You’ve done all this work and it’s time to harvest. Some plants, such as leafy greens can be harvested gradually as they mature – you don’t have to wait for a full-grown plant.
When is the best time to harvest? You maximize flavor by harvesting in the early hours of the day or when it cools in the evening. In the heat of the day, your veggies lose a lot of moisture optimal texture and flavor from evaporation.
Lettuce and other greens can be harvested throughout the summer when young or at more developed states. If family members are not keen on stronger tasting greens such as kale or mustard, try picking them when they are young and more tender. You may win a convert. With all leafy greens, be careful not to let them go past prime. Lettuce, arugula, spinach, or other varieties send out a shoot that starts to flower or “bolt”, indicating the plant is moving onto the next part of its life cycle, producing seed for next generations. At this point, the leaves of the plant will start to get bitter and tough. Through the end of July, consider reseeding lettuce, greens and other crops that have relatively few days needed to mature. This will extend your harvest into the end of September or beginning of October if the weather cooperates.
There are several ways to harvest lettuce and greens: You may choose to pull the outside leaves of the plant or cut all the growth just above the “heart” located at the center of the plant where you can see tiny new leaves forming. With both methods of harvesting, the plant will continue to produce leaves to eat. With salad seed mixes, I find it best to cut with scissors like you are mowing a lawn but take care again to leave the “heart” of each plant for continued regrowth. You will be amazed at how quickly it regrows, perhaps 3 to 4 times, even in our short season.
Potatoes and some root crops such as carrots, beets, parsnips and onions take most of our short summer to be ready. Radish and turnips mature more quickly. Check your seed packets for maturity guidelines to have reasonable expectations. Many of the root crops such as carrots, beets and radish will start to emerge and push their leafy green top upward. If they emerge but seem to be too small, keep the top of the root covered with soil so it does not crack and sunburn. The rule of thumb on potatoes is to wait until the leaves start to wilt and die before you dig them up. Onions and garlic will be ready in the fall.
Broccoli, another winner for our mountain climate is ready when the familiar head forms. As with other crops, if left too long the plant will start to produce flowers (broccoli flowers are surprisingly tasty so don’t hesitate to eat them). Harvest broccoli by cutting the head off at the stalk where it attaches to the main stem. The plant will continue to produce little side florets so enjoy them as long as the plant keeps going and doesn’t get “woody”. I have noticed many people discard the stalk which is also very delicious if cut early.
Beans and peas produce a flower and then form the familiar pod. They are most tasty when the pod is firm and no air pockets are felt when you squeeze the pod. Note that sufficient water is important as crops mature to be of optimal flavor and texture. Beans and peas also get tough if left too long. If you cannot eat them or give them away fast enough, harvest and blanch them the same day in boiling water until they turn bright green. Quickly drain and plunge them in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Dry and then freeze them.
This blanching method works for preserving many vegetables to enjoy when the season is over and will bring a little warm sunshine to a grey December day.