Harvest (aka Can you eat that yet?)
To the beginning or recently converted gardener, harvest is that one magical day, maybe in the fall, when suddenly, all of the pumpkins, the apples, the corn and the turkeys are ripe out there on the trees or the vines or wherever the hell they come from, and it is urgent that, just like in days gone by (and probably in the Alps somewhere wearing lederhosen) it all must be harvested immediately, with the certainty that only ancient, wizened agrarians can understand with down to the minute accuracy.
Fortunately for all of us, this is mostly not the case at all. (Those old timers know a lot thought, that’s for real!)
Experience will teach you that harvesting is really broad and can be tailored to what you are harvesting for, be it flavor, texture, different recipes or simply preference. Lots of the plants that we eat have multiple edible parts. The blossoms of squash, for example, can be picked and eaten throughout the season with delightfully subtle flavors. You may have seen grape leaves used in Greek cuisine or cilantro used as both a leaf or a seed (coriander) to flavor a dish. Both examples involve harvesting something from the plants at very different times in its life cycle.
Another example of picking something at different times for different results would be the bell pepper. Most of the bell peppers in stores are green, a color that pepper go through on their way to their final color of red, purple, orange or yellow. The green peppers are, in fact, immature, as you will note in their not being as sweet or tender as the more mature peppers in the other colors. That investment of time to wait for them to mature is another reason that the brightly colored peppers are more expensive. They have been left to ripen longer in the field. The green peppers aren’t better or worse, just different. They are firmer and store longer without rotting. They make the point that it really is a matter of preference.
On the other hand, and the case that makes us all pay attention, green tomatoes and vine ripened, juicy, red tomatoes might be thought to come from completely different planets!
Just like with Pest Management, the best way to get your harvesting right is with research, experience and patience.
Look up harvest tips for plants as you are planting them in your garden. If you are planting okra, for example, look up okra harvest tips on the interwebs and take their advice very seriously when they say to harvest it young, before the spines inside the pods get unbearably tough. You will only miss the window a couple of times before you decide chewing on okra-flavored twine isn’t the best part of your meal.
Another tip is to experiment with taste and touch. Pinch, poke, smell and gently squeeze the things in your garden as they bloom, set fruit and ripen. Go to the grocery store and do the same with everything in the produce section, just for reference. Leaf crops like collards, spinach or kale are great teachers here as well. Their young leaves will have a little more bite in the flavor, less sweetness, but be very tender, enough to make you want to hold off longer, to let them get bigger and bigger so there’s more to eat, then, one day, you’ll go out there after a couple of days away and find that those tender little leaves grew big, tough, fibrous stems and waxy surfaces that must be cooked an entirely different way to be enjoyed.
One more tip on harvesting before I go.
Be advised, your plants are crafty! They will only do as much work as they think they have to in order to make it to the next generation. That means that if they can put all of their energy into just a couple of amazing, beautiful, ginormous fruits full of seeds or leaves for soaking up those rays, then that’s all they will really want to do. Don’t get the wrong idea, they are hardworking go-getters, they just don’t want to overextend themselves for now reason. You need to give them a reason, a gentle nudge if you will.
That means that you will almost always be better off harvesting earlier and more often to keep your plants producing for the whole season. For example, harvesting a few leaves from each spinach or chard plant will trigger the plant to keep setting on more leaves while giving you a steady supply of greens throughout the summer. The same is true with hot peppers, tomatoes or even eggplant, where picking fruits as they are just ripe enough makes room for the plant to keep on keepin’ on.
With that, I bid thee “GO FORTH! Harvest thy BOUNTY…and stuff!”
If you’ve read all of this and are hungry for more, follow me on Instagram and reach out with questions, comments or, preferably, images of lush, rowdy-licious plants!!!