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Harvesting the Garden's Goodness

How can you know when crops are ripe and ready for harvest? We look at three favorite garden crops and the signs of their ripeness, how to harvest them, and the best way to store them.

Photo by Cecilia Nasti

It's a giddy time for home food gardeners like me — we're on the cusp of harvest season!I would have actually harvested a bushel of produce by now, but weather forecasts of late spring freezes, heavy rains, hail storms and overall wacky meteorological shenanigans put fear in my gardening heart and pushed back my plans.

And yet, some of my less cautious gardening pals did plant earlier and it paid off for them. They've been harvesting gorgeous produce for the past few weeks, which makes me envious when I see their photos posted on Instagram and Facebook.

Nevertheless, my plants are producing and harvest-time is not far off.

Yet, how does anyone know for sure when crops are ripe and ready for harvest? Let’s look at three favorite garden crops and the signs of their ripeness, how to harvest them, and the best way to store them.

Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Tomatoes
On average, tomato varieties take 55 to 100 days to reach maturity after transplanting; your climate and how you've cared for your crops will alter that timeframe somewhat (true no matter what you are growing).

You may harvest and eat tomatoes at any time during their development: Consider the Southern favorite fried green tomatoes. Or, if you're concerned about birds or bugs, pick them green and let them ripen indoors on a windowsill or the counter. The complexity of the fruit's flavors fully develop when allowed to vine ripen.

When you do harvest, super ripe tomatoes only require a slight twist to release from the plant. Yet, snipping them from the vine with pair of scissors works just as well. Never tug, you could damage the plant. For peak flavor, eat or process within a few days of harvest. Until then, keep them at room temperature for optimal flavor and texture.

Photo by Kate Medley

Peppers
Like their relative the tomato, harvest and use peppers — both hot and sweet — at any point during their development, although they're generally fully ripe 75 to 90 days after transplanting.

It's common for hot peppers to turn red, yellow, or orange (depending on the cultivar) the longer they remain on the plant; increased color usually means increased heat. Sweet green bells also turn colors as they mature on the plant, and become sweeter.

Harvest peppers while their skin is bright and shiny, because once it looks dull, they've passed their peak flavor and texture — although they’re still fine to eat.

Avoid damaging the plant by using a pair of scissors to harvest the peppers. Store the fresh peppers loose in the refrigerator crisper drawer for up to a week for best flavor.

Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Melons
Melons are easy to grow and will produce within 70 to 90 days of planting. Muskmelon type melons — like cantaloupes — are ripe when the rinds below the webbing turn from green to tan; also gently lift it and sniff the blossom end of the fruit and if it smells sweet it's ready to harvest. You can give watermelons the "thump test" to determine ripeness. If they make a hollow sound they're generally ripe. Cracking around the stem is also a sign of harvest-readiness, and the spot where it had contact with the ground will turn a yellow-white to creamy color when ready to harvest and store.

Uncut, ripe muskmelons are best stored in the refrigerator and used within five days. Uncut watermelons may be refrigerated for up to three weeks.

Enjoy the harvest season and if you have more than you can use, please share.

So what are you looking forward to harvesting from your garden this season?

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