The moment you’ve been waiting for all season. The fruition (and vegetables) of your labor has produced its first tangible benefit.
It’s harvest time!
Starting right about now, the average garden here in the US is ready to be plucked. Those tomatoes should be turning red, that zucchini should be the appropriate length, and the peas are probably starting to swell. But ripeness indicators tend to vary from species to species, so it’s hard to keep track of what exactly you need to be looking for. On top of that, you also need to manage pest and disease control, watering, general garden maintenance, etc. – all while trying to figure out what you’re doing for this Fall and Spring of next year. It can definitely be overwhelming, which is why Dr. Willard’s encourage you to take it one step at a time and focus on the now.
We’ll go over some clear signs that your fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest. While the list won’t be totally exhaustive, we think it’ll give you a good base to branch out from. Remember, it’s important to do your own research if you can’t find precisely what you’re looking for. Let’s get started.
Sweet corn is a lot like that new vehicle you just bought at the dealership – the second you drive it off the lot, it begins to lose its value. Sweet corn kernels rapidly lose their sweetness and flavor the instant you pick the ear from the rest of the plant. The benefit of having it in your own garden is that you can wait until the very last moment to maximize freshness. Plan on having sweet corn for tonight’s dinner? Get that pot of water boiling before you even think about plucking the ear. You know it’s ready to eat when the silk at the top is drying out, the kernels beneath the husk feel nice and rounded, and the act of squeezing a kernel produces a milky sap.
Peas follow some of the same rules that sweet corn does – you’ll want to pick them right before you plan on eating them. You’re really looking for swollen seeds inside the pod; round but still tender, you know they’re ready for consumption. Snow peas should produce a crisp, crunchy taste, and if you ever notice them becoming tough and stringy, you’ve left them on the vine too long.
When to pick peppers is nuanced by their intended use. Green peppers are the earliest stage at which they can be harvested, but if left on the vine, they begin to change hues from green to red, yellow, orange, or brown, and while their flavor will be enhanced, the texture will suffer. If you grow a hot pepper variant, leaving them on the vine will cause them to become even hotter. You’re left with a lot of wiggle room when it comes to peppers – it really depends on the sort of dishes you want to create, as different ripeness levels can change the overall taste of a dish drastically.
We like to imagine lettuce as a green fountain of foliage. You can come back every couple of days to draw from the well, cutting tender leaves under 5 inches in length as you need them for things like salads. The leaves always seem to return within just a few short days, just as fresh as they were the first time. This cycle continues until the plant gets swallowed up by the summer heat. It’s especially important to pluck leaves before this happens, as bitterness sets in and the lettuce bolts, which means it produces a flower stock. Keep in mind that you can always sow lettuce late in the summer for a fall harvest – cooler temperatures and shade don’t necessarily affect it in a negative way.
There isn’t really a scientific way of discovering whether or not your watermelon is ready to eat. The old sound test is about as accurate we can get without actually cutting it open and seeing for ourselves. Ripe watermelons produce a dull, hollow sound when thumped with your hand. The rind also gets a bit tougher, so test how easily it dents with your thumbnail. Ultimately, you will have to cut it open and take a peek inside. Use this information and apply it to the rest of the crop.
Tomatoes rank among the more frustrating crops to deal with. In fact, tomatoes are so fickle in nature that we dedicated an entire blog post to them! While most tomatoes transition from green to red, some varieties can turn orange or yellow. Ideally, a tomato detaches easily from the stem when it’s ready to be eaten. Conveniently, tomatoes continue to ripen after being separated from the plant, so don’t fret if you accidentally misjudge their readiness and pluck them prematurely.
Carrots, turnips, beets, and radishes are considered root vegetables. The general rule of thumb to determine ripeness actually requires one to gently loosen the soil and pull the vegetable out of the ground. The smaller the size the more likely it is to be tender; larger root crops become tough, woody, and pervasive if left in the ground for too long. If this is your desired effect, they can actually be left in the cold ground all the way until Thanksgiving!
Frequent cutting of the stems and leaves will promote more aggressive growth, ultimately producing more edible material. It’s important to keep the plant from blooming, as it can have an adverse effect on the overall flavor. Surplus thyme and oregano should be dried and stored in a paper bag where it’s dark. Basil specifically tends to need a bit more maintenance – trimming often will keep it productive. If you’ve grown herbs in the past, you’ll probably know that come late July and August, basil is so abundant in our kitchens and everyone has a bit more than they need. It comes with the territory.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on all the different kinds of things you can grow in your home garden, but these are some of our favorite crops. If you’re still hungry for more information, you can check out our other gardening blog posts, or you can visit our PlantCatalyst Facebook page to see how our Research Garden is progressing this year!
Dr. Willard’s hopes you found this information useful and can put it to good use over the next several days and following weeks. Good luck and happy harvesting!