Gardening Tips: July 25, 2012

When is it ripe?

The hot, dry weather is continuing as we enter the middle of July. The current drought is now getting very serious, not only here, but all across the country. Next week I will talk about how to conserve water in your gardens. This weekend is the Greene County Youth Fair and I will be judging vegetables once again as I have been doing for the past 35 years. I will be looking to see if the vegetables have been harvested at their peak of ripeness for both nutrition and flavor. For those of us accustomed to buying produce as opposed to growing it, we may not know exactly when that is. Some supermarket produce, such as tomatoes, which have been brought here from elsewhere, are harvested prematurely and then sprayed with Ethylene gas to make them turn red. This is one reason why supermarket produce often does not taste nearly as good as homegrown. The following harvest guidelines may help you get the fullest flavor from your vegetable garden.

Broccoli should be harvested as soon as the head is five inches wide or bigger while the buds are still dark green and tight, before they begin to separate or show any yellow color. When the yellow flowers appear the taste becomes bitter. Broccolirab, on the other hand, is harvested when a few of the yellow flowers have already opened.

Carrots should not be harvested too early. The flavor develops when they are mature and deep orange in color. Most “baby” carrots you see for sale are special varieties that mature while still small. If you harvest carrots when they are tiny they will be tasteless. Carrots keep very well in the soil and may be harvested very late into the fall.

Brussels sprouts develop their best favor after being subjected to frost in October or November. I certainly would not expect to see any Brussels sprouts on display at the Youth Fair! Cantaloupe or muskmelon should be picked when the fruit slips easily from the vine with little pressure. If the vine must be broken to harvest, it is unripe. As difficult as they are to grow, there are few fruit as delicious as a fully ripe muskmelon.

Watermelon is perhaps the most difficult fruit to determine ripeness. Examine the light colored spot on the bottom of the fruit where it touches the ground. When that spot changes from white to a light yellow and the fruit has a dull flat sound when thumped with your knuckles, it is ripe.
Summer squash (zucchini, yellow, Patty pan or crookneck) can be harvested at almost any size as long as the skin is still soft enough to easily pierce with your thumbnail. Best quality is when the fruit is six- to 10-inches long.

Potatoes are harvested when the tops have died down, usually in September but they may be harvested earlier for “new” potatoes although they will be much smaller. Bell peppers may be harvested as soon as they are are big enough to eat but they get sweeter as they mature. Most bell peppers will ripen from green to red if left on the plant long enough. Cut off peppers with a knife, do not try to pull them off the plant.

Onions are harvested when the tops begin to fall over or anytime before then for scallions. Garlic is harvested when the tops begin to die back also, usually in late July. Harvest before the bulbs split or they will not store well.
Eggplant should be harvested when the fruit is still glossy or shiny as soon as they are large enough to eat.

Sweet corn is harvested as soon as the silks have dried and begin to turn brown (about two weeks after the silk emerges) when the kernels are plump. If you pierce a kernel with your fingernail it should squirt a thin, milky, white juice. If the juice is clear, the corn is not yet ripe. If the juice is thick and milky, it is over ripe. Older varieties of sweet corn begin to lose their sweetness immediately after harvest but modern “super sweet” varieties will stay sweet for up to two weeks after harvest.

Lettuce needs to be harvested before it begins to bolt (send up a flower stalk) or it will taste bitter. The same is true for spinach and most other salad greens. By now most early greens and lettuce have already bolted or have become bitter tasting from the hot weather. They may be replanted now for a late summer or fall crop. Lettuce seed does not germinate well in warm soil but one way to get the seeds to sprout is to cover the seed in a row with a two by four or two by six board. The board will keep the soil cooler beneath and the seed should come up in a week or so. Just check on it every few days and remove the board once the seed has sprouted.