Harvesting Eggplant, Peppers and Okra
by National Gardening Association Editors
The most important thing about harvesting eggplant, peppers and okra is to start as soon as there's something to eat. It's the job of the plant to make seeds, so too much of the plant's effort will go into ripening the fruit instead of producing new fruit if you don't harvest regularly and often. Make it a practice to go out every few days and pick what's ready to eat. Try to get the most out of each plant. After all, having good things to eat is one of the main reasons to garden.
You can harvest peppers when they're as small as golf balls. Most peppers, except for a few varieties like Sweet Banana, are green when young. Don't be surprised if you see your bell peppers turn red; many of them do as they ripen. Harvest them by cutting through the stem of each fruit with a knife. You can have an almost-continuous harvest from your pepper plants by cutting often, as this encourages the plant to keep blossoming, especially in the beginning of the summer. Later in the season, leave some green peppers on your plants to turn red. They taste wonderful and are colorful in pepper relish.
In the South, pepper plants can be cut back after the first big harvest to encourage another crop. That's because peppers are really a perennial plant, although they are most often grown as an annual. If your season is long enough, cut the plant back to a few inches above the soil surface. The plant will grow back and give you a second, large harvest. Don't forget to sidedress, though, so the plant will have enough food to continue its work.
Eggplant tastes best when harvested young. If you cut into an eggplant and find an abundance of brown seeds, it's already too late for prime eating. The fruit will be a dark, glossy purple when it's ready to harvest. The surface of the eggplant will turn dull and it will taste bitter as it gets older and past its prime. To harvest eggplant, cut through the stem above the green cap, or calyx, on the top. It's a tough stem, so have a sharp knife handy. The calyx can be prickly, so you may want to wear gloves. You can cut these plants back like peppers if your season is long enough for a second crop.
Gloves and a long-sleeved shirt are practically a must when you harvest okra. The pods and leaves are usually covered with little spines you can hardly see. These spines can get under your skin and make your hands and arms itch for days.
Overripe okra is too tough to eat, and it grows so fast you may have to harvest every day. A pod that's ready one day will have gone by the next. The best pods, those not more than four inches long, should be cut with a knife or broken right below the cap on the bottom. Only one pod grows beneath each leaf, so break off the leaf after harvesting the pod. This helps you remember where you've already harvested and indicates where to start the next time.
Okra plants grow so tall in the South you may have to stand on a ladder to harvest them! Okra doesn't get nearly that tall in the North. When the plants get too tall to harvest, southern gardeners can cut them back to 12 to 18 inches above the ground. This is usually done in July or August. The plants will sprout again to make a second crop. You can also grow dwarf varieties that grow less than six feet tall.
Photographs by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association (top); National Gardening Association.
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