Pick at the Peak of Perfection

One of the biggest benefits of growing your own veggies is that you can harvest them when they are perfectly ripe and at the peak of their flavor and nutrition. No need to worry about tomatoes picked half ripe to withstand cross-country shipping or corn that's sat in a produce bin for a week. But how do you know when the perfect picking point has arrived? Each crop is a little different. Knowing what to look for will help you enjoy your garden's bounty at its most healthful and delicious best.

It will also keep many of your plants producing the biggest harvest. If over mature fruits are allowed to develop on plants like cucumbers, beans, and summer squash, the developing seeds inside them send a signal to the plants that their reproduction is assured and they can stop producing new flowers and fruits. Regular harvesting at the proper stage will not only yield the best eating quality, but will assure you the maximum harvest as well.

Picking Pointers

Here's a selection of the many great varieties of vegetables we offer, along with some tips to to help you pick them at the peak of flavor, nutritional value, and tenderness.

'Festina' Garden Bush Bean —This variety sets its tender, glossy dark green, 6 inch pods even under high temperature growing conditions.

'Golden Detroit' Beets (60 days) —These round orange roots have a yellow-gold color when cooked and retain their sweet flavor even when quite large.

'Packman' Broccoli (50-52 days) —This hybrid produces a dark green central head quickly, followed by harvestable side shoots after the head is cut.

'Copenhagen Market' Cabbage (70 days) —Good for both home and market gardens, this mid-season variety produces uniform, solid, round heads that are crisp and tender and keep well.

'Snowball Y Improved' Cauliflower(68 days) —Heavy leaf growth protects the smooth, white heads of this open-pollinated variety.

'Candy' Onion (90-100 days) —This white-fleshed, mid-day hybrid produces 4 inch bulbs with a sweet, mild flavor and small, tight necks.

'Senator' Zucchini (41 days) —A high-yielder with 6-7 inch long, green cylindrical fruits on open, bush-type plants that make picking easy.

Beans: Harvest snap beans when they are no bigger in diameter than a pencil, before the seeds swell in the pods. Harvest daily because the beans will get quickly past their prime.

Beets: If you pick beets when they are only 1-1 1/2 inches in diameter, you can cook the roots and healthful tops together. For the most tender harvest, pick more mature beets when they are 3 inches in diameter or less.

Broccoli: Harvest when the heads are still still tight and green; when they loosen and turn yellowish they are past their prime.

Cabbage: Pick as soon as the heads are hard and firm. If left longer in the garden, heads may split.

Cauliflower: When the heads reach 2-3 inches in diameter, pull up and tie the outer leaves around the developing head to blanch it. When heads are about 4 inches across, check them daily and harvest while they are still smooth and hard, before the bud segments begin to separate.

Cantaloupe: When the rind under the netting changes from green to tan, the fruits have a nice aroma, and the stem slips easily from the fruit, your melon is at its best.

Cucumbers: Harvest frequently; cukes are ready anytime after the flower drops off the end of the fruit. The best size for slicers is usually about 6-8 inches long. Pick over mature fruits to keep vines producing.

Eggplant: Harvest when the skin is still shiny. When you press on the eggplant lightly, the flesh should bounce back.

Onions: Harvest scallions and onions for fresh use whenever they reach usable size. Harvest onions for storage when most the tops have yellowed and fallen over naturally. Then cure the onions by spreading them out in a warm, dry, well-ventilated spot until their skins are papery and the tops are completely dry.

Okra: Harvest pods when they are 2-4 inches long; older pods won't be as tender. Use scissors to cut pods from plants, leaving a short stem. Don't refrigerate picked pods or they'll turn black.

Sweet corn: The ears are ready when the silks are dry and brown, usually about 3 weeks after the silks first appear. If you pull back the husks at the tip and pinch a kernel, you should see a milky, not watery, liquid squirt out.

Tomatoes: Harvest tomatoes when fully colored, but before the skin loses its waxy smoothness. Tomatoes don't ripen well when the temperature is above 85 degrees F, so if a heat wave hits, pick nearly ripe fruits and finish ripening them indoors out of direct sun.

Watermelon: The curly tendrils on the stem near where it attaches to the fruit will be dry and brown and the light spot on the underside of the melon will be yellow, not white or light green, when watermelon is ready.

Zucchini and summer squash: These will be most tender when they are 6-8 inches long. Pick when the skin is glossy and soft enough to be easily pierced with your thumbnail. Harvest every two or three days, leaving a short piece of stem attached to the fruit to extend the storage life But if the harvest gets away from you, larger ones are still great to puree in soup or grate up for sweet bread.

Question of the Month: Harvesting Tomatillos

Q: I love cooking Mexican food, so I am growing tomatillos for the first time. How do I know when to pick them, and how do I store them?

A: This staple of Mexican cuisine is ready for harvesting when the husk that surrounds the fruit becomes papery and turns from green to straw colored and the husks begin to break open. Harvest regularly to keep plants bearing and enjoy the best flavored fruits. Remove the husks if you are using the fruits right away, but keep them on if you plan to store your harvest. Tomatillos will keep for several weeks stored in a paper bag in the refrigerator.

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