By JOYCE COMINGORE
"Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, (some finish this with "how many pecks of pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?" Others say, "Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?" ).
The real question of course, is when are peppers ripe enough to pick?
This tongue-twister Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme was published in "Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation," by John Harris in London in 1813. It includes one-name tongue-twisters for each letter of the alphabet. This tongue-twister was known to have been around a lot longer. In an uptight analysis of this saying, one realizes, pickled peppers had to be picked long before, and then pickled. Eight quarts may equal one fourth bushel, a peck, but the technical answer is, none or nowhere, unless he was loaded down with jars of pickled peppers.
Having worked in the produce department of a grocery store, I was struck by the number of people that didn't know how to tell when produce was ripe, and they were seeking help. Another question arises when you want to pick produce from your garden - finding that fine line between ripe and over ripe. We have such a problem in the Trafalgar Garden. Some produce can be picked early and ripened off the vine, but some, like strawberries and watermelon, stop ripening after being picked.
Leaf lettuce is producing rapidly and getting too big a leaf. You cannot leave produce in the garden and hold its ripeness. Plants have to be picked to keep them from getting bitter, tough, stringy, pithy, and woody. The plants also suffer, because they shut down when enough growth has come about. Lettuce will become tough and bitter. To keep a plant growing, it needs to be picked. Pickling cucumbers need to be kept small for pickling, squashes get pithy and tough, okra gets woody and stringy, beans and peas dry up in pods.
The children think the work is done; the garden is starting to produce. They forget that weeding needs to be kept up. There is a great watering system going. The Builder's Club works after school and Saturday mornings. We are planting and replanting. The gardens were sprayed with worm castings water, the pouring rains have stopped, but a diligent eye needs to seek out insects and their eggs. Another consideration is how to store and preserve picked produce. Their life has ceased to grow and deterioration is on its way unless consumed.
Use your sense of smell, touch, sight and taste to determine when to pick. Don't judge by the size or color, but by the feel, smell and slight yield of a tomato. Smell first, then gently pull, and if it falls off into your hand, it is ready, if not, wait a day or so. Tug the melon vine or squash vine to see if it will slip from the fruit. Watch the colors change on the peppers, feeling the skin flesh change from firm to pliable. Gently squeeze the okra, fondle the eggplant, and see the translucence of the pea pod fill with young tender peas.
Gardening has been described as a full contact sport. Tune into all your senses to become aware of the peak ripeness, flavor and nutrition. Finally, take the taste test. It's usually best to pick in the cool, early morning, or the cool evenings. Fresh fruits and vegetables tend to be very fragrant. Pick at the peak of their vibrant colors.
Corn on the cob will have brown hairy silk on the outside and inside it should be white and silky. When you peel back the husk, and press a kernel with your thumb, it should ooze milky white, not clear discharge.
Tomatoes depend on whether they are "determinate" that ripen all at the same time and cease ripening, or "indeterminate" which flower and set fruit until they die. Tomatoes have sugars and acids that give them their flavor which will decrease if left on the vine until perfectly red. Don't refrigerate them - that will kill the flavor. Ripen them at room temperature.
The rule for fresh, crunchy cucumbers is about 6 to 8 inches, with a medium to dark green color showing peak ripeness. Pickling cucumbers should be young and about 4 inches long. They are at their best when they are uniformly dark green and crisp. Remove old fruits from the vine that more new fruits may develop.
Broccoli needs a tight head of florets. Look for the floret to be compact, dense and firmly closed. Don't let them open into a bloom.
Green beans require little fuss. They can vine or be bush beans, according to their variety. Pick when 4 to 6 inches long. They return nitrogen to the soil.
Remember, they snap when ripe.
Beets shoulders will protrude out of the soil line when they are ready. They are best at one and one fourth inch to two inches in diameter. You can eat the leaf tops as greens anytime they are 4 to 6 inches long.
Eggplant should be harvested at 6 to 8 inches long, glossy with a uniform color. Use a knife or shears to cut the fruit off plant. Leave the calyx attached.
Kale and Swiss chard are harvested by breaking off the outer leaves when they are 8 to 10 inches long, as new leaves continue to grow in the center of each plant.
Cantalopes ripen and the stems separate from the fruit. They will have tan or yellowish color between their webbing surface patterns. Cut the stem, don't pull - a damaged wound at the end leaves an opening for rot. After harvesting, they can be held at room temperature 1 to 3 days until the blossom end softens.
A watermelon's base that is sitting on the ground will turn yellow, rather than white or green, once the melon is a lovely green. You can do the old thump test, but the ultimate test is when you plug it and taste it. Watermelons will not continue to ripen after harvest.
Okra should be harvested immature and tender (2 to 3 inches long). The pods must be picked every other day if you want them to remain productive.
Herbs need to be kept cut back or pinched to keep them producing, and blooms kept off. Blooming changes the flavor.
Remember - vegetables and time wait for no man. Each vegetable has a precise time for harvesting. Twenty-four hours can send them into an over-ripe, bitter, tough stage.
I'm just glad I don't have to think about, "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood."
Thanks trees, for our fresh air.
Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.