Friday, 2 September 2011

Pick Early, Pick Often

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
When I first started gardening, I thought I'd grow vegetables just like the ones I'd seen in the grocery store - big, perfect produce. But then reality set in. Those veggies were most likely so perfect because they'd been liberally covered with -cides: pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides. I wasn't going to do that. I preferred to live with imperfection - bits I could cut away, as opposed to chemicals I wasn't sure would wash off.

I still thought the ideal was the super-sized fruit I saw in the market, though. I'd leave my harvest on the plants as long as possible, trying to let everything get as big as possible. But one year, an especially early freeze warning made me go out and pick all the tender crops - tomatoes, peppers, chiles, eggplant, and squashes. And then it didn't freeze, followed by a gloriously long, mellow autumn.

The real goal of any vegetable plant isn't really to produce food for me - all it really wants to do is produce mature seeds, to perpetuate the species. I think the plants I'd clear-picked realized they had no fruit, ergo no seeds, and almost immediately set another flush of blossoms. But where I'd picked maybe two or three of my big fruits per plant, this late flush created lots of fruits. Those same small plants now held a dozen chiles and eggplants each. And the long season that year let me harvest just about all of them, too.

The light bulb came on. If I did that earlier in my short season, maybe I'd get a bigger harvest even if the frosts came normally. The following year, I picked the first fruits as soon as I had something to pick. The plants responded with more blossoms, and a much bigger harvest overall. And I found it works not only with the fruiting plants, but with the vining crops as well.

If you grow zucchini, you've probably seen this in action. As long as you keep picking the zukes small, they keep coming. But miss one 'til it's club-sized, and the plant slows down. I use the same procedure with my winter squash. If I leave the first pink banana squash that sets on the plant, it will grow into a 20-pound monster. But if I pick the first one and give it to the chickens, the plant responds by producing 5 10-pounders instead. Pick early, pick often, harvest more.