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GARDENING : Timing Is Everything in Picking a Winner

September 04, 1993|From Associated Press

Developing the skill to determine prime quality of home-grown vegetables probably is even more valuable than learning how to grow them expertly. After all, taste is the main reason for the growing effort.

In general, toughness or off-taste will not develop before there is maturing or slowing of growth. So the No. 1 guideline is to study growth patterns and try to harvest at the peak of vigor.

Easier said than done, of course. But there are certain basics.

With leafy vegetables, color is a good clue. Look also for firmness, tenderness and crispness. Every leaf is going to have its individual time. But the toughness and bitter taste isn't present until maturity.

Harvest when leaves stop enlarging or start staying about the same. Good leaf tissue will be light green and darkens as it becomes mature. Use the two to three outer leaves from each leaf-lettuce plant.

Leafy-head vegetables probably are at their peak when enlargement of the head ceases. Cabbage heads should be firm and noticeably heavy. Harvest at the first sign of splitting. Lettuce should be firm yet yield to gentle pressure.

Flower-bud vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes, should be compact and the buds tight. Again, color is a good guide. With discoloration, edible quality deteriorates. Broccoli buds should have a blue appearance. Maturity is near when they start turning green, pale green or yellowish green.

Root vegetables--radish, turnip, carrot, beet and parsnip--start to mature as soon as growth starts to slow. With maturity, they become bitter, strong-flavored and fibrous. Golf-ball-size beets are the sweetest. Immature carrots are delightful after six to eight weeks of growth.

Snap beans and peas need to be picked before the pods reach maximum size and before the seeds inside reach full size.

Sweet corn is best when slight thumb or fingernail pressure ruptures the kernels to reveal a thick, milky internal substance. An old rule: get the water boiling before picking.

Tomatoes are best when fully formed, plump, fairly firm and of uniform, ripe color. Those picked green never approach the flavor of those left on the plant. But, in case the movie title caused you to wonder: Green ones are quite tasty when fried.

Green peppers should be fully developed and firm. Many gardeners like red ones better, thinking they're sweeter. But watch for any sign of soft spots or wilting in the tissue. You want rigid flesh.

Eggplant should be full size, firm and have a uniform color with a shine to it. Dull color and soft spots are signs of maturity.

With asparagus, look for closed, compact tips and don't let them get too big. They start getting fibrous and tough when more than six to eight inches above the ground.

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