Here’s how to pick your produce at the peak of perfection.
In the garden, it’s rush hour. After the early summer ritual of patience you’ve endured waiting for that garden full of green tomatoes to start blushing red, it’s time. Those carefully placed starts you planted a few months ago have undoubtedly engulfed one another, and boom!……You’ve won the veggie lottery. Let’s manage that payout like a boss.
Knowing what to look for in the garden can make all the difference in a successful meal, gift, or quality of preserved product. One reason locally grown produce tastes so much better is that we have the luxury of harvesting at peak ripeness. Most trucked-in produce is picked with durability rather than flavor in mind. The perfect tomato refuses to travel 1,000 miles crammed in a freight liner. The perfect tomato rides in luxury on the top of the basket directly to the kitchen.
The tips here are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. There is an enormous amount of diversity within each vegetable family that is outside the scope of this article. However, these guidelines can help you harvest at the right time.
As most fruits and vegetables ripen, their sugar content increases rapidly. In agriculture this measurement is known as Brix. However, the more ripe and sweet a vegetable becomes, the shorter its shelf life. Pick that perfectly ripe tomato and give it to your boss, and it could very well be a fruit fly casino within days, which frankly isn’t going to get you that promotion.
When it comes to cucumbers and summer squash, the opposite is true. These cucurbits are the sweetest and most flavorful when they are quite small, and that flavor seems to dilute as they grow larger. When it comes to zucchini, I’ll pick them as soon as I see them, and unless you’ve had zucchini the size of gherkins lightly sautéed in butter, then you have not truly lived.
Knowing when and how to harvest the perfect tomato depends on what you plan to do with it. A beefsteak tomato in your BBLT for lunch? (That’s right, I’m not afraid to double down on that bacon.) Maybe this tomato is part of a harvest basket designed to gain you some street cred with your neighbors. Perhaps you are paying enough attention to current world events that you’re running constant batches in the canner to prepare for what is surely the impending collapse of global civilization. Or maybe you’re going for all three. Boss move right there.
Perfectly ripe: This is usually quite easy to tell by color, but gets a little more difficult when you start growing heirloom varieties that ripen green! When you look at the structure of the tomato fruit, above the point where the stem attaches to the fruit you’ll see what looks like a knuckle. Gently lift the tomato, and if perfectly ripe this knuckle will release in a gesture that is nothing short of the plant gifting it to you. Effortless release. I’ll often wander the garden shamelessly fondling tomatoes until they simply fall into my hand.
Gifting and canning: In both of these instances we want to harvest our fruits ideally a few days ahead of perfectly ripe. This gives the recipients of our tomatoes a few days of storage, and in canning we want a slightly firmer fruit (and often it takes several days of harvest before we have enough to process.) Look for fruits that look mature, but don’t readily release from the plant, and clip 1/2”-1” of stem above the fruit. Keeping the stem intact increases the storage life of the fruit.
In a similar fashion to tomatoes, a suggestive lift will help you determine whether or not the plant is ready to part ways with its fruit. Rather than the knuckle on the stem above the tomato, the pepper has a smooth stem that will release directly from where it attaches to the plant. Almost all colored peppers start as fully sized green peppers, then slowly turn yellow, red, brown, even purple or black, as they ripen. That’s why green peppers are cheaper than their colored counterparts. It’s almost like time is money.
Hot peppers: When dealing with hot peppers, letting peppers ripen as long as possible not only increases their Brix content, but it’s also reputed to increase the amount of capsaicin, which is what gives peppers their “heat.”
Cucumbers and summer squash
These plants want to mature massive fruit full of seeds, and the kitchen savvy want just the opposite. Unlike tomatoes and peppers, you’re going to have to take your bounty by force, as the plants do not want to give them up readily. Harvest these as small and as often as you can, and they’ll keep coming. In fact, the more you harvest, the more the plant will produce, whereas if you let any single fruit get huge and fully mature, you run the risk of the plant stopping production. I usually clip the stem 1/2” above the fruit. Leaving the stem intact increases storage life. (*Note: Armenian cucumbers are technically melons, so feel free to let them get huge.)
Now this one is an art form. In a manner similar to tomatoes and peppers, a ripe melon will willingly follow you back into the house. With nothing more than a gentle nudge on the stem at the base of the fruit, it should slip off and liberate the fruit. Ripe melons often give off a signature aroma, so don’t be afraid to get down on your hands and knees and smell away. And while the softness of the melon will increase after harvest, the sweetness never will. Don’t pick that melon prematurely, it’s worth the wait.
These are typically harvested all at once. It’s easiest to do immediately after the first light frost. The vine will die back, revealing the mature fruits. The light frost will also serve to sweeten the squash, although repeated frosts can damage the fruit. Clip with a couple inches of stem intact to increase storage life, and cure for two weeks at 70-80 degrees before storing in a cool dark place.
James Loomis is the Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens.