Pick at the Peak of Perfection

By Susan Littlefield

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 overly 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.

Here are some things to look for so that you pick at the peak of perfection.

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 tight and green; when they loosen and turn yellowish they are past their prime.

Brussels sprouts: Sprouts harvested after the first frost will be sweetest. Harvest from the bottom up when the sprouts are between ? and 1 ? inches in diameter and still firm.

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.

Carrots: Carrots can be harvested as soon as they develop their color or are a usable size. Pull carrots planted for summer harvest frequently. Carrots sown later in the season for fall harvest when the weather is cool can be left in the ground longer after they color up.

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.

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.

Garlic: Harvest when about three-quarters of the leaves on your garlic plants turn yellow. But first pull up a couple of test plants. Papery skins should have developed between the individual cloves, but the outer skin of the entire head should be firm and intact. Don't be concerned about discoloration of the outer wrapper of the garlic bulb; it's a normal part of the maturation process.

Kale and Collards: Leaves of kale and collards are ready for picking as soon as they reach usable size. They'll taste sweetest if you wait until after light frost to harvest. But if an early cold snap into the teens is predicted, cover plants, as the sudden drop in temperature may injure plants.

Kohlrabi: The best advice about harvesting kohlrabi is not to wait too long. Most varieties are ready for harvesting just 6 to 7 weeks from planting and are the most tender and flavorful when the bulbs are 2 to 4 inches in diameter. Fall crops that ripen in cool weather don't get woody as readily and can be picked when the bulbs are a little larger, up to 5 inches across.

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.

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.

Peppers: Both sweet and hot peppers can be picked as soon as they reach a usable size or can be left on the plant to develop their mature color. Hot peppers will develop more heat and flavor as they mature. Cut pepper fruits from the plant with shears to avoid breaking branches.

Potatoes: When the tops of the plants have yellowed and died back, dig potatoes by loosening the soil along the edge of each row with a garden fork, taking care to avoid damaging the underground tubers in the process. If you do nick any by mistake, eat these soon, as they won't keep well. Potatoes will last longest in storage if they are cured for about two weeks in a dark, humid, 50-60 degree location, then stored in a dark, humid, and cooler location (but no lower than 40 degrees).

Pumpkins and Winter Squash: Harvest pumpkins and winter squash when they have fully developed the color for their particular variety, the rind is hard enough that you can't dent it with a fingernail, and the stem turns hard and begins to shrivel. But be sure to harvest before the first hard frost. Cut squashes and pumpkins from the vine, leaving 2 inches of stem. For the longest storage, cure them in a warm, humid spot for about 10 days, then store at about 50 F.

Tomatillos: 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.

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.

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