Okay, so you’ve planted your vegetable garden and also may have one or more fruit crops planted, too. Everything is growing well and looks great. You can just about taste your fruits and vegetables bursting with fresh flavor as you watch them growing larger and larger with each passing day; but at what stage do you pick everything? That may sound like a silly question, to which the obvious answer is, when they’re ripe, of course! But it’s not always as obvious as it may seem. Let’s talk about when to pick some of the popular summer vegetables and fruit.
Tomatoes – Surprisingly, supermarket tomatoes can be picked at the “breaker stage” when they are just beginning to show color and are basically still green, but can be labeled as “vine ripe”! No wonder these tomatoes have the reputation of having no flavor and the texture of cardboard. For best flavor, tomatoes should be harvested when they are near-to-fully ripe on the plant. A few varieties, notably ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Brandy Boy’ may actually be over ripe and soft when they become fully red, so I pick these just before they reach full color. I sometimes will cheat during periods of cool weather when ripening seems to take forever. I wait until the fruit are mostly red, but still may be very firm. They are brought to a warm spot in the kitchen for a day or two until they yield slightly under gentle thumb pressure.
Cucumbers – Standard slicing cucumbers may be picked from when they are only a few inches long until they are full-sized, and have good flavor and tenderness. If the skin begins to lighten and there is a bulge in the middle, you have probably waited too long. When the fruit is sliced open, the seeds should be immature and translucent, and not fill much of the cavity. Fruit having seeds that are large and white are past their prime, but all is not lost. I have a great recipe for chilled cream of cucumber soup in which I scoop out the mature seeds, dice the flesh and cook with other ingredients before chilling. It’s delicious on a hot summer day.
Zucchini and other Summer Squash – Like cucumbers, zucchini may be harvested from when very young, with the shriveled flower still attached, until about 6” to 10” long. The skin should be shiny. Once the skin takes on a dull appearance, it is over-mature. Be aware that zucchini grow very rapidly so that in a matter of about ten days, your fruit may approach the size of a baseball bat!
Green Beans – Green beans should be harvested when they are tender and crisp. In appearance, they are long, slender and are a medium-to-dark green color. They should snap easily when bent. Once they lighten in color and there are obvious bulges from the swelling of developing seeds, the flesh starts to become dry and tough.
Sweet Peppers – Peppers may be harvested at two different stages. Green peppers are actually immature fruit and eventually ripen to red, yellow, orange or chocolate in color. They are edible at both stages and have different flavors.
Cantaloupe – When cantaloupe begins to ripen, the background color turns from green to cream. A sure way to test for ripeness is to gently push on the stem where it attaches to the fruit. If it doesn’t separate easily, don’t pick it. Once the stem pulls away easily the cantaloupe is ready to eat. You also should notice a nice aroma. As with tomatoes, cantaloupe from the supermarket are usually picked when they are green and allowed to ripen on the store shelf or in your home. Although they are usually not bad when allowed to ripen thoroughly, they are juicier and have better flavor when allowed to ripen on the vine.
Strawberries, Blueberries and Raspberries – For best flavor all of these berries should be allowed to completely ripen on the plant. Once picked, none of these will ripen any further. Once blueberries are uniformly colored, I usually give them a day or two longer on the bush before picking to be sure sweetness and flavor have fully developed. Unfortunately, birds will eat blueberries before they are fully ripe. I use bird netting over my plants to make sure the birds don’t eat them before I get a chance.
Knowing the correct time to harvest your vegetables and fruit for best flavor and condition adds to the satisfaction of growing them yourself.