December Gardening: its finally time to do some harvesting!
Hellooooooooo December! How we gardeners (who work outside year round) missed your short cool sparkling days. This past week our garden team has been in such high spirits. Not only do we feel better when working in cooler weather but the plants like it too so the gardens that we work in have all started to thrive and plants are growing so happily and everything becomes so much easier this time of year. So if you are struggling with your new fall garden don’t give up yet, the gardening hump smooths out a bit this time of year and things start to just flow with the plants. If you planted some quick growing crops then they might be ready to harvest, and we know that harvesting is a big sticky spot for beginners. We wish there was an easy answer to “how do I harvest things” because every single plant requires a slightly different harvesting technique but we have a few general tips to help you get comfortable approaching your new garden with a pair of snippers.
All of the veggies in this bountiful photo were harvested using different techniques, from pulling or cutting the whole plant to picking ripe fruit & using cut-and-come-again for flowers & leaves.
Our first big tip for learning how to harvest is “google it”. Now, we know that doesn’t sound as helpful as we mean it to be, because like, you know you can google it. But seriously, use the internet to look for easy to understand resources including the websites of seed companies that have things like maturity date for all of their varieties and videos of people doing exactly what you want to do. Let’s use French Breakfast radishes as an example. According to Johnnys Select Seed, these radishes are ready to harvest at 21 days old. Make sure you also notice the photos of the variety and any other listed info, like maybe how big they are supposed to be at maturity (for this radish it says 2” long and finger thickness) because you can also just use your eyes many times to compare what you have in your garden to what you’re used to seeing at the store, on your plate or online and using that as a cue that your crop is ready. After reading about the variety on the Johnnys website we googled “how to harvest radishes” and found this cute video of a home gardener harvesting his radishes. Now, after watching this you might be thinking like, it wasn’t very technical and he didn’t do much more than pull it out. But guess what?! That’s how easy It is to harvest a radish… you just determine wether or not you think its ready, and then pull it out! Also, for many crops there isn’t a moment that the plant becomes “edible”… Its always edible, so really you can harvest it anytime. Radishes are a perfect example of that, because people eat radishes as micro greens at 7 days old and they eat them fully grown at 21 and every day in between.
At the farm we love growing french breakfast radishes. This is what they should look like if they were appropriately thinned and harvested at the right age.
Our second tip for figuring out harvesting is if you want to eat it, just do it! Like we just said, many plants are edible at every stage of their growth, so if you use proper harvesting techniques you can really eat things anytime. Kale is a good example to use here, because you can eat kale at any point from micro greens to baby leaf to mature, but if you snip the whole growing tip off of your plant when harvesting it then its done, no more kale no matter how old the plant is. Heres a detailed and clear video of a gardener harvesting his kale properly that we found by googling “how to harvest kale”. This technique, of strategically removing the oldest leaves from the bottom of the plant, is referred to as “cut and come again” and we do it for most greens including baby ones like mustards, arugula & lettuce. Tiffany was just lamenting not having made a video of us using this method to harvest but rejoice! Lots of other gardeners have done that before us, so here’s a great clear video of a home gardener using this method to harvest his lettuce. In this video he shows two techniques, one where you tediously harvest leaf by leaf, and one where you cut the whole head with a knife just above the crown (so as to not damage it) which is how we tend to harvest denser plantings like arugula without having to go leaf by leaf.
Mustards and arugula are harvested at about a fingers length for baby salad leaf use. We like to use the messier cut and come again method for them which is basically like giving them a short hair cut to take all mature leaves while leaving the growing tip intact.
Mature greens like kale, chard, dandelion greens and sorrel are also harvested using that method but leaf by leaf, since its quicker. Take the lowest and most mature leaves first.
Fruiting plants, including long term crops like tomatoes and quick crops like cucumbers, zucchini and bush beans needs to be harvested on a regular basis for a good yield. When I say regularly I mean every two to three days! All annuals are biologically designed to make seeds within a short period of time and then die after dropping their seeds for the next generation. Fruits are vessels for seeds so crops like cucumbers, zucchini and beans are basically seed pods that we eat! Once a plant puts on fruit it is triggered to stop making new flowers and new fruit. In order to get a bigger and longer lasting yield we harvest their fruit regularly to encourage new blooms and new fruit. Keep in mind that we eat the majority of these fruits when they are very young because that is when they are edible. A cucumber or bean that has been sitting on the plant for even a few days too many becomes so tough and fibrous that it is no longer edible. Typically they are ready to harvest just a few days after forming on the plant. Also keep in mind that quick fruiting plants like cucumbers, zucchini and bush beans not only mature quickly and produce their harvest quickly, they also die early! It's normal for these plants to produce fruit for about 2 weeks and then sort of crap out. In order to make the most use of your garden it is up to you to remove these "spent" plants and add them to the compost. Doing that promptly makes room for a new batch of crops and also helps to prevent disease from spreading which often builds up on older plants.
This gretel white eggplant is a great example of how important it is to know what variety youre growing. If as a newbie gardener you were waiting for this thing to turn purple before harvesting youd certainly miss out on it while its young enough to eat. This variety is a baby white variety that is mature at a hands length.
Banana peppers, shishitos and most other sweet pepper varieties can be eaten green/ unripe or ripe (red or orange depending on the variety).
If you have a cucumber plant that’s full of little cukes and you’re wondering when they are ready the best way to know that is to check out info online that’s specific to the variety you are growing. Some cucumbers are ready at 4” long, like our favorite pickler Jackson Supreme. If you leave it on the plant too long it wont get longer it’ll get chunky and the skin and seeds will mature and get tougher, reducing its quality. But if you’re growing a Suyo Long cucumber, they are ready to pick at 9” long, so you’re looking for very different visual cues for that variety even though both plants are cucumbers.
Our pal Chris over at French Farms spent years researching the best bags to sell his salad mixes in and he loves these because they are thick enough to reuse and have a reusable ziploc top. If you buy his salad wash out and save your bags for reuse!
Some freshly harvested baby bok choi enjoying a float in a cool water bath.
At farms lots of effort is put into “post harvest storage and handling” to keep the harvest fresh for as long as possible, and while that isn’t as important in your home garden because you aren’t distributing a product its still good to know the basics so that your harvest stays crisp in the fridge. First, make sure to harvest either in the morning or the evening instead of during the heat of the day. Plants sweat via their leaves and they are the most dehydrated when its the hottest and sunniest, so harvesting your leaves in the morning when the plant already has lots of moisture within its cells is pretty much the number one key to long term storage success. The second technique for crisp hydrated greens is “hydro cooling” them which is just a fancy way to say “dip them in cool water”. To do this fill a bowl bucket or the sink with cool water and throw the greens in. You can agitate them a bit if they’re dirty but you can also just let them float around for 10 - 15 minutes to cool down and soak up some extra moisture. Once they’re done with bath time they need to be dried or they wont store well. Drying can happen passively (lay out a clean kitchen towel, spread the greens out, let them slowly dry) or actively (with a salad spinner) and once the bounty is ready to go in the fridge it needs to be kept in something that will hold humidity, like a used plastic bag. While we don’t like adding more plastic to the world plastic is the best material for storing green leaves since they will dehydrate if kept bare (even in the crisper drawer) or in something porous like brown paper bags. If you shop at French Farms and buy his infamous salad mixes keep the reusable ziplocks that he sells his product in and use them at home for your veggie storage, they are sturdy enough to be used over and over again and are designed for long term high quality salad storage.
Harvesting turmeric is easy just dig your plant up, break the rhizomes up, wash them off and stick them in the fridge or freezer.
If you have some plants left over from summer like sweet potato, roselle or turmeric now is the time to harvest them too, which is great because it means you’ll then have more space for fall plants when they come out. Roselle is harvested by the branch when the calyxs are nice and plump (see pic below for reference). Once the plant has made a bunch of roselle for you its best to remove it because it’s an annual, so it wont just start over again and keep growing to make you more. Also, it flowers based on day length, so once the day starts lengthening again in January it wont receive the natural trigger it needs to produce flowers and calyx for you.
This roselle calyx is perfectly ready for harvest.
Sweet potato is another summer crop that might be ready to come out around now, depending on when you planted it. Just loosen the soil around the base and dig around for tubers! The leaves and vines can go into the compost pile and you can either eat the sweet potatoes right away or brush the soil off (don’t get them wet) and cure them in a dark area of your home to let them sweeten up a bit. And finally, if you planted turmeric in the spring you may want to harvest it now. It can also stay in the ground until you’re ready for it, or you can harvest it just a little bit at a time as needed, but your turmeric plant has likely started to die back and look bad and you may want the space that its taking up for other things.
A fun sweet potato harvest at the fall planting of one of our gardens.
Good luck getting to know the ins and outs of harvesting in your winter garden. While we know it can be intimidating we encourage you to go for it (and make some mistakes along the way) and start eating from your garden. If you leave mature food in your garden we assure you someone else will come along and make a meal out of it. Now is the time to take advantage of all that your garden has to offer, not just in experiences and beautiful weather but also in arugula leaves and zinnia blooms.