When are veggies table-ready?
With proper care, spring and fall vegetable plantings will grow up big, strong and productive to add plenty of homegrown edibles to the dinner table. While waiting for these crops to mature, you can start mentally registering harvest tips to be ready when the bountiful times arrive. Such pointers can also be helpful to folks who don’t have gardens but go to pick-your-own farms. In addition, frequenters to farmers markets will probably find a few of these tips useful to help select produce at their freshest and tastiest.
Bell peppers. The typical bell pepper can be picked when it is either green or red. A red bell pepper is just riper than a green one and tastes slightly sweeter. If you prefer to use a size-o-meter, harvest these peppers when they are about 3 inches in diameter.
Carrots. Carrots are normally ready when their orange crowns poke out above the soil line. For better storage, cut off all but about 2 inches of the fern tops after you pull carrots from the ground.
Cucumbers. Although they come in all sizes, standard cukes will, of course, be a deep green when mature. However, if a cucumber starts to show a yellow tint, it is past ripe.
Eggplant. Common varieties, such as “Black Beauty” and “Classic,” should have a shiny, dark purple color and be about 4 inches in diameter. Any eggplant that has been on the plant too long will lose its shine — this also applies to the newer, fancy-colored varieties such as “Neon” and “Ping Tung.”
Okra. The better tasting (and least slimy) okra pods are snipped off at about 3 inches long. Chef’s Tip: For little or no slime, when boiling okra, leave the pods whole.
Green Beans. These beans are at their best when they are about 3 to 6 inches long. At these sizes, the seeds haven’t started to swell yet, and the pods are tender enough to snap easily.
Leaf Lettuce. Wait until the plants are about 5 inches tall and starting to fully fill out with foliage. Then, begin your picking. Use scissors, and only take outer leaves so the plants will continue growing strongly in order to extend the harvest season. This method works well for romaine lettuce and spinach, too, and for both spring and fall lettuce crops.
Summer Squash. Tasty crook, straight-neck and zucchini squash will be had when they are picked at about 6 inches long. Round patty pan varieties are in their prime around 4 to 5 inches in diameter.
Tomatoes. Come on — everybody knows what a ripe tomato looks like! Sometimes, however, ’maters are picked with a bit of green still showing. To turn the green to red (and make fruits fully ripe) simply place them in a cozy area indoors. A sunny windowsill won’t do because ol’ Sol’s direct rays could redden the skin but not ripen the inside of the tomato. Moderate warmth, not strong light, is the key to properly maturing a tomato.
L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener magazine.