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Hamptons Life

Jul 27, 2017 4:48 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Time To Be Picky

This cucumber is supposed to be ripe when about 6 inches long. U.S. paper currency is a great and handy measuring tool. No matter what denomination, they are always 6 inches long. ANDREW MESSINGER
Jul 30, 2017 8:52 AM

It’s that time of the year when it’s warm and humid and the enthusiasm for getting out into the garden is faltering. The mildew on the verbena is beyond control. The crabgrass is as thick as the bluegrass and the lawn just refuses to slow down at all. Ah, but over in the vegetable garden it’s a whole nother story. Here the seeds have been sown and the plants grown, the weeds pulled, the roots watered and the harvest is starting to come in at full force. But when is that tomato just right to pick? Do you thump or sniff a melon? Should the corn be as high as an elephant’s eye or the silks a crispy brown, and when will those Brussels sprouts turn from pea and marble size to golf ball size?

The first key is a little note on the seed packet, catalog or the plastic labels that come with many plants and offers a clue called “days to harvest.” This is only a guide, and a rough one. But if you know the approximate number of days from seeding or transplanting into the garden, that’s when the real ‘Is it ready?’ testing starts.

But first, there’s the time of day. There are two schools of thought about this subject. One recommends that vegetables be harvested just before using while the other says that they only be harvested in the coolest part of the day. I go by both methods with a few exceptions.

Many vegetables can be harvested in the cool of the morning and then refrigerated until used later in the day or evening. Lettuce for example, if picked in the morning, will probably remain crisp and firm if refrigerated, while the same variety might very well wilt and be useless if picked when the sun is high and putting the plant through its period of maximum stress. Always remember that the fruits and vegetables of your garden are living things; thusly, they are always changing and although we cannot stop this change, we can prolong the produce’s usefulness with proper storage temperatures.

Temperature is the most important tool we have to extend the storage life and quality of fresh vegetables, followed by humidity. Every increase of 18 degrees Fahrenheit above the freezing point accelerates the deterioration and increases the rate of loss in nutritional quality by two- to three-fold. Each fruit or vegetable has its own ideal storage temperature, but most fall into one of two ranges. The non-chilling, sensitive vegetables are stored best in the cooler range (35 to 37 degrees) of the refrigerator, including cauliflower, celery, corn (see end note), lettuce, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips. The chilling sensitive varieties store best in a warmer location (40 to 57 degrees) either in a special refrigerator compartment (or at the top of the refrigerator which is the warmest spot) or in a root cellar. These vegetables include snap beans, cucumbers, eggplant, muskmelons, okra, peppers, squash, tomatoes and watermelons.

There are also some special procedures and treatments that will prolong the storage life of many vegetables. First, sort and use any with wounds or bruises and also sort by ripeness and, of course, use the more ripe or slightly blemished fruits first. Remove all dirt, dust, residue of chemicals and such by washing. Chlorinated tap water seems to help reduce bacteria and permits a longer storage duration. A word of warning, though: Be careful to remove the excess water after washing to prevent wilting—especially in lettuce. We thought the gift of a lettuce spinner used in drying the crop after washing was a useless bit of kitchen clutter—until we used it.

The maturity of the fruit when harvested not only influences the nutritional quality, but the storage life as well. Just about all vegetables achieve peak nutritional and eating quality when ripened on the plant. For example, studies have shown that when tomatoes are picked table ripe, they contain 19.2 milligrams of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) per 100-gram sample. When picked green and allowed to ripen at 68 degrees, the milligrams of vitamin C dropped to 12.3 per 100-gram sample.

Now for the truth about corn. In my book, “local” corn means it’s been grown close enough to the final point of sale so that it can be picked and sold the same day. Therefore, Jersey corn is rarely “local,” though that’s what you get in most stores during June through late-July. I doubt if you’ve ever really tasted “sweet” corn unless you’ve actually seen it picked or grown it yourself and popped it into the water or microwave within an hour or purchased it right out of a local farm field. Second best is same-day harvested corn, especially when purchased at a local farm stand. By the way, did you know that corn has the lowest amount of sodium of all commonly available vegetables? And what’s up with all these people who shuck their corn right in the market or buy bags of corn pre-shucked? The greens on the outside are the best protection against flavor deterioration until your ready to cook.

Cucumbers should be picked when they reach their mature size. This is always stated on the seed packet or label that comes with the transplants. As a general rule, pickling cukes are picked at 2 to 6 inches in length while the slicing types go to about 8 inches. They should always be firm and crisp. When yellow and dull they are over ripe. Keep picking and the vines will keep producing.

Bell peppers can be harvested at any size but are usually left until mature. This is easily noted when the colors change from green to a sweeter mellow yellow or red depending on the variety. Don’t rip the peppers off the plant though. Use either a sharp knife or cross cut pruner to keep from damaging the stems.

Summer squash such as zucchini and yellow crooked neck are harvested 6 to 8 inches in length or less and an inch or 2 in diameter. Remember that squashes mature rapidly and in the blink of an eye you can end up with useless baseball bats so watch your blooms and look to harvest six to 10 days later.

Carrots are a tough call but watch for an orange “shoulder” at the soil surface and you can always pull one out every day or so to test. Beets are similar but look for the red shoulder, unless they’re not red beets. Broccoli is picked when the main head is tight, green and compact leaving the side shoots to develop. It’s important, however, to know what the “ripe” color of your broccoli variety should be as this can vary from a deep emerald green to a pale green. Don’t let your green beans yellow, pick cabbage when the heads are tight and not split, and get the corn when silks brown—but before the raccoons and squirrels see the “READY” sign. And remember that little clue: days to harvest. It’s only a clue though, not written in stone.

And while you’re harvesting you can do some seeding. Greens, carrots, beets, peas and others can be re-seeded now. Keep harvesting—and growing.

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