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Most people think of gardening as a spring and summer

activity. As I walked through the Discovery Garden

in Carbide Park last week on a cool and sunny

Thursday morning, I was inspired by the abundance

of winter vegetables being grown: broccoli, cauliflower,

kale, beets, Irish potatoes, cabbages, onions, and

the list goes on.

Many of the vegetables that Master Gardeners

planted in late summer and early fall are now ready

to harvest (or will be soon). It is important to harvest

vegetables at the proper stage for best results, so

here are a few guidelines for some common coolseason


*Root crops are usually harvested when the top of

the root becomes readily visible at ground-level, but

it is easy enough to brush aside the soil at the base

of the leaves to check on the size of the root. Harvest

radishes and carrots when the root is about an inch


*Carrots can be left in the ground once they are

mature and harvested as needed, and the tops can

be used as a parsley substitute. Turnips should be

harvested when they are 2 to 3 inches in diameter,

and rutabagas (a close relative) when they are 4 or 5

inches in diameter. Beets are best harvested at 2 to

3 inches and parsnips at 1 1/2 to

2 inches.

Incidentally, to get good production,

these plants must be

spaced properly in the garden.

When the seeds that you plant

come up, it is very important to

thin the seedlings at least as far

apart as the width of the mature

root in order to get good production.

Leaving the seedlings too

crowded is a common reason for

root crops to produce small or

misshapen roots.

*Broccoli heads are not harvested

based on the size of the

head, but when the largest individual

flower buds are about the

size of a kitchen match head. Cut

the primary crown (where the individual

heads come together)

when it’s about 4 inches across.

Do not allow the heads to remain

on the plant so long that some of

the buds start to open and produce

yellow flowers. Remember

that smaller side heads will develop

after the main head has been

harvested, so leave the plant in

place for additional harvest.

*Harvesting cauliflower also

depends more on the appearance

of the head rather than

its size. The curds of the head

should be relatively smooth, very

much like the cauliflower that

you buy in the supermarket. If allowed

to stay on the plant too long, the head will begin

to separate and lose quality. If you did not blanch

your cauliflower by covering the head with the plant’s

leaves, it may have a purple, green or yellow tint to it.

This does not greatly affect the quality of the head.

*Leafy crops such as mustard, spinach, Swiss

chard, leaf lettuce, collards and turnips should be

harvested frequently by breaking off the lowest, largest

leaves (this is called cropping). Harvest the entire

head of semi-heading varieties of lettuce such

as Bibb, buttercrunch and romaine when the head is

fully developed.

*Cabbage is ready to harvest when the head is

solid and hard. Cabbage is one of the few crops that

may be left in the garden after they are ready to harvest,

although the heads may split. If you are going to

leave fully formed heads in the garden, rotate the entire

plant one-half turn to prevent splitting (this slows

water uptake by breaking some of the roots).

*Bunching onions and green shallots can be harvested

anytime during the winter when the tops are

large enough. Dig up the entire clump and separate

off one half of the bunch, and then replant the rest to

continue to grow and divide for future harvesting.

Cold protection for winter vegetables

Although winter vegetables are generally hardy,

new plantings may need to be protected from hard

freezing, as will certain vegetables near or at harvest

stage. If temperatures below 30 degrees are predicted,

young seedlings should receive special attention

by completely covering them with a 4-to-6-inch layer

of loose mulch like leaves or pine straw. The mulch

may remain over the plants for a few days but remove

it as soon as the freezing episode is over. Other protections

include plastic coverings supported to keep

them off plants. Fabric sheets or floating row coverings

may also be used.

The following lists will give you a quick guide to the

ability of some vegetables to endure freezes.

– Broccoli, Cauliflower, Lettuce and Peas: protect or

harvest if temperatures are predicted to go below 30


– Swiss Chard, Chinese Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Mustard,

Spinach, Radish and Turnip: tolerate temperatures

down to the mid-20s with little or no damage.

– Beet, Brussels Sprout, Carrot, Celery, Collard,

Garlic, Onion, Parsley, Leek and Shallot: will survive

temperatures in the low 20s and even the teens, especially

if given some protection.

Most salad greens are a great “cut and come again”

vegetable. Mustard is one of the leafy crops along with

spinach, Swiss chard, leaf lettuce, and collards that

should be harvested frequently by breaking off the lowest,

largest leaves.

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