By: Donna Balzer
Donna Balzer is a Horticulturist, speaker and author based in Qualicum Beach, BC. For more tips check out her book “No Guff Vegetable Gardening” or connect with her directly at donnabalzer.com
When I met new gardener Nikki she only had one question. “When do I harvest my vegetable garden?” And sadly, this is the toughest question to answer because the truth is: it depends.
Micro-green peas are ready to harvest in a week, radish are ready in a month and lettuce needs about two months to mature into heads, but it can be harvested as baby greens after only a few weeks.
The truth the garden harvest happens as the vegetables mature or in some cases, when you need the food. Pick each bean when it is the size you want to eat and don’t wait for the whole row to be picked all at once. Pick the potato or carrot when you plan to eat it. Picking them all at once, just because they are ready, means you have a lot of food to store in your house. Let your garden store your carrots, potatoes, beets, parsnips and celeriac for you. Frost only makes the flavor improve in root crops.
Your choice of varieties and strategies for growing plants will make it easier to expand the harvest season to a year-round pantry.
I always plant Oregon Giant peas. I like them because they are open pollinated so I save my own seed from year to year. I also like how Oregon giant peas are equally good grown as micro-greens, edible pod peas or even the fat sugar-snap peas. I start them in the greenhouse the same early spring day I seed them outside. Once the outdoor peas are producing, I rip out the greenhouse plants and replace them with another crop. Meanwhile the outdoor crop stretches my harvest season by another month or more.
Oregon Giant peas are versatile but they are not shelling peas. And if you only plant them once in early spring they will dry up and die mid-summer. So, stagger your planting and your harvest, add shelling peas like Green Arrow, and be aware that most peas die in the summer heat.
Beets, Carrots and Potatoes:
At fancy restaurants Baby beets and baby carrots are served with tender steaks along with slender fingerling potatoes. The truth is the carrots, beets and potatoes are usually not special varieties.
They are simply planted early, harvested as babies (at the desirable size,) and planted again and again as the season progresses in our climate. The potatoes sold as fingerlings are usually late potatoes. French Fingerling, for instance, are a good example of a fingerling-style late potato with smooth red skin and yellow center.
French fingerling will keep making new little baby potatoes as the season unfolds but if they are harvested too late they will be plump and fat and barely resemble the sophisticated baby potatoes served at fancy restaurants.
“Baby” potatoes are simply immature spuds. The “early” potato varieties, like Warba, are picked in June or early July when they around small and round and have a thin red skin that washes off easily. If they are not picked early and the leaves stay green, they will get very large by late summer because each plant only forms about 7 potatoes and each one keeps getting bigger and bigger as the plant grows.
Warba skins toughen up once the plants die in fall. I like my Warba’s small so I harvest them early and replant the space right away with late-season fingerling potatoes.
In colder climates potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips and celeriac must be picked in fall and stored in a cold room. The “official” harvest time is “fall” but leaving them in the cold soil makes them sweeter. I ignore harvest rules in this climate and harvest winter varieties as I need them or until it gets so cold that the soil surface threatens to freeze solid.
If you don’t need prize winning carrots 2 cm across or beets 15 cm across, then plan to plant these tasty crops more than once. I start seeding carrots around March 6 because I will eat and harvest them at every size all summer and into winter. I don’t start seeding beets until early June because I prefer to eat beets in the winter and need the space for other crops earlier in the season.
No one likes a single potato that fills a whole pot or a carrot large enough to feed a family. Plan to stagger your planting and harvest small tasty root crops as you need them.
Unless you plant round-podded beans you won’t harvest round-podded beans. These are also sometimes called French Beans and they are evenly round in cross-section, and so familiar from fine dining restaurants.
You may prefer flat beans (like Scarlet runner beans) or bigger oval-shaped beans like Provider. All beans are tasty if picked small and young, even the dry bean varieties. Black Coco beans, for instance, can be eaten when young and tender but I leave them all on the pod so I can harvest them once the shell is dry and the beans are black. At this stage Coco easily stores over winter in a jar in the pantry.
Read the fine print when buying bean seed. If the packet says Mascotte French- Fillet green beans I know I will get the perfect bean on a plant only 30-45 cm tall. But I also love the hairy flat beans forming on my Scarlet runner plants. I just prepare them differently. I slice them diagonally when they are still slim and flat and then steam them and serve them with butter.
Planted later because they are sensitive to cool temperatures, cucumber comes in so many varieties from specialty greenhouse types to prickly pickling or smooth skinned miniatures like ‘Muncher’. I grow them all for their beautiful flavor profile.
Remember if you plant cucumbers in your warmest spot (inside a greenhouse or outside, on the south side of your greenhouse or garage) you will harvest earlier and keep right on harvesting until fall frosts. Get ready to eat a lot of Greek or Cucumber Salads if you plant more than one cucumber plant.
Gone are the days when you had to lock your car in July so your neighbour wouldn’t fill your car with giant summer squash (Zucchinis.) Today, pollinators are rare compared to even a decade ago so the small female zucchini flowers often shrivel and yellow as they age instead of becoming massive, stuffable, squash.
If you get good pollination or help plants by rubbing new male flowers against females as new blooms open every morning, you will get summer squash early and often. With healthy soil, full of minerals, the green fruits will be glossy and shiny. Warning: the skin is easily scratched and dented so handle young zucchini with care.
Winter squash are left in the garden until they get as big as they possibly can. Start checking by early August to make sure the female flowers with the little squash are pollinated so you have as much time to ripen fruit as possible.
If the weather is still mild and the skins are hard when pressed with your thumb nail, butternut squash are ready to store in a cool location. If winter squash, like butternut, are picked when the skins are still soft, they’ll need after-ripening or curing in a warm sunny spot before they are stored in a cool area like a garage.
Unripe winter squash will rot in storage if they are not ripened properly.
Plant flowers like cosmos, calendula, cilantro and alyssum to attract the bees and other pollinators. If your best efforts fail, prepare to pick the male flowers and touch them to the female flowers to achieve pollination. (one male flower can pollinate 5-7 female flowers.)
In the same row, lettuce will be ready at different times because that is the way home gardens work. Soil is unevenly prepared or fertilized, water is unevenly applied and sun varies in how it hits the plants in your garden. A shadier spot will be weeks later than a sunnier spot. Heads of lettuce get bitter milky sap when they are late and starting to flower. Once bitter, lettuce stems elongate and and are no longer edible.
I leave seed on lettuce plants randomly, seed a row or two in March, seed again in mid-summer and transplant from a starter bed in the greenhouse out into a shady space whenever I think of it. In other words, if I am not seeding or transplanting or picking lettuce I am not on my game. I guess I just love salads as long as possible and more lettuce means more salads.
When a thumbnail pressed into a corn kernel produces a milky liquid the corn cob is ready to harvest. Clear liquid is too early and solid white is too late. Start checking corn for ripeness when the tassles emerging from the cob start to dry.
Pull early – when the root is red and round. If you wait too long it will get woody.
Modern tomatoes come in all sizes and colors so read the label and harvest when the fruit is soft even if it isn’t red. Zebra is harvested green, golden delight is bright yellow and Cherokee purple has red fruit with purple shoulders. All will be soft when ready to pick and if you wait too long they will crack, so pick them when ready and store in a bowl on the counter instead of in the fridge.
Harvest All Year:
If you build a cold frame or purchase floating row cover you can overwinter so many plants in our climate. I love the list Linda Gilkeson posted on her web page for winter crops. Check it out here: http://www.lindagilkeson.com/pdf/Linda%20Gilkeson%20Planting%20Schedule.pdf
I particularly love overwintered cauliflowers and broccoli because they are quite hardy and can be grown in our region with a little attention to detail. Start the plants in mid-late June and transplant them out into the garden when they have five or six leaves. Cover them with floating row cover (Agribon-19 – https://www.johnnyseeds.com/tools-supplies/row-covers-and-accessories/frost-protection/agribon/agribon%2B-ag-19-10-x-50-row-cover-9065.html ) to shade them during the heat of summer and uncover once plants double in size or the days cool a bit.
If weather gets really icy – down to minus 3 or cooler – I cover them with a thicker row cover like Agribon-50 (https://www.groworganic.com/products/agribon-ag-50-83-x-50) Before I cover them, I also tuck straw in and around the cauliflower and broccoli plants. I use old straw, as long as it is still lofty, to create air space around the plants and protect them over winter.
Just a general comment about winter cauliflower. Sometimes it doesn’t grow a lot in winter and suddenly in March it starts to grow and all the heads are ready to eat at once in April. June told me she pulled her small plants out a week before I did because all her plants were still small. Be patient in the spring and you will get luscious big cauliflower heads. Watch and wait. You’ll be glad you did.
Crops like arugula, mustard greens or spinach are planted early to mid-August , green onions are seeded late August and garlic is planted in October. If you are a keen gardener, you won’t leave the harvest to a single big day in October.
Instead, you will be nibbling and enjoying leaves and heads and fruits from your garden from the earliest days of spring, unless you are Nikki. Her first crop of carrots literally disappeared one root at a time. And then she discovered her dog was carrot crazy and had been harvesting and eating them. Raised beds, floating row covers and keeping her dog inside when she was inside, helped her pick and enjoy her first dog-free carrot harvest in July.
Photo Credit: vwalakte