The days of bending are ending, the days of growing are slowing, and the red rays of autumn portend the winding down of gardening season. Perhaps the only enjoyment that matches the time spent working in a garden is the time spent harvesting the fruits of a summer’s long labor. Although that day may currently be a few weeks off, it’s never too early to know when and how to prepare your plants for harvesting.

First Things First

We all want the best from our gardens, especially when it comes time to reap what we have so lovingly sewn. Most times, you have to give your best to get the best and you can do that by creating the conditions necessary to make your garden a place where plants not only grow but thrive.

Strange as it sounds, you begin prepping your plants for harvest from the beginning. It starts with the soil. Conditioning the soil with the correct nutrients for your plants a few weeks ahead of the planting season will go a long way toward ensuring they get off to a strong start and stay healthy throughout the growing season. Work your compost or bagged soil into your garden bed according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Be sure to get the right top or garden soil that best suits your garden’s tenants. The same applies to fertilizers. After your plants are established, apply a time-released fertilizer every three to four weeks to keep them well fed. Follow the directions and be careful as young plants can be easily burned if you over fertilize.

A little plant-specific knowledge with regards to feeding and watering requirements, in addition to a general idea of when your plants will bloom, will better prepare both you and your garden for the eventual harvest.

Rolling Right Along

After your garden is up and running you'll want to maintain it. Garden maintenance is paramount to a healthy harvest. Trimming, pinching, and pruning diseased leaves and broken stems, as well as culling the sickly fruit from your plants regularly, allows them to focus their energy on producing healthy fruit and not waste energy by sending it to damaged areas in a futile effort to heal.

Don't ‘pHorget’

Simple soil tests can be run periodically to give you the pH balance of your growing medium. That’s important. When it comes to pH levels, one size does not fit all. An example: you don't want to plant blueberries that grow best within a pH range between 4.0-5.5 alongside tomatoes that grow best in soil with a 6.0-6.8. pH measure Thankfully, it’s quite easy to adjust soil pH levels to accommodate your plants’ specific needs.

Get Ready for Inspection

Once your garden begins producing fruit, harvest time is just around the corner. Therefore, it is important you check your garden every day during this time as not all fruit matures concurrently, even on the same plant. A regular inspection allows you to pick the fruit that has ripened earlier than its botanical brethren, thereby increasing your overall yield.

Another reason for daily inspection is the removal of matured fruit from your plants. If you leave it on the plant or ground, eventually it is going rot. Rotting produce means you not only missed out on a good fruit or vegetable but are creating an atmosphere that draws unwanted insect pests and possibly rodents.

By removing the early maturing fruit, the plant is encouraged to produce more. As a general rule, you want to harvest your fruits and vegetables at the peak of freshness, which is usually just shy of full maturity. However, what denotes maturity may vary from cultivar to cultivar. You’ll want to stop all feeding and fertilizing about two weeks before harvest time, which conveniently coincides with when to begin flushing.

Feeling Flushed

Depending on your garden type (organic or traditional), begin flushing your plants a couple of weeks before harvesting. Flushing simply refers to the act of removing any possible contaminants, fertilizers, built-up salt deposits, or nutrients that may have accumulated within the plant or its root system over the summer by flushing them out through excess watering. With that said, there are opposing voices to the practice of flushing.

Not every gardener agrees on whether one should flush their crop before harvest. Those against flushing argue just letting Mother Nature take her course is the way to go and cite a list of what seem to be reasonable objections to support their position. These are countered by those who firmly believe flushing is not only necessary but even beneficial to the plants.

As with any two-sided issue, the answer depends upon whom you ask. Let’s look at some of the

pros and cons. The following is a short list defending the position of the anti-flushers.

Against Flushing

  • Once the plants have absorbed the nutrients, you can’t really flush them out anyway.

  • Anytime you remove nutrients from a plant you are depriving it of the food it needs and thereby inhibiting growth.

  • Withholding nutrients at any stage is counter-productive to its growth and can cause stress to the plant.

  • There is no scientific data proving flushing out the plants does anything positive for them.

In Favor of Flushing

  • Flushing doesn’t remove every trace of nutrients and salts as some believe, but more than enough to purge the plant of excessive build-up.

  • A pre-harvest flushing allows the plant enough time to use up the last remaining nutrients it holds before you harvest, which can improve flavor.

  • With only one to two weeks remaining in their season, the plants have already put to good use all the benefits of a summers’ worth of feeding.

  • How about real-life data? One only has to look at a symptom like leaf burn from overfertilizing to see how flushing can correct the problem by washing out excess fertilizer and other augmentations that may have created the issue.

There are products available made specifically for pre-harvest flushing known as flushing agents. They round up compounds and accumulated salts in addition to excess nutrients and fertilizers, bond to them, then flush them in a way that is more effective than using just water.

If you go the flushing route, pick an agent containing a span of chelates. A chelate is an organic compound with bonding properties. In this instance, chelates cling to or bond with the nutrients, salts, and heavy elements within the plant and help flush them out. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines as to when to begin flushing your particular plants. Some begin two weeks out while others only a week. Hydroponics require only a day or so of flushing.

Reap What You Sew

Assuming you’ve done everything necessary to grow a decent garden it’s time for the harvest. Exactly when to harvest depends on what you’re growing. Let’s assume you have a variety in your garden and have been picking and plucking as they ripen but now it may be time for the big haul. How do you know for sure? Ripe doesn’t always mean ready.

If you are an experienced gardener, you know when it’s time. If you aren’t sure, here is a general guideline of common vegetables to give you an idea of what to look for.

  • Snap Beans — Don’t allow them to reach full maturity. Best when picked before the pods start bulging from the maturing beans within. They should be crisp when snapped.

  • Broccoli — Don’t wait too long to harvest broccoli. Be sure to pick it before the flower heads begin to bloom.

  • Carrots — They can be a bit tricky depending on the type you planted. You may have to pull one or two to determine if the size is right for your brand. Carrots can stay in the ground a good while after maturity and still remain good to eat.

  • Tomatoes — Tomatoes are best left on the vine until full maturity. There is a reason they advertise vine-ripened tomatoes. They have the best color, texture, and taste.

  • Frosty Faves — Where other veggies may suffer from a sudden cold snap, vegetables like cabbage, carrots, kale, Brussels sprouts, and parsnip can turn sweeter after a good frost, so don't harvest them too early.

  • Herbs — It’s not a complicated process harvesting herbs. You can pretty much trim them at any time after they are established. They'll keep growing. Be sure you don’t let them flower as this can alter the flavor or turn them bitter.

The harvest is the final payoff. You toil through a seemingly endless summer of digging, weeding, watering, feeding, raking, and aching when, suddenly, there before you is the manifestation of your vision.

The harvest is living proof gardening involves more than just the physical. It touches the metaphysical and the mystical. It connects us in some indefinable way to Nature, the Earth, and to ourselves. Gardens truly are beautiful works of heart.