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Harvesting. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/">woodleywonderworks</a>, cc <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">some rights reserved</a>

In the garden: what's ready, and what's not

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So, when is that tomato ready to pick? What about the onions? Green or red peppers? Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy shares ideas on when to pick some favorite garden produce in her weekly chat with Martha Foley.

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Martha Foley
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As July gives way to August, produce has begun to ripen. Amy Ivy, Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturist, says that gardens can become a burden when there is so much to do in them.

“Be glad it’s your home garden,” said Ivy. “It’s the time of year that some people might say, ‘This isn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be.’” Ivy says that as gardeners get more experienced, they learn what methods work for them when it comes to growing vegetables.

Tomatoes should be picked when they are perfectly ripe, according to Ivy. She said, “And then you pluck that beautiful, juicy fruit off the plant and turn it over, and a slug has eaten the whole back of the fruit off, or a mouse has done it, or a bug has stung it or you know. It’s so frustrating when that happens. So yeah, I’ve taken to harvesting mine a little bit early. Not crazy early, but you know, when they’re pink instead of red, for example, depending on the variety of course.”

Ivy puts her tomatoes on the kitchen counter, but not on the window sill since they don’t need sunlight at this point. The tomatoes ripen, and Ivy says she can’t tell the difference in taste between these tomatoes and ones that are ripened on the vine. She said, “But I’ll tell you, that grief that you feel when that perfectly ripe tomato is ruined: this just takes away a lot of that stress.”

Martha Foley made fried green tomatoes, which are a dish that people can make to take away the stress of waiting for the fruits to ripen. It is also an option for gardeners who have a lot of tomatoes. However, Ivy says that it takes away the potential of the tomatoes at this time of year. She said, “That’s a good thing to do in September when frost is threatening and you know you’re done for the year anyway. But if you left those green tomatoes now, you might actually have red tomatoes.”

Onions are beginning to pop out of the ground at this time of the summer. According to Ivy, the onion bulbs sit on top of the ground and that gardeners should not worry about the onions appearing out of the soil. She said, “Look at the leaves more. That’s a better indicator most years. Now this year, it’s a little bit funny because of all the bizarre weather we’ve had.”

Ivy recommends that gardeners examine the leaves of the onion plant. She says that fresh onions and sweet onions such as Walla Walla’s don’t keep very long. “So those you pick and store, maybe a few weeks and that’s all it’s going to be,” said Ivy. “But those ones that you want to store for the winter, you really want them to dry down nicely so that you don’t have a soft spot through the tender part to the neck.”

In the past, gardeners would bend the tops of the onion plants over to hasten the drying down at the top. Ivy said, “But actually, when you bend over a juicy, green top, you’re actually damaging the tissue and you actually can start getting a little bit of rot. It’s not the end of the world, but now what we say to do is pull the plant right out of the ground and then lay it down.”

Gardeners can lay the onion on the ground for a couple of days if it’s not going to rain. Ivy says that she puts her onions on her covered porch in a single layer where they won’t be in the sun. She recommends leaving the green leaves on the plants. She said, “You just leave them there until the leaves shrivel up and everything dries up; it takes a few weeks.”

Ivy says that this is similar to how garlic is treated. The onions can also be hosted lightly before they are left to dry to remove soil, but Ivy warned against bruising them. “And then, once they’re totally dry, then you clip the long leaves off or you could braid them at that point. But you do want to let them dry. That’s the most important thing for long storage, said Ivy. She added that the dry onions can be stored on a kitchen counter and don’t require special conditions.

Peppers are also ready to be picked. Ivy says that she loves red peppers, and has a small patch in her garden. “All peppers start out green, and then they turn color as they mature. So when you’re eating a green pepper, you’re basically eating an immature pepper,” she explained. The mature peppers have a sweeter flavor.

If gardeners want to pick flowers for drying, Ivy says that this is also the time. She says that it’s amazing how many flowers can be dried. She said, “You want to pick them just as they’re beginning to open, not when they’re fully open. When you hang them to dry, they do continue to open a little bit more, so you want them just pre-prime, just the same thing as the tomato.”

Cucumbers are yet another vegetable that Ivy says go fast. She said, “So that’s just another little heads up on picking them before. Small is good. So all these things, you want to pick a little bit before you think you should. When in doubt, try it a little early and just experiment.”

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