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GARDENING : Know When To Harvest Vegetables

August 13, 1994|LEE REICH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

There's not much sense in growing vegetables if you do not harvest them at the right time.

No one needs to be told when to pick a tomato, but how do you know when to pick an eggplant? Or a cucumber, especially one that is puffed out at one end and skinny at the other?

Vegetables that are grown for their shoots, leaves or roots generally taste best when they are young and succulent. If left to grow too long, shoots of asparagus and leaves of lettuce, chard, spinach and mustard become tough in texture and harsh in flavor.

Spring-sown carrot, beet and radish roots can be pulled from the ground anytime they are big enough to eat. To get the most out of midsummer sowings of root crops, though, leave them in the ground to grow full size to eat through autumn and winter. Spring sowings become coarse and woody if left too long in the ground, but midsummer sowings grow slowly enough in autumn so that the roots stay succulent. (Potatoes are an exception; they are tasty young or old.)

Leafy vegetables that form heads--Boston and iceberg lettuces, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, for example--need to be left in the ground at least until their heads form. Gently squeeze the developing heads with your hands. They are ready when they feel firm, except for the Boston lettuces, which taste best when the heads are still slightly loose.

Vegetables that are, botanically, fruits are a bit trickier to harvest than those with edible roots, shoots or leaves. (Botanically, a fruit is a matured ovary, which means that fruits usually have seeds. Tomatoes, botanically, are fruits.)

Some vegetable-fruits are harvested when immature, which is before their seeds are hard and ripe. In this category are summer squash, okra and beans, all of which are ready to eat as soon as the fruits are big enough to eat. You even can eat small squashes while they still have flowers attached. Peas are ready for harvest just as soon as they have filled out their pods. Snow peas, though, are ready when the peas just barely bulge within their flat pods.

Peppers, although often eaten green and underripe, become sweet, juicy and red or yellow (or purple or chocolate on some varieties) when thoroughly ripe.

Eggplant, cucumbers and corn are ready for harvest when they have reached full size, but before their seeds mature. Pick eggplants while their skins are still glossy.

Pick cucumbers just as soon as their wrinkly skins puff out. What about those that are swollen at one end and skinny at the other end? These humorous-looking cukes result from fluctuating soil moisture or incomplete pollination. Take your choice: Pick when the skinny end is ready and the fat end is overripe, or vice versa.

Winter squashes are ripe when their skins are tough enough to resist indentation with a fingernail. There is no rush to harvest ripe winter squashes, because the fruits will store for months at this stage.

Unopened flowers are the edible parts of broccoli and cauliflower, and this is how they should be picked--before the flowers begin to open.

The easiest vegetable to harvest is the onion. This vegetable is edible at any stage of growth, from the young tender shoots that push out of the soil in spring to the bulbs maturing beneath the flopped over, yellowing leaves.

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