Harvesting Tips for 8 Summer Vegetables

Frequent rains and lots of sunshine makes for lots of produce. Here are a few hints for harvesting some of our most popular summer crops.

Beans

Pay attention to your pods. Fresh, juicy, bright green pods indicate tasty broad, lima, and green shell beans. Snap beans should snap easily and have crisp pods with pliable tips. Harvest full-size snap bean pods before the beans begin to bulge.
For Edamame and Greasy Beans pods should be green and bulging with seeds.
Pick daily for a continuous supply.

Fresh tastes best—harvest beans right before you use them.

heirloom cucumber southern exposure seed organic growing tips
Cucumbers

Frequent harvesting of cucumbers helps the vines produce new fruit.
Pick bright green, firm slicing cucumbers when they reach 6 to 9 inches long.
Detach cucumbers from the vine with a quick, upward snap.

heirloom eggplant southern exposure seed organic growing tips
Eggplant

Select glossy eggplants that spring back when pressed. Use shears to remove eggplants from the vine.

Lettuce

Harvest lettuce in the morning.
Immerse lettuce immediately into cold water after cutting; then rinse and refrigerate.
Cut leaf lettuce when outer leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; harvest “juvenile lettuce” when heads are moderately firm and only half size to avoid bitterness during hot weather.

heirloom watermelon southern exposure seed organic growing tips

Melons

Harvest most muskmelons when the stem separates easily from the fruit. The skin between the netting turns from green to yellow at full ripeness.
The belly of a watermelon turns from greenish white to buttery yellow at maturity; the curly tendrils where the stem meets the melon to turn brown and dry; the melon sounds more like your chest than your head when thumped.
heirloom Pepper southern exposure seed organic growing tips
Peppers

Personal preference dictates when you pick peppers.
Take care when picking—pepper plants damage easily.
Pick pimiento peppers when they’re fully red.

heirloom squash southern exposure seed organic growing tips
Summer Squash

Pick frequently: small zucchini and yellow squash (6 to 10 inches long) and scalloped squash (3 to 6 inches in diameter) have the best flavor.
Tasty fruits have tender rinds (they should puncture easily with a fingernail) and soft seeds.

heirloom cucumber southern exposure seed organic growing tips

Tomatoes

Pick fully ripe, but firm, tomatoes for juicing or canning.
Harvest green tomatoes before a killing frost and ripen indoors.
Store unbruised tomatoes out of the fridge for the best flavor.

Trellising with Bamboo

Bamboo can be an invasive plant, but it’s also an eminently sustainable material with countless uses. Here at Southern Exposure, we frequently use bamboo in our trellises, combining it with a wide variety of other materials.

For pole beans, (whether snap, asparagus, lima, or runner beans) we tie bamboo poles, with the branches removed, to our T-posts to add to their height. Then we tie netting to the poles. Stubs of bamboo branches can give your twine something to hang onto, ensuring that the netting doesn’t fall.

For malabar spinach, we put in one T-post for every two plants, then put a tomato cage made of concrete reinforcement wire on each T-post, then tie two stalks of bamboo, each about 7 ft tall, with the branches still attached, to each cage.

Each bamboo stalk is situated roughly over a malabar spinach transplant. The malabar spinach winds around the tomato cage and around the bamboo branches as though they were a seamless unit.

For Mexican Sour Gherhins, a new, experimental crop for us, we put a tomato cage in the ground (the store-bought, cone-shaped kind), then leaned four bamboo branches against it, so that the base of each branch was next to a Gherkin transplant. We tied the branches to each other above the cage, then tied them to the top of the cage as well.

These trellises blew over in the wind a couple times, so we used a post driver to pound a sturdy, unbranched bamboo pole into the center of each little trellis, and tied the post to the branches. Then the trellises stopped blowing over. Now the Mexican Sour Gherkins can safely wrap their tendrils around the bamboo branches.

For some of our edible gourd trials, we’ve built loosely latticed bamboo trellising. We started with T-posts and concrete reinforcement wire tomato cages at wide intervals. We strung long, branchless bamboo poles horizontally through the cages, then added vertical, branched bamboo tops at frequent intervals, then tied the vertical bamboo to the horizontal bamboo.

Of all our bamboo trellises, the simplest one to make was the one we use for the wild passionfruit (maypops) that grow next to our barn. I simply gathered bamboo scraps from our other trellising projects, leaned them against the second-story barn porch and against each other, and then tied the tops of the tallest pieces to the porch railing.

If you or your neighbor has a bamboo grove, it probably needs to get reigned in regularly. The byproduct of this reigning in can be used for many styles of creative trellises, far beyond those described here. However, remember that very young bamboo stalks (those that have just leafed out) are not strong. Use older stalks for trellising. Our bamboo stalks develop a chalky surface texture as they mature. Also, while you can pound bamboo stalks directly into the ground, this method takes more effort than pounding T-posts, and it’s only effective for small trellises or relatively lightweight vines, with posts at relatively frequent intervals.

Saving Lettuce Seed

We’ve been trying to grow and offer seed for Cosmo lettuce. But we have only a little bit of experience with saving lettuce seed on our own farm, so it’s challenging to get a good seed crop of a large enough size.

We let the lettuce head up, then bolt, becoming too bitter to eat, then flower, and finally make seed. (Lettuce plants become a lot bigger when they bolt and flower, so before they bolted we made more room by harvesting every other head for eating.)

Although it’s possible to save lettuce seed outside, even in our wet climate, growing it in our high tunnel keeps the rain off of the seedheads. This greatly increases our chances of getting a good germination rate and being able to sell the seed. We’ve put up a rope around the bed, tied at waist height to six posts, so that the lettuce stalks can lean on it and so that the seedheads won’t lie on the moist ground. Nonetheless, our first harvest looked terribly disappointing.

It’s been a wet spring, and this harvest came after a period of much rain and humidity. I thought we had a crop failure – too little seed to be worth the time it would take to separate it from the chaff. I almost gave up. I moved lettuce seed harvesting down on my list of priorities. But the next harvest, after a couple days of dry weather, gave me a pleasant surprise.

This time, when I shook and rubbed the seedheads over my tray, a significant amount of mature-looking seed fell out along with the chaff. However, it seems some of the seedheads dried up before producing good seed. Shaking old, dry seedheads still basically just gave me chaff, not seeds. A day later, there was rain in the forecast, so I collected a small, early harvest.

I was quite surprised that I got so little chaff and so much seed. Of course, even this seed will need to be winnowed and screened to clean off the chaff. Then its germination will need to be tested before we’ll know if we have enough good seed to list this variety.

For more on how to save seeds, see our Seed-Saving for Home Use handout. Later this year I’ll post more information on how to clean seed by winnowing with a box fan.