, co-owner of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Chaska.

To keep herbs growing, cut back plants before they flower. If they've already developed flowers, nip them off to keep the energy going to the plant. (Don't toss the flowers. They're edible, too.)

Do a wholesale harvest before a hard frost.

Chop and freeze parsley, dill, fennel, chives and chervil, recommends Mieseler. Drying works best for thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, lemon balm and lemon verbena. Make basil into pesto or chop it up, mix it with olive oil and freeze it.

Store dried herbs in a large tin or glass jar. "Don't crush them until you use them or they'll lose their flavor," she said.

You also can preserve herbs in vinegars, butters and mustards. "I don't recommend people make their own oils" because they can spoil, Mieseler added.

PRESERVATION METHODS

Freezing: "Freezing is probably the most convenient method and it retains more of the nutrients than in any other preservation method," said Marty Bergland, a Wright County master gardener. (Bergland will be teaching several classes on preserving vegetables through the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. For more infomation, go to www.northern gardener.org.)

Drying: Many herbs can easily be air-dried. Oven-dried tomatoes add zest to soups, sauces and pastas all winter. And dehydrators make long-lasting lunch snacks out of excess fruit. (For more info, go to www.learn2grow.com/projects/edibles/preservationstorage/PutYour VeggiesInStorage.aspx.)

Canning: This old-fashioned practice is making a comeback. "It's almost like knitting," said Kooyman. "People are wanting to do the things that Grandma used to to." Kooyman recommends canning tomatoes, in part because their acidity makes using a pressure cooker unnecessary. (For more info, go to www.gardenhobbies.com/canning-vegetables.html.)

Storing: You can keep some vegetables fresh in the refrigerator for days or even weeks. (For more info, go to www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG1424.html.)

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087

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