Harvest time

If not picked promptly, raspberries (top left) and strawberries (bottom right) will be lost to over-ripening, mold or birds. Crowberries (bottom left) and low-bush cranberries (top right) keep well on their bushes but still may be lost to birds, bears, voles and other hungry critters. Picking as soon as each reaches peak quality reduces loss. 

I stopped. Stared. Couldn’t believe my eyes.

I had been eagerly anticipating picking this tiny cranberry patch. Watching them develop from a doll’s bouquet of tiny pink-white flowers to miniature green berries that grew and plumped in July, I drooled over visions of muffins and coffee cake. Passing by a few days earlier I had noted the berries had finally ripened from the blushing pink-green of a Honeycrisp apple to the deep rich hue of a Red Delicious.

July and August mark harvest time for the garden and most of our berries, with cranberries usually lingering into September or even October. Strawberries and greens make their way into the freezer starting in early July, followed rapidly by broccoli, cauliflower, summer squash and the early green beans grown from sets transplanted into a raised bed. By the first week of August the pace become frenetic, with late cauliflower, the main crop of green beans, and time-consuming raspberries, blueberries and peas all racing one another to the freezer.

These foods wait for no one. When ripe, they must be processed or lost, and since my sister Julie and I depend upon garden and wild produce throughout the year, putting food up demands much of our time.

Ripening in mid-August, cranberries, which linger on their bushes often through the following spring, may take a back seat for awhile. But with a hankering for some baked goodies, and our neighbor Carol reporting grouse in her berry patch, I didn’t put off this picking long.

I had estimated a gallon of the tiny nutritious fruits clung to the tiny patch of low glossy green bushes. Now, berry pail in hand, I stared in dismay, eyes probing the hundred square yards of cranberry growth. The grouse had beat me: not a single berry remained.

That’s not quite true. A closer search revealed two. Two berries. Instead of passing a pleasant hour filling my pail, I went home in disgust. Just a few days’ procrastination had cost me my goodies.

Picking too soon reduces quality, size and sweetness or all three. Strawberries mold, overripe raspberries fall from the vines, and any berry may fall prey to greedy feathered fiends. If making jelly from high-bush cranberries, we pick them before they fully ripen to insure a good set. Birds love currants so much that on years that they produce we pick them within a week of ripening because after that they’re gone.

Neglected green beans grow so huge and tough we toss them to the horses. Broccoli blooms in the classic four-petaled yellow flowers typifying the brassicas. Cauliflower, another brassica, instead turns off-color as tight, solid heads loosen and spread. (Or, when wet, they merely rot.)

“Pea-mergency! Pea-mergency!” I once shouted at Julie. After being side-tracked by other chores for a week or so I had just checked the pea vines and found them loaded with swelling fat pods.

Although still edible, overripe peas double or triple in size, their sugars converting to starch until losing their sweet taste and developing a disagreeable grainy texture, like canned peas only worse. We pick the pods regardless, because leaving them to ripen on the vine slows the maturation of immature pods coming on, but we don’t always bother processing them.

Picking and hand-shelling the gallon of pods required to produce three cups — one meal — of peas takes about one hour. Sweet peas are worth it. Starchy ones are not, especially after we’ve spent five hours processing one bucket of pods, with two of three 60-foot rows of vines still to do. Usually, after snapping the tough pods in half to allow access to the goodies inside, we toss them to the chickens instead, to up-cycle into improved meat quality.

If time allows, I’ll go ahead and shell some of those starchy peas, blanching them for two or three minutes (longer than the 90 seconds recommended for standard-size peas). We don’t always salt blanching water, but for these peas we do: about 1 tablespoon per quart (don’t worry; most goes down the drain with the boiling water). In addition to enhancing flavor and tenderness of the overgrown legumes, by balancing the electrolytes in the water with those inside the peas, the salt helps prevent mineral loss.

This makes those starchy legumes edible, at least when added to soups or stews. They also prove adequate for pea salad (cooked chilled peas and mayo with optional additives, my favorites being cheese melted over still-hot vegetables followed by chopped hard-boiled eggs.) Still, if already harried, I don’t hesitate to use the chicken option for oversized pods.

When used in stir-fry, summer squash and zucchini hit peak quality when quite tiny, less than two inches in diameter. The chickens delight in older summer squash while older zucchinis get grated for zucchini bread or used as a substitute for grated apple in apple cocoa cake. Aging cabbages split their heads, with the edges along the break drying out and discoloring. Although still edible, part is sacrificed and they don’t store as well. (Luckily we’ve never had a moose problem!)

Thank goodness for less-demanding root vegetables which we can neglect through the first frost, because, except for pickling any beets heading into the three-inch range, they keep better in the ground.

One late July day, when my visiting nephew Richard commented on how well we ate, I told him, “What happens during the next four weeks will determine how well we eat for the rest of the year.” I meant that everything depended on not just how productive the garden and berry patches proved to be, but whether we managed to harvest in timely fashion before the quality suffered or produce over-ripened, molded, or was lost to hungry critters.

Gotta go. Those maturing peas don’t care about story deadlines. Raspberries are ripe, and I need to check the beans. And that cranberry patch. Good eating — if you harvest on time.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.