Harvesting your vegetable garden.
By now, if you’ve been maintaining a vegetable garden throughout the summer, it’s about time to harvest some of the fruits of your labor.
If you aren’t a seasoned gardener, then it’s safe to say you’ve got some questions about picking and even storing your bounty. When should you pick your vegetables? Picking, and how you pick, depends on what you are growing.
Here is the short list of the how and when for your vegetable garden:
Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if they are ripe enough to pick if you don’t know what to look for.
It’s good to find out before you plant what their grow life can be, and what they will look like when they are ready to be picked. Large slicer tomatoes will take longer to ripen on the vine, and some heirloom varieties take even longer than Better Boys or Beefsteak tomatoes.
If you think your tomato is ready to be picked, test the ripest-looking one by giving it a gentle twist. If it pulls easily from the vine, it is ready to pick from your vegetable garden.
Keep tomatoes in a cool place, outside of the refrigerator. They will last up to a week, that is, if you can keep from eating them.
If your plants are still fruiting up until frost time, go ahead and pick everything, even the green ones, about a week before the frost. You can wrap them individually in newspaper or store in paper bags to aid in ripening.
Or you can make fried green tomatoes!
Once your herbs have gotten about 12” tall, you can start by cutting or pinching them back frequently to encourage more production. This keeps them from blooming.
Keeping your plants from blooming is a good way to keep the flavor consistent, and extra herbs can be dried for future use or shared with friends.
Basil is a heat-loving plant, so it will thrive during the hotter months of the summer. This means you will need to cut it back constantly to keep it from flowering in your vegetable garden.
You can keep cut basil in water for up to a week in the kitchen for use. If you have an abundance of it, try mixing it in with some fresh flower arrangements or making a big batch of pesto you can freeze for later.
Lettuces and greens:
Lettuces and greens are cool weather plants, although they can grow in the heat, depending on the variety. It’s best to pick them before they bolt, which means before they develop a flower stalk that can make the flavor turn bitter.
Start by cutting the largest leaves first, and then come back later for smaller leaves that are younger and more tender. Lettuces and greens are referred as “cut and come again” plants because they keep growing as you harvest.
It’s best to use scissors for harvesting them, and cut only what you plan on eating immediately – a day or so if possible.
To keep your lettuces and greens going throughout the season in your vegetable garden, plant seeds every two or three weeks, and you’ll have lettuce enough until it gets too hot to grow. Try placing the plants in partial shade to keep plants from bolting in extreme heat.
You can start sowing seeds again once it cools down, and into the fall growing season.
There is no way to store lettuce or greens for the whole winter, but placing them in an aerated container with a paper towel in the fridge can help you keep them for a few days if need be.
Depending on the variety, peppers are ready to pick when they are green. The longer on the vine, the more their color can change – red, yellow, purple, etc.
Leaving them longer will deepen their flavor, but can aid them in loosing their crispness.
It’s true. The longer you leave a hot pepper on the vine, the hotter it gets. Depending on variety and how hot you want your peppers is when you’ll harvest them.
It’s easy to store peppers, and they will last a good while sitting in a cool place on your counter. If you want peppers throughout the winter months, you can dry them or you can chop and parboil them and then freeze for later use.
Cucumbers from your vegetable garden can really be picked in any stage, depending on how you plan to use them. If you want small ones for pickling, don’t hesitate to pick them when they are 3-4” in size. Smaller cucumbers are more tender. They will also have a less bitter taste to their skin and way less seeds which makes them perfect for pickling.
Don’t let their size get out of control, however, because they will begin to become dry and have a wood-like texture. This means they will not be good for eating and would be better served raw right into the compost.
For longer life, pickling is the way to go. Look for my end of the summer pickling article for more on preserving your veggies in August.
Short-term, cucumbers will last for about a week in the refrigerator. I find the best way to store them is on the top shelf in a small bowl where they don’t collect too much moisture.
The best thing you can do for harvesting is to inspect your garden every day for ripened fruits and veggies, ones that might begin over-ripening or even rotting and glean those from your plants.
If you don’t have your own garden, no worries. These ideas can also be used for what you’ve bought from local growers, and even from the grocery store.
Plan your meals around the fresh produce you bring in and share your abundance with friends. Set aside time to can or pickle some of your overflow from your vegetable garden for later use during the winter months.
Being able to supplement your groceries with food you’ve grown yourself is a rewarding feeling. And when you bite down on that first fresh tomato and taste the results of your hard work, it really makes it all worthwhile.