Classes Nine and Ten – Harvesting and Wrap-Up

August 19, 2014

Author: Ian Whittington

Category: General News Stories from the Garden

One of my harvest, including a few gifts from neighbors.

One of my harvests, including a few gifts from neighbors.

Harvesting.

This is why most of us probably took this class. Sure we wanted to learn all the ins and outs of gardening, but let’s be honest. No one signed up looking forward to all the weeds they were going to get to pull; they signed up for the plump tomatoes and spicy peppers.

Now that the fall season is approaching our plants are really starting to produce. My bean plants are especially fruitful, to the point where I’m giving some away because I know we won’t eat them fast enough at home.

Bean pods hanging off my bean tower.

Bean pods hanging off my bean tower.

What have we, and by we I mean my mom, done with my harvest so far? The beans were put to good use in pancit, a Filipino noodle dish with a mix of veggies and meat. The tomatoes have been cut up into salads, and a bunch of basil was blended into a pesto.

But even though my mom has been the one to use my produce the most I still have ideas about what I’d like to do with them as well. What I’m really looking forward to is trying to make tzatziki sauce out of my cucumbers. I love Mediterranean food, and nothing would make me happier than dipping pita wrapped lamb into some homemade tzatziki.

I’ll have to hurry though if I’m going to do this with my own cucumbers. While they’ve lasted longer than my classmate’s cucumbers they’ve also started showing possible signs of bacterial wilt. Some people have told me that it might just be that they’re ending their life cycles. Regardless its looking like my last cucumber harvest may indeed have been my last.

The first signs of potential bacterial wilt on my cucumbers.

The first signs of potential bacterial wilt on my cucumbers.

Whatever happens with them though I’ll still have plenty to harvest for the next few months. Besides my exploding beans I’m still getting tomatoes, basil, and lots of peppers. And just this week I got my first leek.

My first leek pulled out of the ground and taken home.

My first leek pulled out of the ground and taken home.

But am I harvesting everything right? Between this class and my apprenticeship with Love and Carrots I think I’m starting to get a good understanding of when and how I should harvest. For instance, I know that tomatoes can be picked as soon as they start to turn red and will continue ripening off the vine. I also know that okra pods are best cut off when they’re 2 to 4 inches long because beyond that range they get to be too tough. One thing that’s really been drilled into my mind is to harvest beans every 2 to 3 days to keep them producing. This last tidbit harkens to a larger rule, which is harvest fruit as often as possible.

Unripe tomatoes hanging on the vine. If pulled wrapping them in newspaper will help them ripen faster.

Unripe tomatoes hanging on the vine. If pulled wrapping them in newspaper will help them ripen faster.

Now if you’ve been paying attention to all my posts you may be wondering why I’m talking about harvesting fruit when all I’ve grown are vegetables. Have I been hiding some secret strawberry patch tucked away in some Photoshop hidden corner?

I wish.

No, when I say fruit I’m talking about it in the botanical sense, meaning the part of the plant that contains seeds. Really a lot of what we think of as vegetables are actually fruit.

Okra, pumpkins, and yes, even tomatoes are botanically fruit.

After bees and other insects help fertilizer this okra flower, it will produce the pod with seeds we'd recognize as okra.

After bees and other insects help fertilizer this okra flower, it will produce the pod with seeds we’d recognize as okra.

But why does this matter? Well, realizing that you’re harvesting the seed producing part of the plant when you pick a fruit helps in understanding why harvesting frequently is paramount. When a plant produces a fruit it’s fulfilling a vital part of its life cycle: reproduction. Once this is done it has no reason to keep producing the fruit that we want. Not all but a lot of plants will keep producing as long as you keep harvesting. By taking off the fruit you’re sending a signal to the plant that it still needs to make seed. Again, beans are a great example of this.

Okay. So we know we need to harvest frequently. Great. Now how do you know if your fruit is ready to be picked in the first place? One tip Joe suggested is the grocery store test: if it looks like it does in the grocery store its ready. That, however, isn’t full proof. For one thing, if you’re growing something that isn’t typically in a grocery store that doesn’t help you much, now does it? And let’s not forget that people are picky, something of which grocery stores are conscious of when they decide to put out produce. Just because a fruit’s weird looking doesn’t mean its not good to eat.

Although the grocery store test isn't the only way to see if fruit is ready to harvest, this cucumber passed with high marks.

Although the grocery store test isn’t the only way to see if fruit is ready to harvest, this cucumber passed with high marks.

So then what is a full proof way to know when you should harvest your plant’s fruit? One word: Knowledge.

Knowledge is important because, well, you need to know how whatever it is you want to harvest is supposed to look like when its fully ripened. There’s no overarching rule for everything in existence. Remember all the confusion with the Baltimore fish peppers a few classes ago? That was only a problem because we didn’t have the proper knowledge about that particular plant. Once I did a little research I realized there wasn’t really a problem at all.

Since they ended up producing a lot, clearly my Baltimore fish peppers were never diseased.

Since they ended up producing a lot, clearly my Baltimore fish peppers were never diseased.

Knowledge about a specific plant in question is also important so you know when and if your plant is over ripe. Take cucumbers. Generally speaking once a cucumber turns yellow it’s bitter and no longer good to eat. But some varieties of cucumber, such as the Salt and Pepper cucumber, are actually supposed to be yellow. Again, a little knowledge goes a long way.

Now that we’ve got a hang of when to harvest, how much is too much? That really depends on what part of the plant you’re harvesting. Fruit doesn’t serve a vital function in terms of a plant sustaining itself. Pick all the fruit hanging and the plant will do just fine. But when it comes to harvesting foliage and roots, that’s a different story.

Plants we harvest for their foliage are leafy plants like kale, spinach and lettuce. Foliage is basically a plant’s leaves, so in harvesting foliage we’re taking away the parts of the plant that carries out photosynthesis. Obviously if we want our plants to live we want them to keep conducting photosynthesis. Therefore, we don’t want to take too many leaves away. Generally the rule is don’t take more than one third of the plant.

When harvesting foliage, cut where the leaf branch meets the stem.

When harvesting foliage, cut where the leaf branch meets the stem.

Will you kill the plant if you take off more? I don’t personally think so. But it is a good guideline to keep in mind in order to keep yourself from getting too harvest crazy. One tip: go for the big leaves towards the bottom. You’d be surprised by how much one big kale leaf really is when you break it up into a salad. I’d pick the leaves towards the bottom because, well, they’re older and going to die sooner. We didn’t plant these crops to let them go to waste.

Wasting as little as possible is why you want to be careful about harvesting root crops. Root crops are plants we harvest for the root, such as potatoes, radishes, and carrots. Whereas we harvest parts of the plant when we go for the fruit or foliage, when we harvest root crops we have to pull out the whole thing. This means once you decide to harvest a root crop you’re committing to it.

One way to know if a root crop is ready to harvest is to see if the top of the root is sticking out. When I volunteered with Common Good City Farm, seeing radish tops popping up let me know that they were ready. It wasn’t an absolute rule because sometimes the tops were still too small, but it was definitely a good visual to utilize.

The tops of my red onions are starting to stick out, indicating that they're getting close to being ready for harvest.

The tops of my red onions are starting to stick out, indicating that they’re getting close to being ready for harvest.

But this method won’t work for all root crops. Sweet potatoes, for instance, are deep underground and have to be dug out when harvested. In this circumstance I could use the leaves to know when its time to dig. Once half the leaves turn yellow I’ll know its time, unless of course Mother Nature forces me to act early. Really wet roots crops can rot, so persistent rain and soggy soil could be reasons to harvest before you planned.

My sweet potato vines are still green and spreading out. Hopefully the sweet potatoes don't start to rot before the leaves turn.

My sweet potato vines are still green and spreading out. Hopefully the sweet potatoes don’t start to rot before the leaves turn.

It shouldn’t be too long until its time for me to harvest my own sweet potatoes. But once I do what will I do with that space? Quite honestly I don’t know yet. But what I do know is that I will indeed be able to plant something there.

My plot, producing loads of veggies at the end of the class.

My plot, producing loads of veggies at the end of the class.

As of August 2nd the summer session of NFI’s Adult Garden Education class is over. It’s hard to believe that it’s been three months since I dug into my plot and made my beds. They’ve come a long way, and I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I’ll be able to accomplish even more this fall when I continue with the fall session of the program. I’m already thinking about what I want to plant, with peas, carrots, and spinach being at the top of my list.

There’s one thing I’m not sure of though. Is it even the right time of year to plant these? I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.

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