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How to Harvest Fruits and Vegetables

You've planted, you've tended, and now it's time to enjoy the end result of all that work.

• Pick often and small.
The biggest harvesting sin gardeners commit is waiting until produce is too big or too old. This results in produce that is tough, bitter, or diseased. Check your vegetable garden daily and pick what you can when it's small and tender. (Frequent harvesting also encourages more production.)

Remember that garden produce seldom gets as big as the supermarket kind, which is grown under ideal conditions in an ideal region of the world and unless it's organic, lots of chemicals to pump it up to maximum size.

• Harvest when plants are dry.
Harvesting when wet can spread disease, especially on green beans.

• Harvest early in the day.
Produce tends to be better hydrated in the early morning. And once you've harvested it, be sure to eat within the next day or two so you don't squander all that freshness!

Is It Ready?basket of produce

Here's how to tell if your garden's bounty is ready to be harvested:

Broccoli: Harvest as soon as the florets are fully formed. Wait any longer and they'll start to flower.

Carrots: You can eat these at just about any stage that they have any orange root at all. The smaller the carrots, as a rule, the sweeter and more tender. Wait too long, however, and carrots will develop a "soapy" taste or get pithy.

Cauliflower: Harvest as soon as the florets are fully formed. Wait too long and they'll go mealy on you, having an unpleasantly grainy texture.

Corn: Harvest after silks start to turn brown. Most of the kernels should be filled out. When a kernel is pierced with your fingernail, it should run milky, not clear, to show that the sugars have developed. Eat within the day, if not within a few hours.

Cucumbers: Pick as soon as the plant looks fully filled out. It may not pull away easily, so use a hand shears to clip it from the vine. It's fine and perhaps even preferable if there are still little prickles on the cucumber. It means you're not letting it get really large, which can also mean bitter.

Fall crops: Some vegetables have better flavor after a frost, so wait until then. These include cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts.

Green beans: Should be smooth and still have their sheen with few bumps from developing seeds inside. Pick as soon as possible—the smaller green beans, those no thicker than a chopstick, are the more tender. Eat within 2 to 3 days.

Green peas: Pods should be nicely filled out but still just barely have their sheen. When a pod is opened, the pea should taste fresh, green, sweet, and not at all starchy. Eat within the day, if not within a few hours.

Herbs: As soon as you have something to cut off, you can eat it. However, never cut away more than two-thirds of the plant, unless you're harvesting it right before the first frost.

Lettuce: As soon as you can see it, you can eat it. Lettuce foliage is delicious even when tiny. A neat trick with leaf lettuce is to use the "cut-and-come-again" method. Instead of pulling the lettuce, cut it off with a knife or scissors just above the ground. It will regrow quickly, giving you a bonus harvest or two. When lettuce starts to get leggy, it's starting to bolt, that is, send up flower stalks.  At this point, it is bitter and should be pulled up and discarded.

Melons: Fruit is ripe when the stem pulls away from the fruit with only slight pressure. Blossom end—the end opposite the stem—may soften. The fruit develops a pleasant aroma.

Sweet peppers: Green peppers are ready to eat as soon as they're full sized. Many green peppers will continue to ripen into red peppers if left on the plant until late summer.

Tomatoes: Ripe tomatoes feel heavy for their size. They don't need to be fully colored, just at least halfway to three-quarters. Should pull away easily from the plant. Often taste even better if allowed to sit on a windowsill for another day. Do not refrigerate because it diminishes the fullness of flavor.

Zucchini: As soon as the bright golden flower drops off, harvest. Some gardeners, to assure tenderness and flavor, harvest with the flower on. Do not allow to get large, which makes the zucchini tough and bitter.
        

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