Harvest your cool weather crops before they go bad.
As summer descends upon us, many crops reach the end of their productive growing season. A frequently asked question is how I manage to keep my garden looking so pretty – the answer to that being to pick the crops before they go beyond edible (and visual) quality. So as the cool season crops start to decline, it’s time to promptly reap the bounty.
Other than roots like carrots, turnips, radishes, scallions or beets, I rarely pull the crop from the ground. Crude yanking of crops from the soil splays dirt onto all the surrounding plants, disrupts adjacent roots and mycorrhizae, and provides ample locations for weed growth. Either prune individual leaf or fruit portions from the stem or cut a heading crop at ground level. I have suffered guests to my garden who have wrenched from the soil whole pepper plants.
When heading lettuce, spinach, endive, or Asian greens each reaches a certain age – the nights get shorter, or the days too hot – they ‘bolt’ to seed. This condition is indicated by an elongated stem, creation of flower buds, production of milky sap, a diminished leaf size, or an overwhelming bitter or sharp taste. At the first sign of bolting, plan extra salads as most of their other nearby plantings will also be on their way out. Single leaves can be picked, but I usually gather the whole head by cutting the singular stem at ground level.
Harvest kale and collards by snipping single leaves, not the apical meristem (growing tip). If the weather cooperates, they will produce for numerous seasons, even years. Work up the stem, judiciously pruning aged leaves for the compost pile or earthworm tub, selecting the quality crop for dinner tonight, and allow the smaller portions a chance to live up to expectations.
Parsley, chives, dandelions, arugula, mint, oregano, cilantro and sorrel, with their bushy growth habit, can be gathered by snipping single leaves or by the ‘haircut’ method. Comb a bunch up into a handful and prune a few inches above the soil. Keep a baggie handy to deposit the loose trimmings so they do not scatter.
Basil rapidly forms flowers at their stem tips, which must be removed to continue productive leaf growth. Immature flowers can be used but will have a sharper flavor. Dry flowers will have hard, mature inedible seeds. Single leaves can be taken, but for quantity, take the stem down to the point of diminishing returns, and then strip the bulk directly into the recipe. Basil will turn brown shortly after harvest, so it should be used promptly for the prettiest pesto.