Get the Most From Your Garden Harvest
Harvesting the maximum amount of produce isn't always the way to get the most out of your harvest. How much fun are 15 pound zucchinis anyway? Although some people may grow an organic garden with the goal getting the highest possible tonnage of produce from it, most of us have other goals in mind. If growing beautiful, fresh, delicious produce with a long shelf life appeals to you, then you need to pay attention to how you handle your vegetables. There are specific ways of harvesting and storing your organic garden harvest that will help it be all that it can be!
5 Ways to Help Your Vegetables Be All That They Can Be:
1. Harvest produce when it is young and tender, not old and tough.
2. Harvest produce during the cool parts of the day.
3. Handle your veggies gently: they should be seen but not heard.
4. Harvest frequently. Neither you nor your plants benefit from having mature and/or rotting produce left on the vine.
5. Store your harvest out of direct sunlight, preferably in a cool or cold place depending on the vegetable.
It Takes a Tough Gardener to Make a Tender Vegetable
In all likelihood, you'll enjoy your vegetables more if you don't let them "grow up". Small, young, vegetables usually have thinner skins and more flavor than their older, seedier, counterparts. Green beans, asparagus, eggplants, carrots, cucumbers, squash and beets are just a few examples of vegetables that usually taste better when they're small and young than when they are old and full-sized. Most grocery stores and farmer's markets sell full-sized produce but keep in mind that they are usually selling produce by the pound!
Keeping Your Cool
Once you harvest your vegetables, the sad truth is that they cannot improve in quality, they can only decline. In general, the warmer a vegetable is, the faster it will lose quality. This means that a vegetable that is harvested and stored at 80 degrees F will lose flavor, firmness and other desirable qualities faster than one harvested and stored a 60 degrees F.
Harvesting your vegetables during the coolest part of the day, the early morning, is a smart move: the veggies haven't had the sun shining on them all day, so they're already cool. This means that you won't have to use as much energy to cool your produce in order to get it ready for storage. If you can't make it out into your garden during the morning, do your harvesting in the evening. Just make sure to avoid harvesting at high noon if at all possible: the sun will bake both you and your produce.
If your newly harvested vegetables feel warm or hot to the touch, they may benefit from a rinse or brief soak in cold water in order to remove some of the "field heat" from them before storage.
Vegetables Should be Seen and Not Heard
Tomatoes going into a basket or bucket should not make the sound "splat, splat, splat". Neither should cucumbers be used as practice for your 3-point shot (resulting in a big "thunk" when they hit the ground or the bucket). Vegetables that you want to use should be handled gently and never thrown, dropped or dumped into any container or onto the kitchen counter or other surface. This is a simple tip, but one that is often disregarded. Silent produce is produce that isn't getting broken, bruised or otherwise damaged.
A Harvest A Day Keeps the Pests and Rot Away
Your plants will be most productive if you harvest frequently. Peas, green beans, cucumbers and tomatoes are but a few examples of plants that like to be picked every day. When you pick vegetables, it encourages the plant to continue flowering and producing. If you let the vegetables sit "on the vine", the plant will put a lot of energy into making vegetable seeds, not new vegetables. Overripe vegetables can attract pests (insect, disease and even rodent!) to your garden. Harvesting daily or even every other day also helps you harvest your produce while it's young.
Don't Let the Sunshine In
Now that you've (silently) harvested your young, cool, vegetables don't just set them in a bucket on your sunny front porch stairs--get them to a cool, shaded spot or to a refrigerator! Most vegetables keep best when the are stored in relatively high humidity and at temperatures between 40 and 60 degrees F. Some, like sweet corn and lettuce, prefer to be stored at even cooler temperatures (33 degrees F). Each vegetable has it's own individual ideal storage conditions (see http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-801.html if you're really interested in a particular crop's ideal storage conditions). Just bear in mind that being stored in the trunk of your car on a summer day would not be on any vegetable's wish list!
For More Information:
There's a Goosefoot in my Garden
It's Easy to Grow Great Garlic
How Does Your Garden Grow Part One: Getting to Know Your Soil
Tammy Biondi has been growing organic produce for over 10 years. Besides running Blue Horizon Farm, Tammy teaches about sustainable farming at the Central Carolina Community College. She also is a successful freelance writer, focusing on agricultural topics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.