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The Fruits of Your Labor

February 20, 2012

If you planted a vegetable and herb garden this spring, you’re more than likely ready to start reaping the benefits of your hard work!

It’s right about now that gardeners will begin harvesting herbs and some early producing vegetables, but many are fearful that they don’t know the proper harvesting techniques in order to have their plants thrive all summer.

Let’s begin with the most common herbs:

BASIL

Typically, the best time to harvest basil (and most other herbs) is in the morning. It should be right after the morning dew sets and before the heat of the afternoon. The essential oils in that plants are at their strongest, giving more of a robust flavor to the herb. To harvest fresh, delicious basil simply pinch the leaves directly above another set of leaves. By doing this, the plant will push out new stems and leaves. Fertilize your plants once a month by watering them with a diluted fish fertilize to keep them flourishing until late fall. Oregano and most other leafy herbs can be harvested in the same manner, just before a new leaf set to encourage further growth.
PARSLEY

You can begin harvesting parsley when it is about 6″ tall and relatively full. Cut as needed, but try not to remove more than 1/3 of the leaves at a time. Harvest whole stems, from the base of the plant, to encourage more growth. Some gardeners also feel that harvesting older stems from the outside of the plant will help encourage new growth from the center.
Chives are very easy to harvest as you just cut what you need from the plant. No matter where you cut them, they will push new growth and continue to flourish until late fall.

LETTUCE

By now any lettuce that was planted is definitely worthy of picking and enjoying. The best method of cutting leaf lettuce is by starting from the outer most layer of leaves. Your lettuce plant will keep producing from the center as long as the outer leaves are removed until the plant bolts (or puts up a flower stalk). The outer leaves are usually bigger and laying down in a more horizontal position. You’ll want to grasp the base of the leaf with your thumb and forefinger close to where it connects to the plant, then pinch and twist the leaf at the same time. By using this technique you will not harm the plant or its root system. Continue to do this until the leaves that are left on the plant are about two inches long. Give your plant time to rest and produce and usually within five days you can harvest again!
GREEN BEANS & PEAS

Early selections of green beans and peas should be ready to begin harvesting three weeks after the plants blossom. You’ll want to look for the plumpest, bright green pods and use scissors to clip them from the vine. Too often anxious gardeners will pull the pods off the vine only to damage the vines which result in less bean and pea production. Harvesting daily will keep your plants producing longer. Pick them while they are young as beans and peas that are left on the vine too long will become hard and lose their flavor to a starchy taste.  Both peas and beans are best tasting when served the same day they are harvested unless you are going to freeze them.
ZUCCHINI FLOWERS

If you’re growing zucchini plants, you’re more than likely seeing the beginning of the zucchini’s energy focusing on producing its fruit. How? You’re seeing beautiful yellow flowers emerge from the base of the plant. While these flowers will eventually become zucchinis if left on the vine, you can also eat the flowers! Many gardeners enjoy harvesting and eating these delicately soft and tasty treats! They can be used in salads, sauteed or battered and deep fried for a tasty delicacy.  If you wish to pick the blossoms make sure you pick only the male blossoms as these are the ones that are borne on a narrow stalk. The female flowers have the start of a squash right under the flower where the male blossom is just on a stem. The picture shows the male blossom. If you want to obtain more zucchini than flowers, try to only pick the male blossoms.

Here’s a nice recipe for Fried Zucchini Flowers:

16 Zucchini Flowers

2 Large Eggs

1 Cup Cold Water
1 Cup All-purpose Flour
Salt & Pepper
Oil For Frying

Prepare the zucchini flowers by cutting off their stems leaving only about an inch. Gently open the flowers and remove the stamen. Heat the oil to 375 degrees F. Mix together the flour, water, and eggs with a whisk until completely blended. Once your oil has reached the correct temperature, carefully dip the flower into the batter coating it completely and let the excess drip off. Drop the flower into the oil and cook about 1 minute each side until golden brown. Place the fried flower on a paper towel lined plate and continue to cook the rest of the flowers in the same manner. Serve immediately.

Peppers
Both sweet and hot peppers can be eaten at all stages of growth however they are most flavorful when mature and ripe. Hot peppers can be picked when green, but if you really want to turn on the heat, let them mature and ripen to various colors on the vine!

Sweet Bell type peppers should be harvested when firm and full size (at least 3 1/2 to 4 inches) but still green. If left to ripen, they may also turn red, yellow, orange and purple depending on the type of pepper. The less green you see, the sweeter the taste in both sweet and hot peppers. To harvest peppers, cut the stem that connects to the branch. Remember that picking ripe peppers from your plants will keep them producing.

Eggplants

Eggplants have just started producing as they enjoy the hot summer warmth to really kick into action. Your eggplant should be shiny and firm but not hard to the touch. Picking them before they are fully grown is a good idea and will actually encourage more fruit to set. Again, cutting the fruits off the plant rather than tugging them off is best. Harvested eggplants will store in a cool spot for 1-2 weeks.  This year it seems that the number one problem on eggplants are the flea beetle. Flea beetles are favored by stable warm spring weather and hampered by alternating periods of hot and cold temperatures with intermittent rains. The best method of control are: Insecticidal soaps, garlic sprays or sticky traps.

Cucumbers

Some will harvest cucumbers to make pickles, if this is your intent than pick them when the fruits are 4 to 5″ long. If you plan to eat them fresh, you can wait until they are 7-8″ long using a sharp knife to harvest. If you wait too long, the cucumber can get seedy and will develop a bitter taste. However, most of the bitterness concentrates at the ends of the fruits, thus cutting both ends off the cucumber will help alleviate the bitter taste.  As with other vine vegetables, the longer you leave a mature fruit on the vine, the faster the main plant will quit producing.

Tomatoes

Finally! The arrival of fresh, ripening tomatoes has started! There’s absolutely nothing more delightful than picking your first ripe tomato. You just can’t beat the flavor of a home grown tomato, let alone the satisfaction of it!

Tomatoes can be picked at any time after they have started to ripen. If your anxious to pick your first tomato, you can pick it while it’s still in the ripening process and either leave on your counter or put it in a paper bag to finish the ripening cycle.  This is also a good way to finish the ripening cycle during late fall when you have green tomatoes hanging on the vines. Again, cutting the tomato off the plant will ensure that you don’t damage the main branch. Tomatoes should be somewhat firm to the touch when picking. If you let the tomato ripen too long, the skin will begin to soften and possibly rot, as well as your tomato production will slow down.

This year we’ve seen a lot “Blossom End Rot” on customers tomatoes. While it’s not a fungus, it is a disorder in the plant itself and a rather common one at that. It is a calcium deficiency in the plant and can be controlled by adding calcium to your plant. Try a product called, “Rot Stop” by Bonide which is a ready to use foliage spray. You can also control other fungus and diseases such as “wilt” on tomato plants by watering only in the morning and keeping a schedule when watering.

Zucchini & Squash

Summer varieties of squash such as green and yellow zucchini should be harvested when they are immature. If left on the vines too long their skins get tough and will form many unwanted seeds inside the fruit.  Check your plants as soon as they start blooming as the squash will grow very vast after it blooms. The philosophy with zucchini is the more you pick, the more they will produce. Harvest zucchini when they are about 6″ long and 2″ in diameter. Remove the zucchini with a sharp knife or scissor to avoid damage to the main plant. You can store your freshly harvested squash in a refrigerator unwashed. Moisture encourages decay in fresh vegetables thus avoiding washing will further extend the fruit.

How’s your vegetable garden doing? Is it starting to wind down for the season? Doesn’t it feel like yesterday that you were planting your tomato seedlings, waiting with anticipation as your herbs grew large enough for you to snip off your first sprig of parsley or basil?  It’s days like this that you wonder, ‘where did the summer go?’.  Fall is definitely here as the mornings are crisp, nights are cooler and we find ourselves not watering our vegetable gardens quite as much as we were in July and August.
Fall does not mean the end of vegetable gardening though by any means. There’s still much to be done and enjoyed!

Plant Cool Season Vegetables

Although we’ve discussed this in prior posts, it’s worthy of mentioning again. Planting cool weather crops now while the soil is warm but the air is cool is a great way to extend your fresh vegetable crops. What can you plant? Turnips, Kale, Mustard, Spinach, Carrots and Beets. If your soil is too warm, lettuce and spinach may germinate poorly so, over compensate by planting more. Unlike when you planted your mid Spring crops, remember that during Fall there is reduced light and cooler temperatures thus the mature dates and harvesting will not be as fast.

Got Potatoes?

If you planted potatoes this Spring, no doubt you’re noticing some die back on the foliage. When all the leaves have died back you’ll be ready to dig up your spuds!  Here are some tips to help you harvest:
– Dig them up on a cloudy, warm day, making sure to use a pitch fork at least one foot around the base of the plant. When you’ve found your potatoes, let them sit on the ground for a few hours before bringing them inside. This helps them heal from any cuts or scrapes that may have incurred while they’ve been dug up.

– Don’t worry about the dirt on your potatoes, this will eventually dry and fall off, you do not want to wash them as this will encourage rotting in the storage process. Store your potatoes in a cool, dark place (35-40 degrees).

I don’t know about you but I have always found digging up potato crops to be so exciting! You never know how many are going to grow and you’ll find beneath your soil!

Garlic Anyone?

You can start planting garlic now through the end of October so that by next July you’ll have plenty to harvest. Instead of planting the regular store bought garlic which can produce ‘white rot’, stop down at Rutgers and pick up a 6-pack of garlic for planting!

Herbs

There’s nothing like the taste of fresh herbs, however, in Fall the production of them definitely slows down. Before a real cold snap comes, it’s best to start thinking about harvesting all that you can now and taking them inside. Harvest the individual leaves of tarragon, rosemary, basil, etc., in the morning right after the dew has dried. This is the time when herbs are their most flavorful. Now, the decision is yours.. Do you dry or do you freeze? Some will dry herbs by tying the stems and hanging them upside down in a dry location. Then after your herbs are dried, you can store in glass jars and protect them from light and heat. The other alternative is to freeze your fresh herbs. Here’s an article we posted that explains all the benefits and tips on this fast and fresh idea!

Fried Green Tomatoes

If your tomato garden was a smash this year you no doubt have some green tomatoes hanging on the vine that are taking days to ripen. Pick – Or Not To Pick – It’s the waiting game that most gardeners face and then one night we get an unexpected frost and the decision has been made for you.
Once the night time temperatures start staying below 70 degrees, you will not get any new tomatoes forming on the buds, so, speed up the ripening process and pinch off any new flowers.

If a light frost is expected, cover your plants with a light sheet.

Sometimes, later in Fall, gardeners will get anxious and want to start cleaning up their garden beds but there are those green tomatoes. Ripening off the vine is easy!  Here are a couple tried and true methods:

– Place them in a sunny window. Using a fully mature tomato for this method is best and trying to sit them on the blossom side is best as they will rot less by doing this.

– Wrap individual green tomatoes in newspaper and layer them in a box. Stay at two layers. Put the box in a dark, dry place and check your ripening tomatoes weekly. This method usually takes 3-4 weeks.

– Tomatoes and Apples?  Yes! Believe it or not, if you place a green tomato in a paper bag with a ripe apple magic happens and the tomato ripens.. actually, it’s the gas that an apple gives off that speeds up the ripening process.

Of course, you can always eat your green tomatoes! Here’s a delicious recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes that you can try that will serve 6!

Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
5 green tomatoes, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 cup crushed saltine crackers
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup butter

Directions
1.In a small bowl, stir together the flour, salt and pepper. Place the crushed saltine crackers in another bowl, and the beaten eggs in a third bowl.

2.Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Dip each tomato slice in the egg to coat, then in the flour mixture. Dip the floured tomato slice back into the egg, and then into the cracker crumbs. Place the coated tomato slices in the hot skillet, and fry until golden brown on each side, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Add more butter to the pan, if necessary. Serve hot!

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3 Comments
  1. You say to harvest basil in the morning, but most basil I use in the evening, for dinner. How do you suggest preserving it until evening? Or does it make more sense to do as I’ve always done and just leave it on the plant until it’s time to cook?

    • lantanagurl permalink

      If you are going to use the Basil later that day, then just putting it in the fridge is fine. Wrap it loosely in plastic wrap so it retains its moisture.

  2. thanks for sharing! very informative post.. 🙂

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