Winter is a bountiful time for Central Texas gardens--especially this year, with the plentiful rain we have received. If you’re excited to taste the fruits and veggies of your labor but don’t know how to tell when it’s time to snip, pick, or pull your crops, read on. These tips will help you harvest from your winter garden like a pro.
- For leafy greens in the Brassica family, such as collards and kale, harvest by snapping off only a few of the plant’s outer leaves at a time. Harvesting often encourages plants to continue to produce leaves, so it’s possible to reap abundant harvest from just a few plants over the course of the season. To harvest collards and kale as “baby greens,” simply pick leaves when the plants are still small. The flavor of Brassicas is sweetest after a frost and before the plant flowers, or, “bolts.”
- Lettuces come in head and leaf varieties--check your seed packet to find out which type you’re planting. For head varieties, wait until a head has formed, and then harvest the whole plant by making a clean cut at the base. We prefer to leave the roots in place, since they will build soil and fuel beneficial microbial life as they decompose. With leaf varieties, snip leaves a centimeter or two above the soil level using shears or your fingernail. If you are gardening in well-amended soil, the lettuce plants will generate new leaves, which you can harvest again.
It can be a challenge to know when to harvest root veggies, since they remain mostly hidden under the ground throughout their development. A good basic guideline for all types of root vegetables is to check the number of days to harvest listed on the seed packet.
- Harvest carrots when they begin to poke up out of the ground. Sizes at maturity vary, but for most varieties, the carrot’s “shoulders” should measure between ½ and ¾ inches in diameter at harvest time. If your carrots look big enough to harvest, but you’re not quite ready to use them, yet, it’s okay to leave them in the ground for 2 to 4 extra weeks. Frost sweetens their flavor.
- Radishes vary quite a bit in size, so check your seed packet to find out the size of each variety you plant at maturity. This root vegetable often pokes out of the ground when harvest time approaches, making it possible to size up roots before pulling them. Once the radish is ready, tug it straight up by the greens. Be sure to harvest before the plant bolts, or the root will become woody and inedible.
- Beets also show their shoulders when they’re ready to harvest. It’s okay to harvest beets small or to wait for them to become larger, though smaller beets are the most flavorful. Tug carefully at base of the beet’s greens to pull the root out. Beet greens are delicious and can also be eaten (either raw or cooked).
- When to harvest peas depends on the variety: snow peas are harvested when pods have formed but the seeds are still quite small; snap peas are harvested when pods have developed and are swollen with rounder but still immature seeds; and English peas are ready once pods have matured and seeds are even fuller and rounder, though still not fully mature. Pea plants grow as vines, and the pods develop from the bottom of the plant, stretching upward. When harvesting, hold the vine with one hand and pull the peapod carefully off with the other hand. This will help to avoid pulling the vine away from the supporting trellis.
- To harvest herbs, cut off the branches that you want to use without removing the entire plant. This way, the herb will continue to grow and produce. Particularly with parsley and cilantro, it’s best to harvest the plant’s outer leaves first.
- Sage, oregano and thyme are all woody plants, and therefore their branches are not edible; be careful to remove all of their leaves when using them. If you are using a sprig of any of these herbs, say to flavor a soup or a stew, you can remove the sprig (and branch) once the food is cooked.
- Cilantro and parsley are not typically woody, and their stems can be eaten and taste the same as the leaves.