Harvesting the Bounty

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It is officially summer time in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that harvest season is upon us. Harvesting is one of the most rewarding aspects of edible gardening, but it takes practice to do it well. Each plant in the garden has particular harvesting needs. As British horticulturalist Alan Chadwick told his gardening disciples, “in general, everything is specific.”

If done well, harvesting helps our garden plants continue to produce delicious food for us throughout the growing season. In general the main principle is to encourage new growth while harvesting.

Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash are easily identified when they are ripe due to their size and color, but ripeness is not always so easy to determine with many other crops.


Summer Harvest Basket

Some plants are “cut and come again” crops and many are not. A “cut and come again” crop is a plant that you can cut back fairly low down (above the point where their first true leaves branch out) and it will still produce new leaves from the root system and the central core of the plant.

Thyme, oregano, cilantro, dill, parsley and arugula are great examples of crops that can be cut hard and will grow back – all of these can be cut with a knife, hand shears or pinched by hand – almost to the ground – and will still grow back with great vigor. Just try it! You won’t kill the plant!

A lettuce plant is not a “cut and come again” crop and should be harvested as a whole head for optimal production. It will never grow new leaves if you cut it back. Some gardeners like to harvest the outermost leaves off of many different lettuce plants for their salad. We find this a bit tedious and prefer to plant new lettuce seedlings frequently so that we always have whole heads ready for harvest, throughout the growing season.

Lettuce 1

 Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Leafy Greens such as kale, collards, and chard should have their lowest leaves picked first so that the middle of the plant can continue to produce new leaves. In general, breaking off the lower leaves at the main stem by hand with your thumb is better for the plant than cutting the leaves, as cutting will leave a wound that does not heal as well and can become a vector for disease.


Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Root vegetables such as beets, carrots and radishes can be harvested when the top of their taproot is visible above soil level and the plant looks large enough to pick.

Tree fruit such as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines can be harvested when they fall into your palm with a ¼ turn of the stem. Subtropical fruit such as citrus and avocados have a wider harvest window and can be picked or cut from the branch when they have attained appropriate size and color, which depends on the specific variety of each crop.

For more edible gardening tips, download free PDF or purchase a hard copy of our Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food handbook and check out out the Grow Your Lunch Vimeo channel!

Happy Summer Northern gardeners!


The Art of Weeding

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Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Benefits of Gardening for the Elderly: Lessons from Havana, Cuba

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As my own research in Havana, Cuba in 2003 found, elderly people who work in gardens and on farms experience myriad health benefits, some direct and some indirect.

Being physically active, mentally stimulated and having increased access to fresh food are direct health benefits. Having a sense of place or belonging in one’s community, feeling connected to one’s family history and cultural heritage, and feeling a sense of accomplishment are more indirect benefits to participating in gardening activities.

Over a four-month period in 2003, I visited more than 15 urban farms and gardens throughout Havana and interviewed dozens of retirees through the University of Havana’s Faculty of Social Sciences. Here are a few excerpts from the study:



Hilda’s Garden

I visited Hilda’s garden on a balmy Caribbean afternoon.  With the help of her friends and neighbors, she had transformed her concrete-covered, garbage-littered, urban Old Havana backyard into a thriving Garden of Eden. Her 20x30ft plot boasted 20 species of vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs as well 10 different types of fruit trees. As we chatted, three of her neighbors came by and asked for fresh herbs to use in their evening meals. A spry and vibrant septuagenarian, she cited eating fresh fruits and vegetables and leading an active life to her health and vitality. Although she did not mention it, surely having something to offer her neighbors gave her additional satisfaction and a feeling of importance in her community.  It might not be everyone’s idea of retirement, but it seemed to be working pretty well for her.

On the Farm with Arnoldo

At age 79, Arnoldo was as fit as someone in their 50’s. At age 60, he was given early retirement by the Cuban government due to a chronic back condition. He took care of his grandkids, drank rum and played dominoes. Then he became terribly bored. A friend told him about a garden where he worked and proposed that Arnoldo come along one day. When I spoke to Arnoldo, he was weeding a 100ft-long bed of lettuce. He was the manager of one of urban Havana’s largest urban farms called La Sazon (over 2 acres of row crops on an old parking lot).  His back problem had vanished and he was preaching the gardening gospel: “not only do I get paid in addition to my retirement pension, but I also get to bring healthy food home to my family (for free), and I feel better than I have in years.” His concluding remarks were something to the effect of, “sitting down, you accomplish nothing.”

A Day at Casa Santovenia

I visited Casa Santovenia during my research as well. Santovenia is a retirement home for around 150 individuals in suburban Havana. A seven-acre farm lies next to the facility and supports all of the fresh food needs of the dining hall. Eight full-time, non-resident employees manage the garden every day along with the help of around 15 residents from the home. The residents are invited to help on the farm each morning when the air is fresh and cool. I had numerous conversations with the residents at Santovenia; many seniors reported similar benefits to those I had already observed (physical movement, access to fresh food, etc.).

The most poignant observation at Santovenia, however, did not come from those short interviews. It came from observing the resident who brought a snack to the work crew at about 10:30. She was in her 90’s and clearly suffered from severe dementia. And yet, as everyone crowded around her for a snack of cookies and juice, she was overcome with joy – for those 10 minutes every day, she was the center of attention in her community. She had a reason to get out of bed every morning. Because there was a garden program at her home, she could be useful and feel loved and appreciated, even though she wasn’t even gardening! Because her friends and fellow residents were involved in the garden, she wanted to be part of it too. She was able to be an integral part of her community despite her severe mental condition.

As I prepared to depart that day, one of the workers on the farm at Santovenia said to me, “all human beings are capable of doing something, and they should have that opportunity.” I nodded yes in hearty agreement.