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A few tips on harvesting summer vegetables

“Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor.”

– Hesiod, Greek poet, “Works and Days,” c. 700 B.C.E

I have found the old cliché, “timing is everything,” to be one of the most important truisms in gardening, and one excellent example is when it comes to harvesting summer vegetables. It’s frustrating to nurture a crop only to find I’ve waited too long to pick my pole beans and now they taste like twigs. Or to slice into a watermelon I’ve lovingly grown from seed only to find pale pink flesh that needed more time on the vine to sweeten.

Granted, harvesting has always been considered a tricky endeavor. In ancient Greece, during the time Hesiod was writing, festivals were held to honor Demeter, goddess of agriculture, in hopes of securing her favor and a bountiful harvest. Fire was considered lucky for harvesting, hence people gathered around great bonfires to sing and dance. Other age-old beliefs held that harvesting crops during a waning moon keeps them longer, and picking apples and pears at this time causes bruises to dry up instead of rotting.

Even 21st century harvesters maintain their superstitions. According to posts on a website called Combine Forum, some farmers grow beards for good luck until harvesting is complete. Another said he doesn’t wash his truck during harvesting because cleaning a vehicle is the modern-day equivalent of performing a rain dance. Still another said he never begins harvesting on Friday, a day that has long been considered an unlucky day to begin gathering crops.

All of this is fun to know, but what are some practical suggestions for when to harvest summer vegetables? Right now, my bell peppers, beans and tomatoes are growing like crazy, and the cucumbers and squash are coming along well. I don’t want to miss the best time to pick my veggies so I can enjoy them at their tastiest.

The OSU Extension Service has a handy harvesting guide, which I download from http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/ and use as a ready reference. Here are a few of the harvest hints the guide provides:

Pick green beans when they are 2-3 inches long and the beans are about halfway developed in the pod. Once beans are full-sized, the pods become tough and stringy.

Summer squash should be harvested when it’s medium-sized and the skin is still tender enough to be easily dented with a fingernail. For a gourmet treat, pick baby squash with the flower still attached.

Green bell peppers should be picked at the desired size but when the skin is still shiny and firm. Interestingly, all green peppers eventually turn red and become even more nutritious. Hot peppers usually become hotter as they mature.

Small or medium-sized cucumbers from the garden taste best; be sure to pick them before they take on a yellowish tinge.

Tomatoes should be ripened on the vine and picked when fully colored and still firm. Tomatoes lose their flavor when they become overripe, and when they’re stored in the refrigerator.

Watermelon should be harvested once the curly green tendrils that look like pigtails turn brown, which indicates the vine is no longer providing nutrients to the fruit. The bottom color will turn from white to cream or yellow, and thumping on the melon will produce a hollow sound.

Remember, regular harvesting encourages several vegetable plants — cucumbers, squash, beans and peppers — to produce more, so don’t be shy about picking. In fact, when mature fruits are left on a cucumber plant, it signals the plant to stop setting new fruit.

Hesiod’s poem “Works and Days” provides advice about growing food and other aspects of daily life in ancient Greece. However, he also wove in stories, including the one about Pandora releasing all the evils of mankind from her jar (later described as a box). All that was left inside was Hope. Although our gardening practices today are guided by scientific knowledge, it never hurts to hope for harvesting success. Just in case, I’m working on Jerry to start growing a beard!

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.