How to Harvest Vegetables

How to Harvest Vegetables
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How to Harvest Vegetables

The Keys to Harvesting Your Garden

It’s probably been months since you chose which vegetables you wanted to grow and narrowed it down to the variety that you thought would be best in your garden. If you are a veteran gardener, you already have your favorites, but it is always fun to try new varieties. If you are a new gardener, you were amazed and probably a little overwhelmed by the number of choices you had to make! After a lot of thought, you chose the vegetable seeds that you wanted to plant.

You may even have decided to grow your own seedlings indoors from organic seeds to transplant to the garden after the last frost. You started tomato seeds of varieties that you can’t find in the plant nurseries or maybe this is the year that you decided to start asparagus seeds and develop an asparagus bed. The point is that harvest time is when you finally get to reap the benefits of all the thought, work and love you put into your garden.

The Key to Harvesting Your Garden

The key to harvesting from the garden is to gather the food when it is at its peak of flavor and size. With experience, the new gardener will know when that time is for each vegetable. You also will learn what is easy to harvest and what takes more time. You will learn new ways to prepare the vegetables to bring out their best. You also will learn tricks to use things that got away from you. You may have grown zucchini to grill with burgers, but when you find that baseball bat sized zucchini you cannot believe you missed, try one of these six amazing recipes using zucchini.

If you are preserving food to use in the winter months, you owe it to yourself to use the best of your harvest when you can or freeze. When you eat those preserved vegetables, it should be like a taste of summer. You put a lot of work and time into this food. If it is not your first choice in the summer, it sure will not be in the winter.

The Best Times to Harvest 18 Vegetables in Your Garden

So, how do you know when is the best time to harvest each vegetable? Here are some tips for some of the vegetables you may be growing.

1. Tomatoes. Most of us are familiar with red tomatoes which are the most popular and maybe even the yellow tomatoes. But if you would like to try some of the heirloom varieties, they can be orange, purple, striped and even black! Your tomato should have a rich color and be slightly soft when you put pressure on it. Don’t pick your tomatoes right after a deep watering or a rainstorm. The tomatoes will absorb the water, along with the rest of the plant. For the most intense flavor, pick the tomatoes when they are a little dry.

2. Asparagus. Pick asparagus when it is about six inches long and about the diameter of your finger. If you are growing asparagus seeds, remember that you can’t pick until the third year. This bed will be where you plant it for your lifetime. You want healthy strong root systems and plants. Once your plants are old enough, pick by snapping or cutting the asparagus at the soil level. You should only pick for six to eight weeks and then allow the plants to grow out and put energy back into the plants.

3. Lettuce. If you are growing loose leaf lettuce, wait until the lettuce is about four inches high. You can just shear it off allowing the bottom of the plant to remain, and it will regrow for you to harvest again. Lettuce is a cool-weather crop. It does not like the heat and will become bitter and will bolt. Bolting is when the plant goes into seed production. Start growing lettuce again in the fall when the heat is not as intense. Head lettuce is also an option. Pick when the head is well-formed. This type lettuce will not regrow and will need to be replanted. Many gardeners plant lettuce every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply.

4. Peas. Peas are also a cool-weather crop. Plant peas as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. The pods should be full of the peas. The peas will lose their sweetness as they mature. The best way to tell if they are ready is to taste them. 

5. Garlic. Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. They require virtually no care other than an occasional weeding and watering. They are easy to ignore, but if you do, you could miss a first harvest of scapes. Scapes are actually the flower head of the garlic. They look like a stem with a bulge in the center which would develop into the flower head. This stem grows in a circle. Cut the scapes off with your gardening tool when they first appear and fry them in a little butter or quality olive oil. They are very tender with a mild garlic flavor. Scapes are considered a delicacy by many and harvesting them will not affect the garlic clove, which is your main crop.

Shortly after the appearance of the scapes, the garlic leaves will start to yellow and dry. When they are about 50 percent yellowed, it is time to harvest. Dig them out of the ground. Do not wash the garlic. Shake as much of the garden soil off the garlic as possible and then the garlic will need to cure. Lay them in a single layer in a dry shed, garage or basement. Try to keep them out of direct light. Curing allows the garlic’s papery skin to develop. Once they are totally dry, gently remove the remaining soil and trim off the longer roots and the stems. Store in a dry area.

6. Carrots. Carrots are a little difficult to determine when they are ready to harvest. After all, they are growing where you can’t see them. The good news is carrots are edible at all stages of growth. Check the carrot at soil level to see how wide the top is. That is an indication of the size, but it is not foolproof. The best way to tell if your carrots are ready is by pulling one to see.

7. Swiss Chard. Swiss chard is similar to leaf lettuce in the ability to harvest from the plant, and it will keep growing. With Swiss chard, you cut the outer leaves and allow the center of the plant to continue growing. Start harvesting the Swiss chard when the leaves are about six inches tall.

8. Broccoli. The broccoli that you harvest is actually the flower head of the plant. You don’t want the flowers to bloom. Once the head starts to develop, check it daily. If you see a flower start to develop, cut the head off to harvest. The size will vary depending on the weather. The broccoli will want to flower in the warm weather. That is why many gardeners only grow broccoli as a fall crop. If you cut the main head and leave the plant, it will grow side shoots of broccoli. They stay smaller, but taste as good as the full-sized head.

9. Cauliflower. Cauliflower is similar to broccoli in many ways. It prefers cool weather and will bolt in the heat. The important part of growing snow-white heads of cauliflower is to prevent the sun from hitting the head. Pull the leaves up around the developing cauliflower and tie them together. If your leaves are not long enough to cover the head, place a piece of cloth over the head. The head should be tight and smooth. If you see there are spaces or the surface of the head is getting rough, it is time to cut the head off. Once the head is removed, the plant is finished producing.

10. Kale. Kale has really grown in popularity in recent years. Only a few years ago, the biggest buyers of kale were the fast food restaurants that used the kale not to eat, but to line the containers they served other vegetables from. The good news is that kale is easy to grow and to harvest. Simply cut off the outer leaves and the plant will continue to grow more.

11. Onions. Onions, like garlic, need to cure after harvest. Pull your onions out of the ground when the leaves start to dry and they fall over. Don’t wash the onions–just brush the soil off. Lay out in a space that keeps them dry while the paper skin develops. Once dry, cut off the stems and longer roots and remove any remaining soil. Store in a dry space with good air circulation.  

12. Summer Squash. Summer squash is called that because it is meant to be grown and used in the summer. This includes zucchini, yellow squash and the small patty pans. These squash grow incredibly fast so keep a close eye on them once the squash starts to grow. Harvest when the skin is tender enough that you can poke through it with your fingernail.

13. Winter Squash. Winter squash is called that because it is a keeping squash meant to be eaten throughout the winter. This group includes the acorn squash, butternut squash and Delicata squash, along with many others. The best way to tell if these squash are ready to harvest is to watch for a deepening of color. The yellow squash will turn a deep golden and the green squash will be a deep dark green.

14. Green Beans. If you are a first-time gardener, you are probably surprised by the huge amount of beans that grow on each plant! Beans should be picked when they are slender and long, but before you can see the individual seeds developing in each bean pod. You can cut them off the plant, but most gardeners use a pinching technique with their thumb and forefinger. Don’t pull on the plant too much as it will continue to grow more beans for quite some time. Also, never pick beans when the plant is wet from rain or even dew. The moisture can spread disease and you can lose the entire planting overnight.

15. Okra. Okra has been a mainstay of the southern garden forever, but now there are varieties developed for the northern gardeners. If you are new to okra, they grow on plants from the hibiscus family. The flowers are very similar. The okra itself will really take off in the heat of summer. Check it daily. Cut the okra off the plant when small, about four inches long. 

16. Beets. The nice thing about beets is they actually can be picked anytime. Some gardeners only grow beets for the greens, which they use in tossed salads. Others use the greens from thinning out the beets for salads, and you can harvest greens from the beets while they are growing as long as you leave at least four leaves on the beet to supply the energy it needs to develop. The actual beet bulb can be harvested at any time, according to your preference. Some gardeners prefer baby beet size, while others want the beets to be full size.

17. Corn. If you have a large enough space, plant corn seeds. There is nothing as sweet as corn that is picked from the garden and served a few minutes later. Corn grows two cobs on each stalk. The silk will grow from the end of the cob to be pollenized. In about three weeks, the silk will turn brown and dry, which indicates your corn is ready to harvest.

18. Brussels Sprouts. Brussels sprouts grow along a main stalk between the leaves. This is one of the few plants that you want to be growing in the garden when the first frost hits. The plant can handle the cold and, in fact, the frost will intensify the sweetness of the sprouts. Cut the entire plant off and remove the leaves. Store in the refrigerator where it will keep for a couple of months at least or remove the sprouts from the stalk and freeze.

This is the time of great reward in the garden, but in all honesty, the most work–especially if you are trying to grow enough for the whole year. Hang in there! You will be so happy you did when you enjoy eating food you grew all season long.

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