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Have a Happy Harvest; How and When to Pick your Produce

Q. Vina Jane in Coopersburg, PA writes: "I planted potatoes this season. The plants grew well but never flowered. Will the potatoes be safe to eat? I heard that potatoes can be poisonous."

A. One of my favorite crops! I planted over twenty pounds of seed potatoes in big "grow bags" this season and am anxiously looking forward to the harvest. And speaking of harvesting, potatoes are a great crop to lead off this article, which is designed to help everyone out there harvest your garden of goodies at the right time.

Potato plants will often produce a small batch of colorful flowers when the plants reach a certain size, but not always—and not having flowers doesn't mean anything bad. But if your plants DO flower, make a note of the date. A month after that, you can harvest what are called 'new potatoes'; tiny tubers that pack a lot of taste and go for a premium in stores.

But you don't have to. You can let the plants grow until they start to turn brown and then harvest much larger tubers. Be sure to dig around a large area; potatoes can often be found a foot or more away from the plant. And potatoes are not poisonous UNLESS the growing tubers are exposed to light and turn green. That green color is your sign that toxins have formed in the colored area. If there's just a small patch of green cut it off and eat the rest. But if more than half the potato is green, you should compost it.

Moving on: Steve in Wethersfield, CT asked about sweet corn. Great topic Steve, as you want to harvest your tasty treasures when they have maximum sugars. And you want to preserve their sugars after harvest! So: note the 'days to maturity' or 'days to harvest' number on the seed packet or catalog description; that's the number of days after you plant the seed in warm soil that your first ears should be ready.

The larger the number of plants in your patch, the fuller the ears will be. When the correct number of days have passed, the tassels at the top are no longer dropping pollen and the silks are turning brown, select one of the largest ears, gently pull back the husk until the first rows of kernels are exposed and pierce one with your finger. If the fluid is milky white, its time to begin harvesting.

Only harvest sweet corn in the early morning, when the air is cool and the sugars have concentrated overnight; and refrigerate it immediately. No matter how well you grew it, sweet corn that is allowed to warm up after picking will rapidly have its sugars turn to starch. Do not strip the husk off until the water is boiling and then steam it for three to five minutes. Or even better, leave the husk on and grill the corn for five minutes, turning frequently. Only harvest as much as you need each day; unharvested corn should keep its sweetness in the field for a good two weeks.

OK; now let's pick up the pace.

Tomatoes: Harvest on the first day of full ripeness or a few days before that. Tomatoes that are at least half colored up will finish ripening in a cool, dry spot indoors. Tomatoes left on the vine after they ripen will lose flavor rapidly. Harvest in the morning to get the best flavor but do NOT refrigerate or place in a sunny windowsill.

Sweet peppers: There is no such thing as a 'green pepper'. All sweet peppers will ripen to a final shade of red, yellow, orange or a chocolate brown. The flavor of ripe peppers will improve dramatically and their nutrition exponentially, so be patient.

Hot peppers: Will also ripen to a final color of red, black—you name it. But hot peppers have a different flavor and heat intensity at each color stage, so sample some when green, but leave the majority to fully ripen.

Cukes and summer squash like zucchini: Harvest when small for best flavor and continued production. "If you can see it, you can eat it." Try to harvest in the morning, but not if you have to handle wet leaves. Tricky balance but do your best.

String beans (aka green beans). Harvest when small for best flavor and production. If the seeds swell too big in their pods the plants will stop producing. Do not pick when the plant is wet or it'll get all depressed and feign (or contract) illness. But don't pick in the heat of a hot day; try and wait for a cool day or evening.

Watermelon: Terrifying. If you pick too early, you wasted a darn tasty fruit; too late and it gets all mealy. Look for a yellow spot that develops where the melon sits on the ground. Basic yellow is good; creamy yellow is better. A ripe melon should feel heavy; and the tendril closest to the fruit should have turned brown. There's also a 'rap test' where you want the melon to sound more hollow than full. And believe it or not, there's an app for that!

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