The biggest benefit of vegetable gardening is knowing that you have the freshest produce entering your home. But sometimes we grow something that we are only familiar with from the produce section and we are left wondering, when we are suppose to harvest our vegetable gardens? We have all been new to a vegetable at one point or another. Below are some tips on how to harvest eight popular vegetables that are likely growing in your own garden.
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Picking garden peas can be fun, but it is tricky and does require some trial and error. Pick your peas right before you want to cook them to get the freshest taste and bite. Pick a few to learn when the right stage is. You're looking for pods that have signs of the pea seeds beginning to swell inside. The peas should be round but still tender and have a lot of give.
With snow peas and sugar snaps, you're looking for seeds that have developed, but before they become rounded. The seeds inside the pods should still be on the flatter side. Aim for a crisp and crunchy pod.
Check these daily because they jump from "just right" and tender to tough very quickly. Pick snap beans before you can see the bean seeds bulging and while they snap into two easily.
Photo via Meredith Skyer
Hot weather makes lettuce go to flower, which makes the leaves taste bitter. Leaf lettuce should be cut with scissors when the leaves are about 5 inches long. Be careful not to cut smaller leaves so you can get at least a second harvest from a plant. When the smaller leaves mature, cut them and harvest them too.
Open up your seed catalog and look up how long it takes your cucumbers to mature, and how long they are suppose to grow. Technically, you can harvest (don't pull them off the vine, cut with sharp knife) cucumbers at any stage of development. Smaller cucumbers are tender and great for snacking and pickling, but if you leave them too long they will get tough and fill with seeds.
Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr user Photo Farmer
There is such a wide variety of different types of tomatoes to grow that it is almost impossible to give you one-size-fits-all advice on when to harvest tomatoes. Some tomatoes are red when they are ripe, but still others can be orange, yellow, striped, green and even "black" tomatoes nowadays. So you can't rely on color alone. How are you suppose to know when to harvest? Remember that tomatoes can be separated into two categories: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes ripen around the same time. While indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and ripen until the plant is killed by frost. If you pick tomatoes too soon, you can set them somewhere like a windowsill to continue to ripen a bit.
There's a white spot on the underside of the melon where it has been in contact with the ground. Before melons are ripe this spot is a greenish white color. When the melon is ripe it turns a deep yellow color. Thumping and listening for the hollow sound trick only applies to the large old-fashioned watermelons. Smaller varieties need to be cut open and checked for ripeness.
As with tomatoes, there is a lot of variety with peppers. Depending on the variety, they can change color to red, yellow, brown or orange when left too long on the plant. But peppers are ready to be eaten when they are reached mature size and are still green. Hot pepper varieties, on the other hand, will continue to get hotter the long the pepper is allowed to ripen on the plant.
Photo via Teresa O'Connor
Anything that does not fall under the fruit and vegetable category could be placed under the herbs section as far as when to harvest. Herbs and leafy greens should be harvested before they have gone to flower. Once they have gone to the blooming stage, the flavors of the leafs and stems start to change and become bitter.
If you want to extend the life of your herbs, harvest, pinch and take cuttings before the blooms arrive. You can also trim any buds or flowers off as they develop unless you are saving seeds.
Knowing when to harvest vegetables will require some trial and error.
Even if you have extensive experience produce shopping, do not feel bad if you are not a pro at knowing when the vegetables in your garden are ripe and ready to be picked right away. Many times the vegetables in the produce section of your grocer have been picked before they were ripe in order to make it to your kitchen before they start to turn. So you may find that your homegrown vegetables are more pungent or flavorful than you are accustomed to.
And if in your education on how to harvest vegetables you happen to pick things before or after they are perfectly ripe, that is okay. We all have to start somewhere and better to learn with homegrown vegetables than with produce you paid for. You can always compost or feed your worm compost bin any vegetables that are too ripe to eat.