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A time to sow, a time; When to pick various vegetables

Harvesttime is the best time of the year for the avid vegetable gardener, whether novice or pro. Unfortunately, a beginning gardener is too often dubious about when to gather a particular vegetable. Radishes and lettuce are easy, but is it time to pick the peas and are the beans truly big enough to eat?

Seed packets offer a wealth of sound planting advice, but seldom provide a clue as to when the plants are ready to pick. Even the best gardening books can be faulted as well.

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Most people know that the vine-ripened tomato is the best-tasting one. Tomatoes should always be picked when they are fully mature. Other vegetables, however, taste far better when they are slightly immature and smaller than the ones you see in the supermarket.

The French are fond of tiny green beans, and with good reason. They are tender and delicious, with twice the flavor of the overgrown beans that too many of us are accustomed to eating.

The harvesttime for root crops is fairly easy to ascertain, because you can poke your fingers into the dirt to feel the diameter of the carrot or turnip. Don't judge maturity by the size of the foliage aboveground, however. It's an indicaton, but not at all a relevant answer, as to the actual size of the root beneath the earth. Root crops are at their best and sweetest when they are small. Baby beets and diminutive carrots are a special treat.

When you harvest broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and artichokes, what you are eating is the undeveloped flower of the plant. It is imperative, therefore, to harvest these vegetables before this flower decides to burst into bloom.

Pick artichokes before the leaves begin to separate. Cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower should be picked while the heads are still solid and firm. Brussels sprouts should be cut when they are slightly larger than marbles. The golf-ball-size ones have a strong, rather than delicate, taste and are never as flavorful as the younger ones.

All of this is hard for the beginner to determine, because, by the time he notices that the broccoli is separating, the perfect hour for picking has passed.

Chalk it all up to experience. The broccoli is still definitely edible, and next year you'll be wise enough to harvest the day before, rather than the day after, it starts to deteriorate.

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If you're growing potatoes, you have a choice of harvesting times.

If miniature new potatoes are your favorite (so good and unavailable in the supermarket), dig your potatoes right after the plants flower. If you want mature potatoes for baking and storage, however, wait till the plant is dead before digging.

Most beginners have a tendency to pick peas, lima beans, and snap peas before they are ready. You can see the peas in the pod, but they aren't really ready to eat until the pods plump up a bit. I learned that the hard way but am now adept at patiently waiting for that puffy appearance that is characteristic of the pods when the peas are ready for the table.

Chinese or snow peas are a different story and should be picked as soon as the peas are visible, while the pod remains perfectly flat. Daily picking is a must for snow peas.

Cucumbers, eggplants, and summer squash all taste better when picked young. Anybody can grow a zucchini a foot long, but nobody will be eager to eat it. A 6-inch zucchini is the perfect size. The patty pan squash is at its zenith when it's the size of a silver dollar. Cucumbers and eggplants develop more of those pesky seeds as they grow older.

Eggplants should be harvested as soon as that glossy sheen appears. Some eggplants, particularly the Italian white variety, will contain no seeds at all if they are plucked from the vine at the proper moment.

Be sure to check over your vines carefully when picking cucumbers. Even one cucumber left to mature on the vine can cause the plant to halt production.

In harvesting, as in preparation of the soil, planting, and cultivation, experience is invaluable. I don't believe it's essential to chat with the peas and turnips, but I do feel sure that all growing things benefit by the constant surveillance of a concerned gardener.

An old proverb claims that the best fertilizer for a garden is the sh adow of the gardener -- and a dedicated gardener agrees.

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