How to Pick Herbs and Vegies for Top Crops
Have you always wanted to know the ideal time to harvest your vegetables and herbs? What about the best way to pick them without damaging the plant? This post answers both these questions and I share some tips from personal experience to help maximise your yield.
Timing – WHEN to harvest
The short answer to this is – the timing varies with each crop. However, there are some handy guidelines on what to grow when that give you a good indication approximately how long you have to wait to savour the delicious veggies and herbs you grow!
Here are a few tips …
- Seed packets generally help you get a better understanding of the timing too. Check the number of days to maturity.
- Keep a Garden Journal. As a new gardener many years ago, I kept a record in my journal that helped me make notes on my observations. I recorded what I planted when, which techniques I tried, problems and solutions I used. I also recorded dates so I knew roughly when produce was going to be ready to harvest. This is a tremendous help until you become familiar with each variety. I have shared the Garden Journal I created and have used for years so you can try the same worksheets and templates. Keep in a file and refer back year after year.
- There are also some great books you can borrow from any library that will provide a wealth of information on specific harvest times for each vegetable. They will vary slightly depending on variety and climate.
Visually, as gardeners, we gradually learn to be patient and not pick before crops are ready.
Pumpkins for example, may appear big enough to cut and eat. However, they are best not harvested until the stem dries out, becomes hard and the vine dies off. Picked before then, the seeds may not be mature enough to save. Also, the flavour will not be at its peak and pumpkins may taste quite bland instead of sweet because sugars have not fully developed. Stalks should be cut at least 5cm (2in) from the fruit to maximise storage life. Allow the pumpkins to dry out in the sun for a few days to toughen their skin.
When to harvest also depends on:
- what varieties you are growing
- the weather conditions and
- how impatient you are!
For example, beans – you can pick these while they are young and tender or wait a few more days until they are fully grown. Once you’ve got enough for a good handful, I’m sure they’ll be on your plate! As soon as they are mature, they should be harvested as this is when they are at their nutritional best.
There is a big difference in maturity times between bean varieties. Some in as little as 6 weeks such as runner beans which can keep producing for up to 4 months. Other climbing and bush beans start producing around 9 weeks giving you a bountiful harvest over about 3 months.
Zucchinis are best picked young (about 10cm (4in) long if you want to pickle them) as they grow very quickly in warm weather and can quite literally turn into a marrow overnight!
Plants are using a huge amount of energy during flowering and fruiting. So it’s important to make sure they have sufficient soil nutrition to help them produce an abundant crop and are well watered during this time. A foliar spray (on both sides of the leaves) of liquid kelp/seaweed also boosts the micro-nutrients. This builds the plant’s immune system, making it more resistant to pest and disease.
When harvesting plants such as leafy greens, they will contain the most moisture in the morning before the heat of the day. If you want to avoid consuming unnecessary nitrates in your diet, try to pick leafy greens late afternoon/early evening instead. This allows time for sunlight to convert nitrates.
Late afternoon, the plants will release or ‘share’ at least 30% of the energy they have produced through photosynthesis during the day with the root zone. This helps to feed beneficial microorganisms that directly benefit the plant. In this symbiotic relationship, the microbes in turn, release nutrients for the plant to uptake and keep growing. Nature’s little miracle happening every day!
The flip side to harvesting is sowing seeds and planting seedlings regularly – enough for your needs, but not TOO many.
If you don’t plant regularly enough, you’ll run out of fresh produce. However, you can actually have too much of a good thing! An over-abundant garden means you either have to find 100 ways with your prolific vegetables, process and store them, give them away or find a market to sell your surplus. I have found in practice, that picking 20kg of tomatoes in one day is not only hard work in the garden but once back in the kitchen, they have to be washed, sorted and their fate decided! It may sound a dream to have that much fresh produce but in reality it creates a ‘problem’ of another kind!
Succession planting is the practice of continually sowing or planting new produce to replace what is being harvested.
One of the keys to a continuous supply of ‘incredible edibles’ is to:
‘Sow little and often.’ – Anne Gibson
This is my mantra! I learned the hard way – it’s a waste of money, time and effort to produce 6 lettuces all ready at once if you only eat salad once or twice a week! If all your beans are finished, what greens will be available next week?
“Having plenty to eat is about forward planning, just like you would menu plan and make up a shopping list!”
You will soon see the wisdom of planting little and often. A punnet of seedlings each week means you will have a variety of fresh produce ready for harvesting all the time, at different stages of development. I plant (or transplant) seedlings or sow new seeds every weekend. So our garden is full of plants in the growing cycle – from babies to adults and every stage in between! This means we always have seasonal salad leaves, vegetables, herbs and fruit to eat throughout the year.
I’m an impatient gardener I must admit! I’ve realised to achieve a bountiful harvest on a regular basis, you need to do a little planning. I recommend systemising everything you do in the garden to take the shortest possible time for the greatest reward.
Here are my tips:
- Be organised with a system for planting seedlings and sowing seeds.
- Use recipes for potting and seed raising mix.
- Keep a fertilising schedule so you don’t waste money unnecessarily.
- Have various methods of composting waste, depending on the space you have.
- Keep garden tools and supplies close at hand in a flexible bucket with handles so you can garden in just a few minutes if you need to.
- That leaves more time for harvesting fresh organic home-grown produce and preparing great meals in the kitchen!
HOW to Harvest
Another aspect to harvesting is the way in which we ‘pick’ produce: that is, whether we ‘pull,’ ‘pluck’ or ‘cut’ the crop!
Plants can be damaged if we are too rough. I like to take a basket out to the garden with a sharp knife or small pair of scissors (handy for herbs) for harvesting fresh produce. The basket is ideal because that way delicate salad leaves and herbs don’t get bruised in my hands or unnecessarily dirty and can be laid gently to one side. Heavier and more robust veggies like beetroot, carrots, potatoes, capsicum, cucumber, broccoli, cabbage and eggplant can rest on the other side of the basket or be harvested first with the salad leaves and herbs picked last and left on top.
Vegetables to Cut when Harvesting
- Asian greens – like Pak choy, Tatsoi and Bok choy – cut outer individual leaves or the whole mature plant when the ‘head’ is still tight.
- Beans – especially brittle bush beans which can be easily damaged by pulling out more than you want.
- Beetroot – cut leaves to use in salads especially the tender new ones if you can get them to your table before nature does! The root can be pulled up for use later but make sure you keep some leaves on the plant so it can keep photosynthesizing and growing.
- Broccoli – use a knife to cut the head on a slant quite low down on the stalk – new side shoots will continue to produce and can be cut in the same way.
- Capsicum & Chillis – can be cut when still green or if you are patient enough, wait until they turn red, orange or yellow depending on the variety! Stems are easily damaged – pulling them off will likely snap the brittle stem.
- Cucumber – always cut the fruit from the plant as they have shallow roots and you will likely uproot the whole plant trying to pull a cucumber off!
- Eggplant – use a sharp knife to snip off the fruit from the plant.
- Lettuce – snip the outer leaves off non-hearting varieties with a knife or slice the whole head at the base if you are harvesting the entire plant. Lettuces are very shallow rooted so never pull the plant or you will end up with it all in your hand!
- Pumpkin – use a sharp knife or secateurs to snip the dry hard stalk from the vine about 5cm from the fruit. If a stalk breaks off where the fruit joins the stem, use it up quickly as once the skin is broken the fruit will not keep long.
- Rocket, Silverbeet and Spinach– cut leaves as needed from the outside in. Smaller leaves are more tender than the larger ones.
With lettuces, I usually choose to grow non-hearting varieties. So I can ‘pick and pluck’ leaves from the outside in on a regular basis rather than having to cut a whole head of lettuce off in one go. This gives our family a lot more flexibility. I can pick a few leaves for a quick, one person salad for lunch or do the round up of all lettuces with plenty of leaves and just take a couple from each. This ‘leaves’ (no pun intended!) enough leaves for the plant to keep photosynthesizing and growing, even after harvesting. If you strip off all the leaves, the plant can’t keep up with the harvesting!
This is exactly what happened some time ago when I was encouraging our daughter to try growing and tasting a variety of different lettuces to see which were her favourites. She decided on ‘Baby Cos’ and so we succession planted a number each week. When the first ones were ready for harvesting, she made salads every day and whilst I was thrilled with her newfound enthusiasm for all things green, one poor little Cos had been stripped bare and was looking quite miserable with no ‘clothes’ on! I explained to her the concept of leaving a few leaves (clothes) on so the lettuce could still continue to produce energy and keep growing. After a good dose of seaweed foliar spray, two days later the plucky little lettuce had new baby leaves emerging and managed to recover to feed us several more times!
With herbs, if you have favourites that you use regularly (culinary or medicinal), I suggest growing a few extra plants so some can recover while you are picking from others. Most of them are delicate and shallow rooted so need a little extra care when harvesting.
Here is a guideline to harvesting some of the most common herbs
- Basil – Needs to be tip pruned (pinch off the top leaves and any flowers that are forming) on a regular basis even if you don’t need to use it in the kitchen otherwise the plant will flower and go to seed. Once flowers form, the plant stops producing leaves and puts its energy into producing seeds.
- Chives – Use a sharp knife or scissors to snip off the base of the chives and give the plant a clean cut.
- Mint– Hard to kill or stop spreading, mint is almost indestructible just so long as it has moisture – snip what you need from the larger more mature leaves and allow growing tips to mature.
- Sage – snip the young tender leaves as you need them as long as you don’t cut back more than half the plant, otherwise it will stop producing. Harvest sage in the morning when the leaves have dried from morning dew but before the sun’s heat disperses the essential oils that give sage its delicious flavour and aroma. This is the time when the herb will be at its peak.
- Shallots – Always cut from the outside in. You will soon see new shoots emerging from the centre of the plant to replace the outer leaves.
- Thyme – This rambling herb is very shallow rooted so use a pair of scissors or secateurs to gently snip what you need and avoid uprooting the whole plant.
If you grow two of your favourite herb plants, you can leave one to go to flower for seed saving and keep another for harvesting leaves for the kitchen.
Happy harvesting! Be patient – nature’s abundance will come with a little TLC!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Grow Your Own Herb Tea Garden. If you’d like to learn more about the health benefits of growing and using herbs, there is a wealth of practical information on over 500 herbs, spices and edible plants in the excellent book “How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life?” – one of the most often used books in my home library. It’s rarely on the bookshelf because we’re always referring to it or sharing the information with friends and visitors!
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.