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Organic Gardening: Making most of the summer harvest

Brian Allnutt
Special to The Detroit News

Right now, a well-cared for vegetable garden should be a food production dynamo spitting out tomatoes and green beans like a slot machine that has just registered three identical pieces of fruit. If your garden is failing to do this or if the quality of the produce is not what you want it to be, then perhaps it’s time to reassess your harvesting process. After all, you’ve worked all summer to take care of these plants and a little extra care now can make sure that you get the vegetable payoff you deserve.

Starting with tomatoes – the primary reason many of us bother to garden at all – make sure to wait until the fruit is fully ripe before you pull it off the plant. This can be tricky because certain heirlooms don’t fully turn red. The best way to tell if a tomato is ripe is by feel. Gently squeeze it with your fingertips going from the blossom end up to the stem. It should be soft almost up to the shoulders and only firm around the stem. Harvest it by holding the fruit from the bottom and rolling it towards the stem until it snaps off.

Harvest tomatoes and other summer fruit, which includes eggplant, peppers, summer squash and cucumbers, in mid-day when the dew has melted off the plants. This lessens the chance of transporting plant diseases that might be carried by water on the plants’ leaves.

Harvest red peppers – and nearly all peppers will turn red if left on the plant long enough and it’s sufficiently hot – when fully red or nearly so. Cut them off at the stem with a pair of bypass pruners. If you want green peppers, snip them off as soon as they’ve reached a decent size and the sides of the pepper register resistance to a decent squeeze. Try testing your technique on unsuspecting produce at the grocery store to get an idea of what a ripe pepper feels like.

Eggplant can be taken at any point in their maturation, provided the skin is still glossy. If it turns a mat color then you know you’ve waited too long and can apply this lesson to your next round of harvesting.

As for cucumbers and other squash, gardeners frequently stumble upon cucumbers and zucchini that have assumed monster proportions. Although these fruit bare an entertaining resemblance to the club used by Bamm-Bamm in “The Flintstones,” but they don’t taste very good. Squash are best when on the small side, say 6 inches or so. Getting them at this size requires checking on them every other day. Consider creating a harvest schedule for yourself and placing it on the refrigerator, so that you remember to go out and harvest squash and beans every other day and tomatoes, eggplant and peppers at least three times a week.

With squash especially, it’s important to harvest any overly large fruit if only to throw it in the compost pile. This sends a signal to the plant to keep producing. This is also important for bush and pole beans, which can send out a prodigious amount of food. Beans are nearly always tastiest at about 4-inches long.

All of the above foods can be refrigerated except for tomatoes, which should be stored on a counter, stem side down so that they don’t collapse under their own weight. If you refrigerate a tomato it will lose its sugar content and become a tasteless waste of time. In general it’s best to get these plants from the garden onto the table as quickly as possible. This is when they will have the highest content of both sugars and vitamins, making them superior to store bought food in every way.

Brian Allnut is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at detroitfarmandgarden@gmail.com.