Dear friends,

By now your tomato vines will be growing out of the top of the cages if you planted the tall growing kind. The cucumbers should be pretty tall, too, and the beans will be curling around the wires. So it's time we talked about harvesting. One of the nicest things about having your own garden is that you get to eat vegetables that are much fresher than you can ever buy in a store. But you need to know when to harvest. A lot of first-time gardeners leave vegetables in the garden too long.

Here a a few harvest hints for the vegetables we are growing:

Tomatoes ripen from the inside out. So when the skin is red all over, you know it is fully ripe. They taste best if you pick them while they're still firm. They stay fresh on the vine for a few days after ripening, but if you leave them too long they start to go soft and lose some of their flavor.

Eggplant fruit has a smooth skin that is very shiny when it is ready to harvest. It looks almost as if someone had come along and polished it. The skin starts to lose this shine when it goes past its prime. You can still eat it at this stage, but if you wait too long, it will quickly lose its flavor and may even become bitter.

Peppers also have a nice shine to them when they are ready to harvest. You can pick them while they are still green, or you can leave them on the plant and they will slowly turn red. Peppers taste sweetest when they are red.

Carrots begin to taste good when the roots are about one inch thick at the top. To find out how big they are, take your finger and gently scrape away the soil at the bottom of the leaves. You will soon be able to feel the root. If you have a lot of carrots growing together, you can easily tell those that have the biggest roots. They will have leaves that are a deeper green than the others.

Cucumbers should be picked while they're young. That's the secret for getting a lot of them from one vine. Don't let them get fat. Pick them while they still have little, soft spines on the skin.

Pole beans should be picked when you can just begin to see the outline of the seeds under the skin of the pod, but before the seeds grow big.

Bush beans, on the other hand, must be picked before you can see any sign of the beans underneath the skin. Usually it is best to pick them when they are about the thickness of a pencil.

Cabbage is ready to harvest when it feels hard as you squeeze it between your thumb and fingers. Cut through the stalk just below the head so that several leaves remain below the cut. New little cabbage heads will start to grow on the stalk at the base of each leaf. Let two of these grow, and in 4 to 6 weeks' time you will get two more, slightly smaller heads.

One of the first things we learn with our very own garden is that many foods taste best right from the garden -- washed, of course, but not even cooked.

Tomatoes are especially good when they are garden-ripe, so choose the best round, ripe, firm ones for making Tomato Balloons. You will also need a cucumber and some small carrots.

If you have fresh green bell peppers from your garden, you may use the same recipe, substituting a pepper for the tomato. Remove the stem and seeds from the pepper. Slice it in half the long way if it is a large pepper, then fill with the tuna mixture and you will have two servings. Tomato Balloons 1 fresh tomato 1/4 cup cottage cheese 1/4 cup tuna 1 small garden cucumber 2 small carrots, scrubbed

Cut stem from tomato the same way you would the top of a jack-o'-lantern pumpkin. With a teaspoon, scoop out insides carefully. Mix tuna and cheese together. Spoon tuna mixture into the tomato.

Have an adult pare the cucumber and cut it in half. Cut halves into wedge sticks. Be sure carrot is well scrubbed. Leave about one inch of green stem on it to use for a handle while eating.

Place stuffed tomato on a salad plate. Place 2 cucumber wedges and 1 carrot on each side for garnish. Repeat directions if serving more than one person.

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