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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Beginner’s Guide To Gardening: It’s Harvest Time!

Yes, I realize we're still in the middle of growing season, but you want to be prepared for the day when it's time to harvest!

cabbage head surrounded by leaves

Photo: Dianne Venetta

Veggies like cabbage, broccoli, and squash are easy to harvest. You simply pick them when they look ready!

While your expert garden friends may be planning harvest parties, you aren’t sure when harvest time actually occurs, exactly. Of course you know it’s that glorious time when you get to reap your bounty, but how do you know when your bounty’s ready? After all, some of this stuff grows underground.

Excellent question.

Without experience, there’s no way to know when to gather those onions and garlic you’ve been salivating over since fall, or the potatoes you planted this spring. Even corn. Harvesting can be tricky.

Know The Signs

For each vegetable you grow there is a prime time to pick.

Two Garlic Patches

Photo: Dianne Venetta

The garlic patch on the left is beautifully green but not ready to harvest. When the tips turn yellow and droop (right), that's when you know you can start picking.

Let’s begin with garlic and onions. Both require months and months to reach full maturity, and both have slender green points for leaves. Ultimately, these tops yellow and fall over – but don’t worry, they’re not dead, they’re mature! Like some people, these veggies grow more flavorful with time.

  1. Pull them gently from the ground and lay them out on a screen in the sun to “cure.”
  2. Give them a week (up to two for garlic), unless the days are extremely hot and then you’ll want to lay them in light shade to prevent sunburn.
  3. When their exteriors are papery and the garlic necks are tight, they are ready to store in a cool dry place.
  4. I like to twine those long stems (now brown) together and hang them in a dark corner of the kitchen or pantry for a more decorative storage.

Potatoes are similar in that you’ll know when they’re ready because their tops will die back.

  1. When they do, gently dig them up, also known as “swimming for potatoes,” lightly brush the dirt from their skin
  2. Cure in the potatoes in humid conditions (55°F) for about two weeks.
  3. Then store long term in a root cellar (40°F).
  4. If stored near light (or apples), your potatoes will be on the fast track to sprouting – no longer good to eat!

Carrots can be harvested when you spot their orange bodies poking through the soil’s surface and it’s obvious they’re of good size and ready to devour. For storing, cut greens to within an inch of carrot and lay them in a box/bucket of damp sand or sawdust (preferably in root cellar) and they’ll keep for weeks. Don’t have a root cellar? Me neither. You can also store them in cold water in your refrigerator.

Broccoli Flowers

Photo: OldOnliner (flickr)

These broccoli plants have bolted, or grown flowers. The flowers are edible and especially tasty in salads.

Vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and squash are easier feats of harvest. You simply harvest them when they look ready. If your broccoli blooms with pretty yellow flowers, toss them into your salad!

Tomatoes can be picked at the first sign of red, then set by a sunny window to fully ripen. Why not allow them to ripen on the vine? Pests could attack, or perhaps an impending freeze might speed up your harvest date. Either way, it’s good to have options. The same with green peppers. For a sweeter version, leave them on until they turn red. Hungarian Wax? Yellow or red are good.

Corn is a bit trickier.

  1. As the first silk appears, count your days. It will take somewhere between 12-18 days for your silk to brown.
  2. When it’s still slightly green near the husk with brownish ends, twist that cob free and call the neighbors – it’s picnic time!
  3. Some say to pick corn in the morning and refrigerate until supper time but others disagree. I say pick right before you plan to eat, because once pulled from the stalk, the sugar in corn begins turning to starch.

Okra gets a bad rap for being slimy, but if you pick them young (1-2 inches) and consume fresh, there’s no slime in sight.

Then there’s everybody’s favorite: lettuce. Salads are delicious, but keeping lettuce fresh long enough to enjoy more than once is tough – until you know the secret!

  1. Wash and rinse your leaves, pat dry, then roll them in a damp paper towel.
  2. Place inside a sealed bag and store in the refrigerator. You will be amazed at how long your greens stay crisp and tasty!

Purple Striped Shelling Beans

Photo: timsackton (flickr)

Shelling beans turn colors when they are mature.

One of my favorite vegetables to harvest is the shelling beans (think kidneys and black beans. Old-fashioned green beans are easy – you simply harvest when their pods are plump. Where’s the challenge in that? Shelling beans on the other hand turn colors as they mature. When green turns tan, you know you’ve got some beauties inside. In the case of Black Turtle black beans, they turn a deep eggplant in color – gorgeous.

If color tickles your fancy, scour catalogs because these days, variety is the spice of life (for your garden palette, that is). But don’t dare eat them fresh from the bush. While beautiful, they are no good for the belly. Raw beans contain lectin phytohaemagglutinin, a toxic compound, most concentrated in the kidney bean. Soak them first then eat to your heart’s content!

More: Now that you’ve harvested some lovely veggies, how do you feed your soil to keep it healthy and balanced? We’ll tackle that topic next week!

Dianne Venetta

Dianne is an author, entrepreneur, and mother. She writes the blog BloominThyme and volunteers as garden coordinator for her children's school garden. At the end of the day, if she can inspire someone to stop and smell the roses (or rosemary), kiss their child and husband goodnight, be kind to a neighbor and Mother Earth, then she's done all right.

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