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Marin IJ Articles

Know when to harvest your garden’s bounty

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • Harvest time of summer fruits and veggies is starting to peak, but when is the best time for picking what we are growing throughout the year? Knowing the tips for harvesting your bounty enhances your enjoyment of all the effort you put into your garden.

    Each fruit and vegetable has an ideal window of opportunity for harvesting the best quality food. For some produce the harvest window is long. Others can go from sweet and tender to tough, starchy, pithy, mushy or bitter virtually overnight.

    Most seed packets and nursery plant stakes tell us the days for maturity of our veggies. But counting the days cannot be relied upon since growth is determined by several factors, including available water, the weather and the quality of the soil, all of which can vary year to year or even day to day. Fruit trees have their usual season but that, too, can be affected by the same variables.

    Generally, it is best to pick your veggies early in the day before the plants are heat-stressed. Overnight veggies can regain moisture they lost during the day and the starches formed in the day may be converted to sugars in the cool evening. This is especially important when harvesting leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale or chard to better assure crispness. Look at the crop to see the clues each variety gives you that it is time to harvest. Check your garden often to catch crops at their peak ripeness.

    Most vegetables taste best when they have been allowed to ripen on the plant. Some, such as squash, cucumbers, sweet corn, peas and beans, achieve peak quality before the vegetable is fully mature. Occasionally gardeners fall into the bigger-is-better trap and let the crops stay on the plant too long. Anyone who has grown zucchini, cucumber or radishes knows that the biggest vegetable is not nearly the best. Frequent picking prolongs the harvest. The goal of a plant is to reproduce. If its fruit is allowed to fully mature on the plant, there is no need for it to continue to flower. Crop production could halt.

    Pick fruits when the dew has dried but before it gets hot. Many fruits do not store well so they are best picked when you want to eat them. Generally, allow the fruit to ripen fully on the tree as they will not ripen after being picked. An exception is most pears, which should be harvested while they are still hard and not yet fully ripe (except Asian pears, which need to ripen on the tree). Pears will continue to ripen and soften after picking from a few days to a few weeks. Apples sometimes need to be tasted to determine ripeness. They should be easy to separate from the tree if they are ready. Harvest apricots, peaches and plums when the fruit begins to soften, is fully colored and can be easily separated from the tree. Handle them carefully to prevent bruising.

    Berries are best picked in the morning when the fruit is cool. Pick them fully ripe. They should easily separate from the plant if they are fully ripe. Handle them with care because they are easily damaged. Harvesting berries in the wild is often fun and you can get some yummy free fruit. However, these wild plants are not necessarily getting the water needed to yield luscious, sweet fruit so taste test a few before laboring to fill a bucket.

    We encourage planting your garden to take advantage of all the varieties that give you year-round bounty. The same principles apply for cool-season produce. There are lots of good resources available which will give you specific information for each fruit and vegetable you are growing now and may encourage you to try others. Use them to maximize your gardening success. And, as usual, the UC Marin Master Gardeners are available online and at the help desk to answer any specific questions. At marinmg.org click on the link to “Growing Edibles” to get tips on fruit and vegetable storage and more details on growing and harvesting a variety of fruits and vegetables.