Urban Gardening 301: it's harvesting time!
It’s finally time to reap the fruits (and vegetables!) of your gardening labour. But while some plants make it clear when they’re ready for harvest (think juicy tomatoes), others are a bit tricky. How do you know when your beets are all grown up? Are those carrots still in puberty? How gargantuan are those zucchini going to get (the answer: BIG!). Plus, there are some harvesting tricks you’ll need to know, like how to pick those basil and lettuce leaves so the plants keep growing.
Here are some tips to make your harvest that much sweeter. Too advanced for you? Head back to gardening 101 and get started with your dream garden.
How to harvest herbs
Every time you need a few snips of basil, coriander, tarragon or thyme, cut no more than 1/3 of the stem’s length. Use scissors to cut down to where you see a new bloom forming so that baby bloom can blossom after you’ve removed the larger leaf and/or stem.
Note: Basil flowers are how the plant spreads its seeds (kind of like a parachute when the plane’s going down), so remove the flowers if you don’t want the plant to think it’s dying by cutting down to where you see new leaves starting to grow lower down the stem.
Pull the bigger, outer leaves of lettuce and kale and let the smaller leaves grow. You can also cut the top 2/3 of the plant with scissors and the bottom 1/3 will keep growing. Here’s a video in case you’re scared.
If you planted lettuce seeds too close together, just pull up the smallest, most struggling plants to give the other lettuce plants more room to grow. You can either transplant them or eat them as baby lettuces. Don’t feel bad.
Harvest peppers once they turn the colour you want. Red peppers start out green, then turn yellow and orange before making it to red. You can eat them at any stage, but not all peppers should turn red (e.g. yellow or orange Peruvian ají Amarillo), and should be picked when they’re the appropriate colour (whatever was on the bag of seeds, or whatever pops up in a Google search).
Horseradish should be harvested in the fall. It’s a perennial (lives through the winter and comes back next year), but if you don’t want it to take over your whole garden, you should dig up the whole plant and then only re-plant the roots you want to grow next year.
Harvest broccoli while the heads are firm. Don’t wait for them to flower (same story as the basil above about the plant thinking it’s dying and going into survival mode). When you cut a head of broccoli off the plant, cut at least six inches of the stem – basically, cut the head to the size of a head you’d buy at the grocery store.
Cauliflower is similar to broccoli in terms of when to harvest, but make sure you leave some of the outer leaves to protect the head and help it last longer. Mealworms like your cauliflower, too, so soak the head in salt water for 20-30 minutes to get them out before making your raw cauliflower tabbouleh or rice or digging a floret into a bowl of hummus.
It’s pretty easy to know when fruit is ready to eat. Looks good? Eat it! But the trick is to harvest ripe fruit right away so that no marauding groundhogs, skunks, chipmunks or other hungry visitors grab them before you do. One extra day of waiting and some dastardly squirrel could take a single bite out of each of your juicy heirloom tomatoes and toss the rest on the ground. A very sad morning…
Fresh tomatoes and husky tomatillos will last more than a week on the counter while ground cherries, strawberries, currants and even blueberries will last a week or more in the fridge. Any softer cherry tomatoes should be eaten right away. Raspberries and other delicate fruit should also be eaten right away or frozen. (Yes, tomatoes are fruit – anything with seeds are fruit). Speaking of which, zucchini are also fruit. To harvest, slice your zucchini at the stem once they reach your preferred size. They can get a little woody if you let them grow too much, but don’t pick them too small or you’ll miss out on a lot of zucchini goodness.
Don’t throw away those pea vines
Once all your peas and beans are eaten (and you’ve let a couple dry out on the vine to use as seeds next year), pull up all the vines, hack them into mulch and mix them into your soil. They’re nitrogen fixers, which means that while most plants remove nutrients from the soil, the beneficial bacteria of peas and beans and the legume family can actually make your soil healthier after a harvest.
What’s the most important part of harvesting? Planting more vegetables (in healthy organic soil, of course)! If you harvest peas and pull up the vines in July, you’ll still have time to grow a second crop of radishes, chicory, kale, lettuce or herbs from seed before the frost comes (lucky you if you live in a frost-free zone where your planting options are much larger!). Here’s a video of five fast-growing veggies to try.
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