Fortunate, indeed, is the home gardener who not only grows a wide variety of healthful produce not available in supermarkets, but can also select the perfect time of day to pick each vegetable for the peak of flavor and freshness. Knowing the right time of day for harvest can greatly improve the quality and taste of your vegetable garden crops.
Most vegetables should be harvested in the cool morning hours, recommends the North Carolina State University Extension. Beginning about 6 a.m., salad greens and herbs can be picked with the dew still on their leaves to help sustain their freshness through the day, advises the Tuft's University New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. Cole crops like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are also at their most crisp and flavorful in the early morning hours.
Waiting until later morning when dew has dried is a successful strategy for vegetable crops which may be damaged by the dampness. Cucumbers, melons, summer squash, peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos should all be harvested in the cool of morning, but after they have dried off, usually closer to 9 a.m. depending on the exact microclimate of your growing environment. Handle these vegetables very carefully as they are subject to bruising, and keep them in cool shade if they are going to be used or brought to market that day, or place them in the refrigerator for longer storage.
A few fresh vegetables are best picked on a hot dry afternoon. One of these is garlic scapes, the false flowerheads of hardneck garlic prized for their fun shapes and mild garlic flavor. Cutting garlic scapes on a sunny afternoon will help prevent too much sap from leaking from the remaining garlic plant, reducing its growing energy, says Mother Earth News. Thin-walled hot peppers start drying the minute they are picked, advises the Weekend Gardener. This means their hot flavor is more concentrated if you intend to use them fresh, and if you are planning on drying them, picking on a hot dry afternoon will give you a head start.
Just Before Eating
Many gardeners like to pick their tomatoes just before eating, so that the sun's warmth is still in the tasty red flesh. While picking tomatoes while they are on the way to your mouth is a matter of preference, picking sweet corn while the water is already boiling to cook them in is a matter of science. The sugar in sweet corn breaks down very quickly, reports the Arizona Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program, so harvesting shortly before eating maximizes the pleasurable corn-on-the-cob flavor. If it's impractical to get fresh-picked corn straight to the kitchen, drop them in cold water to remove the field heat, then store in the refrigerator until suppertime.
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A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.