Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Harvest hints

Harvest is my favorite time in the garden. The peas ripen and the tomatoes turn color and get soft, when the fruit starts ripening on the tree and all the vegetables are ready to pick. This is a critical time, and a good gardener/eater has to be on the ball.
It's all too easy to let all your hard work go to waste with just a few days of neglect. A forgotten broccoli will go from perfect to hard and bitter in just one or two days. Tomatoes will rot and drop off the vine, drawing vermin. Lettuce will bolt. Peas and beans will get hard, perfect for shelling or storing, but no good for munching or stir-fries and killing the vine before its time. A hidden zucchini grows to dangerous proportions. For example, this basil is getting ready to bolt and should be picked right away.
It's at this time of year that it's really important to get into the garden every day, to harvest the fruits of your labor.
It's important to know when your fruits and vegetables are ready to pick. If you planted something from seed, you can usually go by the picture on the seed packet. Once something is ripe, pick it. If you wait, it will usually go bad in one way or another very quickly.

Many vegetables can be picked and enjoyed at many times. Peas and beans can be eaten as soon as they're big enough but before the seed bulge gets big. Pull them right off the plant.

Cucumbers are edible from their tiniest forms (and can be fun to pickle when they're tiny if you grow an abundance). Cucumbers, like beans, are best pulled firmly off the plant. Harvest them before they get big. By the time the skin gets streaked and dry-looking, the insides will be watery and the seeds will have started to harden.

Zucchini can likewise be eaten small (and it's wisest to do so). Cut squash off the vine through the woody stem.

It can be tricky to tell when carrots and other root vegetables are ready, unless they pop out at you.
But if they're still in the ground, you can tell how big around they've gotten by pulling the mulch or soil back from the crown. If it's not ready to pick, carefully mound the mulch back up to prevent hardening.

Tomatoes are ready when they've turned color and are soft to the touch and easy to pull off the vine. Cherry tomatoes should come off with the merest tug. For larger tomatoes it's best to cut the stem since pulling will tend to tear them.
It's usually best to harvest your vegetables right before you intend to use them. If you'll be cooking them right away, rinse them off in the garden (if they're dirty or dusty - peas, for example, might not need any washing), and prepare them.
If you have too much of something to use before it gets overripe on the plant, try to harvest it in the early morning before the sun warms it. Dry it off carefully and refrigerate. Unless it's tomatoes: never refrigerate ripe tomatoes. It ruins the aroma and taste. That goes for most fruit: peaches, plums, nectarines, and certainly all berries.