Published February 2005

Gardening is a wonderful business, as all green thumbers know, with good fresh produce at harvest time, produce that grew under your own eye instead of being sent from Bolivia or Mexico.  But it’s a darn shame when you prepare the ground, plant the seed, fertilize, water, hoe, and carefully raise something only to find the final product was picked too soon, or too late, and lacks flavor or is tough.  There’s a time to pick any vegetable and if you’re going to work hard to raise vegetables, you should know that time.

If there’s a major point to remember in harvesting vegetables, it’s that when humanly possible, they should be picked early in the day.  Harvest such as lettuce, chard, fresh herbs, parsley, peas, broccoli, and radishes in the cool morning hours and they’ll stay crisp and store longer.  Harvest them under a hot sun, and most will become limp and wilt quickly, because they’ve evaporated moisture under the mid-day heat.  Exceptions are vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini which are less susceptible to wilting.

Testing for ripeness is equally important, and there’s a time to pick everything.  Some, like green beans, are obvious.  Any gardener knows they shouldn’t be picked when they’re just tiny strings nor when the beans inside have grown to maturity and the pods are becoming dry.  The key time for these is when beans have just begun to form inside and the pods are crisp and juicy.  Beets?  The top size for these is when the roots are an inch or two in diameter, though larger ones will still be good.  Don’t leave them until they’re tough and woody, though.

Carrots are ready for the pan when they turn a nice orange or yellow color, about an inch or inch and a half in diameter.  Don’t try to pull carrots unless they’re in really damp, soft, humus rich soil because they’ll often break off.  I use a shovel for mine, digging in near the roots and lifting, then slipping them out of the loosened dirt.  Sweet corn needs a little care, too.  There’s little so bad as heading out to the garden, and picking a dozen ears for dinner, only to find that the kernels are tiny inside the husk or even worse, full size, tough and chewy.

Pick corn when the silks are dark brown, and peel the tops of several ears just a little to see if kernels are just right.  Puncture a few with your fingernail and make sure the juice is milky white.  I never pick sweet corn until my pot or pressure cooker is ready to go.  Eating ears just minutes out of the garden is the way to go.

Watch cucumbers closely.  They grow FAST and should be harvested every other day.  It’s better to get these green vegetables too small, than too large, at which point they become yellow and bitter.  Egg plants are much the same, best when they’re still young, though grown to size.  To avoid damaging egg plants, cut the fruit from the stem, rather than pulling it.

Then there’s melons, a delicious fruit that simply must be picked at the right time.  Too soon and they’re bland, rather than sweet.  Too late, and they turn mushy.  Cantaloupes should be picked when they develop a slight yellowish cast and the netting turns hard.  They should slip easily off the vine with a quick pull, and have a noticeable fragrance when you bend over, lift one, and smell it.  Watermelons should have a light yellow patch on their bottoms when ripe.  The skin should be hard too, difficult to pierce with a fingernail.

Onions are easy to harvest, because they’re good anytime.  I plant bulbs or sets, and harvest some when they’re small as green onions.  Those left over are allowed to mature until the stems yellow and fall over, then I pull them, gather into small bunches, then tie the stems and hang them in my garage until dry.  At which time I cut off the stems and bag the bulbs in onion sacks.  Nothing to it.

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