Harvesting and garden maintenance

4 August 2010
Yesterday, Hanno and I travelled down the coast to have lunch with our son Kerry and his lovely partner, Sunny.  Sunny is a chef too and she loves using our fresh garden produce, particularly cabbage.  So Hanno bundled up some fruit and vegetables for them, namely, cabbage, snow peas, turnips and lemons.  It is a real pleasure to be able to give away just picked organic produce.  It seems to me that more and more people appreciate it now.

I haven't been in our garden since this picking, but I think there are a few bare patches there.  I will be picking all the beetroot today and they all be pickled and sitting in jars before nightfall.  I know many of you are growing food in your backyards and allotments, and also in container gardens on balconies and patios, so I thought it might be timely to write about harvesting and garden maintenance today.

Before I was a gardener I thought you planted, watered and harvested.  The end.  Now I know  that in addition to those three vital actions, there is more that goes on in the garden.  I know now that if we harvest properly and keep the garden well maintained, we get better and larger crops.  Don't forget that most vegetables are better if they're not left to grow really big.  Generally smaller vegetables are sweeter, juicier and firmer.  Of course, there are always exception to that rule so be guided by your common sense.

At the moment, we have a healthy trellis full of snow peas.  We often eat these when we're out in the garden but there are so many of them now that it makes more sense to harvest them to eat later.  With vine crops that flower, like peas, beans, cucumbers and zucchini/courgettes, you get many more vegetables if you harvest continuously.  That works well if you want to eat them with your tea each evening, but if you don't, if you want to store them in the freezer to eat later in the year, pick as many as you can each day and store them in the fridge in a sealed container.  When you have enough for a batch to be frozen - which depends entirely on the size of your family, blanch them and bag them up in a freezer bag.  Don't forget to mark them with a permanent marker with name and date frozen.

Green leaves are similar and often benefit from continuous picking.  We pick  lettuce, kale, silverbeet and spinach from the outside, just taking the leaves we need for that day.  The plant will keep producing leaves and you can keep harvesting them.  However, if you want to put up some silverbeet, kale or spinach in the freezer, you can harvest the leaves from the entire plant, making sure you leave the centre in tact.  After harvesting, give the plants a drink of weak fertiliser tea such as comfrey, compost or worm juice tea and within a few weeks, you'll have full plants again.

Tomatoes may be harvested either deep red, pink or green.  You can pick them at any size if you need to clear the land or a weather event, such as a hail storm or extremely hot weather, threatens them, but it's best to let them develop to a reasonable size.  We find that if we leave tomatoes on the bush, the grubs will get to them before we do.  We wait until they're a decent size and showing just the first twinges of pink, and we pick them.  They ripen inside away from birds and insects.  Tomatoes don't ripen by sunlight, they need a warm temperature instead.  Don't store tomatoes in the fridge, they'll develop their full flavour if left on the kitchen bench.  Don't worry that they'll go off, you'll only loose those that have a grub in them, the rest will last a few weeks on the bench.

Some vegetables like pumpkins, squash, potatoes, onions can be left growing until they're ripe, and even left  there until you need them.  Naturally, you have to use your common sense when using the garden as a storage container as well.  For instance, if you have continuous rain you'd have to rescue them or they'd rot in all that water.  But if you're hoping to get a few more weeks or even a month in the garden before harvesting, most of the time, with these vegetables, that's okay.  You'll need to keep your pumpkins in check and you can do that by waiting until you see the first pumpkins growing and then nipping off the growing stems, on the same vine, around it.  You'll usually get two or three pumpkins per vine.  When you see those pumpkins have set, nip off the extra shoots. That will stop the vine from rambling all over the garden.  A good indication to pick potatoes is when you see the green tops die down but they are usually ready for picking before the tops go brown.  Be guided more by the growing times for the variety you're growing and if you're impatient for potatoes, you can put your hand into the side of the plant and pick off some small new potatoes underground.  If you're gentle it will not damage the plant at all and these small potatoes are a gift when steamed or boiled and dressed simply with butter, parsley and a bit of seasoning.  Pumpkins are ready when the vine starts dying and they feel heavy for their size.  When you harvest your pumpkins, cut them from the vine leaving about six inches of vine still attached.  If the vine comes away from the pumpkin cover the circle at the top of the pumpkin with some melted bees wax to protect it while it's ripening and drying.  Dry the pumpkins in the sun for a couple of weeks before bringing them inside to store in a cool dark place. 

Leeks, radish, carrots, turnips and parsnips are best picked on the smaller rather than larger size but if they're left a little bit longer in the ground, they don't suffer much from.  You'll notice the sweetness and tenderness more if they're picked younger.

All through the growing season, no matter what you're growing, keep the garden beds weeds-free, pick off every dead leaf you see and watch for wilt in your tomatoes, potatoes, capsicums/peppers and eggplant.  If you see diseased leaves on any of these plants, pick off all the dead leaves and put them in a plastic bag and leave in the sun to completely kill off everything.  Then dispose of the bag in the rubbish bin.  Watch out for caterpillars, grasshoppers, slugs and snails and if you find any, pick them off and give them to the chooks.  Try to get into the habit of inspecting your plants early in the morning or late in the afternoon because that is when most insects will be feeding.

Keep your green leaves growing well with some sort of fertiliser tea - they're easily made at home and cost very little.  If you see any plant that is stressed or being attacked my insects, apply a feeding of seaweed tea to it.  It is a great plant tonic and can help plants survive harsh conditions.  Don't apply too much nitrogen to fruiting plants like tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, beans etc because you'll make the plant grow all leaves and no fruit.  If your fruiting vegetables aren't producing flowers, apply sulphate of potash  (according to the directions on the pack) around the base of the plant and water it in.  BTW, all the applications I've recommended here are organic. 

Make sure you tie up your tomatoes before they become too unruly and keep all your climbing plants attached to their supports.  It only takes a few minutes a week to do this and it makes all the difference.  Vines that are allowed to fly around in the wind will break or at the very least become damaged. Mulch around your vegetables with straw, particularly the tomatoes, as it will help them keep their roots at a even temperature and will help retain water in the soil.  Tomatoes are one of very few vegetables that like the mulch touching their stems - they will grow extra roots into the mulch if you pack it up around them and that will give you better crops.  All the other vegetables should have their stems kept free of mulch, it just needs to cover the soil they're growing in.  Keep applying the mulch through the season as it breaks down.  When it does break down it adds organic matter to your soil, which is always a good thing.

As you clear an area after harvesting, apply some compost, dig it in, and start another crop.  Even if it's just two or three plants.  Gardening this way will give you the best return on the work you put in and it uses the soil productively and sustainably.

It sounds like a lot of work but if you get into a routine with your gardening, it only requires observation and fixing problems as soon as you see them.  There will always be something to fix, adjust, tie back, prune or move.  The rest of it is pure enjoyment - both in the gardening and in the eating.   And you will probably find that you're at your best in the garden, many of us are.  Happy gardening everyone!