There's nothing like eating freshly picked fruit from the garden. For the best results, harvest top fruit and soft fruit with care at the correct time. The advice below explains how to gauge the timing and about some of the problems that may be encountered.
Timing Summer and autumn
When to do it
Early summer Goji berries, gooseberries and strawberries.
Mid-summer Apricots, blueberries, cherries, currants, gooseberries, jostaberry, nectarines, peaches and strawberries.
Late summer Early-ripening apple cultivars, blackberries, damsons, figs, grapes, plums and raspberries.
Autumn Apples, goji berries, medlar, pears and quince, autumn-fruiting raspberries.
When is it actually ripe?
- The ripening period of all fruit varies from year to year, according to the local climate
- Timing is important – if picked too soon, the flavour of the fruit may not be fully developed; but leave it too late and flavour and the storage quality will be poor
- Assess whether trees and bushes are ready for picking by checking the ripeness of a few individual fruits using taste, texture, touch, and visual clues
- If sound-looking fruit start falling off the tree (windfalls), it is usually ready for harvest, though this does not always hold true with pears. More importantly, apples should be firm, sweet, crunchy; pears hard but sweet; and plums soft to the touch
Most fruit should taste sweet and palatable with a few exceptions:
- Quince and medlar are unpalatable when first picked – harvest as late as possible but before the first frosts
- Gooseberries can be picked under-ripe for jam or left to sweeten and soften on the bush. However, some cultivars are sweeter than others and these are known as dessert gooseberries
- Redcurrants and acid cherries are always sour, but are ripe when swollen, soft and deep coloured
- Cooking apples are usually sour but can be harvested once windfalls begin to drop; and before the first frosts
- Dessert apples for storage can be picked slightly under-ripe
How to do it
- Fruit trees can be harvested in stages. Plums should be picked gradually as they ripen, while apple trees may need three pickings to get the whole crop at the optimum ripeness
- Choose a dry day. Moist fruit will spoil more quickly and will not make good jam and cannot be stored (unless carefully dried afterwards) – the moist conditions encourage fungal disease
- Use a suitable container such as a small punnet for soft fruit or a large, soft bag for apples. For tall trees you will need a long-handled fruit picker or a sturdy step-ladder. Wear gloves for harvesting thorny crops such as gooseberries and blackberries
- Handle fruit carefully:
- Hold an apple or pear in the palm of the hand and, without finger pressure, lift the fruit slightly and gently twist it. The fruit should come away from the spur easily with the stalk intact
- Hold peaches, nectarines and apricots in your palm and gently press near the stalk with your finger tips. The fruit is ready if it feels soft and will part from the tree with ease
- Currants should be harvested on their strigs (trusses of fruits attached together) and then removed individually just prior to use
- Cut cherries using scissors to avoid ripping the fruit stalk from the flesh
- Delicate fruit such as goji berries and mulberries can be shaken from the tree on to a sheet placed beneath
- Eat soft fruit as soon as possible or preserve or freeze it. Use apricots, damsons, nectarines, peaches and plums within a few days. Leave pears to ripen indoors for up to a week before eating or store quince, medlar and late-season apples and pears
- Wasps enlarge holes in fruit and can sting when disturbed during harvesting. Take care when reaching into the trees or bushes – they may often be feeding in crevices in the fruit, especially figs, pears and apples
- Birds and squirrels can decimate fruit crops – net vulnerable fruits such as cherries and currants early in the season
- Insect damage can make fruits inedible or impossible to store. Pests of fruit include codling moth, plum moth and raspberry beetle
- Bitter pit causes brown spots on the skin of apples and can make them unpalatable
- Pocket plum causes abnormal, distorted plums and damsons
- Fruit affected by rot should be picked off and disposed of during harvesting to reduce risk of fungal problems such as brown rot and grey mould
- Frost damage to spring blossom can reduce yields and cause scarring around the eye of apples
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