In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
As the weather warms, lettuce bolts like a rocket.
When it comes to deciding when to harvest different sorts of plants, a few guidelines can be helpful.
Too Bitter, Too Late
"Bolting" is the term used to describe vegetable and herbs in the process of going to seed. Neat clumps develop stems and spring up as their energy goes into flowering. Bolting mustard greens sprout a crown of small yellow flowers, while bolting lettuce looks like its center is a popup toy. Parsley does both; its center elongates to a flower cluster. This change in growth pattern also brings on changes in the essential oils of plants. Mild and luscious flavors often become bitter and these plants are best sent to the compost pile.
Tomatoes are a good example of fruit that can continue to ripen after it is picked. While the temptation is there to let them ripen on the vine, those bright red orbs are a target for birds and squirrels. I'd be willing to share with them, but they only eat half and discard the rest of each one they ruin!
Netting over the plants, mirrors hanging in them, and the fakers (plastic owls and snakes) work sometimes, for awhile. Harvest when the fruit has just begun to turn, when it is just past the "pink shoulder" stage. A warm windowsill will allow the flavors and color to continue to develop without interference. Early harvest often avoids one of the worst late-season pests: stinkbugs. Their damage causes tomatoes to ripen unevenly. You see the fruit beginning to turn, but it never gets red all over. Instead, the ripe parts get mushy and the unripe parts get hard. Yuk.
Wait, or Not
My grandfather liked big vegetables. Yellow squash had to be at least 8 inches long, patty pan the size of a salad plate. Green beans weren't ready until they could be snapped into 6 good pieces, and eggplants had to fill a casserole dish. I won't argue if you agree, but consider that smaller can be better, especially if you're trying to get more veggies into your family's diet. Squash and eggplant are milder when young and small, green beans much more tender. And if it helps to persuade the veggie-shy, they're cute, too.
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