Many things can affect the quality of your homegrown fruits and veggies – fertility, water, sunshine, and even temperature. But all things considered, harvesting at the wrong time can ruin even the best efforts.
We need to harvest at the peak of flavor and texture in order to bring the highest possible quality to the table. The calendar may tell you when to start checking your crops, but it shouldn’t make your mind up about ripeness.
Ripeness can be somewhat subjective. Each fruit or vegetable has its own suggested guidelines, but your personal preferences may trump those guidelines. How you plan to use a variety can also affect your harvest decisions.
Here are some things that are ripening now, or will be soon, depending on your area and micro-climates:
Blackberries are NOT ripe as soon as they turn black. They must be allowed to ripen a day or two longer to gain sugars. They will have begun to lose their sheen when fully ripe. A ripe berry will just fall into your hand when it is touched. Cup your hand under the berry and press the stem end. If the berry falls into your hand with slight pressure, it is ready. If it must be pulled, it is not ready. Try again the next day or two. Harvest berries every day so that the harvest is not rushed. Rushing may result in under-ripe, tart berries. Berries are very tender and should be picked in the cool of the morning. They should be harvested into shallow containers so their weight doesn’t damage the berries below. If you have a lot of berries to pick, move each full container into the shade as you continue. Berries left in the sun will rapidly loose color and flavor.
Blueberries turn color before they are really sweet and ripe. They should be allowed to turn just slightly soft. Blueberries take a special harvest technique. Do not pull them from the bush. Roll them with your fingertips over your open hand. If the berry is ready, it will easily fall into your hand. Those that do not should be left a few more days.
Figs will begin to hang down as they near ripeness. You will be able to observe them moving as they fill out and ripen. It is gravity at work as the fruit gets heavier. If a fig is vertical or perpendicular to the stem, it is definitely not ripe. A fully ripe fig will soften slightly. It may appear slightly dewy and the skin may even look like it is ready to split. Harvest figs daily. Figs left too long on the tree will sour and should be removed and composted.
Peaches are ripe when the green color of the skin turns yellow and has developed the pink peach “blush”. The flesh should yield to slight pressure of your thumb near the stem end. Lift and twist the fruit gently while cradling it in your hand. This will help prevent bruising of the fruit.
Plums are picked at different stages depending on use. If used for jellies and preserves, it is best to pick them when they are just barely soft, but still retain some firmness and tartness. You may notice that the fruit has a soft, frosty-looking film on it at this stage. This is a naturally occurring waxy substance, which is called “bloom”. This is the best jelly stage. If they are to be eaten fresh, they should be allowed to fully ripen on the tree. At full ripeness, the plum will feel heavy in your hand, and the flesh will yield to slight thumb pressure near the stem end. In all stages, lift and twist the fruit from the tree – like turning a knob – so as not to damage any spurs.
Cucumbers can be harvested at any size depending on use. If the cukes are to be used for pickling, they should be harvested between one and 6 inches long. Salad cukes can be allowed to grow to maturity, but they lose their peak flavor if they are allowed to grow too large and form mature seeds. Cut the cuke from the vine with about an inch of stem.
Eggplant is ripe when the skin is smooth, glossy, and unwrinkled. Eggplant can be harvested anytime after it is about one-third mature. Young eggplant is tenderer and has smaller seeds. In addition, more fruit per plant will developed if young fruits are picked regularly. The stem of eggplant can be very woody and tough so a good pair of pruners or a very sharp knife is the best tool for cutting.
Okra pods are ready to pick just a few days after the flower falls off. Okra must be picked young as it toughens very quickly. The pods should be about the length of your index finger and tender to the touch. You should be able to pierce the skin just below the cap with your thumbnail. If they have toughened, no amount of cooking can save them; they are doomed for the compost pile. Clip from the plant leaving a short stem. Harvest okra daily, even twice daily in summer.
Summer squash should be should not be allowed to grow large. Any size from three to eight inches is best. Once the seeds have started to toughen, the tenderness of the squash quickly deteriorates. Patty Pan squash can be picked when it is one to four inches in diameter. The skin of summer squash should be tender enough to break easily when pressed with a fingernail. All squash should be removed from the plant even if it has become too large to be useable, or the plant will stop producing.
More harvesting tips can be found at http://www.thegardenacademy.com/Harvesting_101.html