3 Ways to Get the Best Eating from Your Summer Garden

Knowing how to pick something at the peak of ripeness is an exercise in patience, discipline and observation.

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Picking tomatoes

The summer growing season is in full swing, and fruits and vegetables are starting to swell toward ripeness on stalks, vines, bushes and trees. Though we’re two months away from the official “harvest season,” mid-July is our first chance to reap what we’ve sown.

But how do we know when to pluck that tomato, squash, bean or peach from the plant that has nurtured it to the moment of maturity?

There are three keys to this process, in my experience—each of which has a parallel lesson for us as we try to live a positive, inspired life.

1)  Have Patience
Though tomatoes can certainly finish ripening on a sunny windowsill, most garden produce is best when it’s just been picked, with bonus points awarded if it’s still warm from the sun. The temptation to harvest early can be powerful—especially if hungry squirrels seem to be waiting for peak ripeness as eagerly as you are. But giving peas or beans one more day to plump up, eggplants another day to grow shiny and heavy, or fruit some more time to begin to soften ever so slightly will benefit your taste buds in the end. Sharpening your patience in the garden will also equip you to wait for the right moment to take steps in other areas of your life, too.

2)  Exercise Discipline
I can’t count the number of times I’ve cupped a snap pea or tomato in my hand, ready to snap it off the vine, only to realize that it’s not the right moment to harvest it. Letting go of the fruit—releasing it to the possibility of a scorching day, a pesky critter or, in the tomato’s case, a tragic skin-split is an act of great self-discipline. Nobody relishes the idea of more waiting and less eating, but when we practice discipline in the garden, we become better able to accept that the world doesn’t always organize itself around our timeline. And, the good news about delayed gratification is that it ends in gratification! 

3)  Use Your Powers of Observation
Gardening is a full sensory experience, perhaps never more than when you’re considering when to pick the fruits of your labors. Feeling a cucumber to sense its juicy interior, smelling a nectarine or tomato for its signature scent, tapping a watermelon for the tell-tale hollow sound or looking for the rich yellow or deep green of a ripe squash are crucial steps in harvesting your produce right on time. Noticing the details of the world around us is as important in the garden as it is in the rest of life.

Although pursuit of the “perfect pick” is a gardener’s pleasure and privilege, let us never get so wrapped up in perfection that we judge ourselves severely for any perceived misstep in our timing. Part of the joy of gardening is that anything you grow is going to be fresh, healthy and—best of all—created by you. Even if you pick it a day early or a couple of days late.

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