Pine Bluffs Post - Serving all of Eastern Laramie County since 1908



September 10, 2020

Courtesy of Linda Heath

Above: Mike Heath harvesting corn, checking for ripeness.

Harvest is here and I'm running late. That seems to be the norm anymore. My entire life I've made a point to be on time and now I always seem to be late for everything. Is that the real benefit of being retired? Never enough time to get everything done? Linda got me a small nameplate for my desk last Christmas. It says, "I'm not retired, I'm a professional Grandpa." True enough, but I can't blame me staying behind schedule on being Grandpa. I really do have more to do than I did before I retired. And it gets even worse at harvest. That's one event that simply won't wait. When vegetables are ready, they're ready.

I had corn ready about two weeks ago but it was coming in a bit slow. Some ears were ready but many were still filling. I decided to wait to pick even though I know better. I convinced myself that the ears that were ready could wait and give the others time to fill. They got the last laugh. We freeze our corn, but this year I kept the best looking ears back for a big cookout with friends coming over for dinner. Rather than being the plump, juicy kernels that I'm accustomed to I had large, dry, and hard kernels. Not that the corn was especially bad, but it wasn't as good as it would have been if I'd harvested on time. The bottom line is that I'm going to harvest the rest first thing in the morning. We did freeze 39 pints out of the first round of corn and I hope it tastes better than the corn on the cob we had at dinner. I did eat a fresh ear, right out of the husk and raw, for breakfast and it was great. So maybe it'll be all right.

Vegetables will tell you when they're ready to pick if you're diligent and paying attention to them. As we've discussed before, you have to know what to expect for the varieties you planted last spring. That is the first and most critical piece of information you need prior to harvest. If you don't know what to look for you'll never know when it's the right time to harvest your fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes, for me at least, can be a bit tricky. There are so many varieties to choose from, and so many colors, that I have a hard time knowing when the "non-red" varieties are ready to pick. Recently, a friend gave me a couple of heirloom tomatoes that had some red on the skin, but they tended more toward purple with some green stripes thrown in for good measure. I knew she wouldn't give me tomatoes that were already rotting so I brought them home and planned to have them for supper that night. When I cut the first one open it was almost black inside. Frankly, it didn't look very appetizing and I was a bit leery of continuing this culinary adventure. I did take a bite and, lo and behold, it was very good. I tell you this to make a point. If I didn't have an idea what I was looking at, I would have thought this tomato was rotten. It wasn't. That's what this particular variety is supposed to look like. Tomatoes can be almost any color under the rainbow. For me, I'll stick to the standard, red varieties or maybe a yellow cherry-style tomato. Some things are just too much for my mind to process in my "retirement" years. Easy tends to be my philosophy anymore.

Melons are another fruit that can be a bit tricky, especially for the inexperienced. My father had always told me to thump the melon and listen for a hollow sound. That meant it was ripe and could be picked. Over the years I learned that wasn't necessarily the case. It works okay if you have to pick early but a melon doesn't really have the sugar it needs to be really good at that stage of development. Commercial growers have to pick a little earlier than those of us at home because their produce has a pipeline time before it gets to the grocery store shelf. For me anyway, I like to pick and eat. Just hearing the hollow sound doesn't say that the sugar content is ready for picking. Instead, look at the stem where it comes out of the melon. When the stem starts to dry up it's no longer feeding the fruit. That's the best time to pick. Most melons will store for a short time after harvesting and the sugar content will continue to increase. That just makes the melon sweeter. Just be sure to eat it before it starts going soft.

Peas and beans are another vegetable to watch closely. Fortunately, they will give you a little more time if you don't pick them right away, but not much. They tend to get tough and/or stringy if left on the vine too long. If you can keep them picked on a regular basis, they'll also continue to produce a lot longer. When you take the stress of growing a seed pod from the plant, it will produce more blooms and pods. That just makes your harvest more abundant. The real question here is, "when do I start harvesting?" Again, you have to know your variety, especially with peas. Beans are pretty similar. There are some different colors, purples, and yellows primarily, but for the most part they are pretty much the same when it comes time to harvest. Look for the pod to be filled out and plump. The pod should be firm, but slightly limber. After you've harvested a few, you'll learn to recognize a full seed pod by the feel. A pod that's older may look withered or be less pliable. It could even have dried on the plant and be brown. That doesn't mean that it is bad, just dry. One of the great things about most beans is that you can let them dry on the plant then harvest and preserve them as dried beans. Or you can harvest too early. Not a problem either because they'll just be more tender when you cook them.

Peas, on the other hand, are little more difficult. Primarily because there are more varieties and color isn't the only difference. Snow peas, sugar peas, and shell peas all look different and it's slightly more difficult to know when to pick. Snow and sugar peas can be eaten pod and all. So picking them younger and more tender is best. Some varieties won't even form much of a pea. The pod is the primary product. For those varieties that do form a good seed look for a full pod. Pea pods are thin enough that you can actually put the pod up against a light and see the seed inside. The sun in the early morning works well. If you pick any variety of pea too young, don't worry about it. It'll just be more tender. Eat it anyway. Even with shell peas (those that are intended to be shelled before cooking) a young pod can be eaten without shelling. Young, pliable pods can even be cut and left in your finished product for a mix of pods and shelled peas.

Root vegetables are more difficult. You need to go more on time with them because you can't see the final product until you dig it up and you can't put it back in the ground. If it isn't ready, stop harvesting and give them a little more time. If you're too late, the leaves may start drawing on the root (the part you're after) for nutrients and it will start to shrink. But usually as long as you get them harvested before the ground freezes you'll be okay.

The greatest thing about harvest though is the great eating you'll have later. There's nothing like fresh fruits and vegetables, from the garden to the table. Now we're almost through the complete cycle: preparing the soil, planting, maintaining, harvest, and preservation. Then it'll be time to simply enjoy the fruits of your labor. And if you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.


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