When they're ripe for the picking!

Posted on: 25 March 2008 by 50connect editorial

All the labour of cultivating your crop through the spring and summer has been worthwhile as it approaches harvest time.

carrots at harvest time

You've planted the seeds, watered the plants and waited for your crop to come in. The real test for the home gardener is knowing when to pick the fruits of your labour, says vegetable expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

One of the advantages a home gardener has over people who purchase produce is that the crop can be picked at the moment of ripeness where as commercial wholesale producers pick many crops before they are truly ripe and allow them to ripen gradually during shipping, handling and display.  While commercial growers must meet the demands of the marketplace, home gardeners and most direct marketers need only please themselves when it comes to harvesting the crops they've planted. Vegetables are highest in vitamins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium and iron when they are fully ripe.

For the best flavour and storage capability, pick your crops first thing in the morning or late evening.  They will be cool and firm and will not have absorbed any natural field heat. 

Home growers can become savvy harvesters by remembering just a few tips about each crop.

Tomatoes should be picked when they are firm and have reached their full vibrant colour- crimson, red, yellow or other colours depending on the variety. It's probably a good idea to pick a range of ripening tomatoes every few days and let a few finish ripening after picking on a sunny windowsill, then you'll always have fresh, ripe tomatoes for salads and recipes. The ripening tomatoes will have slightly lower amounts of vitamins and minerals than the fully ripe fruits.

Peppers - Green peppers are picked and used before full ripeness, so gauge the ripeness by the size estimate on a seed packet or in a seed catalogue. Firmness also is a ripeness indicator. If the pepper feels as though it has thin walls, it is not ripe. When green peppers are allowed to ripen, they can turn into a rainbow of colours depending on the variety.  If peppers have ripened to full colour, use them quickly because they have only a few days of shelf life at that stage.

Courgettes tastes best when harvested at lengths from 15cms - 25cms (6 to 10 inches).  Don't let them grow longer than a foot because as soon as they grow past 20-25cms in length, (8 to 10 inches) courgettes tend to get tough and develops more seeds.  If you do miss a longer courgette, don't throw it away - grate it and use in stir fry's and frittata. 

Cucumbers - Pickle cucumbers should not be grown beyond approximately 4 inches. Other types, such as some burpless or Oriental varieties, can reach ripeness at nearly 15 inches. The longer cucumber types are ripe when they retain a hint of the ridges and spiny-ness associated with immature cucumbers. Think of a cucumber as a balloon, if it's inflated to a perfect smoothness, it's too far gone.

Aubergine - Estimate ripeness by comparing the crop to the size and shape described on the seed package or catalogue. The eggplant should also be shiny and glossy and the stem and cap should be mint green or purple, depending on the type.

Melons (muskmelons and cantaloupes) - Most melons are perfectly ripe when they separate from the vine easily. A small tug should be enough.  Other melon types are ripe when they turn from a greenish hue to a more yellow or orange colour.

Watermelons will have a pigtailed tendril of growth near the stem. As that tendril browns or dies, look at the underside of the melon. The underside should be slightly yellow. Inside, the seeds will be deep brown to black, not light tan.

Carrots invest most of their early growth into the plant leaves, the carrot, or root, does not mature until late summer or autumn. Danvers varieties should be harvested when they reach about a 2-inch diameter. Nantes should be picked when they reach 1 inch in diameter. To check diameter, just run your finger around the base of the plant and uncover the top of the carrot.

Leaf Lettuce and Spinach - Although gardeners can harvest the entire plant head early to thin the crop, it's best to remove and use the outer leaves of the plant as you need them. The plant will keep producing leaves until a killing frost. You can harvest chard and rhubarb the same way.

Onions - Because most onions are grown from sets, which means many of the plants grow too close together, you should thin out the plants. Onions are ready for final storage harvest when about half the plant leaves have turned brown or drooped. Push the rest of the leaves over and pick the onions about a week later. Leave the onions in the garden to dry for a few days, then hang them. Onions forming a seed head - the green shoot that looks like a spear coming out of the onion - should be eaten immediately, because they won't dry out adequately for storage.

Snap (green or wax) Beans - The key to harvesting snap beans is to pick them before the pod shows any seed development. There should be no swelling where you can see the seed in the bean. Also, the bean should literally snap when you break it. If they're over the hill, the bean will be rubbery.

Broccoli plants produce a large central head comprised of tightly bound buds. The head should be harvested before any hint of yellowing appears and before the buds separate. Some broccoli varieties will continue to produce large shoots even after the central head has been harvested.

Flat Edible Pod Peas - These crops, known as Chinese peas or snow peas, should be picked when still flat, before the pod reveals the outline of the internal seeds. Check the size description on the seed packet or catalogue as well.

Round Edible Pod Peas - Also known as snap peas, these varieties are the sweetest and most tender peas. They should be picked when fully round and smooth and coloured mint green.

English Peas - The pod should be shiny and swelled enough to suggest the outline of the peas. All pea varieties should be cooled immediately after picking, because their sugars will turn to starch under warm conditions.

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