by Anne K Moore for GardenSMART / Photo by Anne K Moore
As we come into a new growing season, we gardeners love to look ahead to our first harvests. New gardeners often think bigger is better when growing their first crops. Sometimes it just isn’t so. Vegetables need regular harvesting. It keeps them producing. Picking your crop promptly is important. If your veggies get over-ripe, they will stop putting on new, tender crops. More importantly, the taste will suffer.
Tomatoes taste best if you leave them to ripen on the vine. If birds are pecking holes before you can harvest them, you can pick your tomatoes while they are still showing some green or white and ripen them on a windowsill. Or, you can drape some plastic bird netting over the plants. If the skins on your tomatoes are splitting, there isn’t anything you can do other than look for less susceptible types next year. This is due to wet weather.
Eggplant should have a polished-looking skin with a nice shine. If the skin has dulled then it will be a bit pithy and strong flavored.
Cut back herbs as they grow to keep them compact and prevent them from bolting (flowering). Use the snips you remove from the herbs in and on your food. Your cooking prowess will improve with every leaf you add.
Zucchini and yellow squash should come off the vine when they are quite small, just a few inches long. If they have swelled with thick waists, they will not be nearly as tasty and the seeds will be tough.
Squash also has a tendency to first flower with only male blossoms. Since male blossoms don’t make the fruit and only pollinate the female blossoms, all of these male blossoms will drop. Many gardeners think there is something wrong with their plants. This first drop is normal. Expect a combination of male and female flowers at the next bloom period and from then on. Use those first male flowers in the kitchen, either stuffed or fried.
Watermelons come with their own ripeness indicator. It’s a little squiggly appendage just above where the fruit is attached. When it is brown, the melon is ripe. It is a much better indicator than the thumping method.
Cantaloupes/muskmelons are not as easy. Look for yellowing under the netting and a strong melon smell. Melons should slip off the vines easily. If you have to tug, leave it there for more ripening.
You should harvest broccoli while the florets making up the head are tightly closed. Once they elongate and start to open, the broccoli can taste strong. If yellow flowers appear on your broccoli heads, the taste will most likely be bitter. Only cut off the top head, leaving small side shoots on the plant. They will grow into smaller heads and can be harvested and used just as the big heads.
You can harvest beans for fresh cooking at any length until the pods start to swell. They become tough when the beans inside the pod grow plump and look lumpy through the bean pod.
Harvest English peas after their pods fill out but before the pods outer skin starts to change from green to tan.
Sugar Snap Peas are good for vacationers who leave just as the pea crop is coming in. You can harvest them at any stage, except tan. They are good to eat when the pods are flat to when they are full. Best of all, no shelling is required. Eat pods and all at any stage.
Sweet corn is ready when the silks turn from green/white to brown. You can safely pull down just a bit of the top husk on one side to see if an ear has filled out. A better way is to squeeze the ear gently to feel if the kernels are firm. If you end up with large spaces between your corn kernels, the corn was not cross-pollinated fully. Sweet corn is wind pollinated. It should grow in blocks so that the pollen from one plant hits the silks on another. At least 3 rows is an ideal spacing. If you have good healthy soil, you can also plant 2 seeds together in each planting hole. Beware: You do not want to plant super sweet corn near regular corn. If you end up with sweet corn and super sweet ears that cross-pollinate, both crops of corn will most likely be very un-sweet.
Growing food for yourself and your family is a very rewarding experience. If you are new to gardening, start small so that you are not overwhelmed with your first garden. With experience comes knowledge. Soon you will be sharing your produce with your less-fortunate garden-deprived neighbors.