It’s Time to Harvest Your Vegetables: Here Are Some Tips

Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.

fall harvest
It’s easy to know when to harvest your home-grown vegetables, mostly through trial and error.

Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).

What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).

tomatoes on vine, varying maturity
Tomatoes at various stages of maturity show the deeper red color of ripe fruit that’s ready to eat.

Tomatoes

Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.

tomato how to harvest
Gently twist tomatoes of any size from the vine when the fruit is deep in color and slightly soft.

Cucumbers

Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are better harvested a little early than late.

Carrots

Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.

carrots straight from the ground
Just cut off carrot leaves above the shoulder and store with some dirt on them or wash and dry completely.

Beans and Peas

Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.

harvesting beans
Use one hand to hold the vine while the other gently tugs on a mature bean or pea.

Lettuce

Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!

spinning lettuce
Organic mesclun leaves in the salad spinner.

Peppers

Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.

short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)

Squash

Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

zucchini harvest
Most of the zucchinis in this late-season harvest are too big to have flavor. My neighbor will take them off my hands and make stuffed squash.

Kale

Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.

In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.

Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

Grow Food on Your Patio, Deck or Balcony

 

I’m on a quest to encourage more people to enjoy and even grow fresh vegetables and herbs. We’ve started selling some of our edibles from Rio Ruidoso Farms at the Alamogordo Downtown Farmers’ Market. We also make sure to nab plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers and other food for our own meals and snacks.

cucumbers grown on patio
An old screen door makes an excellent trellis for patio cucumbers.

Lots of gardeners worry about making mistakes, solving problems or maintaining a full mini-farm or kitchen garden. But I’m here to tell you that growing food in your landscape, and especially right on your patio, can be easy and way more fun than the time you spend watering or maintaining your plants.

Why Container Edibles on the Patio Are Easier

One of the best ways to keep plants healthy is to frequently “visit” your garden. We love to sit on our balconies, decks or patios this time of year during cool mornings and evenings. Sometimes, you only spot hornworm damage or drought stress in a plant when you’re not looking for problems. Spending more time near the plants helps monitor their health and gives you the satisfaction of seeing the first fruit ripen. It’s easier to fill up a container with excellent potting soil and compost than it is to try to amend and weed bad soil in the yard.

Patio tomato plants
We had to stake these tomato plants because they’re thriving in the warm environment of a south-facing patio.

Containers also grow healthier plants in many instances, although some plants are too large or unruly. It’s a little harder, though not impossible, for snails and bugs to attack plants in pots. You’ll usually need a large container – at least 12 inches wide for even a cherry tomato – but you can clean it out and reuse it for years. Most patios are warmer (or shadier, depending on exposure and the plant you want to grow) than the ground. This can cause problems because of extremes – containers warm up more rapidly and release warmth faster to cool down at night. But in many cases, this is a bonus, especially for starting a plant such as tomatoes earlier in the season. If you think your container is getting too much heat, move it to a shadier area. Or keep containers near walls for added heat. Don’t place them too close to walls and windows, however. Leaves can burn and plants need air circulation.

Gorgeous cherry tomatoes after the rain.
Gorgeous cherry tomatoes after the rain.

In the long run, containers generally use less water than plants in the ground. But be sure to be consistent and regular with watering to avoid stressing edibles. Containers dry out faster than the ground.

Vegetables Can Be Pretty

The movement toward growing food near the house and even as part of a front lawn is a wonderful and sustainable trend. I know some plants can grow a little wild in containers, but that can be a pretty look, too. Most vegetable and herb foliage is attractive, and a spot of yellow or red as fruits flower and ripen adds to the lush look of a patio. Mix in a few potted ornamentals, and you have an outdoor space worthy of any of the best botanical gardens.

I get as much joy looking at the tomatoes in this patio arrangement as I do the flowering geraniums in the background.
I get as much joy looking at the tomatoes in this patio arrangement as I do the flowering roses in the background.

Growing on Decks and Patios Is Convenient

With deer and other animals roaming a yard, home gardeners might need fencing to protect yummy tomatoes and lettuces. If you lack time, money or space for a fenced-in garden, the deck or patio can be a perfect alternative. I might jinx my plants, but I have never had a patio plant munched on, even though deer or rabbits have enjoyed dining on other edibles just a few feet away in the garden.

Cucumbers for lunch or dinner just steps away from the kitchen door. How can that be anything but beautiful?
Cucumbers for lunch or dinner just steps away from the kitchen door. How can that be anything but beautiful?

It’s easier to water plants right outside your door, and often near a faucet or rain barrel, than it is to water in the back corner of the yard. You’re more likely to harvest and eat patio-grown edibles simply because they are right outside your door. Be sure to choose the ones for this location that you eat most often. You won’t find fresher food anywhere.

How To Harvest and Store Fresh Garden Herbs

I love the herbs in our ornamental garden, many of which are low-water plants. Letting an herb such as sage flower can add color and lots of bees to your landscape or patio.

fresh herbs from waterwise garden
Fall harvest of herbs from our xeric garden.

Herbs typically begin to lose flavor as they flower, however, so if you want to eat herbs from your kitchen garden, it’s best to harvest often and enjoy the fresh flavors from plants you grow on your own. Harvesting herbs usually invigorates the plant, much like pruning or deadheading ornamentals. The best of both worlds? Having space to let one sage or thyme go to flower while you harvest from another sage or thyme in the same season.

The choices for herb gardens are endless, and it makes most sense to choose the plants you like based on your zone/growing location and favorite flavors or most useful purposes (such as medicinal). I grow mine for the color, scent and flavor and to sell at the farmers’ market. That presents its own set of challenges, mostly transporting herbs and keeping them fresh when it’s hot. Way too hot.

lavender for sale
Lavender bunches and sachets for sale at the farmers’ market, along with other fresh herbs.

With nearly all herbs, you’re better off harvesting in the morning and using a sharp pair of scissors or trimmers. It’s also best not to wash herbs before short-term storage, but instead wait until just before preparing them. Here’s a list of simple harvesting and storage tips for several herbs you can grow year-round or as annuals, along with a link at the end for a previous post on drying herbs.

Basil. Pesto anyone? Basil is easy to grow, but a little tricky to keep fresh after cutting. You would think that rinsing the leaves and keeping them chilled in the refrigerator would keep them fresh for days. But you would be mistaken. First, harvest basil in early morning. I’ve written in the past about how to cut basil, along with an easy pesto recipe in the same post. Of course, you can always harvest a few leaves only and use them right away. If you want to keep basil leaves fresh, the best approach is to avoid washing the basil after harvesting and placing stems (no leaves) immediately into a jar of cool water. They do best stored at 50° F, but who keeps their house or refrigerator at that temperature? If you have a spot, great. If not, keep the glass in a cool, lightly sunny spot and change the water often.  It can keep for weeks in the right circumstances.

Storing basil
We’ve got lots of basil. It stores so well in a mason jar on a cool window sill.

Cilantro. Cut off no more than one-third of your cilantro plant leaves after the plant reaches at least 6 inches tall. The best way to store cilantro leaves is to place the stems only in some fresh water and put the entire jar in your refrigerator. You also might want to loosely cover the aromatic leaves with a plastic bag.

Dill. Dill leaves, or weed, also are best stored with the stems only in water. Alternatively, you can wrap the entire stem with the leaves in a damp paper towel and place the herb in a warmer spot of the refrigerator, which usually means the door. Don’t be surprised if the herb’s quality goes down soon after storing. The freshest dill is harvested as cooks need it. Dill tastes best when harvested just as the plant’s flowers begin to open. If you want to preserve dill seed, wait for the flowers to turn into seed heads and dry up on the plant. Remove the seed head when it turns pale brown.

dill flowers
Dill is pretty when it blooms. I harvested some leaves from this plant and then let it go.

Lavender. More people likely grow lavender for its beauty and as a pollinator than for eating. There are varieties of lavender that are more suitable to culinary use (see a recipe here or check out our Lovin’ Lavender Pinterest board. If harvesting lavender for a recipe, it’s best to cut desired stems early in the day after they dry from morning dew. Even when fresh, you can harvest buds easily by rubbing the flowers between your hands or fingers. This is even easier to do when the herb has dried somewhat. When cutting branches for arrangements, cut all the way down to the main plant, being sure not to cut into the woody branches. Depending on where you live, weather conditions for the year and when you harvest, it’s often possible to get a second bloom from lavender each summer.

Lavender plants in xeric garden.
In a vase or left in the garden, lavender is a striking herb.

Rosemary. Harvest rosemary any time of day or during its growth. We’ve harvested fresh rosemary in fall and even winter. As with lavender, avoid cutting into the woody branches of rosemary when trimming or harvesting. Select a few sprigs and either use the leaves right away or store unwashed, loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator drawer.

rosemary loosely packaged for market
Rosemary keeps best when loosely wrapped in plastic and stored in the door of your refrigerator.

Sage. Fewer people use fresh sage leaves in the kitchen; many recipes require ground or rubbed versions of the herb. But there is plenty of value in the herb’s leaves, including medicinal uses and smudge sticks. I love to place fresh or dried leaves into the cavity or under the skin of chicken. For short-term storage, sage can be wrapped lightly in plastic and placed in a refrigerator door. It’s best bundled for drying, however. Just in time for fall dishes!

purple leaf sage
Purple leaf culinary sage is almost too pretty to harvest.

Thyme. Thyme also should not be washed until used and harvested before flowering (for culinary use) when possible. Keeping thyme trimmed and enjoying flowers on other forms of thyme, including ground covers, gives you flowers and flavor. If planning to dry the herb, you can wash it gently and let the leaves dry before bundling to hang a bunch. I’ve picked a bunch and placed it in a decorative bowl near the dining area, just so I can get a whiff of the herb while inside. Thyme retains flavor quite well after drying.

thyme bunches for sale
Some small bunches of time nestled between sage and sprouts.

For drying thyme and other fresh herbs, see this previous post.

How To Grow Your Own Cooking Herbs

Herbs are delicious additions to so many dishes, and several popular herbs are easy to grow at home. You can save money and time flavoring foods by growing one or two of your favorite herbs in containers or flower beds near your home. Try the herbs listed below for the joy of cutting just enough fresh leaves for your recipe and the pride in growing the plants yourself.

fresh cut herbs from home garden
From left to right: sage, thyme, oregano and basil.

First, here’s a list of herbs that grow well in dry climates; in most parts of New Mexico and the desert Southwest, these herbs can be perennial plants in your landscape, coming back from year to year:

  • Rosemary. This aromatic herb is my favorite for growing and cooking. The drier, the better, once it’s established. And you can grow rosemary for its woody habit and tiny purple flowers.
rosemary in waterwise garden
This rosemary is an ornamental, but I have harvested from it. Note the santolina that fills most of the frame. It’s considered an herb as well. I love the yellow flowers it produces in summer.
  • Sage. We grow sage more as an ornamental, but I dried leaves last year for use in poultry dishes. Bees love sage flowers.
  • Lavender. Sure, you can cook with lavender (check out our Pinterest board for some recipes). And it’s the perfect plant – herbal or ornamental – for a xeric garden.
lavender plants in New Mexico
In addition to more than a dozen lavender plants for cutting and their gorgeous shape, we have one in a container just for culinary use.
  • Oregano. Culinary oregano is easy to grow and is hardy down to zone 5. Capture its best flavor by harvesting just before the plant blooms.

Annual herbs you can plant each year or rotate:

  • Basil. We grow from seed, but you can always find great basil plants in stores.
  • Dill. The tall aromatic plant is great for rock gardens. You can harvest seeds or leaves.
Dill is a versatile herb.
Dill is a versatile herb.
  • Parsley. The plant is an annual in most regions, unable to take a hard freeze. It’s the most popular herb used around the world.
  • Cilantro. This is a must-have herb for Southwestern dishes and it takes a big bunch for most recipes. Cilantro loves sun and often re-seeds. The leaves are delicious and the seeds (coriander) are popular in many recipes.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
  • Fennel. Tim loves the smell of fresh fennel, which resembles that of licorice. Although it prefers sun, new plants come up at the base of larger bushes in our garden. Fennel can become a weed in the right (wrong?) conditions.

Tips for herb growing and harvesting

Most annual herbs are easy to direct sow, or grow from seed right in your garden or container. Many perennial herbs, especially rosemary and lavender, grow best from cuttings or transplants. Be sure to choose a large enough container for your herb and choose a location that gives the plant enough sun or shade, depending on its needs. If this information isn’t on the tag or seed packet, check with a local or regional source such as master gardeners or your state and local cooperative extension service.

Protect tender herbs from pests. I keep basil covered all year with row cover cloth because every bug seems to love it as much as I do. And I just found out that some critter visiting our yard loves dill, as did the swallowtail caterpillars I found on it the other day (and moved to the fennel; sorry, Tim). If you can grow inside a fence, great, but we’ve incorporated herbs into our rock garden. Either choose those that your local pests don’t prefer (for us, that’s rosemary, lavender and thyme) or find a way to cover them.

I saved new dill plants from caterpillars only to find them nearly decimated this morning. I'm not sure of the culprit yet.
I saved new dill plants from swallowtail caterpillars only to find the plants nearly decimated this morning. I’m not sure of the culprit yet.

Harvest most herbs all season. Once a plant is sturdy and bushy, you can begin harvesting. Once an herb flowers, it can bolt in growth and lose or change flavor. But I’ve harvested rosemary from a plant already flowering, and then trimmed it back lightly in spring. I’ve been letting older thyme plants flower and try to keep younger ones managed for harvesting. In general, harvesting invigorates herb plants. So it’s best to use the leaves! Here are tips on cutting basil, along with a pesto recipe.

These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking.
These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking. That’s a white larkspur that happened to self-sow in the center.

Drying herbs is easy. I hung most in bunches from rafters in our shed, then stripped the dried flowers or leaves. You can also find plenty of products and ideas to help if you like. Here are tips on drying herbs from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.
Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.

Winter over or move indoors. If you’re not inclined to dry herbs at the end of the season, try wintering the plants over. Perennial herbs for your zone might need protection, but should make it in all but the coldest, snowiest winters. An advantage of container growing is that you can move the container indoors or to a warmer winter spot. Even if your indoor herb fails to last the entire winter, you extended the time during which you could clip just enough herbs for a favorite family meal, right inside your own home!

 

Keep Your Kitchen Garden Convenient for Most Success

At least 35 percent of households now have kitchen gardens; that’s an increase of more than 60 percent since 2008. Whether the point is to save money or just to have fresher produce, it’s a trend I love to see. Anyone who lives in a rural area especially understands how difficult it can be to find a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. Expecting produce to be affordable? Well, that’s just asking too much in most cases.

home-grown bell pepper and green beans
Why not grow your own green beans and bell peppers? Place them near your kitchen for ultimate convenience and freshness.

Farmers’ markets are great resources for fresh, local, and often organic food. Of course, you can bring it even closer to home and grow some of your own food. If you’ve never tried, don’t let that stop you. Every gardener makes a few mistakes, and weather is unpredictable. But you’re bound to have some success, and I’ve got a few tips to help:

Grow as close to your kitchen as possible

Back in 2008, before interest in kitchen gardens peaked, I wrote an article for Out Here Magazine about edible landscaping, interviewing expert Robert Kourik. At the time, Kourik pointed out that the closer you can grow herbs and vegetables to your back door, the easier it is to use them. He’s absolutely right; I love walking out into our backyard garden to cut a sprig of rosemary for a recipe.

tomato in container
Have an empty container? Grow a cherry tomato right outside the door.

Although walking certainly is good for you, and my walks to and from our microfarm give me much-needed activity breaks on heavy work days, dinner prep can be a busy, stressful time. Keeping edibles close at hand means you’re more likely to use them and more likely to remember to water them! If you can’t plant herbs and vegetables in a nearby flower bed, place a few in containers on your sunny patio or balcony. All the container needs is to be clean, have drainage at the bottom and be large enough for your plant (about 12-inch minimum in diameter for tomatoes).

cucumber in container
I’m growing a few cucumbers in this container on our back patio for fun and convenience. I’ll trellis the vines up a salvaged screen door.

Involve your family

When you’re busy preparing a meal with fresh ingredients, you can also enlist the kids for help. Send one of your children outside to harvest a tomato. And even before you’re ready to harvest, have the family contribute to your kitchen garden plan. If kids choose and help grow the produce they like best, you’re less likely to have family dinner-table battles. If the kids can help with planting or watering, even better.

home grown carrots
Kids usually love carrots. These might not come prewashed, but they are sweet and fresh when grown in your yard.

Convenient also means easy care

The best way to ensure success with your first kitchen garden is to start small. You don’t need an acre and a greenhouse. If you choose too many plants or get too ambitious with your space and plant variety, it’s easier to abandon the garden midsummer. That’s such a waste of your time, well or community water, and good food! So start with one or two containers or a tiny plot. We also mix perennial herbs in with our flowering plants. Many are just as pretty and produce edible leaves or stalks.

culinary sage with bees
Sage is perennial in zone 6B. You can harvest the leaves and enjoy some flowers, as can pollinators

Choose easier plants to grow in your garden. If you have a short season, select cocktail, grape or cherry tomato varieties. Otherwise, choose the ones you and your family are most likely to enjoy. If you’re concerned about losing interest, start with a fast grower, such as lettuce or spinach. You’ll save more money growing your own asparagus, but you might not have stalks to harvest for three years.

If you have time to set up drip watering well before planting, you’ll have fewer day-to-day chores related to growing food. Plus, drip irrigation is better for plants and water savings. In sem cases, you can run drip to containers, or place an olla in the container. It’s a clay bottle that slowly seeps water and can be refilled every few days. This also frees you up for weekend outings. I’ve seen people make their own using milk jugs or similar items.

herb scissors with sage and oregano
My daughter gave me these awesome herb scissors, which cut (sorry) prep time substantially.

Have the right tools

Finally, keep a few tools on hand to save time when using fresh ingredients. Your produce won’t be prewashed (but then it also won’t have chemicals all over it).

  • A salad spinner. These are so handy for quickly cleaning lettuce, other fresh greens or bunches of herbs. And it’s another fun way to have the kids help.
  • Clean kitchen scissors. Just grab and carry outside to clip off an herb leaf or stem or to help free a cucumber. An old knife works better for zucchini and other squash.
  • Herb scissors. One of the best gifts ever; the multiple blades make faster work out of slicing or chopping basil, cilantro, parsley and similar leafy greens.
  • Other herb helpers, such as stripper tools for rosemary or dill. And Tim gave me a great storage container that keeps herb stems immersed in water, but the leaves above. I can put it right in the fridge.
Garden lettuce in the spinner, an herb saver, stripper, and scissors.
Garden lettuce in the spinner, an herb saver, stripper, and scissors.

 

Grow Leafy Greens in Containers

Lettuces and other leafy greens are healthy and some of the easiest edibles to grow. In fact, I would recommend them as the starter kitchen garden plant for new gardeners.

grow-leafy-greens-containers (3 of 5)
Organic heirloom mesclun from Renee’s Seeds is pretty to grow and even better to eat!

Here’s why growing greens is so easy:

  • Lettuce, arugula and other greens generally germinate quickly, often in less than a week, from seed. Instant gratification makes gardening way easier and more fun.
  • One reason the plants grow quickly is that you eat the leaves – there is no need to wait for flowering and fruit. In fact, if your lettuce flowers, it has bolted, or grown too quickly and too large. And it’s likely bitter or lacking in flavor.
  • Since lettuce is a cool-season plant, it can be started earlier in the spring. That’s perfect for impatient gardeners. And you can plant it again in the fall to have a vegetable ready to harvest as other plants fade. It all depends on where you live and the microclimates you can create. But kale, for instance, can be harvested even in light snows.
Black Magic kale covered in snow. Image courtesy of Home Farmer.
Black Magic kale covered in snow. Image courtesy of Home Farmer.

Here’s why containers work so well for leafy greens:

  • I grow my lettuce with more intensive methods. In other words, leaf lettuce in particular can grow more closely together than many crops. Perfect for a container! Head lettuces such as romaine and bibb also work, but require more spacing.
  • Containers offer more flexibility in location than a designated garden area. I believe they also help reduce pests.
  • Greens can be so pretty! I love the shape and deep green color of spinach bunches. By ordering variety mixes, you can add nearly as much color to a patio or balcony as you can with a flowering plant.
  • Need I mention convenience? How easy it is to have lettuce steps from the kitchen door.
spinach in metal container
We grew spinach in an old milk pail last year.

Planting greens in a container

Start with a good-quality potting or seed-starting soil. Fill it an inch or two below the rim to prevent soil, water, even seeds from running over once filled and watered. Dampen the soil and sprinkle seeds. If you prefer more orderly arrangements, make a shallow furrow to drop seeds in. Most greens can germinate in temperatures of 40 to 60 degrees F.

I love to plant loose-leaf, cut-and-come again lettuces, especially in containers. Plant lettuce seeds at about one-fourth inch depth. Lightly cover the seeds and pat the dirt gently. Water slowly and carefully at first to prevent seed migration (a big bunch of mesclun in one corner of an otherwise empty container). Keep the soil evenly moist until seedlings emerge.

mesclun mix in container
These loose-leaf seedlings came up quickly in a patio container. You can see that I either distributed them unevenly or watered a little too quickly, causing some bunching of seeds.

Caring for container greens

Once seedlings are up, you can water less often, but more deeply to help the greens establish roots. It can still help to thin seedlings, at least in areas of the container where the plants are bunched up. One of the biggest benefits to growing cool-weather greens in containers is flexibility. As weather warms or shadows change, you can move your container to a spot that gets afternoon sun, or to the north patio of your home to extend the plant’s season.

arugula in decorative container
Arugula prefers cool temperatures, but this container gets only morning sun. Works for now.

With loose-leaf lettuce, you can harvest in a matter of weeks, and again later (maybe even three times). It’s best to cut outer leaves when they reach about two to three inches. Harvest all but baby greens in the morning and cut some every day if you have enough!

Cleaning and storing greens

Even though you’re growing your own greens in sterile pots with organic methods, you still should rinse harvested leaves at least once in cold water and spin or shake them to partially dry as soon as you harvest. Spinach is notorious at hiding little specks of soil that splash up on leaves when watering. And birds or bugs can get between leaves. Don’t have a spinner? Use a clean kitchen towel or hosiery bag for the washer. You’ll get a little exercise as you stand on the patio swinging your greens around!

spinning lettuce
The pretty organic mesclun leaves I picked this morning in the spinner.

Store most greens in plastic containers in the refrigerator. We place a small paper towel with our loose-leaf varieties (and spinach) in a sealable bag and date it. It usually lasts at least a week, and spinach typically lasts longer. Kale should be in a sealed bag, and lasts only a few days. Wrap arugula in a damp paper towel and put it in a vented plastic bag.

mesclun
After spinning, I bag greens with a paper towel, push out most of the air, and mark the date.

Grow This Easy Vegetable: Cherry or Grape Tomato

Growing tomatoes can be loads of fun, but a little stressful in dry climates with short growing seasons (aka: where we live). But cherry and grape tomatoes have a shorter time to maturity and harvest, and work well in nearly any zone. I believe they also are subject to fewer problems because the fruits are smaller and ripen quickly.

Late-season tomato harvest, including Burpee grape tomatoes.
Last year’s late-season tomato harvest, including lost of grape tomatoes.

The other benefit of small tomatoes is their adaptability to containers, so you can add a cherry tomato to your convenient patio or kitchen garden. The fruit is smaller than a typical tomato, and usually so is the plant. Having said that, all tomatoes grow tall and wide, and a cherry tomato can easily reach 5 or 6 feet high.

We had both red and grape tomatoes in the large container on the left. Food or decor? Both!
We had both red and grape tomatoes in the large container on the left. Food or decor? Both!

Better than Candy

I can’t think of many plants better suited for getting your family excited about growing their own food. When children can walk up to a plant on their patio or yard, pluck the fruit and pop it in their mouth, they’re bound to appreciate the flavor, freshness and fun of growing juicy tomatoes.

Grape tomatoes ripening on the vine late in summer.
Grape tomatoes ripening on the vine late in summer.

Last year, we grew red and yellow grape tomatoes (Solid Gold yellow grape tomatoes from Sakata) and Tim ate them like candy. Maybe that’s why some of the varieties we’ll try this year have “candy” in their name. One is a tricolor tomato from Renee’s Garden. Each individual plant yields either yellow, red or orange cherry tomatoes, and I need to find a way to try all three. The seeds come color-coded to give you and your family a choice.

We can’t wait to try Tomato Candyland Red from Pan American Seed. Candyland was a winner of the culinary delights All-America Selections for 2016. It’s called a currant tomato and the fruit is even smaller than a cherry tomato. I love it — no cutting necessary. According to AAS, the fruit forms along the outside of the plant, making it easier to harvest.  And you can expect up to 100 or more tiny tomatoes from each plant. If you sow the seeds indoors and transplant Candyland Red, you should have fruit in less than 60 days.

AAS 2016 winner tomato red candyland
All-America Selections Candyland Red Tomato (Currant)
Image courtesy of AAS.

Although we’re trying out these fun and delicious selections, we’re keeping our main vegetable garden strictly organic. We’ll add Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato from High Mowing Seeds, which also has fruit smaller than most cherry tomatoes and matures in 55 days. The seeds are certified organic. These are perfect for containers, since the mature plant only reaches a height of about four feet.

Tips for Growing Cherry Tomatoes

These really are easy plants for beginning gardeners or busy families. They’re sort of like the gateway vegetable to bigger tomatoes, beans, cucumbers… and certainly a plant and food you’ll get hooked on. Here are a few tips for growing tomatoes:

  • Check the final width and height of the plant you choose when selecting a container. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger the container, the better. I’ve underplanted marigolds and basil with mine. The basil was not as pretty as the garden herb, but it produced and fewer insects went after it.
  • As for insects and other pests – they still can attack cherry and grape tomato plants, but a container sometimes provides an extra layer of protection. I caught a few snails making their way up the container, but none made it to the plant. The deer left all of mine alone until late in the season when they munched on a few in one of our gardens. Having tomatoes in a container close to the house can help. We did get tomato hornworms on our container grape tomato, so if you see stripped leaves, start looking.
hornworm droppings
Telltale signs of hornworm activity were easy to spot on the patio.
  • Plastic containers work better than clay ones, which dry out too quickly. Glazed containers also work well and turn an edible into an ornamental.
  • Cherry and grape tomatoes still need some help with cages or some sort of trellis they can climb on to make sure the plant has air circulation and support branches as fruit develops. You can put cages into containers or place the plant along a fence or trellis. Just make sure it gets plenty of air if against a solid structure.
cosmos and tomato
Why not support a tomato plant with wildflowers? This plant grew over a short wall and rested on the cosmos.
  • One of the best ways to ensure healthy tomatoes is with consistent watering. In other words, try to give the plants the same amount of water applied slowly or by drip each time you water, unless of course it rains.
  • Tomatoes need at least six hours of sun a day, so plant them in a south-facing location unless you’re in a really hot zone. We moved our containers to follow the sun. At first, we gave the plants a little extra shade while they finished hardening off. Once hardy, they got more sun. And if they looked stressed in the heat of summer, we moved them a few feet to improve afternoon shade.
candyland red seedlings
Our Candyland Red seedlings look gorgeous and healthy.
  • Seeds are easy to start inside with light and moisture. But be sure to pot up your seedlings to strengthen them before planting.
perfect grape tomato
P stands for “Perfect,” right? I have no idea how the perfectly formed letter appeared on this grape tomato, but it tasted delicious!

Cherry and grape tomatoes are perfect for snacking and salads. If you really want a tomato that you can slice into and need to grow in a container or have a short season, aim for a cocktail size. We had excellent luck growing a short-season variety last year called “Fourth of July” (from Burpee) in a container.

 

Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!

Starting Seeds for the 2016 Garden: Patience Required

After a crazy, colder winter from El Nino that’s morphed into 60-plus degree weather this week, I’ve been so tempted to spend a few days outside on gardening tasks I know it’s too early to tackle. It doesn’t help that lots of folks on social media already are starting their seeds, or gardeners on other continents are growing vegetables and flowers!

red bud blooms
The red bud, pear tree (white in background) , and alyssum won’t even bloom for nearly seven more weeks.

Here’s the thing – those gardeners who are starting seeds now either live in a warmer zone than us or can seriously extend their seasons with greenhouses or geodesic domes. I wish they would send me one.

We’re in zone 6B, which means a last frost date around Mother’s Day (in Albuquerque, only about one zone warmer, the last date is closer to April 15). The ground often needs to warm up to successfully germinate seeds. So even though we might safely pass the frost date, a cold week or two prior to that means the ground isn’t ready.

My impatience has caused problems in past years. We received our shipment of lavender plants earlier than we thought, and just because it seemed warmer outside, I decided to get them out of their nursery containers and into the ground. The ground was too cold. And then we got a cold rain. The roots were wet on top of the cold. Although most of the lavender made it, several plants never really got established.

seedlings can get leggy with too little light
Hardening off last year’s leggy basil and tomato seedlings, along with a sage transplant.

I’ve also sowed or started seeds too early, ending up with leggy seedlings, or seeds that didn’t take in the ground. Seeds don’t cost much, but I watered some cucumber seeds for nearly two weeks before realizing it just wasn’t warm enough yet. I don’t like to waste water or time! When sowing seeds indoors, it’s typical to count back about six weeks from when you can plant, depending on how quickly the seed germinates. Poor lighting also can make seedlings leggy.

Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!
Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!

This year, I’m trying a few strategies to keep myself busy “gardening” without moving too soon on seeding, planting and even trimming perennials. If my strategies don’t help, I might have to ask my hubby to hide some tools and seed packets. I hope these ideas will help other gardeners who are impatient for spring:

Order seeds ahead of time. Some of the suppliers are swamped with orders right now; processing and shipping will take longer.

Once the seeds come, put them away in a dark, cool spot. Keep your seeds fresher by storing them out of the heat and sun. That’s after you’ve kissed and read the packet and planned your start date.

store and sort seeds
We store seeds on this cool, dark closet shelf. And we’re using a Seedkeeper Home Farmer kit to sort this year’s edible seeds.

Sort your seeds and plan your vegetable, herb and ornamental garden layouts or new plantings. Count backward from planting time to account for average germination time, and include a week or two to harden seedlings off before planting.

If starting seeds inside, find a warm, light place to place your trays. If possible, purchase both a heat mat and a quality set of grow lights. The warmth helps seeds germinate and is especially important for New Mexico gardeners; chile pepper seedlings need warmth as much as light. And have a plan to pot up seedlings such as tomatoes.

potting up vegetable seeds
Potting up with larger containers or soil blocks gives seedling roots more room to grow and become healthy.

Plant a few cool-temp crops. I’m planning when I can start some cool-season seedlings or crops. At least counting backward from late spring and having an earlier planting for some vegetables gives me a closer date to which I can count down. For example, you can usually plant root crops such as beets, carrots and potatoes, and many greens, as soon as the ground is workable. Just check the seed package and local master gardener or county extension materials for more detail.

arugula seedlings rock rose
Arugula seedlings in a patio container in April last year, about the time this purple rock rose bloomed.

Prep the garden. Make sure you’ve added some organic matter to soil in your vegetable garden and find a good source for compost. Fill and lay out beds if possible. Add mulches or do other hardscaping chores on warm winter days until you can begin trimming perennials.

Extend your season, or plan to do so next year. I’ll use a combination of buckets and row cover cloth to make sure some of our seeds and seedlings have plenty of warmth after they’re planted. And that’s just a preventive measure in case temps drop substantially after our last frost. Planting early crops in containers also helps; container soil warms faster than does the ground. Low tunnels and hoop houses for season extension cost less than greenhouses to build.

buckets to protect vegetable seedlings
Free five-gallon buckets with the bottoms cut out make great mini-hothouses and protect fragile seedlings from wind.

Keep plants healthy. Our south-facing windows begin to get less light as the sun moves higher in the sky in spring. Sometimes, we have to move houseplants around or give theme artificial light to keep them warm and happy. If you haven’t gotten to trimming trees that need it this year, choose a warm day to finish the task before the trees begin to bud out.

houseplants in sunny window winter
Less sun will enter these south-facing windows as spring and summer approach.

Trim roses if you have them. Roses need to be cut back closer to late winter and early spring. We have a forsythia bush, and when it blooms, I know it’s time to trim roses. Nature is the best garden timer. Gardeners like me just have to work with her…