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!


Simple Rules for Pruning Deciduous Fruit Trees and Vines

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Effective approaches to pruning trees, vines, and shrubs vary quite widely. There is by no means a “correct” way to prune. And yet, there are some principles of plant growth that help the person with the pruning shears, loppers or saw in hand decide which decisions to make based on acute observation of the tree or vine’s growth.


Pink Lady Apples

Pruning is primarily an art of observation, secondarily, of cutting. To prune effectively is to observe what you see and imagine how the plant in question might grow, from the remaining active buds or branches, once you have cut, trimmed, and yes, sometimes even hacked away at it.

A fruit tree or vine will grow and produce fruit whether or not you prune it. Nature has a will to live and reproduce, and these beloved plants are no exception.

Often, the general pruning needs of entire plant families can be grouped together, however each species of plant has a different growth pattern, which demands special attention.

Principle #1: Pruning a deciduous fruit tree or vine when it is dormant stimulates new growth.

When you cut back a tree or vine during its dormancy, the weather is usually colder. These plants have adapted to lose their leaves and store energy in their roots and central trunk or stem during the Winter. When you cut them back at this time of year, they are forced to send the stored energy to the points of growth to which you have cut them back, when the soil warms up in the Spring, spurring rank and vigorous growth. Winter pruning is ideally suited for young trees.

Removing a significant amount of wood or vine – as high as 40+% of the total fruit tree and 90+% of a vine – will drive the formation of vigorous new shoots and first year branches. This does not necessary mean more fruit will be produced. Some trees and berries fruit on first year wood, others on second year, some on a combination of both, and others still (ex. apples, pears, quince) on specialized nodes called fruit spurs. This is an important element to understand when “pruning for fruit.”

Dormant Apple Orchard

Dormant Apple Orchard

Practice #1: Prune young trees and vines (first 1-5 years) hard during dormancy, removing 40+% of the growth, in order to stimulate branching and new growth.

Principle #2: Pruning a deciduous fruit tree or vine when it is in vegetative or leaf mode, takes away vigor and discourages growth.

When you cut a tree or vine back during its vegetative cycle – which normally peaks in the Summer time – you are removing energy that is feeding the roots and other parts of the plant through photosynthesis. Summer pruning is one of the most effective methods of controlling large, mature trees and vines whose vigor has gotten out of control.

Summer Lemon Pruning

Summer Lemon Pruning

Practice #2: Prune mature trees (5-15+ years) aggressively during the Summer for height control, and fruitfulness. Summer pruning can often coincide with the fruit harvest on a large tree or established vine. When harvesting from a large fruit tree or berry patch in the Summer, take your pruning tools along and cut back the plant as you harvest, accomplishing two tasks at the same time!

Tip: When you prune a tree or vine, during the Summer or Winter, cut back to a node whose orientation you like. For example, if you would like for a tree to open up into more of a “goblet shape,” consider cutting back to buds that face away from the center of the tree.

Happy Winter Pruning! If you’d like to learn more, sign up for the pruning workshop at Country Flat Farm on Sunday, January 24th.