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.
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.
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.
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!