As I talk with people about the many issues surrounding growing quality vegetables, I know most, if not all, believe that if you are growing your own vegetables you should grow the best you can. So if you are buying from a local grower or even the grocery store should you not be looking to acquire the best you can?
We hear a lot in the news these days about vegetable quality and the organic versus non-organic growing method, but what isn’t always mentioned – and should be of even more concern – is how quality can be significantly affected by the method and the timeframe in which vegetables are harvested and how you handle and store the vegetables. Quality isn’t just about the look and feel of the vegetable. It is also about achieving the optimum mineral and vitamin content.
To get this maximum quality, you should always harvest vegetables no later than at peak maturity. While some vegetables have a longer window of opportunity as to when they can be harvested, others can be great one day and almost overnight have lost a lot of their quality. Also, some vegetables are more likely to be damaged during harvesting than others, so handle all produce carefully to avoid bruises or cuts. Throwing produce on top of other produce can damage both the inside as well as outside and shorten shelf life. After picking, most vegetables will continue to ripen and should be used or stored in a cooler environment to slow this process down. Some vegetables benefit from being washed soon after picking to remove soil or contaminants and also lower their temperature. Others should be harvested, allowed to dry naturally, have the dirt brushed off before storing and washed only when they are used. Finally, most vegetables are of higher quality earlier in the day, when it’s cooler and when the plants and fruit aren’t likely to be water-deficient.
For optimum quality, some vegetables are pickier than others. For instance, snap beans should be firm to the touch when picked and are best harvested before fully mature, while they are tender, rather than later, as they become more fibrous and the beans more starchy. A snap bean should “snap” as it breaks, hence the name. If the bean doesn’t snap it’s either due to being old or having been harvested when the plant was water-deficient. Harvesting corn is best done when the kernels are filled out all the way to the tip of the ear. Corn is definitely a vegetable that is best processed or eaten right after picking, since the sugars in the corn convert to starches very rapidly. Those ears of corn at the grocery store that you think are good would be incredible if eaten right after picking. Summer squash and eggplant are also two vegetables that are best picked before full maturity because the older these vegetables are, the tougher the skin gets and the seedier they become.
Harvesting vegetables at the proper time will also help keep the plants producing. Some plants, such as cucumber, will stop producing if you leave a cucumber on the plant to full maturity. Also, while all types of vegetables have established maturity dates on the package, those are just general guidelines. Plant growth is dependent on a number of issues, such as amount of soil moisture, fertility of the soil and both soil and air temperatures. These vary during the growing season, either increasing the rate of maturity or slowing it down.
However, plants do mature and won’t stay in good shape forever. For example, many people will often start carrots in the spring and believe they can mulch them heavily and carry them through the winter, pulling them out of the ground as needed. While indeed you can do this, the carrots will continue to grow, get more pithy and tough and eventually start rooting again along the carrot itself. Due to those factors, winter carrots should be started in the late summer or early fall.
Thought for the day: “Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.” —Author unknown.
For more information about these topics call the Utah State University Extension Grand County office at 259-7558 or email Mike Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.