As one of the organizing members of the Fruit Rescue Program, I get a lot of questions and I try my best to answer them correctly. Some of the tougher questions I get come from fruit tree owners, though, because they are simply unfamiliar with the trees on their property and wish to know more about them. It seems that the most common question asked is “how do I know when my fruit is ripe?” - a fair question! And one that, truthfully, I didn’t always know the answer to. It is this question that was the inspiration to this post. A related question I am commonly asked (usually from the fruit tree pickers) is “how do I store it?” – Another good one! I’ve done some research so that I can answer all of these questions with confidence and I hope that you find it helpful!
Before I get into picking fruit, I want to start with a quick note on fruit tree care (for those who have them growing in their yard). First off; I highly recommend that you prune your fruit tree. There are a number of arborists in town (Lady Bug is an excellent one) who can do that for a reasonable price. Another option, is to take a pruning workshop (such as this one being offered in the fall: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/pruning-workshop-fundraiser-2019-registration-44212650227) and you can do it yourself. Pruning will help the tree with stability/safety of limbs, health of the tree and success of fruit production. Which leads me to my second tip: more is not better! Don’t be afraid to “thin” your fruit early in the season. Thinning fruit is a process of removing a portion of the fruit on each branch so that the tree can focus on developing those fruits left on it. It will result in a reasonable amount of larger fruit, rather than a ton little fruits. The benefits of tree thinning, and instruction on how to do it, can be found here: https://www.starkbros.com/growing-guide/article/4-benefits-thinning-fruit-trees
Okay! So now onto the sweet stuff: DID YOU KNOW… that different fruit ripen differently? It seems obvious enough, right?! But the science behind why fruit ripen differently is quite fascinating and a little surprising. So let me summarize what I understand to be going on:
The first variable of ripening: the type of fruit. There are two “categories” of fruit - climacteric and non-climacteric. Climacteric fruits can ripen off of the tree; apples, pears, plums (or other stone fruits), tomatoes, etc. They produce and ripen with the help of ethylene gas – thus they can be removed from the tree, and be left to ripen. You can help the speed of ripening by adding other highly climacteric fruits (such as a banana or an apple) to a case of unripe climacteric fruits and they’ll be ripe in a matter of days. By contrast, non-climacteric fruits do not ripen off the tree – they do not produce (or respond to) ethylene gas to further their ripening. So once they are picked off the plant, they stop development of flavor and sweetness. Examples of such fruit are berries, cherries and grapes. The second variable to fruit ripening – weather and season. Some fruits (whether climacteric or not) mature fast and need to be picked at specific times of the year. All fruits are impacted by weather variables and may ripen sooner if it’s been hot, or later if it’s been cold. Generally speaking, smaller fruits (such as berries) are early-season crops and are ready in late spring. Mid-season fruits are often a little larger (cherries, small apples) and ripening times can vary throughout the summer. The late-season fruits are often the largest (plums, apples) and can be picked into the fall (after a light frost). If you are unfamiliar with your tree, the fruits maturity season can be a guessing game - there are some tricks to help you guess, but it does require some monitoring. So, now that you know the background to how fruits ripen... here’s more details on how to determine when your fruit is at peak ripeness…!
Picking non-climacteric fruits: Berries, Cherries, and Grapes.
These fruits and usually early to mid-season ripening and will be the easiest to determine when to pick - you leave them on the plant until they turn the colour you’re looking for, or taste the way you like, then you can pick! The darker the colour, the sweeter they will be. There is, of course, the risk of leaving them too long and allow for the sugars to ferment and spoil the fruit. Once these fruits start to turn to a blacker colour, they are approaching over-ripeness. In my experience, it doesn’t take long for fruit to tip-over the edge of too-ripe. So keep a close eye and be prepared to pick! Grapes are the odd-one out of this group, being a late-season harvest - wait until the fall after a light frost and the sweetness level will skyrocket... it’s worth the patience, I promise! Non-Climacteric fruits store best in the refrigerator (unwashed); berries and cherries will last over a week, grapes can last at least two weeks.
Picking climacteric fruits: Apples, Plums, and Pears.
Climacteric fruits are a little trickier to tell when to pick them. They can, at least, be picked when you’re ready to pick them and left to ripen. However, picked too early and you may miss-out on flavor or sweetness. Fruits within this category also have different signs of ripening, which complicates things a bit! Generally speaking; it would be safe to say that as long as there is some colour change across the fruit, they can be picked and set aside to finish ripening indoors. However, they will always be better when picked at that prime ripened stage. If you are not familiar with your tree, I highly recommend monitoring the fruits development throughout the season and make notes for yourself so that you can refer to it next year. When did the tree bloom? When did the fruit start to change colour? What size were they? When did the fruit begin to fall? What colour were they when the fell? When did the fruit become too-soft? Harvest the fruit at different times of the season to note the changes in texture/flavour/sweetness. And so forth..! With that in mind, here’s the run down on when to pick the three most common climacteric fruits in Lethbridge:
Plums: are the simplest of the Climacteric fruits around Lethbridge - they are ready to pick late in late-summer. How do you know when they’re ripe? They are fully coloured (usually a purple/blue or red, depending on the variety), the flesh is soft yet still firm, and they do not take much effort to pull off of the tree. Plums picked at this stage can store at room temperature for about a week where they will continue to ripen and get juicer. If you place freshly-picked plums directly into the refrigerator, they will store for a little longer and stay firmer. Alternatively, another option is to wait until the fruit is ripe enough to fall-off the tree itself. In this case, the harvest will be very sweet and juicy, but will need to be used immediately (or, put in the fridge and preserved within a day or two). Plums picked at this stage make excellent prunes – place in a dehydrator or oven set at 175 F° (79 C°) for about 10 hrs.
Apples: The variety of apples out there makes knowing when to pick your apples tough to determine. There are early, mid and late-season varieties – all varieties do have a “days from bloom” measurement, which is the best way to know when they should be picked. If you don’t have that information, simply monitor your fruit - some questions to ask yourself:
- Has the colour changed? Even if they are green-apples, the colour will differ from the beginning of the season. If you’re starting to think they’re getting ripe, cut open an apple…
- What is the colour of the seeds? Ripe apples will have dark brown seeds. Under-ripe apples will have white seeds. That being said, some early-season apples are better when their seeds are still white…
- How does it smell/taste? Starchy, dry and sour? Or maybe it smells sweet and tastes good… in which case, who’s stopping you from enjoying them now? Start your harvesting, leave others on the tree and continue monitoring those left as the season progresses...
- How soft are they getting? Some apples are going to be softer than others - knowing what variety is growing helps determine what the ‘ideal’ softness is supposed to be for that apple. If, however, you can crush the apples with the grip of your hand - it’s over-ripe.
- How easily did your apple come off the tree? Mature apples will come off easily, with an upwards pull/twist motion.
- Fruit drop is another great indicator of well-ripened apples. If they are starting to fall off the tree (noting that rotten, buggy or diseased apples can fall at any time), or, the fruit can be shaken off the tree limbs, then they are at their peak ripeness. In this case, though, harvest them fast and store unbruised apples in cold storage. Note: if by September you’re noticing apples falling; feel free to begin your harvest, but leave a few on the tree and wait for that first light-frost... it’ll be worth it!
- If, you want to get really scientific about knowing your optimal apple ripeness, there is such a thing as an “iodine starch test” – an iodine solution is sprayed on a cut apple; if there is a high starch level (under-ripe) it will turn black. If there is a high sugar content (ripe) it will stay white. Here’s some information on how to do that, if you’re so inclined! http://pickyourown.org/apples_howtotellwhenripe.php
A rule of thumb; the larger the apple, the later the harvest-season. There are, of course, exception to this rule (such as the Dolgo Crabapple), but it does give you an idea of what you can expect. My suggestion is simply monitoring your tree and taste-test! Again, as a climacteric fruit, they will continue to ripen once picked and some varieties store very well if the conditions are right. Another rule of thumb; the later the harvest-season, the longer their storage life. If you intend to store your apples, make sure you only store unblemished ones that have no bruises or skin damage. Success of storage is controlling the ethylene gas around the apples: store them in a well-ventilated space that is a cool (3-6 °C) temperature. You can store them, for example, in a perforated bag in your crisper. If you have a root cellar (lucky you..!) there are suggestions to wrap each apple in newspaper (to avoid skin-to-skin contact) and keep them well ventilated and away from potatoes, onion or garlic.
Pears: These are, by far, the most complicated of climacteric fruits to determine ripeness..! Thus, if you’re unfamiliar with your tree and are determined to understand the best time to pick your pears, take notes! Pears are tricky to harvest because they ripen from the inside out - if they are left to ripen on the tree, they will be over-ripe by the time they feel soft. An over ripe pear will feel mushy and have a mealy-texture beneath the skin. Thus, they are best when picked at their ‘mature’ stage (that is, slightly under-ripe), and then left to fully ripen indoors. If what I describe below sounds too finicky for you, there is a rule of thumb for when to pick your pears: the skin starts turning colour and it’s still firm – just go for it and let it finish ripening at room temperature. However, if you’re determined to pick at that perfect maturity... here’s how you know when to pick.
Firmness is important, but isn’t the best indicator because it’s hard to know what ‘feels’ right if you are unfamiliar with your tree. Pears are mature at their “goldilocks” firmness - slightly firm with a bit of give; in other words, they are neither not too firm nor too soft. Unfortunately, colour indication is also tricky (unless you know what to look for), because there are numerous variations of colour between pear varieties. Plus, a mature pear may also vary in colour to other mature pears on the same tree (depending on, for example, how much sun exposure one pear has received in comparison to another). So... the best way to tell when your pears are mature is how easily it comes off the tree. Grab a pear and hold it horizontally to its branch; if it comes off easily, it’s mature! If it holds onto the branch, it’s not quite ready yet. A final indication of mature pears is when they begin dropping on their own – but this would also signify that they are approaching over-ripe; so if you see a few pears drop, the time is ticking!
Once you’ve determined that the pears are mature enough for harvest, they can then be left to ripen at room temperature. It will take about a week if left in the open, if you cover the pears in a paper material to capture some of their ethylene gas, they will ripen faster. It is possible, of course, to store your pears with other ethylene producers to even further expedite their ripening, however, there is a risk of them ripening faster than you anticipate and thus spoiling these oh-so delicate fruits from the inside out! You will know that your pears are the perfect ripeness when the flesh around their stem gives-in to gentle pressure. Long-term storage of pears is possible, although some varieties store better than others. If you wanted to store them short/mid-term, placing ripe fruit in the refrigerator would be appropriate. For longer-term storage, don’t let them ripen first – take the freshly harvested fruit and put them directly in the fridge. Once you’re wanting to use them, remove from cold storage and leave at room temperature for a few days. The good news, is that home-picked pears are worth their hassle.
Last but not least… You’ve done all this work; you’ve monitored your fruits, you’ve taken notes, and you’ve harvested a bushel-full of amazingly fresh fruit. Now what..?! The possibilities are endless! There are numerous ways to preserve and use your fruit. Freezing is the easiest preservation option for all fruits, and can often be used directly in any recipe that fresh fruit are called for. Dehydrating fruits are great for snacks, and canned fruits are lovely as desserts or in baked goods. If you’re unfamiliar with these processes, I have good news: the Lethbridge Sustainable Living Association is compiling a recipe book – it will contain instructions on basic preservation methods and include recipes for how to use fresh and preserved fruits! Keep in touch with us to find out more on when the book becomes available. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post and educate yourself on how to identify ripe fruit in your city!