Permaculture aims to create the best natural conditions in which to grow edible produce. Gardeners look to provide all the nutrients and water plants need to thrive and produce healthy crops, to protect them from potential damage by weather events and temperature fluctuations, and to stop them being eaten by pest insects or succumbing to disease.
Having done all that to help cultivate a variety of vegetables to feed yourself and your family, it is important to know when to harvest crops so that they are at their best and most tasty (and also to prevent them spoiling before you eat them). Obviously, there are rough guides to the amount of time a plant should take to produce a harvestable crop, but with fluctuations in weather, microclimates and soil, going by the calendar is never an exact science. When you approach the ‘due date’ make a daily check on your crops to determine when to pick them. Here is a guide to some of the visual signs to look for so you can harvest at the right time.
Carrots are quite adaptable for harvesting. You can take them when they are young ‘baby’ carrots, for a slightly softer texture, but the mature varieties have the fullest flavour. A mature carrot is typically ready to harvest when the top of the vegetable is around 1 inch in diameter. Carrots planted in spring should be harvested before the hot weather of summer arrives, while those planted in the fall need to be out of the ground before the ground freezes in winter.
You really want to harvest heads of broccoli before the yellow flowers start to appear. The florets should be dark green and tightly packed together, with just the slightest bit of give in them if you prize a couple apart. Don’t forget that once you have harvested the main stem of a broccoli plant, the side shoots will continue to grow and give you a secondary, if smaller, harvest. Use the same visual signs for the side shoots as for the main head.
To determine when corn is ripe for the picking you need to feel it. The kernels should be plump and the silks (the outer covering) dry. As a general rule, the corn is ripe around 20 days after the first silk strands appear, but to be sure a maximum sweetness at harvest, pull back the silks and little a press a kernel with your thumbnail. If a milky sap exudes, it’s ready to go.
What to look for when harvesting peas depends on the variety, and whether you eat the pod or just the peas. For varieties like snap peas and snow peas, where the pod is part of the edible crop, look for pods that are thin but with a certain plumpness to the peas inside. It is better to harvest earlier rather than later so that the pod does not become starchy and tough. For varieties where you harvest the peas from the pod, you want maximum plumpness and a bright green color. The pod should open easily when gently squeezed.
You can harvest onions in two stages, the green and the bulb. The green stage means harvesting the young onions as scallions. They are best picked with the stem is around the thickness of a standard pencil and the green top leaves are around 7 inches tall. To harvest mature bulbs, waiting until about half the tops have fallen over by themselves, then bend over the remainder. A week after that, pick the bulbs. They should be firm and not dented by your fingers when picked. You need to ‘cure’ you harvest so the outer layers develop into the characteristic brown skin. Place the bulbs in a single layer in a dry, sheltered spot out of direct sunlight. The skins will form over a week or so. Trim the tops to around an inch above the top of the bulb.
If you are not harvesting baby potatoes (dug out two weeks after the blooms of the plant appear), you can tell when your mature potatoes are ready by noting when the tops above ground die down. Two weeks after this happens, the crop is ready. The delay allows the potatoes to develop the tougher outer skin that lets you store them for a long time. Dig up the potatoes carefully so you don’t bruise them, and then cure for two weeks in a warm, well-ventilated place, ideally with a temperature of between 45 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whatever the color of your tomato varieties – red, yellow, black or white – they are ready to harvest when the fruit is that color all over. The top of the fruit should be firm when pressed. However, the good news is that tomatoes will continue to ripen after harvest if you pick them ‘green’ (perhaps if a frost is due, which would be detrimental to fruit left on the plant). For green tomatoes, wrap in newspaper and store in an area that is between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Check each day for when the uniform coloring occurs indicating ripeness.
Eggplant is actually tastier if harvested when young. This avoids the mature crop developing lots of seeds, which is what gives mature specimens their more bitter taste. Harvest eggplant when between 4 and 8 inches in length. This is only about a third of their mature size, but ensures a sweeter taste. If you prefer to harvest mature fruits, wait until they are weighing on the branch and have a deep colour and shiny appearance. When the colour starts to dull, they have become overripe.
You can harvest peppers at any time when they are green – although a full-size specimen will have a deeper flavor. However, if you prefer to wait until it has changed color – and so will have another taste dimension – look for red, yellow or orange (depending on your variety) fruits that are firm and the color is uniform.