Anybody who describes August in Northern California as a “slow month” for gardeners hasn’t had to deal with a ripening vegetable garden. Harvest time for beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants is upon us. Don’t underestimate how frequently you need to check your crops. That zucchini squash that was tiny just days ago? It has grown to peak size in just a few days. To get the most out of the crop, you need to pick that squash in its prime – now!
A good way to keep up with harvesting is to be prepared with hand pruners, a bucket or bowl, and grocery bags each time you head out to the vegetable patch; just assume that something will be ready for picking. With some types of vegetables, such as beans, summer squash and cucumbers, picking keeps production going, so the more you pick, the better the yields over the growing season. The list below describes how and when to harvest commonly grown summer crops.
Eggplant: Watch for developing fruit when you see blossoms, as fruits form rather quickly after flowering. A good rule is to remember with this crop is to harvest fruits while they are still glossy. When the surface of an eggplant loses its sheen, the flesh turns tough, bitter and seedy. This happens faster than you expect it to, so you are better off picking the fruit small than leaving it on the plant to increase in size. Use hand pruners to cut fruit off the plant and take care while handling the thorny stem ends – they are often sharp as needles.
Tomatoes: Color is your best clue that tomatoes are ready for harvest. Fruits develop their best flavor when the skin no longer shows streaks of green, but you can pick them before they have completely turned color and allow them to ripen indoors at room temperature. A ripe tomato will yield to slight thumb pressure, and will typically break away from the vine easily. Use snips if you need to harvest fruit before fully ripe. This reduces the risk of ripping the vine.
Summer squash and zucchini: Harvest squash while it is still small to get the best flavor – larger squash tend to taste watery. Use a small knife to slice the stem, leaving an inch or two of stem attached to the squash. Pick zucchini at up to six inches, patty pan or scallop squash at 2 to 3 inches in diameter, and round varieties at about 3 inches in diameter.
Pole and bush beans. Depending on the variety and type, plants will set fruit and require ongoing harvesting over a period of time. Bush beans typically ripen for a shorter period (about two weeks) and then die out, while pole beans allow for a longer harvest. To avoid damaging bean vines while harvesting, grasp the vine with one hand and pull the pod away with the other. Pick beans when they are large and firm enough to break in half with a “snap”: immature pods are flexible and bend easily. Be diligent about picking beans before they get too large, as they can get tough if the seeds within the pods are allowed to mature. If you pick beans daily or at least every other day, you can keep production going and stay ahead of the game.
Peppers: Most peppers start out green as the fruit develops, then turn in color to red, yellow, white or purple as they mature on the plant. You can harvest green peppers as soon as the skins get shiny and the fruits reach a desired size, but both sweet and hot varieties develop their best flavor when allowed to ripen fully prior to picking. Harvesting peppers while they are still green increases the likelihood that the plant will set more fruit, as the ripening process stifles ongoing fruit production. To prevent damage to the plant, use hand pruners to remove fruit rather than twisting and pulling it off.
Cucumbers: Use scissors or snips to pick slicers when they are about 7 to 10 inches long and uniform in color. Don’t allow cucumbers to get swollen and yellowed at the tips, as overmature fruit will slow down or halt production. Pickling cucumbers can be picked at about 3 inches in length, but for best results, research the recommended size for the variety you are growing. Like beans, cucumber plants should be checked frequently (at least every other day) for harvestable fruit.
It takes practice and some trial and error to develop the knack for picking vegetables at their peak. Despite best intentions, careful observation, and regular harvesting, most gardeners will occasionally miss spotting a squash until it is behemoth sized and too seedy to eat. What to do with these specimens? You can chop them up and put them in a hot compost pile or worm bin, where they’ll contribute to feeding your soil at a future date. Or you can repurpose them as objects d’ art, placing them on a mantel or dining table. They make great conversation pieces.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions abougardening, plant pests or diseases, call 400-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato