Harvest in the morning, that’s my advice. Vegetables harvested during the early morning hours tend to taste better and keep longer in storage, and stress to the parent plant is minimized if the stem is cut when the plant is cool. The shelf life of produce depends on its respiration rate; the warmer garden produce gets, the higher its respiration rate will be, which means a shorter shelf life. By harvesting during the cool early morning, the difference between harvest temperature and refrigerator storage temperature are kept to a minimum. The produce stays cool and respiration slows, which means a longer shelf life for those homegrown beauties. Plus, what an excellent way to start the day, with a basket and a pair of snips, meandering through the garden, planning dinner or breakfast out of the treasures that sprout from the ground.
Lately we’ve been harvesting a lot of basil. Basil must be picked often, ideally removing the flowers each time, to prolong the harvest season. Picking more often encourages the plant to branch out and create more of the tender tips we like to eat. We let some of the basil flower, to keep the bees interested in the area, but mostly we snip the flowering tips off, this time of year. Even if there is not enough for an entire batch of pesto, the young leaves are great whole or snipped up, in salads and savory dishes, and a sprig of basil brightens lemon water right up. It’s interesting to taste all the different varieties: Amethyst, with her deep purple leaves, is clovey and spicy, so striking visually in whatever dish it graces; Lemon basil is bright and snappy. Thai basil is amazing cooked with coconut milk, Tulsi’s best for tea, and the various large and small-leaved Italian basils all claim to be the best for pesto and fresh eating. We test and taste, again and again. They are all our favorite.
Morning basket. A handful of yellow beans, (ferment ‘em!) and a cucumber. 15 cherry tomatoes, a red slicer, a Green Zebra. Basil sprigs and 4 Japanese eggplants off the same plant, that’ll be for dinner, grilled or curried. A dozen Padron peppers, and more on the plant for tomorrow; we’ll fry them up in olive oil with salt and eat them whole; the only question is, shall we do it with breakfast or as a dinner appetizer? The Hot Wax peppers are getting ripe, too...
Another flavor that finds its way into the basket almost every harvest are the brilliant ruby leaves of the amaranth plant. I adore amaranth, in all her forms, and for so many reasons. The maroon ropes of Hopi Red Dye or Love Lies Bleeding are so gorgeous. Later in the season, they’ll make thousands of tiny seeds, that the birds will relish if I cannot take time to winnow them out to cook as a grain or grind to flour. (Spoiler! I won't.) The birds never get them all, though, so every year amaranth springs up again, in the strangest places. Sometimes there are so many, I have to cull or transplant them. Sometimes, where I can, I let them stay. There are some too near the pepper plants this year, but I love the bright gleam of color there. I compromise and continually snip back the young leaves, which are an oft overlooked eating green in their own right. Young, small amaranth leaves can be eaten raw in salads,but the larger, older leaves should be treated as spinach or chard, and cooked. They've got a lot of oxalic acid i them, so they can be pretty astringent and tough to digest when mature if they are not cooked well. All it takes, though, is a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt, a drizzle of oil, and you’re eating that luscious color with a fork.
Then there is the ongoing harvest that is not for eating, but for smelling and viewing. This month I cut back the english lavender just as it was ending its first bloom cycle. New shoots were just starting to come up through the spent flower stalks. I trimmed the whole bush back to a ball shape, flush with the foliage, so that the first harvest of lavender could be dried at its peak freshness, after it had finished feeding the bees. Now the fresh flower stalks can spring up and flourish, not mingled with the older ones, which would lose much of their scent and beauty if left out in the weather for several more weeks. I hang the flower stalks upside down in a cool place, and their scent fills the air. Come fall, I’ll start making them into dried flower wreaths, to brighten home and hearth in the winter months. It’s strange to think of those rainy days now, in the heat of summer, but as with all preservation, it helps to look forwards and back, to lay plans for projects well in advance so that all the components are at hand when the time comes. Those dried lavender stalks will be a welcome reminder of summer in the cool months to come. And in the meantime, they make the whole room hum with their purple, herbal fragrance. White sage is ready to harvest, too, for smudging or drying. Dahlias and roses dry well, as does eriognum, to name just a few that were harvested this week. The red-purple leaves of amaranth, if they do not suit your palate, can also be hung upside down to dry, for use in wreaths later in the year.
It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you grow beautiful, sustainable, gardens whether you have sprawling acres of farm or just a tiny plot along the highway. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.