Tips From the Potting Bench

Happy Lammas everyone! We are at another turning point in the seasonal cycle of life, half way from the Summer Solstice and half way to the Autumn Equinox. It’s a time for rejoicing and giving thanks for the first harvests of the season as well as a time for farewells and regrets. The surging energy of spring as the day light grew leading up to the summer solstice is giving way to softer energies and the diminishing light of harvesting and preserving for the winter dark to come.

It’s a great time to sit down and take stock of the garden, ask yourself what went well and what didn’t? What didn’t you get around to doing? What would you do more or less of next cycle around? This would be the perfect time to start that garden journal you have been meaning to keep. Go on out and splurge on a nice new journal and a fancy writing pen and head out to the garden with a cup a tea, a good beer or cocktail and sit a spell.

Traditionally this festival was observed from sunset on August 1st to sunset on August 2nd. Bonfires and a feast are on order. The first loaves of bread from the first grain harvest would be ceremonially baked and eaten. After the festivities and a bit of a break, it was right back to the business of harvesting and putting things up for winter.

So let’s talk about harvesting. Knowing when to harvest can be tricky and let’s face it after you have babied something all summer long it is a big fat drag to harvest it at the wrong time. Especially if it’s a prized melon and you only got two or three to set fruit!

Generally speaking you want to harvest leaves, stems and most roots when they are young and tender. Harvest fruit and seed bearing crops like tomatoes when they are fully ripe. The best time to harvest to maintain flavor and freshness is early morning just after the dew has dried. Then you want to cool them down as quickly as possible.

Here’s why. Veggies breath, they go through the process of respiration just like everything else that is alive…I made a typo right then and wrote alove…I think it’s the same thing! Anyhow, the process of respiration converts starches and sugars into carbon dioxide, water and other things and this process continues even after harvest. Sugar and starches are the main things that make them taste so good so you want to limit respiration to preserve the flavor. The other thing that happens when you harvest your veggies is that the respiration changes from aerobic to anaerobic. No roots means no fresh oxygen being taken in. The products of anaerobic respiration are very different. Anaerobic respiration produces ketones, aldehydes and alcohols all of which quicken the death of plant tissue and affect quality and flavor negatively. I sure wish they had taught biology and chemistry this way, I may have been a better student and I wish I had a better understanding of it now. I guess it’s never too late to learn…that’s what I love about gardening!

Here’s a quickie list of some veggies:

Green Beans-usually beans are ready to be picked two to three weeks after the first flowers appear. You want the pods to be fully developed but the bean inside the pod to still be undeveloped. Once the bean inside starts to plump out the pods get stringy and tough. Green beans will keep producing as long as they are kept picked. A good rule of thumb is to pick every other day.

Beets-Young and tender are best, once the shoulders measure 1.5 to 2 inches it’s time to pull them.

Broccoli-What we eat is an immature flower head, each of those tiny buds will open into a four petaled yellow flower. Harvest right when the heads are full and firm and the buds are still tightly closed.

Cabbage-Cabbage heads will firm up when they are ready. If left too long they will split open. A trick for keeping them in the field a bit longer, because let’s face it how many cabbages can you eat all at once, is to gently pull on the stem bending it to one side breaking some, not all, of the roots so it can’t take up too much water and so split.

Carrots-When the shoulders measure ¾ to 1 inch in diameter, though carrots will continue to accumulate sugar for up to 4 months. My fall carrots get left in the ground over winter and we harvest as we use them.

Cauliflower-harvest when heads are fully formed and curds are creamy white and smooth.

Corn-you knows what they say, “put the pot on to boil then go out and pick the corn.” Corn can be tricky. Roughly three weeks after the silks have emerged they are ready. Gently pull back the husk to see if the kernels at the tip of the cob are filled out, and then take your thumbnail and pierce one of the kernels, if the juice is opaque and milky it is ready.

Cukes-another one of the veggies that do best if picked frequently. One growing cuke can take up to 40% of the plants photosynthetic output so keeping them picked means more cukes can be produced before the plant gets spent. Slicing cukes are best when picked between six and nine inches long.

Eggplant-harvest when fruits are plump and shiny purple/black

Summer squash- young and tender! Your fingernail should easily pierce the skin. Zucchini should be four-eight inches for best flavor. Yellow Crooknecks from four-six inches and patty pans around three-five inches.

Winter squash-harvest when fully mature and your fingernail cannot puncture the rind. The rinds should be firm and glossy. It’s best to leave part of the stem on; this will help it keep longer.

Last but definitely not least, let’s talk about melons! My favorite summer treat! Only homegrown will do, maybe from the farmer’s market, never from the store. I’m a melon connoisseur, ok, ok; I’m a melon snob! Seriously though, I have noticed over the years that store bought melons have gotten worse and worse, being bred for thick skin and shipping ability is not my idea of a good melon. Give me a good old-fashioned open pollinated variety, if that means I have to wait then I’ll wait. But…they better be ripe!

Here’s what to look for in watermelon- the best indication is the color of the belly, the part that touches the ground. While it is growing it will be greenish white, once it begins to ripen the color will change to cream or buttery yellow. The second thing to look for is the small curly tendril where the stem meets the melon. Once the tendril is dry and brown your melon is ready.

Muskmelons-these are a bit easier to tell, when ripe the stem will separate easily from the fruit. Gently take the melon in question in your hands and lightly pull, if it gives you are good to go, if not come back and try again tomorrow.

I hope you are all enjoying first fruits. Give thanks!

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