Timely harvest aids taste, improves yield

The Melanssons who live across the road from me are the sort of family whose combined practical talents mean that they can do most things around a house without having to hire outside help, except, maybe, when the in-the-ground swimming pool was installed.

Indeed, there's not much they have not done except grow some of their own vegetables - until this year, that is.

What impresses me the most is how well their small but intensively cultivated plot has done. It gives the lie to the belief that you have to endure a few years of failure before you begin to get the hang of gardening.

The Melansson's tomato plants are as loaded with fruit as any of my own. So are their cucumbers and beans. I suspect the only reason my garden is way ahead of theirs in peppers is that they never bothered to plant any.

I did notice, however, that the first cucumber was left on the vine a little longer than is optimum for both taste and the overall productivity of the plant itself. The same thing occurred with the first zucchini. Newcomers to gardening often make this mistake. Unsure as to when to harvest, they leave the vegetable in the garden until it is a little past its prime.

Both zucchini and cucumber taste best when harvested on the slightly immature side, as do many crops, snap beans included. They also produce more heavily if the fruits are harvested on the young side.

There is a reason for this. Plants use up a tremendous amount of energy in forming seeds, far more so than in forming the surrounding fruit. So when the seeds themselves are not what we eat, an early picking of the fruit leaves the plant with left-over energy to continue heavy fruiting. Obviously, this rule doesn't apply across the board. No one wants to pick immature tomatoes, but green beans, some types of summer squash, and cucumbers should be picked younger than you usually find them in the supermarket.

Here, then, are a few rules for harvesting:

Beans: For best flavor, wait until the pods of snap beans first begin to show the rounded shapes of the forming seed; or for greatest tenderness with marginally less flavor, pick them before the seeds even begin to show.

Limas, where the seed itself is eaten, should be fully developed, but pick them before the pods start to turn yellow. On the other hand, the over-mature beans can always be used in the soup.

Beets: Pick when the beets are between 1 and 3 inches in diameter. Certain long-season varieties (Winter Keeper and Lutz Green Leaf are two of them) can grow much larger while staying tender and sweet.

Broccoli: Pick when the individual flower buds are plump but still tightly packed together. When the head starts to loosen up, it is still edible, but it rapidly loses its tenderness.

Brussels sprouts: Pick whenever the buds become firm, but preferably after the first frost. Frost sweetens up the individual sprouts to a remarkable degree and eliminates the strong cabbage taste associated with this vegetable.

Cabbage: You can begin harvesting cabbage a little on the immature side, or as soon as the heads start to firm up. This way your harvest comes in over an extended period rather than all at once.

Chard: Harvest outside leaves, leaving a few central leaves so that the plant can renew itself. Another option is to cut down the entire plant about 2 inches above ground level; it will renew itself from the center.

Corn: When the silks have turned brown, pinch some of the kernels. If the sap is milky, harvest right away; if it is still watery, wait a day or two.

Cucumbers: Pick on the young side, before the wrinkles in the skin have fully smoothed out.

Eggplant: Harvest anytime after the skins have turned a bright, glossy purple. Once the gloss goes, the fruit is past its prime even though still edible.

Onions: Pull as needed throughout the season, but for full-size storage onions, wait until the green leaves have fallen over and begun to yellow.

Bell peppers: Pick when the fruit has turned a dark green; or, with the Gypsy variety, when a creamy-yellow color. Those not harvested will ultimately turn red, at which stage they become sweet to the taste.

Squash: Summer varieties should be cut before the seeds are well developed (6 to 10 inches for zucchinis; 3 to 5 inches for patty-pan types). Winter squashes are left until the vine dies back in the fall. Leave an inch or so of stem on each squash at harvest.

Tomatoes: Pick when the fruit is uniformly red, but before it has reached its darkest color, at which stage its softness makes it more suitable for juicing than for summer salads.

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