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The Very Best Time To Harvest Veggies

Photo by timlewisnm

Photo by timlewisnm

My husband calls my general impatience with life “flipping pancakes.” While learning to make Sunday morning flapjacks when we were first married, I would stare at the cooking batter, spatula at the ready, and flip the things at the first rising bubble.

Too soon.

Or, I would wait until most bubbles had popped, then turn the pancakes to find burnt bottoms.

Too late.

Gardens can be harder to read than pancakes. It’s difficult to harvest your bounty at the exact right moment, at peak flavor, color and overall fabulousness. Pick too soon, and you sacrifice volume; pick too late, and you’ve lost flavor.

Here the very best times to harvest your veggies.

Tomatoes: Rich, glossy color; firm skin; wonderfully aromatic. But tomatoes are tricky, because by the time the fruit is ripe for the picking, the squirrels have gotten to it first. (Argggh!) So I pick a little bit before perfect, and let them fully ripen on a sunny windowsill.

Peas: When pods are swollen, but before they wrinkle or yellow. I pick sugar snap peas when they’re young and tender, and blooms are still on the ends.

Beans: Pick them small and tender, and you’ve got an unofficial haricot vert, so yummy steamed and drizzled with a butter. Let the beans grow larger, and you’ve got a sturdy, crunchy vegetable that I put out as snacks.

Green Onions: If you grow green onions primarily for the spicy tops, harvest when stalks are about 1 foot tall, bright green and tender. Or, wait until the bulbs are about 1-2 inches. I often let my green onions go to seed, and then I have twice the harvest next year.

Potatoes: For bigger, longer-lasting potatoes, harvest when the foliage browns and wilts. If you want newer potatoes, often sweeter than more mature spuds, dig them up after plants bloom.

Asparagus: Pick when spears are about 6-8 inches long. In northern Virginia, I have about a three-day window to harvest my spears before they bolt and leaf out into lovely, feathery plants, a great garden accent.

Carrots: Harvest when carrots are brightly colored, firm, and about ½-inch in diameter. Although it’s fun to pluck a long carrot from the ground, younger, shorter carrots are sweeter.

Celery: Pick when stalks are green, glossy and about 8 inches long. Leaves should be bright green. I always cut the stalks and bury the crown, for a never-ending celery crop.

Chives: Cut from the plant when the stalks are bright green and still soft. By the time the plant puts out its lovely, purple blooms, it’s usually too late to harvest, because the soft stalks have become more like sticks.

Cucumbers: Size doesn’t matter as much as color and firmness. Harvest when skin is dark green, and the fruit is firm. Smaller cukes are sweeter and have softer, more delectable seeds.

By Lisa Kaplan Gordon