Grow fast and pick young! That is the rule for getting the best flavour and texture from your home produce. Vegetables picked past their peak often become bitter and stringy. Choose your time of day too. Midday sun will cause leafy greens to wilt temporarily, so harvest these in the early morning or late afternoon.
With these things in mind, there are still some particular harvesting rules that apply for different vegetables. Here is a list of popular vegetables and the key harvesting criteria you need to know.
Harvest spears when they are 15-20cm long. Stop harvesting after 2 months to allow spears to develop foliage that will produce food for the plant and restore the energy needed to keep it productive.
Pick when firm enough to snap and before the seeds start to bulge. Beans mature quickly so harvest daily and store in the fridge if necessary.
Harvest a few outside leaves for adding to salads, but always keep at least 4-5 leaves to produce food for the plant. The beets themselves can be harvested from the time they are 4-5cm wide (baby beets) up to 15cm wide giants.
Use a sharp knife to harvest the head of broccoli before the flower buds open. The stems become progressively stringier once the yellow flowers appear - remove these. Many broccoli varieties continue to produce side florets after initial harvest. Check and harvest plants daily.
Mature head feels solid when squeezed. Harvest before the head splits open and produces a flower stem.
Harvest anytime the diametre of the tops look a reasonable size (baby carrots). Harvest these to thin the rows and give remaining carrots more space to mature.
Harvest as soon as the head looks full
First sign that a cob is ready is when the silks at the top of the cob have turned brown. Peel back some of the sheath and prick one of the kernels with your fingernal. The kernels should release a slightly milky substance when ready.
Harvest young when the fruit are firm and smooth – size depends on the variety. They develop quickly so check and harvest daily.
Use secateurs to harvest when firm and shiny. Younger fruit are less bitter than fully mature fruit.
Heading lettuces like iceberg – harvest when head feels firm when squeezed. Loose-leaf varieties – pick outer leaves from the time plants are around 15cm wide. Leave at least 10 inner leaves to allow the plant to keep growing.
Pick when pods are plump. Peas are generally sweeter when slightly immature. Test a few to gauge your preferred size and sweetness.
Spuds are ready when the tops die down. You can harvest 'new’ potatoes from the time plants are flowering.
Mature fruit are ready for harvest when they are plump and have lost their shine. Use secateurs to cut them away from the vine, and leave a short stem on the fruit to avoid protect from fruit rotting bacteria.
Harvest as the bulbs rise above the soil and develop to the size of a large marble (depending on variety). Radishes mature and seed quickly so check regularly.
Silverbeet and English spinach
Treat like loose leaf lettuce.
Harvest when fully ripe on vine for best flavour.
Ripe fruit make a deep pitched sound when tapped. Also, the spot at the base of the fruit will change from white to yellow.
Harvest when 15-20cm long. Fruit become more watery and less flavoursome as they increase in size. Check and harvest daily.
When you grow your own food, there will often be times when you have too much of something. Then of course, there will be other times you will wish you had more. This is the feast or famine cycle that every gardener experiences. The trick is to learn how to best manage the cycle. Preserving, sharing and swapping is a great way to deal with your excess and as you get into the swing of growing, you can plan your planting so that you always have something coming on.
Gardeners have been preserving their excess produce for centuries. Almost anything you grow can be preserved in some way. Pickling is perfect for things like cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot; tomatoes can be bottled and turned into sauces and other produce like peas and beans can be lightly blanched, bagged and frozen.
Another way to offload your excess is to share it with others. Whenever you have a bumper harvest, be sure to pass on a few packages of fresh produce to friends and neighbours. It was only a generation or two ago when most people where growing a bit of something to swap and share, and rarely had to go to the shops for fresh produce.
The "Urban Orchard" is a modern take on this concept. It is a place where people within a local community can meet on a regular basis to share their excess. These events usually take place in a local hall and provide a great way for growers to share their produce, as well as their knowledge and skills. There are "Urban Orchards" established all over Australia. Click here to find out where they are. You will also find information on how to start one in your community.
After weeks of enjoying your favourite vegetables at their freshest, it is frustrating when you run out, but if you plan and stagger your planting, you will always have something to bring into the kitchen. Plant a few seed of fruiting crops like tomatoes, beans and cucumbers every six to eight weeks during their growing season so that you always have new plants coming into fruit. With leafy vegies like lettuce and bok choy, plant three or four seedlings a fortnight to guarantee an ongoing supply of fresh leaves for salads and stir-fries. The quantities you will need to plant depend on the number of people in your household and the amount you use. Keep a few basic records to help you develop your perfect planting plan, and don’t forget to plan ahead for the crops that you need to have ready for planting in the following season.