Managing the Harvest
There are four steps to a successful harvest: proper garden planning, timing when to pick, storing vegetables to keep them fresh, and choosing the right method to preserve the crop's flavour.
In this article, we'll discuss how to plan for a successful harvest, general harvesting guidelines, and how to store food in preparation for preserving. See "When to Harvest Your Vegetables" for when to pick specific vegetables. Separate preservation articles cover freezing, canning, and pickling.
Planning for a Successful HarvestThe first step to a successful harvest is to plan your garden. Determine the desired yield for each vegetable. Don't grow more than you and your family - and friends and neighbours - can eat. See "Planning Your Vegetable Garden" for advice.The second step also starts at the planning stage. Choose several varieties of the same vegetable that mature at different times. Plant early, midseason, and late season varieties of tomatoes, for example, to stagger the harvest. This not only provides you with fresh tomatoes throughout the growing season, but it keeps you from having more tomatoes than you can eat, process, or give away at any given time.
Successive plantings of a single crop can accomplish the same purpose: for example, planting a row of lettuce every two to three weeks. Another option is to select varieties that bear over a long period of time rather than all at once, such as pole beans.
Even if you've planned ahead and spread out the harvest, you'll still have times when you have more produce to harvest than you can eat or have time to process. In a pinch, you can tray freeze many vegetables. See "Freezing Your Vegetables" for instructions.
Time to HarvestIn general, try to harvest during the coolest part of the day - either early morning or late afternoon. Harvest when crops are dry.
If you're harvesting a vegetable for fresh eating, pick it just before mealtime. This preserves its flavour and nutrients. The sugars in the vegetable start turning to starch within minutes of harvesting. Pick an ear of corn and pop it straight into the cooking pot, for example, for optimum sweetness. If you're harvesting a vegetable for preserving, harvest it as soon before processing as possible.
Pick Early and OftenMany vegetables should be picked young, when they're at their sweetest. As vegetables mature, their sugar turns to starch. Root crops can become bitter and woody if grown too large. Check days to maturity and expected root size of each variety to gauge the best time to pick root vegetables.
With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more they'll produce. Fruiting vegetables such as cucumbers contain the seeds for the next generation. As soon as there are enough mature seeds, the plant gets the signal to stop producing fruit. If you keep picking the fruit while its seeds are still immature, the plant is tricked into thinking it needs to keep producing more fruit to propagate itself.
When Older is BetterSome crops should be harvested at maturity. Winter squash and tomatoes, for example, should be left to ripen on the vine. Some vegetables, such as carrots, can be harvested at any stage.
Don't Let Them BoltWhen the heat of summer hits, the natural tendency of cool-weather crops such as flowering brassicas and leafy greens is to reproduce and go to seed, or bolt. Pick these vegetables before they bolt and become bitter or otherwise unusable.
Storage SpaceFinding a place to store all your produce during the peak harvesting season can be a challenge. Most vegetables, with the exception of tomatoes, can be refrigerated for a short period of time before processing.
A cooler or other insulated container filled with ice is a good temporary option if your refrigerator is full. Keep your freezer well-stocked with ice - either cubes or water-filled plastic containers with screw-top lids - to use for this purpose.
See the article "Vegetable Refrigeration and Storage" for more cold-keeping ideas and for tips on storing winter squash and root vegetables.
With a little knowledge and planning, you can make your life a lot easier at harvest time!