Harvest veggies right

When and how to pick carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and more

By Liz Douville / For The Bulletin

It would be dramatic to write “it was a dark and stormy night,” but actually it was a hot and steamy Sunday afternoon when I looked out my window and observed three young bucks in velvet, with an attitude and a swaggering walk, scoping out our neighborhood. They reminded me of three desperadoes in a classic John Wayne movie. They decided the leaves on the shrubs across the street needed to be harvested. I kept an eye on them, and when I no longer saw them, I decided to check my own backyard. As I rounded the corner of the house, they did the same, coming from the opposite direction. I’m not sure who jumped the highest or the longest, but with my whoop and holler I put an end to their day of munching in our neighborhood.

There’s no getting around it. It’s time to start doing some end-of-season walkabouts. What is left in the garden to harvest? When is the best time to harvest?

Even experienced gardeners can miss the prime harvest times and end up with a basketful of tough and stringy mature bean pods.

Vegetables need to be harvested in the cool of the morning so they stay crisp longer. Harvests in the heat of the day results in produce that wilts quickly, especially lettuce and other leafy greens. If morning harvest isn’t possible, pick in the evening when the sun has begun to wane.

Broccoli buds should be tightly closed. If you wait too long, the buds will open into yellow flowers. Broccoli production can be extended by cutting about halfway down the stalk to encourage continued development of side shoots. Keep plants well watered to prevent them from developing a bitter taste. The best tasting broccoli is produced in cool weather.

If you have a choice, use a digging fork rather than a shovel to loosen the soil before trying to pull carrots. Misshaped carrots that are forked or twisted usually are an indication of rocky, lumpy soil. If harvested carrots are covered with small, hairy roots, they may have had too rich a diet. Avoid overfertilization. One recommendation is to mix a slow-release fertilizer into the soil when you plant and then not fertilizing for the remainder of the season.

Corn is ready when the silks at the top turn dark brown but have not dried out. Peel back the ear to expose the cob and puncture a kernel with your fingernail. If the kernels are fat and the juice is milky-white, the ear is ready to eat. If the liquid is thick and doughy, you have waited too long. A notation that I made years ago from Organic Gardening is that corn should be picked 18-20 days after the silks first become visible at the ear tips. Might be fun to try both methods. We have always just relied on the fingernail test.

Why do cucumbers turn bitter? One of the most common reasons is due to heat stress, and we certainly had that in August. If the temperature fluctuates from one extreme to another over an extended period of time, the plant may start producing bitter cucumbers. Another possibility is if a plant goes through alternating periods of drought and overwatering.

The bitter taste comes from a group of chemicals called cucubitacins, which are also present in squash, melons and pumpkins.

Most gardeners in Central Oregon don’t grow cantaloupes but rather rely on the Hermiston growers to provide us with the melons. Every time I go to choose one at a market I try to remember: Do I look for smooth netting or netting that is raised? I need to carry a yellow sticky note to remind me. When ripe, a cantaloupe’s netting becomes harder and raised. The fruit gets slightly softer at the bottom end and they smell fragrant.

Our short growing season may not be long enough to turn your sweet pepper from green to a glowing red, orange or yellow on the vine. Pick you last green pepper as late as possible and keep in a cool place to color up checking often for rotting.

I go into withdrawal just thinking about the limited days of a garden-fresh tomato. We will all practice every trick in the book for frost protection, but at some point we need the reality of the calendar to set in. I pick the green tomatoes for storage if they are showing a slight change of color. There’s a good chance that a deep green tomato will rot before it ripens. Light isn’t necessary for ripening — no more placing them on a sunny window sill.

Easy methods include placing tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple or banana. Ripening fruit gives off ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening in tomatoes. I have always wrapped each tomato loosely in newspaper and placed one layer deep in a box that is stored in the garage. Another method is to dig the entire plant, shake off as much dirt as possible and hang upside down to ripen in the garage or in a basement.

Is there any harvest method as much fun as harvesting potatoes, especially with children? It’s like Christmas turning over the soil and finding all the gifts of the season. Using a garden fork will cause less damage than using a shovel or spade. Place the fork approximately 1 foot outside of the planting area. The potatoes will be between 4 to 6 inches under the soil. Allow the potatoes to dry in a protected area for at least two days so that the skin will mature. Gently brush off the dirt and store in a cool dark space. Do not wash.

At the end of the harvest season may your baskets be overflowing and your pantry full.

— Reporter: douville@bendbroadband.com