Alan Titchmarsh explains that the best way to celebrate home-grown fruit and vegetables is to ensure that all crops are picked in their prime
Tools for the job
This month, you can reap the rewards of your hard work earlier in the year, by harvesting a wide range of home-grown fruits and vegetables. To make the most of the bounty on offer, it is important to pick them at the right time and in the right way. Most vegetables, for example, are at their best first thing in the morning, when they are still cool and plump. For this reason, it is a good idea to water crops that will be ready for harvesting the night before picking. Once harvested, they need to be kept cool and turgid.
Essential harvesting kit
Rather than using a traditional garden trug, you can venture out into your veg plot with an old coolbox when harvesting. That way the early morning perfection can be preserved. Fruits are a little different. Like herbs, they should be left for a few hours for the morning dew to evaporate before harvesting. For the best possible results, pick fruit that is to be stored in the morning, but fruit for immediate consumption should be left until the afternoon so that it can be warmed by the sun for maximum flavour.
Crops that produce a continuous harvest over a period of time, should be picked over regularly to keep them cropping. Peas and beans, for example, should be harvested even if they are not needed, to keep the plants flowering and cropping well. While courgettes need to be harvested to prevent them turning into marrows! All ripe fruit should also be harvested to prolong cropping and to prevent it spoiling on the plant.
Crop-by-crop guide to harvesting
- Apple - pick when the fruit comes away from the tree when raised and twisted slightly in the palm of your hand. Pick over trees several times (starting with the sunny side) to make sure all fruits are picked in their prime – the earliest by mid-August, through September and October. Gather up windfalls now.
- Blackberry - pick anytime from now, when ripe, for jam making and just under-ripe for freezing.
- Blackcurrant - pick now, once fully ripe. You can save time and effort by combining pruning and harvesting with varieties that fruit all at once - cutting out the fruiting stems just above a bud near the base.
- Gooseberry - thin heavy crops, using narrow-nosed snips, and use the thinnings for cooking. Pick fully formed fruit, once ripened, for jam making.
- Pear - harvest slightly under-ripe when they come away, if lifted and twisted gently in a cupped hand - usually during September and October.
- Plum - harvest from now onwards, as soon as fruit are ripe with fully developed colour. Where practical, net trees to protect against birds.
- Raspberry - pick over regularly throughout the summer. Remove fruit when fully ripe – they should come away cleanly from the ‘plug’.
- Strawberry - the latest crops will still be ripening this month. Pick when ripe and firm, but fully coloured. Pinch off each stalk between thumb and finger.
- Asparagus - harvest for about six weeks during April and May, cutting the emerging shoots (spears) when about 15cm high by cutting about 5cm below the surface of the soil using a special asparagus knife.
- Aubergine - pick from this month onwards, when fully coloured (purple or white depending on variety) by snipping the stem off near to the fruit using secateurs or snips.
- Beetroot - pull early crops as soon as large enough while small and tender. For better flavour, leave the roots to mature and the leaves wilt. Twist off the foliage rather than cutting it after harvest to prevent bleeding.
- Bean, broad - the last of the broad beans should be picked as soon as the beans are fully formed, but before the stalk goes woody.
- Bean, French - pick over regularly to remove pods that are large enough to eat (hold the plant to prevent pulling its roots out of the ground). If left, the pods will become stringy and plants will stop cropping.
- Beans, runner - pick when small and tender - large pods will become stringy if left on the vine, and the plant will stop cropping.
- Broccoli/calabrese - harvest the main spear when tight and plump, cutting just above a sideshoot. These sideshoots will then develop and can be harvested as soon as they are ready.
- Cabbage - cut when the heads are well formed, firm and fleshy. Make a cross-shaped cut in the top of the stalk left behind to encourage four more mini-cabbages to form.
- Carrot - pull to thin rows as soon as the small and tender roots are large enough. Thinnings are excellent for summer salads. Remove the foliage to keep the roots firm.
- Cauliflower - check the developing head regularly and cut when firm, white and tight.
- Courgette - harvest young when fruits are less than 15cm long. If left, they will form marrows and the plant will stop cropping.
- Lettuce - hearting lettuces should be left to develop until they are firm to the touch. Other types can be picked as soon as they are large enough. Leave the stump to regrow.
- Pea - pick regularly, removing pods once peas swell. If left, mange-tout pods will become stringy and all pea plants will stop cropping.
- Pepper - harvest from this month onwards, when firm and well formed by snipping the stem off near to the fruit using secateurs or snips.
- Potato, new - feel for developing tubers by pushing your fingers into the soil under the plant and remove any that are larger than hens’ eggs – leaving small potatoes on the plant to grow on.
- Potato, maincrop - towards the end of the month, harvest when the tops of the plants start to wither. The skins on tubers should not rub off once mature.
- Radish - pull when large enough to eat – about the size of marbles. If left, the roots will become tough and fibrous.
- Spinach - pick tender young leaves from the outside of plants regularly or remove whole plants once they are large enough.
- Spring onion - pull when young and tender, but before the bulb starts to develop.
- Sweetcorn - check developing cobs when the tassels turn brown. Peel back the outer skin to reveal the cob and press a thumbnail into an individual grain – if the sap is milky it is ready to harvest.
- Tomato - pick when ripe for the best flavour. Harvest individual fruits by lifting them in the palm of your hand and pressing the knuckle on the stalk with your thumb.