My garden is finally paying me back for all the work I've done this year. I'm putting up the harvest and eating vegetables until they (almost) pop out of my ears. It's been a great summer.
Let's look at how to know if your vegetables are ready to harvest, as it's not always obvious. Potatoes, for example, are not obvious — the tubers are underground. The earlier you harvest, of course, the smaller the potatoes. But you can snitch a few after they have bloomed. If you have loose fluffy soil you can poke your hand into the soil under a plant and grab a spud without disturbing the plant — or the other potatoes that are still growing. Or you can dig up one plant and leave the others to grow.
To avoid damaging potatoes at harvest time, plunge a garden fork into the soil a foot from the plant, tip it back, and the roots — spuds and all — will be visible. Grab 'em, but place gently in a bucket so as not to damage the still tender skins. Harden off in a cool, dark place — and leave the soil on if you want to store them.
Generally I let potatoes grow through September, harvesting only after the leaves have yellowed and died back. But I keep testing to see if they have reached the size I like. Some varieties develop hollow spots in the center if they get too big. That's not a big issue for me. But I don't want them too small and I generally start mine in June, long after most gardeners have started theirs. I do that to minimize potato beetle damage, and it seems to work. I didn't see one beetle this year!
I grew artichokes again this year, though I don't always. It is often hard to know when to pick them — an immature artichoke looks exactly like a mature one, but for the size. Same color, same feel if you squeeze them. But if you wait too long, the leaves get hard and unappealing. I picked my first 'choke when it was about three inches across and didn't seem to be getting bigger. That plant also produced a second flower (artichokes are actually flowers), and I picked it when it was about half the size. Again, it seemed to have stopped growing.
Summer squash can be picked at any size from tiny to mammoth. My favorite variety is Romanesco, which has stripes along its ribbed sides. I like it small, but it is still good to eat even if it "escapes" and gets huge. I just take a big spoon and scrape out the seeds. Generally I grate the big ones in my food processor and freeze the results in zipper bags for use in winter soups. I don't blanch the squash, but do try to use it within a few months. Blanching kills enzymes that promote aging, while freezing does not. So squash is less appealing after months in the freezer.
It is tougher to know when winter squash is ready to pick. In general it is best to let winter squash like butternuts and hubbards stay on the vine until the leaves start to yellow and the stems turn brown and dry. But the best test is what I call the "fingernail" test: push your thumbnail against the skin. It should be tough enough that your nail leaves no mark. If you feel it digging in, stop pushing your nail against it.
When picking winter squashes or pumpkins, bring a sharp knife or a pair of pruners so that you can cut the stem, leaving a three-inch "handle." But don't carry it by the handle, as you don't want it to pull off. Most winter squashes also need some time in a warm sunny place to cure after being picked. Acorn squashes should go directly to a cool location, as they can get stringy if left in the sun. Always store winter squash in a low humidity area.
Never, I repeat never, let winter squash get frosted. If you don't want to harvest them and frost is forecast, pull the comforter off you bed and cover them up. Or use an old sheet, I suppose, or even a plastic tarp.
Speaking of frost, which I hope is still weeks away, here are some veggies that will not survive even a light frost: basil, beans, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and squash of all types.
On the other hand, plants that survive light frost include artichokes, beets, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, lettuce, parsnips and Swiss chard. Plants that can still thrive after a hard frost include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, parsley, radishes, spinach, turnips and leeks. I often pick kale and Brussels sprouts in December.
My onions were ready to harvest weeks ago. I know when they are ready to pull because the tops flop over. I cure them in a warm sunny place outdoors until the tops dry up. I store them, along with winter squash, in a low-humidity cool location indoors.
Growing vegetables really is for cooks. I probably would only grow flowers if I didn't love fresh veggies so much. And of course being able to store and use my vegetables all year makes all that work even more worthwhile.