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One day missed in the vegetable garden can mean a big harvest, literally. All of a sudden, or so it seems, your zucchini is the size of a torpedo and beans are bulging beneath the pod. Some vegetables need attention daily; others can be picked every couple of days. Summer squash and zucchini definitely need to be checked each day because their growth rate is rather fast. Of course each vegetable needs to be assessed based on the characteristics of the variety but generally speaking the ideal size at harvest for patty pan is 2-3 inches; yellow crooked neck varieties about 6 inches; and zucchini about 8 inches.
Green beans should be picked every other day. My beautiful and delicious French filet bean ‘Taverna’ are at peak when they are a slender 3 inches. The pole bean variety ‘Fortex’ peaks a bit bigger at 5 inches...the key with green beans is to know your variety and harvest before any beans start to bulge beneath the pod.
Peppers are rather agreeable. The best indication that any given variety is ripe is that the skin starts to take on a high gloss, but with sweet bells, for example, if you leave them on the plant green peppers will ripen to even sweeter red peppers. Hot peppers can be harvested at any time, really, but the hotter the weather and the bigger they become the hotter they seem to be as well.
Harvest your tomatoes when they take on an even color. Tomatoes will continue to ripen, of course, but they are tastier if most of it occurs on the plant. Don’t put them in a sunny window to further ripening; this will just make them mealy. A basket or bowl on the counter is best for storage. Because tomatoes ripen due to a gas produced by the fruit (not by sunlight, the plant needs the sunlight not the tomato) you can expedite ripening by putting the tomato in a bag to contain the gas.
The thin ‘Orient Express’ cucumbers that are about 10 inches where great for fresh snacking; a bit bigger and they were saved for pickling. Anything that was over 12 inches was turned into cucumber soup and gazpacho after spooning out the seeds. And cucumbers left on the vine impact continued production so even if they are not at their peak (i.e. overripe) pick the vegetable and toss it in the compost pile or to the chickens...if you want more.
Watermelon is ready when the skin losses its high gloss, the belly of the melon turns yellowish and the foliage and tendrils closest to the melon die back (and it thumps when thumped). Corn tells us it is ready when the silks have browned out, not sure how the raccoons determine peak ripeness, though.
The goal is to harvest vegetables at their peak. Flavor, texture, nutrition and storability will be determined, for better or worse, based on when you harvest. When you consider plants like gourds, winter squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic understand that these must be harvested at the right time (and air-cured in some cases) for them be fully ripe and for them to last longer than a week.
Gourds should be left on the vine until after frost, wait until everything has dried naturally and listen for rattling seeds before you harvest. Winter squash needs to ripen and cure on the vine into fall, as well. Just after a light frost and definitely before a hard frost is usually about right, the skin needs to toughen up first. Sweet potatoes, too, should stay in the ground until a light frost nips the vines a bit.