Grow-How: Hyped for Harvest

by Isabel Vinton

Gardening is worth it just for the sake of gardening: feeling dirt under your fingernails and sun on your neck, knowing that you're nourishing living plants, learning along the way. But let's be honest--the best part of gardening is the harvest! If you've got veggies to pick, it means you've put in a lot of preparation and dutiful care, and we want to make sure you get the most out of it. Follow these harvest tips and tricks and reap what you sowed.

THE BASICS

Know when to harvest. To get the most from your garden, it’s essential to know when crops are at their peak readiness. Before scrolling ahead, read up on how to know when to harvest what.

Harvest everything. The most important advice we can give is not just to pick the most beautiful fruits and juiciest leaves, but to indiscriminately pick whatever is ready in the garden. The best looking crops will go to your kitchen and the rest can feed the compost pile. Picking off dead leaves and overripe fruit will keep the plant healthier, and for many crops, it will encourage them to produce more.

Harvest when it's cool. If you can, pick your crops when the temperature in the garden is closest to that of your refrigerator (that is, mornings or evenings). This will ensure that what you pick look fresh and lasts longer in the fridge. It's also less stressful for the plant itself.

Get geared up. A good set of harvest tools can get you a long way. It can speed up your harvest and make the quality of what you pick higher, as well as ensure that you're not being too rough on any plants that still have more growing to do. Check out our favorite harvest tools.

Store the surplus. We're all accustomed to the eternally perfect timing of grocery store produce, but homegrown vegetables ripen on their own schedule and sometimes produce a harvest too big for eating fresh. This is a great problem with a great solution: preserve your harvest for winter to avoid the supermarket even longer, and enjoy sweet, rich summer flavors in the dreariest months. See here for preservation tips.

THE SPECIFICS

Herbs. Most herbs grow into a bushy plant (basil, oregano, sage, etc) or from a central rosette close to the ground (cilantro, parsley, dill). To encourage new growth and keep them from bolting, cut or pinch your herbs often. Bushier varieties should be cut with a harvest knife or scissors right above a new set of baby leaves, which emerge from the elbow between the main stem and a branch. Herbs that grow as rosettes can be cut entirely, but high enough from the ground (a few inches) so most of the new leaves are not damaged.

Lettuce and greens. Some, such as Buttercrunch Bibb Lettuce or bok choy form single plants or heads that can be cut from the bottom and harvested all at once. The category of greens that grow as loose leaves instead of forming a head, like Italienischer Lettuce and arugula are called “cut and come again” varieties for a simple reason. When cut evenly (a sharp knife will make a big difference) a few inches above the ground, such varieties will keep on growing for two or three more harvests!

Collards, Kale and Chard. Harvest these greens like palm trees. To keep plants producing through the season, pick only the outermost leaves, always leaving one third of leaves (the newest ones in the center) intact. Cut them close to the main stem. The plants will grow in the shape of a palm tree and continue producing delicious leaves.

Fruits. These crops need to be picked gently. The bulk of the summer garden harvest comes from fruiting crops, such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, cucumbers, melons, and okra. All of these should be harvested as soon as they are ready, if not before, by simply picking them off the plant by hand, or cutting the stem right above the fruit. Take care to not damage the plant to help it continue producing more fruits.

 

Roots. Root crops such as beetscarrotsparsnips, radishes, and rutabagas and turnips (which can be planted now for fall harvest!) can be forgiving in their harvest window and many can be stored right in the soil for mid-winter harvests. However, if left in the ground for a long period in the heat of the summer, some roots, such as small radishes, may become woody and lose flavor, so keep track of their progress with frequent taste tests. To harvest, hold the plant at the base of the stem and pull gently directly upward. For bigger or more stubborn roots, loosen the soil next to them with a garden fork. Twisting often breaks the root in half, so be careful with that move!

Summer squash. The goal is to pick the squash before it gets too big. This will actually help the plant produce more fruit, since it isn't preoccupied with sending all its energy to maturing the seeds inside the squash. Picking smaller fruit also keeps the harvest manageable--you'll have a steady supply of small harvests. Small fruits where the blossom is still attached but wilting are ideal. You can certainly pick them smaller-they are delectable and crisp--or pick them a bit bigger for squash bread or "fettuccine." Harvest the fruits with a small knife by cutting the stem of the squash near the stem of the plant.

 

Winter storage crops. There's plenty of technique to harvesting and storing those roots and squashes. Check out our three-part series on harvesting and storing for winter.

In many cases, every leaf and fruit brings you one step closer not only to a delicious home-cooked meal, but to a new morsel produced by your plant! While schedules are hectic and it can be easy to flat out forget about your garden, remember to take regular walks and peak at your plants to see what gifts they have to give you.

 

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