Ripe for the Picking

How to Tell When Fruit Is Ready to Eat

There are lots of good reasons to grow your own fruits and vegetables. Over the life of a tree, you will have saved the cost of buying a similar amount of produce many times over. The diversity of varieties available is much greater than you will find in local stores. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to grow and harvest your own food is that you can control the kind of materials used to treat pests and provide fertility to the soil. But one of the most satisfying may be having the ability to pluck the fruits when they are at their peak of flavor, far surpassing what store-bought fruits will taste like.

How do you know when a particular fruit is really ripe, though? Color and firmness are two of the easiest to assess. Even the greenest apple variety will show a subtle shift from the dense green of an unripe one to one with a sort of transparency that indicates sweetness and succulence. Other fruits change from green to their characteristic color: plums and red grapes begin to blush until they are deep reddish purple; peaches and nectarines go through yellow to a ruddy orange; while pears get freckles.

Most ripe fruits will also yield to gentle pressure, not feel rock hard once they are ready to pick (persimmons may be the most notable exception). Another indication of what is going on under the skin of each orb is the fragrance of the fruit. Let your nose help you identify those whose complement of aromatics is fully developed. These same chemicals that our noses smell are the ones our tongues taste.

There is one last way to know when fruit is ripe: Most fruits, from pears to peaches, will easily slip from the tree with a gentle twist and tug. If there is resistance, it’s not yet time to harvest. If you miss the first ones, you will probably find them on the ground below the tree. If you pick them up immediately, they should be just as edible and certainly as flavorful.

September Tips • Plant spring-flowering bulbs as soon as you buy them: Freesia, Tritonia, Watsonia, Dutch iris, Sparaxis, and Narcissus. • Clean up any fallen fruit that can’t be salvaged. Left on the ground, it can contribute to fungal pathogens. • Plant or transplant woody shrubs and trees. Their root systems will get established in the warm soil better and promote fast growth next season. • Put the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society Plant Sale on the calendar for Sunday, September 10. It’s a great place to find unusual plants at a bargain price.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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