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Orange Tree

Ripe for the Picking

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Knowing when to pick a crop of fruit is a vital skill for home growers to learn, writes JUSTIN RUSSELL.

Growing fruit at home is fun, but it’s never as straightforward as it seems. For starters you have to choose the right varieties for your climate. Then you have make sure pollination and nutrition needs are taken care of. You need to protect ripening crops from hungry wildlife and insects. And finally, after many month’s worth of effort growing a bumper crop, you have to decide when the fruit is ready to be harvested. Lots of people underestimate the value in getting this final step right, and complain that their home-grown fruit isn’t as tasty as the shop bought version.

One way commercial growers determine ripeness is to measure sugar levels (BRIX) in the fruit, but I’ve yet to see any home grower squeezing fruit juice onto their refractometer. Seeds can sometimes be a giveaway. Apples, for example are only fully ripe when their seeds turn black. But that method doesn’t work with pears, which are best picked and ripened for a fortnight or so off the tree. In the case of stonefruit, the good old look-and-taste test is usually the most reliable way for backyard growers to determine ripeness. If a fruit has well developed colour, has a slight bit of give, but most importantly, tastes good, then by all means bring in the harvest.

Then there’s citrus, ripening on backyard trees across Australia as I write. My orange tree is laden with fruit, but to date I’ve resisted the temptation to pick because I know that oranges become continually sweeter until harvest. Some varieties even change colour from orange to green again, but that doesn’t reduce their sweetness. The same is true of almost all citrus fruit, except the mandarin.

Mandies are a special case in point, in that they become more and more sour the longer they are left on the tree. The time to start picking them is just after the colour of the skin changes from green to orange, and for optimum ripeness, look for a green blush on a mostly orange background.