Depending on your gardening zone and when you planted your produce, now is about the time when serious harvesting begins.
My experience is mostly from gardening in zone 3a, so the right advice might vary for those in much warmer and colder climates—particularly when it comes to timing. Make sure to research specifics for your zone, paying close attention to frost dates.
Many gardeners have already harvested some of their produce. Cucumbers and zucchini come to mind, for example, as well as tomatoes (particularly the determinate or compact “patio” varieties), strawberries, beans, and herbs.
But in my experience, beginner gardeners tend to get our gardens planted late, and we don’t always know the best light conditions for each plant, which, if we get it wrong, can lengthen the growing time.
I don’t have much space to garden at home, and unfortunately, the space I do have doesn’t get the best hours of sunlight, so some of my heat and sun-loving veggies take longer to mature.
Here are a few veggie-harvesting basics to get you started if you’re brand new:
One thing I do in tandem with my harvesting is not harvesting at all, but a final planting of lettuce, which can still grow and thrive in these cooler temperatures. I expect to harvest a few crisp, new heads before the frost hits—fingers crossed.
I’ve already gotten the seeds in the ground because I’m in a northern gardening zone, but those in warmer climates can probably get away with another planting if you get it in the ground now. Lettuce needs at least a month of growing time before the first frost, and maybe closer to two if you don’t get all-day sun in your lettuce spot. Keep in mind not only frost dates but the lessening hours of sunlight per day.
“What are those little green things on my dill?” This is a common question, and a common problem.
Dill is an aphid magnet, and the little bugs can absolutely cover our plants. Part of the reason I plant so much dill in my own garden is to keep the aphids away from my other plants, but I don’t consider it a lost cause for consumption. While the thought of eating aphids is kind of a turn-off, they are harmless, if a little bitter, and many experienced gardeners consider them “extra protein.”
Once I harvest my dill, I pull off the delicate bunches of leaves from the thicker stems, soak the pile of herbs in a mix of vinegar and water, drain, and then spin them in my salad spinner. If the bugs are really bad, I might do this a second and third time. This removes most of them, and the few that might be clinging on, I’ve learned to ignore.
After the moisture is spun out, I chop and freeze my dill in a little container, stored in my fridge freezer. When needed, I just open it up and grab a healthy pinch to add to whatever I’m cooking.
It’s best to harvest dill before it flowers and turns to seed, which is called “bolting.” Dill is an herb that can be succession planted just like lettuce can, so as the plants prepare to bolt—which can happen quite early in the season—plant another round for fresh herbs mid-summer. And if you let a few plants go to seed on the second planting, you’ll have next spring’s seeds already settled.
When dill has gone to seed—they’ll look brown, flat, and dry—carefully pick a seed head off the plant and pop it into a paper bag. Massage the head until the seeds have all come off and then pull out the stem. Before storing your seeds, lay them out on a baking sheet for about a week to make sure they’re 100 percent dry.
This advice pertains mostly to indeterminate varieties—the kind where the plants can grow five to eight feet tall. Tomatoes are best when they’re picked ripe from the vine, but you can pick green ones and ripen them indoors, too.
Now is especially the time to keep tomatoes on an even watering schedule. I garden in containers, so I need to be careful not to dry out or drown my plants, and my watering schedule will depend heavily on rainfall amounts. A water meter is one of the best (and inexpensive) tools I’ve invested in, and I find it more reliable than sticking my finger in the soil.
Here’s why regular, even watering is crucial at this stage: Underwater your tomatoes, and they will have trouble maturing. A tomato is a watery fruit, and that moisture needs to come from somewhere. However, overwatering can cause your tomatoes to split—there’s just too much moisture being drawn up by the plant for the tomatoes to contain. And if your watering schedule is too haphazard, your tomatoes might end up with blossom end rot (large, black, rotten spots on the bottom of your tomatoes). So keep an eye on the soil and water evenly as needed.
When it’s time to harvest all of my tomatoes, ripe or not (and usually in a rush because they’re calling for frost), I store them in a cardboard box on my kitchen table.
They don’t actually need to sit in front of a sunny window to ripen, though that won’t hurt them. One ripe tomato will cause its neighbor to ripen, so check them frequently to avoid mushy, rotten ones. A ripe banana placed nearby will help ripen them faster, too. I prepare (wash, core, quarter, and freeze) what I can’t use immediately to be cooked into sauces later—and canning is also an option! Side-note: I’m a skin-on kinda girl, but if you want to go skinless, you can also blanch the tomatoes and remove the skins as you prepare them.
Once we pull a carrot, we can’t put it back to grow a little more, so we need to be sure they’re ready before we dig them all up.
Most carrots take about three months to mature, so first, think back to when you planted them and make sure you’re close to maturity time. Then, take a look at the leafy stems. Are they a foot or so in length, bushy, thick, and falling over a little? That’s a good indication it’s time. Lastly, look at the base of the plant and dig a little of the dirt away. If you can spot the large orange top of the carrot, it’s probably safe to pull! Test that one, and if you’re happy with the size, dig up the rest!
Potatoes can mature well into fall and even past the first light frost—though this is usually the case when they’re planted in-ground. Obviously, you don’t want to be digging into frozen soil and wind up with frozen potatoes, so don’t leave it too long.
Due to limited space, I’ve planted mine in tall, deep, canvas grow bags. Through the summer, as the leafy parts shot up through the soil, I covered them with more dirt to encourage more tubers to grow, so I expect to have quite a few potatoes at harvest time from each of my bags. But because they’re above ground in containers, they’re less protected and need to be harvested a bit earlier.
Blooming is a good sign they’re nearly ready, but sometimes, the plants don’t flower—it all depends on the variety and where you live, so this has nothing to do with the success of the plant. It’s best to wait until the tops of the plants have begun to die before harvesting, but for small, new potatoes, they can be harvested much sooner.
Harvest when the soil is on the dry side, so that it doesn’t cling as much. If you plan to wash the potatoes before storing (there are some camps who say do, and some who say don’t), just be sure they have dried thoroughly—and don’t dry them in the sun! This turns the potatoes green, and that can make you sick (if you eat enough of them).
And, for next spring, keep these following tips in mind:
1. Once you’ve begun planting your garden, record the average growing time for each plant.
I put my “ready to harvest” dates from my seed packs in my calendar (or, if I’ve saved seeds, I just look that info up online if I haven’t already memorized it) so I am reminded when to harvest the following fall. Check your produce frequently, though, and don’t just rely on reminders.
2. Remember what was planted where and rotate your crops.
Some plants will leave behind or deplete specific nutrients that can help or hinder other specific plants so it’s best to plan your crop locations year to year. For example, beans typically add nitrogen to the soil, which lettuce really appreciates, so plant lettuce, spinach, kale, or chard where your beans were last year. Here’s a quick guide for crop rotation.
Because I plant in containers, my soil must be super healthy since it can’t pull nutrients from the ground—it only gets what I give it. I dump all of my used soil on a tarp in the spring, add my finished compost and some fresh potting soil, and I mix it all up and refill my containers. Soil—whether it’s in-ground or in a container—is an important first step. Your soil needs to be nutrient-rich to grow healthy plants.
3. Plan your planting schedule well in advance.
There’s nothing worse than starting the plants too late from seed. Many need to be started indoors weeks in advance of the last frost. Otherwise, depending on your zone, you might not have enough time for the plants to reach maturity. Peppers, for example, need a longer, hotter growing season than I can give them in my location, so I start these very early, though they are not the easiest plants to keep alive indoors.
I set seed-starting reminders in my calendar during harvest time so that I don’t forget. Plus, when I’m harvesting, it’s easier to remember which varieties of plants were favorites, which didn’t produce as well, and which could have been started a little earlier for more growing time. Many gardeners keep a planning journal, which can be a fun, creative, crafty kind of task for the winter.
One final little note: cut those flowers!
Harvest time isn’t just for veggies.
If you’ve also planted flowers in your garden, and you’re not outside to enjoy them as often as you’d like, cut a bouquet or two and throw them in a jar with water for inside your home…and take them to work, too. There’s not much time left before they die or go dormant for the winter, so love ’em up now, while you can. My favorite to cut this season has been the elegant peacock orchid.
Happy harvest—ahem, feasting—time! Oh, and if you’re the proud owner of a green thumb too, please leave more tips (and recipes) in the comments.
Author & Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Author’s Own; Debra Roby/Flickr
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