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"Could my fruit be ripe already?" This question is repeated time and time again, but this year is asked even more than usual. Before you grab the ladder and head to the orchard, make sure you know how to tell when fruits are ripe.
- Pears. Pears of course are the most confusing fruit to harvest. Pears must be picked green. If they ripen on the tree they develop numerous stone cells that give the fruit a gritty, unappetizing texture. Winter pears never ripen on the tree and must be harvested and stored correctly to enjoy them at the peak of their flavor. There are many formulas to determine ripeness of pears, including these for homeowners.
First, a few of the small pears will start to drop on the ground. These pears have slight damage from insect or other causes, but are not healthy, viable fruits. Pick a good pear or two off the tree and cut them open. The seeds will be black or dark brown, while the flesh will be a nice white color if the fruit is mature. Look at the pear itself. The lenticils or openings in the pear's skins turn from white to brown and the skin becomes waxy. Finally, grasp the pear and give it a slight, upward twist. If it takes a lot of force to remove it from the tree, or if the stem pulls out from the fruit, the pears are not yet ripe.
Commercial growers test maturity by using a pressure tester. Even though most backyard gardeners don't have such an apparatus, pears will start to soften as they become fully mature. After picking the pears, cover them with a cloth and put them at room temperature to ripen. Never ripen them in direct sunlight or in warm places, as they shrivel and the quality declines. Winter pears are even more difficult to judge. Again, pick when they are still green and slip easily from the tree. Store in cold storage for 30 to 90 days and then allow them to ripen at room temperature for a great treat this winter.
- Apples. There are many varieties of apples, with maturities ranging from midsummer until late fall. Color is not always a good indicator of maturity for apples. Many of the highly colored apple varieties turn red long before they are mature. Summer apples for fresh eating should taste good when picked. If picked prematurely, they have a bland, starchy taste with no sweetness or flavor.
Winter apples do not require frost to mature, but they have a higher sugar content and more flavor if they ripen with cool nights. Hot temperatures interfere with flavor and sugar development in these apples. Red delicious apples should be picked when mature. Apples separate easily from the tree and have dark seeds with an inside flesh that is a white or cream color, not green. Red delicious apples improve with storage.
Golden delicious apples, on the other hand, are never any better than the day you pick them. Let them stay on the tree long enough to develop a golden color and a sweet, mild flavor. Most other apples should be picked when they have good color, good flavor and before they drop. Some varieties, such as McIntosh tend to drop prematurely, particularly in the warmer valleys. With some varieties it is a struggle to get them to stay on the tree long enough to mature.
- Peaches. Pick peaches when they are fully ripe with a good flavor. One advantage of a backyard orchard is that fruit need not be shipped, so it can be picked at the peak of its flavor and texture. Many times peaches shipped from other areas are picked green so that they will withstand the shipping. The sugar content and flavor of peaches does not increase after they are removed from the tree. Let them stay on the tree long enough to develop adequate flavor and sweetness.
As you harvest your fruit, make a mental note of where to make pruning cuts next spring. Plan to open up the trees so that ladders will fit in for easier picking. Reducing the height is appropriate on trees that have gotten out of bounds. Prune from the same ladder that you pick from. This gauge helps determine the height of your fruit trees.
After harvesting, sort the fruit carefully. Store only high-quality fruit, free from blemishes or other problems. Fruit does not improve in storage, and decay takes its toll. Lower-quality fruit can be eaten immediately or preserved by canning, drying or other methods, but is not satisfactory for fresh storage.
Check your fruit early and frequently. Learn to gauge the ripeness of the fruit by its quality and you will not be disappointed at the treats you have grown. Harvesting fruit at the right maturity and quality is the reward for a job well-done in the home orchard.