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A Guide to Harvesting Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs
YOU'VE GOT your own garden, and that's great! Gardening provides fun, exercise, and, best of all, produce that you can use in hundreds of ways. You no longer need to be captive to the whims of the market--you can grow what you like best and eat it harvest-fresh, chemical-free, and untouched by additives. You can enjoy your favorite kinds of corn or beans as well as unusual things, such as Japanese pears or heirloom 'Moon and Stars' watermelons.
Growing your own produce lets you take charge of the harvesting process. Pick fruits and vegetables when their quality is at its very best and they have reached the right stage of maturity for eating, canning, freezing, or drying. Then, you don't have to lose any time getting the food from the ground into safekeeping.
Sometimes you can organize the garden so that produce will ripen when it is convenient for your use--and sometimes you can't. Most people can't control when their apples, berries, peaches, and pears will be mature. Once planted, fruit trees and berry plants will bear their fruit year after year when the time is right. You're at their mercy and must be prepared to harvest just when the pickings are ready if you want to get the fruit at its best.
Growing for Harvest
Vegetables are a different story. Because most are annuals and bear a certain number of weeks after they are planted, you can plan your garden to allow for succession plantings that extend the harvesting season and furnish you with a continuous supply of fresh food. This means that you can eat fresh vegetables over several smaller harvests if you wish (and the weather cooperates) and be able to preserve small batches as different waves of vegetables ripen.
Time your harvests so you pick each fruit and vegetable at perfection. Zucchini (top) that has been left on the vine too long is unfit for anything but puree. Tender young zucchini are perfect for fresh eating sliced in salads or stir-fries and make delicious pickles. Beets (bottom) left in the ground too long become tough and woody, but baby beets are at the ideal stage for canning, freezing, or pickling.
By planting three smaller crops of tomatoes instead of one large crop, you won't be deluged with more tomatoes than you can possibly eat and process at one time. Or you can space your three pea plantings ten days apart in early spring, and you'll have three harvests of peas and plenty of time to plant a later crop of something else in the same plots after you pick all the peas.
Plant vegetables that don't keep well, like salad greens, at least twice. Start with early lettuce about a month before the last frost and follow it with cauliflower. After the onions are out of the ground, put some fall lettuce in their place for September salads. If corn is one of your favorites and you've been waiting out the long winter for the first ears to come in, by all means, eat all the early-maturing corn you want. But make sure that you plant enough late corn for freezing later on.
Harvest as late as possible in fall when you grow vegetables that keep well in underground storage--crops like cabbage, potatoes, root crops, and squash. You won't have to worry about keeping vegetables cool during warm September and early October weather. Green and yellow beans, planted in early May, can be followed by cabbage in mid-July for a fall harvest. You can leave some vegetables, like parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes, right in the ground over the winter. So plant some late crops of these vegetables specifically for this purpose.
AN HEIRLOOM HARVEST
When you are looking for new crops for your garden or orchard, don't overlook heirloom fruits and vegetables. These are plants that have been passed down for generations by families and cultures around the world. Many have special qualities like different flavors, unique colors, or extra-long storage capacity. Most are open-pollinated, which means that the harvest time will vary somewhat and you will have fresh produce over a longer period of time. Browse through the small sampling of cultivars that follows to get a brief taste of what heirlooms are all about.
. Beans, green: 'Blue Coco' snap bean, which originated in pre-1775 France, has purple pods and grows well in hot, dry weather.
. Beans, lima: 'Cliff Dweller' lima bean, from the ancient Apache culture, tolerates heat and drought and produces light-colored seeds splashed with dark highlights.
. Beets: 'Chioggia', an early Italian beet, is striped with alternating rings of red and white flesh.
. Carrots: 'Oxheart' carrot, introduced in 1884, grows short and thick, which makes it good for heavy soils and root-cellar storage.
. Eggplant: 'Turkish Italian Orange' eggplant, from Turkey, produces small, round, red-orange fruit that is mild and prolific.
. Lettuce: 'Oakleaf' lettuce, which originated in the 1800s, has handsome oak-shaped leaves with wavy margins. 'Rouge D'Hiver', a romaine lettuce from nineteenth-century France, has bronze leaves and solid heads. It thrives in cool and warm weather.
. Pumpkins: 'Small Sugar' pumpkin, a favorite of American pioneers from 1860, is sweet, firm, and tender, perfect for pies or any kind of cooking.
. Tomatoes: 'Big Rainbow' tomato, a mammoth-fruited plant from Minnesota, has green, yellow, and red skin and red-and-yellow-streaked flesh.
. Apples: 'Black Gilliflower', discovered in eighteenth-century Connecticut, ripens so dark red that it looks black. It's excellent for drying and cooking. 'Grosse Mignonne', sold as early as the mid - 1600s, has greenish white, extra-juicy fruit. 'Sauvignac', introduced in the mid- 1800s near Quebec City, Canada, is hardy to -50°F.
. Currants: 'White Imperial', brought to America in the late 1800s, has transparent white fruit and is more flavorful than any other currant.
. Pears: 'Seckel', grown in Europe since 1790, has small brown fruit with exceptional sweetness.
. Watermelons: 'Moon and Stars' watermelon, grown by the Amish for over 80 years, has red flesh and a green rind speckled with yellow stars and a large golden moon.
Handling the Harvest
One of the biggest advantages of growing your own produce--or picking it garden-fresh in a friend's yard--is that you can handle it with care. Then everything you pick at the moment of ideal ripeness will be perfect for preserving. You'll understand how important harvest treatment is when you know a little about what happens to fruits and vegetables after harvesting.
Once plucked from the plant, fruits and vegetables stop growing, but respiration and enzyme activities (which add up to aging) continue. The physical and chemical qualities deteriorate rapidly. As a result, appearance and flavor fade, and the nutrient content decreases, particularly fragile vitamin C.
WHERE TO FIND HEIRLOOM VEGETABLES AND FRUITS
To locate the long-lost tomato your grandmother used to grow or to browse for something different to try, check out the Garden Seed Inventory, published by the Seed Saver's Exchange. This 500-page volume lists thousands of different plants and gives brief descriptions and sources for each. A good resource for finding heirloom fruit cultivars is the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, which lists all cultivars of fruiting trees and bushes available today, along with where to buy them. This 500-page book is also available through the Seed Saver's Exchange.
If you want to sample heirloom apples so you can decide which cultivars to grow, you can order a boxful from Applesource, 1716 Apple Road, Chapin, IL 62628 (applesource.com).
Catalogs That Specialize in Heirlooms
You may not be able to find heirloom vegetable seeds in garden centers, but these days they are showing up in large seed and nursery catalogs. You'll find an even bigger selection of cultivars in specialized heirloom catalogs such as the ones in the following list. Some of these companies charge a fee for their catalogs, so write first.
Abundant Life Seeds
P.O. Box 279
Cottage Grove, OR 97424
Hidden Springs Nursery
170 Hidden Springs Lane
Cookville, TN 38501
526 N. 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85705
One Green World
28696 S. Cramer Road
Molalla, OR 97038
Redwood City Seed Company
P.O. Box 361
Redwood City, CA 94064
Seed Saver's Exchange
3094 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700
Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery
4395 Westside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460
Mineral, VA 23117
Southmeadow Fruit Farms
P.O. Box 211
Baroda, MI 49101
Ripe fruits like these cherries (top) are best for canning, while unripe fruits (bottom) have more pectin and make better jellies.
Keeping Fruits and Vegetables Fresh
Fruits and vegetables should be prepared and canned or put into the freezer, dryer, or cold storage as soon as humanly possible after harvest. But despite our best intentions, distractions and delays are a part of life. If you find some of them getting in the way of your garden-to-storage routine, at least take precautions: Cool your food right after you pick it. Move foods into the refrigerator, except for tomatoes and basil.
Tomatoes and basil actually lose flavor or quality in low refrigerator temperatures. If you have more of these items than you can eat right away, process them immediately, while all the other vegetables and fruits are chilling. Or put the basil in a glass of water like cut flowers, and leave the tomatoes out of the sun on the kitchen counter for a few hours until you have time to deal with them.
Fruits and vegetables are at their best when you first pick them. And no storage technique, no matter how good it is, will make a great food out of so-so fruits or vegetables. The most that you can expect is to preserve most of the goodness that the food first started with. If you've taken the effort to grow good food, you owe it to yourself to make the extra effort to harvest it at the right time and get it into proper storage as soon as you can.
SOURCES OF MODERN GARDEN SEEDS
There are so many seed catalogs out there, it's hard to choose. You'll develop your own favorites after a few seasons, but these will get you off to a good start.
W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
300 Park Avenue
Warminster, PA 18974
The Cook's Garden
P.O. Box C5030
Warminster, PA 18974
Irish Eyes Garden City Seeds
5045 Robinson Canyon Road
Ellensburg, WA 98926
Johnny's Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue
Winslow, ME 04901
Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Old Salem Road NE
Albany, OR 97321
Park Seed Company
Greenwood, SC 29647
Renee's Garden Seeds
6116 Highway G
Felton, CA 95018
A Crop-by-Crop Guide to Harvesting Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs
Here are tips on when to harvest many of your favorite crops and highlights about some of the best cultivars you might want to grow. You'll find handy long-term preservation ideas listed as symbols beside each entry as follows:
=store in root cellar
*The can symbol refers to foods that can be water bath or pressure canned. The preserve symbol refers to food made into jams and jellies.
Vegetable and Herb Harvesting Guide
Harvest artichokes when the buds are tender and full but the bracts are still closed. You've waited too long once the bracts turn purple and the flowers begin to form. Use pruning shears or a sharp knife to cut off the bud and 4 to 6 inches of the stem, which can be edible, too. You'll harvest the large central bud on each stem first. It will be followed by side buds if your growing season is long enough. Don't be surprised if your artichokes don't bloom the first year--they're perennials, so it takes them a while to get going. Even if they do, don't harvest until the second year to allow the plants time to establish themselves.
You can grow artichokes even if you live in a cold climate where perennial cultivars aren't hardy. Try 'Imperial Star', a high-yielding annual.
In cool climates, wait until the third year after planting to begin harvesting asparagus. But in warmer areas, you can harvest lightly the second year after planting. When tight-headed spears reach 6 to 10 inches tall, twist or cut them off just below soil level. On mature plantings, you can harvest for six to eight weeks in spring.
For high yields, grow 'Jersey Knight' and 'SYN 4-56' (formerly 'Jersey Giant'). Because these cultivars seldom include female plants, they can produce several times the number of spears of older cultivars. For warm climates, try 'UC 157'.
Keep basil flower heads pinched off for the most flavorful leaves. Pinch off shoot tips when you need a little basil. Or cut stems back by one-half their total length if you want to preserve some of this spicy herb.
SOURCES OF FRESH PRODUCE
If you don't have your own garden, or if you need to supplement what your garden grows, here are other ways to get ultrafresh produce.
. Place a special order with a local farm market. Have them pick a blend of fully or partly ripe items--as you request--early in the morning and you'll still have the day to preserve the food.
. Harvest at a pick-your-own organic orchard or garden. If you have several cultivars to choose from, ask which is best for the type of preserving you have in mind.
. Subscribe to Community-Supported Agriculture. For a fee, you'll get a regular supply of fresh produce and, maybe, rights to harvest produce.
. Ask gardening friends, relatives, and neighbors to call you if they anticipate overabundant harvests. Then you can pick what you need before it gets overgrown or aged.
. Support your local farmers' market. Find out which stalls actually grow what they sell and establish a good relationship with them. You might persuade them to let you know what produce they expect to have the following week so you are able to make plans for preserving accordingly.
. Put an ad in a school, church, or organization bulletin asking to share the costs and work of a garden for harvesting privileges.
Grow 'Dark Opal' basil for making red herb vinegars. With its showy purple leaves, it's attractive in your flower beds, too.
If you plan to dry beans and store them, delay harvest until the seeds are so dry you can't dent them with your thumbnail. But if the weather turns wet, pick them all, and let them finish drying outdoors. Experiment with the many interesting heirloom dried bean cultivars such as 'Vermont Cranberry', 'Jacob's Cattle', 'Logan Giant', and 'Rattlesnake'. Or try ethnic favorites such as 'Mexican Black Turtle' and Japanese 'Adzuki Express'.
Harvest plump, unblemished pods of fava beans when very young and eat them like snap beans. Freeze or can them like snap beans, too. Or, wait until the bean seeds start to swell in the pods. Harvest and eat as is, or wait until they reach full size, but remove the outer skin that surrounds the mature seed. You also can let the mature beans dry in the pod or indoors in a dehydrator.
Beans, Green and Yellow
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After finally planting a garden, there was this vague question of what to do with the harvest. To the library we went! And well after a dozen books, this one remained. I have to admit upfront to participating in that most sinister of library practices this summer - stalking my on-line account to look for days when suddenly no requests for the book were out so I could renew it for another three weeks. I kept the book for nearly three months this way.Alas, guilt set in...okay, my stalking was failing and I did the right thing and purchased the book as I've already gotten use out of it (made my own drying rack for tomatoes!) and plan on getting use out of it for years to come. The book is laid out simply. First, a basic guide to your vegetables, fruits and herbs and their possible preserving methods. (This is where you'll learn cilantro can only be frozen or dried, but while parsley enjoys both, it can also be root-cellared.) The second section was the winner for us - an incredibly in-depth guide to each preserving process. Not only did it detail equipment, but the drawings are fantastic for someone that never watched these methods before. In addition, the safety tips, the how to fix what went-wrongs and the super-simple how-to's and preserving recipes interspersed makes this feel incredibly interactive. The final section is a list of practical and simple recipes designed to let you enjoy your preserved bounty.