When summer hits and the garden is in full swing, I spend a lot of time processing its bounty to enjoy later. But the greatest joy of growing your own garden is immediately eating the sun-warmed peppers, crisp snap beans, and brilliant orange carrots you’ve produced. No matter how well you preserve a fruit or vegetable, it’s still a substitute for fresh-from-the-plant flavor.
Fortunately, eating freshly harvested produce is easy. A walk through the garden has you snapping off a peapod here, grabbing a cherry tomato there, and collecting a handful of raspberries that you pop straight into your mouth. But grazing is just the beginning. This blog already offers some of my favorite fresh recipes for asparagus, corn, and zucchini and tomatoes. The key to making these fresh-tasting dishes is knowing when and how to pluck the choicest edibles.
You choose fruits and vegetables all the time, whether from the garden, at the farmer’s market, or in the grocery store, and you likely know to look for bruises and broken skin, withered ends and dry stems, and excessive hardness or softness that signal a poor choice. It can be a bit different in the garden, where everything is bright and fresh. Every season, I have to remind myself to avoid falling into a few harvest traps by using these best practices.
Harvest Early, or At Least Smartly
The list of reasons for picking your fruit and vegetables in the morning is long, and some of them are so commonsense that we give them little thought. It’s cooler in the morning, which helps to keep both freshly picked produce and you from wilting. Cooler temperatures also mean peak water content within the produce; midday heat draws out that water and nutrients to the detriment of flavor, texture, and shelf life.
Unfortunately, few of us can allow our schedules to be dictated by basil and beans, and we’re often forced to harvest whenever we have a few spare moments. The eminent British gardener Christopher Lloyd wrote in The Well-Tempered Garden that “When you do your pruning, planting or transplanting matters not nearly so much as how you do it.” The same applies to harvesting. If you must harvest in the heat of the day, try to grab your veg while it’s still in the shade. It also helps to drop an ice pack in a cooler and take it to the garden with you so that your haul doesn’t go soft and limp while you work.
At the height of summer, harvesting and watering may demand the same timeslot: You don’t want to water your garden during the heat of the day any more than you want to harvest during it. Water under the sun and you can do more harm than good. Harvest while still wet and you run the risk of spreading disease and damage among the plants and rot among your yield. Evening watering is often just an invitation to pests such as slugs.
The ideal would be to get up with the twittering birds to turn on the water, return to shut off the tap, wait for the water and dew to dry, and then handle the harvest before the sun and heat bear down on your beds. Few schedules allow such a routine, and even fewer people can remember to complete each step every time. My solution is a timer. It not only lets you sleep in but also ensures you don’t forget to shut the water off. Like most devices, timers are only as knowledgeable as their operator: You’ll still need to monitor the weather, soil, and health of your plants, altering the watering schedule according to rainfall or dry, hot wind.
Plants are triggered to produce fruit: The cycle of growth from seed to leaves to flowers to fruit is all about returning the plant to its seed stage and restarting the cycle. If you pluck the fruit, the plant immediately concentrates on producing more fruit to generate seed. So keeping a close eye on your growing garden and grabbing the first handful of beans and pair of peppers only encourages your plants to produce more fruit—and give you a greater yield.
A pumpkin that weighs more than a ton may land you a world record, but you won’t want to eat it. Most vegetables reach maturity—and thus their peak in flavor and nutrients—while they are still quite small.
As a gardener, it can be tempting to let a cucumber, zucchini, or asparagus spear grow another day, until it’s just a little larger. It is equally easy for that day to turn into 3, all the time it takes for that vegetable to grow into a less flavorful giant. So go ahead and pick them small—the plant will grow more, and you’ll enjoy the best it has to offer.
Twice as Tasty
Freshly harvested fruits and vegetables are so delicious you won’t want to turn them into a slow-cooked sauce or heavily seasoned bake. A splash of oil, a quick flash in the pan, and they’re ready for the table. Most of my garden-fresh meals don’t need a recipe: They’re based on what’s ready in the garden and the easiest method of transforming the haul into a quick meal—preferably one that requires little time at the stove or oven in the heat of summer.
Still, some dishes have become favorites, with recipes that I follow most of the time. This month, I’ll introduce you to a mouth-watering way to eat squash blossoms, a garden delicacy that’s difficult—but not impossible—to enjoy out of season. I’ll also share some tasty quick tomato and wild fruit dishes that will make you forget the greens have already bolted. And you’ll become addicted to easily prepared and aptly named Summer Rolls. See you next week!
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