When I first started growing vegetables, I was confused at harvest time because I didn’t know just when to pick my veggies. I discovered I’m not alone. For many novice gardeners, our only knowledge of what ripe fruits and vegetables look like comes from the grocery store. Yet, when we begin to grow our own produce, it rarely looks like the blemish-free, polished and waxed fruit and vegetables at the store.
Here are some tips on how to harvest three popular homegrown goodies at the peak of their ripeness and flavor.
Nothing can compare with a homegrown tomato. After one season of growing your own, you may never want to buy a tomato in the store again. Store-bought tomatoes can often be almost tasteless because they are often picked while they’re still green, and then sprayed with ethylene gas to force artificial ripening. The picking, transporting and storage process prevents natural ripening and sugar accumulation.
Tomatoes undergo a very interesting physiological change when they are about half pinkish-red and half green. At this “breaker” stage, they form a thin layer of cells that seals the fruit from the stem. This layer of cells prevents any nutrient flow from the plant to the fruit. Tomatoes can be harvested at or after the breaker stage and they will ripen normally, but they need to ripen in the sun, such as on a windowsill, for the sugars to fully develop. Tomatoes that are left on the vine continue to ripen and develop sugars because they are exposed to sunlight, not because they are gaining anything from the plant. Store freshly harvested tomatoes on the counter or in a basket, as refrigeration kills their flavor.
Some tomatoes, such as green zebra, German grapefruit, and lemon boy, never turn red. So, be sure to save your seed packets or plant tags, as these will often have pictures of the ripe fruit that you can refer to when deciding if it’s time to harvest.
Generally, eggplant should be harvested when the flesh is springy, and the skin is shiny purple and tight. Test for springiness by pressing into the side with your finger. If the flesh springs back, the eggplant is ready for picking. Eggplants that are past their prime are dull and soft with wrinkled skin. When ripe, white-skinned eggplant, such as Rosa Bianca, will have skin that is glossy white with pink stripes.
When trying to determine a melon’s ripeness, look at the condition of the stem and skin color. Cantaloupes “slip” from the vine, leaving a scar where the stem was attached. The bottom, or end opposite the stem, will be soft and fragrant. Their straw-colored skin should be bright. A ripe honeydew may remain attached to the vine, but should also be soft on the bottom side, opposite the stem. While on the vine, watermelons will have a small, curled tendril extending from the vine opposite from where the stem is attached to the vine. This tendril will turn brown and dry out when the melon is ripe. The stem should still be green and difficult to remove from the vine. The skin touching the ground should be buttery yellow. All melons continue to ripen after they have been removed from the vine, and should be stored in the refrigerator or a cool place.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. For more specific gardening and horticulture advice be sure to visit your local Cooperative Extension office.
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