Perfect Picking

Here's a description of the most common vegetables and fruits typically grown in home gardens:

Beans Green beans--the color green that is--are not supposed to look like a beaded necklace in a little green sleeve. The pods should be picked when they are still straight, without bulges. Same goes for yellow or purple "green" beans.

Beets, Turnips, Rutabagas Beets should be between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball when you pull them. And the same goes for turnips and rutabagas. (Don't knock them until you've tried them. They really are good in a stew, Cornish Pasty, or medley of roasted root vegetables. Notice they are vegetables? You are eating the roots! Carrots and onions are veggies, too. Technically you are eating an onion bulb, but it still counts as a vegetable.)

Carrots Carrots can stay in the ground even after the first frost--making storage from summer to about November a snap. Of course you can harvest as soon as they are big enough to look like carrots. But, how do you tell, since they are underground? Pull one and check! Just go out and get one when it's time for the Sunday roast or a picnic veggie plate. If your soil has dried out a little, use a spading fork to loosen the soil before trying to pull up the carrots. This will prevent you from coming away with just a handful of the lacy leafy greens.

Cucumbers Cucumbers--another of the lovely fruits--play a hide-and-seek game with you, and the winner gets the cucumber. Vines that were chugging out four, five, or six cucumbers a day can suddenly stop altogether. No new blossoms, no fruit, nothing to pick at all. That signals the start of the game. You need to very carefully, perhaps even on bended knee, search under every leaf and stem until you find the bulging, no longer little, cucumber that is probably even turning a little yellow on one side. Pick that blasted over-blown cucumber and it will be like releasing water behind a plugged watering furrow. Whoosh—overnight blossoms appear, and in less than a week you are back to making little cucumber sandwiches! Pickling cucumbers usually have little pokey spines on them and can be picked from the time they are two inches long. Slicing cucumbers, usually the ones with the smooth skin, can be picked when they are from 6-16 inches long, depending on the variety.

Melons Remember, melons don't store well at all! Therefore, eating is the only answer to the question of what to do with them once they are ripe. But that brings us to yet another question--how do you tell when they are ripe?

Watermelons should be good to eat when the little pigtail tendril opposite the stem that hooks the watermelon to the vine is dried up and the underside of the melon has changed from a dull cream color to yellow.

Rather than, or sometimes in addition to, the tendril checking, some gardeners prefer the "thump-thump" method. An unripe melon is supposed to sound like you just thumped somebody's head. I've heard it said "your own" head, but I think that complicates the method by the echo you hear through your skull. (At least that's my excuse for not getting the underripe diagnosis "correct.") Ripeness is signaled when the thump sounds like a solid whack against your chest. The oh-rats-it's-too-ripe sound is like you thwacked your abdomen.

Some melons "slip" or come off the vine easily when ready. Many muskmelons and cantaloupes do this. It is an easy way to judge the melons--just lift and tilt, and if they drop off the stem easily, they are ready! Sometimes it does lead to over-ripe fruit because nobody went out and checked yesterday or the day before when they were perfect, but now they are mushy and have a yucky taste.

Corn Fresh corn is an absolute treat--and with the super sweet varieties it almost qualifies as a dessert! Picking corn is easy--grab the husk-covered ear and twist it off the stalk. Being able to tell if it is ripe is another skill all together. Peel back the husk a little--just a little, because you may need to leave that ear on the stalk a while longer--to expose the little kernels. Poke one with a fingernail and if juice squirts out it's time to pick. If the little kernel still has the silk attached or is rather flat instead of plump, you need to wait a couple of days. If the kernel is big and tightly packed against the other kernels and when you poke with a fingernail it just dents in, sorry Charlie; you waited too long.

With the newly developed super sweet varieties of corn, you can actually put the ears in the fridge for a day or two and it will still be perfectly sweet and ready to eat. In the "olden" days, it was often said that the way to have a perfect ear of corn on the cob was this: Get a big pot of water and bring the water to a boil. Only after it's boiling do you go to the garden to pick the corn. Then you start running back to the kitchen, but if you fall down on the way by the time you get up, the corn is too old and you'll need to go back and pick fresher ears!

Most corn has been harvested by September.

Onions Onions meant to be used as green onions, or scallions, can be pulled as soon as they are pencil-sized. Leave them in the ground with enough space, and some of them will grow to "slice them for a hamburger" size. They should be pulled before a hard frost.

Peppers Ripe peppers have a much sweeter taste than the not-quite-ripe green ones. Sweet or bell peppers will change color when they are ripe! So be daring and let them become red, yellow, orange or purple peppers. Hot peppers change color too. The color changes when they approach their full size.

The hottest parts of the pepper are the seeds and the whitish ribs on the inside of the fruit. (There's that fruit thing again! Seeds inside equals fruit.) You can tone down the heat a little by removing those parts before chopping or slicing or stuffing or whatever tasty thing you do with your peppers. And do be careful when handling those fiery gems. Be sure to wear gloves and remember to wash your hands very well with soap and water before rubbing your eyes, nose, or any other sensitive areas.

Tomatoes One of the reasons gardeners and eaters love home-grown tomatoes is that there is actually flavor in them thar red/yellow/orange "tomaters." That wonderful taste difference can be explained at least in part because home gardeners actually let the tomatoes ripen before picking them. Commercially produced tomatoes must be picked green so they can survive the long journey to your local market, hence the flavorless crunch of store-bought offerings.

But to really rank higher on the delight scale than those from the grocery produce department, tomatoes must be picked when just perfectly ripe--or very close so they can ripen on your counter.

Tomatoes need to be uniformly the color intended (red, yellow, orange, purple, and so on), and need to nearly fall into your palm when you put your hand under the fruit and lift with a slight twist. Sometimes the little stem comes with the tomato, sometimes not--it doesn't matter. But if you're tugging rather vigorously before the tomato reluctantly gives up its home, you should consider coming back in a day or two and try it again. Remember, actual taste is worth waiting for.

Summer Squash In order for summer squashes such as zucchini and yellow crookneck to be at their tender best, pick zucchini when they are a maximum of six to eight inches long. The baby squash that are so expensive in the store are yours for the picking, too. Just snap off any summer squash when they are only 2 to 3 inches long, and you'll have a gourmet's delight.

If your family is from Italy (or not) and has a traditional recipe for stuffed zucchini, you may want to let one, two, or more approach 12 inches long. This will take only an extra day or two, so don't let your family heritage lull you into a lackadaisical approach to squash harvest. Vigilance is the watchword for tending the summer squash plot. And when picking, always keep an eye out for the one hiding under one of the huge leaves--oh, it's there all right. And if left alone to continue its zucchini or yellow squash tendency, it will not only turn into that baseball bat, but because the seeds inside are starting to mature, the entire plant will concentrate on that one fruit, and stop producing the little squash that are soooo good to eat.

Harvest From Fruit Trees

Apples Cut an apple in half to check for ripeness--dark brown seeds indicate a ripe apple, but maybe still not at the peak of the sweetness. Many apples are sweetest after the first couple of light frosts.

Peaches For peaches to be at their sweetest, the sunshine should hit the fruit. Proper pruning in the early spring should create an open-centered tree to expose the fruit to the sun. A ripe peach should fall into your hand when you put your palm under the fruit and lift up and twist slightly. The fruit should give slightly when you squeeze gently. They develop their sweetest flavor when ripened on the tree, so don't be in a hurry to pick them.

Pears Pears need to be picked while still green, both in color and ripeness. If left to ripen on the tree, pears develop "stone cells" which feel very gritty when you chew the fruit. Pick the pears just as the little tiny spots or dots appear on the skin. Put them on the counter or in a paper bag to finish ripening. Check every day and when they are yellow and give slightly when you squeeze them, they are ready to eat.

Plums A gentle squeeze and then a taste test will let you know if they are ripe--and will really jolt the old taste buds if they aren't!

--- Excerpted from Joy in Your Garden: A Seasonal Guide to Gardening, by Joy Bossi and Karen Bastow, Cedar Fort 2010. Now available at amazon.com.

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