August is traditionally the time of year when garden prep is over and harvesting season begins. Knowing when and how to harvest will make both the garden and gardeners more productive and satisfying.
This time of year could be considered the Super Bowl for vegetable gardens. In New England, this means tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are ripening. Enjoy these early days before the yields become overwhelming. As opposed to the rest of the country that has been suffering record droughts and heat, the Boston area has made out pretty well this year for produce. It has been a little warmer than average and a little drier but manageable and ideal for growing all sorts of warm weather veggies.
Harvest time is complicated. Some fruits can get away from the home gardener who blinks for just a day or two. Zucchini is always too plentiful, and, if grown too large, can be tasteless. For the most enjoyment, pick it small, each or every other day, when fruit is about 8 inches long. It will have the ideal texture and flavor at this size. Anything larger and they get rationed into bread and stuffing territory. Use a clean and sharp knife to remove squash from the plant, being careful not to damage leaves or flowers. Each broken leaf on a squash plant is another opening for disease.
Eggplant is ready very early this year. Watch that it doesn’t get too big or that the outside color doesn’t lose its glossy sheen and turn dull. This will mean the fruit is too mature and the amount of seeds may be unsatisfactory. But for general size guideline, pick eggplant very young, up to football size. Use hand clippers to remove the vegetable and take care as eggplant comes equipped with mean thorns on its stem to protect it from scavengers.
Green peppers are immature peppers that have been picked prior to ripening. This explains why a green pepper doesn’t have the sweetness of one that has fully ripened to red, yellow or orange. Patient gardeners often like to wait and see what a few of those green blocky fruits start to turn into. Like tomatoes, peppers will continue to ripen once off the plant. Once a pepper has begun to turn color, it will continue to ripen if kept in a cool, enclosed location, like a brown paper bag. A simple twist should remove the pepper and stem from the base stalk. Leaving the stem on the pepper fruit will keep it fresh longer.
Tomatoes, of course, are one of the tastiest and most common home garden vegetables. The reward is instant and the uses innumerable. A tomato that ripens on the vine will be one of the sweetest and vibrant fruits in the home garden patch. However, that secret is also known by many of the neighborhood pests. So if garden tomatoes are providing more delicious dinners for the squirrels and not the dining table, consider picking them early.
A tomato that is at least 50 percent red will ripen easily in a few days. Pick tomatoes and store them out of the sun in a cool room temperature, but not a cold location. Keeping them in a brown bag or box will speed the process as tomatoes give off a gas called ethylene as they ripen, and the presence of this gas speeds the process up the higher its concentration is. A "past its prime" apple mixed in will also work as it gives off the same gas.
Tomatoes are simple to pick; most will pop or twist off easily depending on their ripeness. Some larger tomatoes, such as Brandywine or other heirlooms, may require a knife or clippers to remove them as their shape and size are not conducive for twisting among the thick branches of the plant. Once picked, leave a stem on a tomato if you will be using it soon, but if several are picked at once, twist the stem off so that once it dries it becomes stiff.
Follow these tips and pick the garden like a harvesting professional.
Information for this column was contributed by , 292 Forest St., Needham, 781-444-2351, www.volantefarms.wordpress.com.