It’s time to reveal some of the errors of my ways. I am actually a bit better at growing than I am at harvesting. Now and then… uh… often… I grow edibles in my garden, and I don’t get around to harvesting them, and they go to seed or otherwise overshoot their optimum harvest date.

Carrots big as my hand, and I've got pretty big hands

In the first week of November, I thought I would pick some garden delights to offer up at one of our eco-village regular Sunday potlucks. I usually try to incorporate at least a little something I’ve grown into my potluck offering. I pulled up some carrots, and was happy to see how big and healthy they looked. I also picked my last half-dozen eggplants, some of which had grown a bit yellowish.

I made a salad, including chunks of carrot… turns out that the carrots were indeed past their prime. Still edible, but they were a bit tough, perhaps plasticky if that’s a word, not so flavorful or sweet. I baked the eggplants into some eggplant parmesan… and though it was edible, they tasted a little bitter. No one mentioned these shortfalls at the meal… but I did have leftovers to take home, which is often not the case when I concoct something really delicious.

It’s my fault for not jumping on these veggies/fruits when they first started looking great. I am certainly a world class procrastinator (evidence: blogging in January about a November incident)… but I also think that harvesting is a difficult and under-explored part of gardening.

Many plants have a decent length window during which they can be harvested without any adverse results. Chard and kale can wait for months to be harvested. Artichokes, tomatoes, and many others patiently linger for a few weeks to a month. Others seem really short – young arrugula goes from just right to strongly bitter (in my opinion) seemingly overnight.

The transition from perfect to inedible can happen pretty slowly. For example, broccoli gets those buds that look a little too tight, they gradually relax and spread out and then flower. It’s definitely at its best when harvested before flowering… and can get really bitter when the flowers get going… but there’s no clear signal (that I am aware of) that tells me when it’s ready. It’s just some indeterminate time during the maturation of those buds… when they’ve started to spread… but haven’t finished spreading.

I think it’s actually a book that needs to be written: something like vegetable havesting tricks and tips. When can you havest? What can and can’t you do with early or late harvest? Such as: tossing those thinnings into your salad… or those late carrots are probably fine in stews? Some of these harvesting practices and timings are probably local and seasonal, so it may be difficult to write it all down in a universal way. There are probably mathematical ways – this type of carrots are best at 12 weeks… but better if there cues that the plant can tell me. Is anyone aware of a book (or a website) that has good guidance on harvesting garden crops?