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Hints On Harvesting Vegetables For Peak Flavor

by Dr. William M. Johnson
Galveston County Extension Agent - Horticulture

April 15, 2005

Gardening: Tomatoes imageYou know how to grow vegetables but how well can you tell when your vegetables are ready for harvesting. With tomatoes, it may be easy to tell when fruit is ripe, but for many gardeners, determining the optimal time to harvest produce may be difficult with some vegetables. If you subscribe to the philosophy of "You just pick ’em when they look right," you may be denying yourself the full benefits of your labors. Photo credit: William M. Johnson

You know how to grow vegetables but how well can you tell when your vegetables are ready for harvesting? Harvesting vegetables may seem like a simple task. With tomatoes, it may be easy to tell when fruit is ripe, but for many gardeners, determining the optimal time to harvest produce may be difficult with some vegetables.


Growing Blueberries:
SATURDAY, APRIL 23: Growing Blueberries. 9:00 - 10:30 a.m. at the Galveston County Extension Office. Slide presentation on variety selection, soil preparation, establishment, general care and harvesting. No fee but reservation required (281-534-3413, Ext. 6 or GALV3@wt.net)..

Weed Control:
SATURDAY, APRIL 30: Homeowner’s Guide to Weed Control. Identification of common weeds and practical options for controlling weeds in the home landscape. No fee but reservation required (281-534-3413, Ext. 6 or GALV3@wt.net).

If you subscribe to the philosophy of "You just pick ’em when they look right," you may be denying yourself the full benefits of your labors. The goal should be to harvest vegetables when they are at their best—the sweetest, the most tender and the most flavorful. If not picked at the optimum time, a number of vegetables become seedy, stringy, woody, and/or tasteless, which nullifies the hard work you already put into planting and caring for them.

Here are descriptions of harvesting techniques for some common home-grown vegetables.

CORN: Harvesting sweet corn at the right time can be vitally important when it comes to flavor. The first thing to watch for is pollination which is indicated by heavy deposits of pollen on corn silks and leaves. About 3 weeks later, the silks will turn brown and the ear will be near optimal maturity. Maturity can be tested by peeling down the husks at this time. Pop a kernel 2 inches from the top end of the ear with your fingernail. If the fluid is watery, it is still too early and you should wait one or two more days; if the fluid is milky, the corn is at the right stage for eating; but if it is the consistency of toothpaste the corn has gone starchy and would be best used as creamed corn or used in chowders. The milky kernels only last for a few days so do not delay harvesting. Once cobs are picked, they immediately start changing sugars into starches, especially in warm temperatures. Therefore, after picking the cobs, cool them as quickly as possible. If possible, submerge the ears into ice water for several minutes before storing in the refrigerator.

CUCUMBERS: Proper harvesting size is determined by intended use. Cucumbers should be picked when they are still green and about 2 to 3 inches long for sweet pickles, 4 to 6 inches for dills and 8 inches for slicing. Harvesting on a daily basis during heavy production will encourage continuous production. Do not leave mature fruit on the vine. Cucumbers are past their optimum stage once they turn yellow, form a tough skin and have tough seeds.

EGGPLANT: Harvest when the fruits are large and shiny and an even deep purple color. Keep mature fruits picked off and plants will produce over a long period of time. Fruit in which the seeds have turned brown are of poor quality and past the edible stage. To determine if the fruit is mature, press the side of the fruit slightly. If the indentation remains, the fruit is mature.

PEPPERS (Bells): Bell peppers may be harvested at any size desired. Green bell varieties, however, are usually picked when they are fully grown and mature—usually 3 to 4 inches long, firm and green. If you would like a few red peppers for a nice color contrast in salads, allow some of the fruit to remain on the plant until it turns red.

When the fruits are mature, they break easily from the plant. Less damage is done to the plants, however, if the fruits are cut rather than pulled off. The new, colored bell pepper fruits may be left on the plant to develop full flavor and ripen fully to red, yellow, orange or brown; or they may be harvested green and immature. Some (including light yellow, lilac and purple) are colors that develop in the immature fruit and that should be harvested before actually ripening, when they turn red.

PEPPERS (Hot): Hot peppers are usually harvested at the red-ripe stage, but "green chiles" (the immature fruits), are also required for some recipes. Some dishes may actually call for a specific variety of chile to be authentic. To dry chiles, individual fruits can be picked and strung in "ristras" or entire plants can be pulled in the fall before the arrival of cold weather and hung in the garage to dry. Always exercise caution when handling hot varieties, because skin, noses and eyes may become painfully irritated. Plastic or rubber gloves may be helpful when picking or handling hot peppers.

TOMATOES: Tomatoes reach full flavor when uniformly red. (Some varieties of tomatoes produce yellow or orange fruit.) Tomatoes should be harvested when fully vine-ripened and dark red. Tomatoes lose their firmness quickly if they are overripe. Overripe fruit may be used for processing into juice, catsup or sauce. One can expect a full red color to develop about 5 to 8 days after the first signs of pink show on the fruit.

Dr. Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County
Extension Office of Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University. Visit his web site at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/index.htm

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