How to harvest vegetables and save water

This past weekend, Vancouver had its first rain in a long time. I’ve never been so excited for cloudy skies. But we’re not out of the woods with B.C.’s drought yet.

Vancouver has recently entered stage 3 watering restrictions, a step up from the stage 2 restrictions we faced earlier this summer. Now, only hand-watering and drip irrigation are permitted for home-grown food.

We Vancouverites aren’t used to these conditions. The main concern for local gardeners has traditionally been lack of sunlight and slug attacks, not scorching heat. When I set out to plan this year’s garden, I didn’t think at all about the possibility of a water shortage. There’s a good chance that the summer of 2015 is a sign of times to come, and next year I’ll be choosing tolerant varieties and improving our irrigation system.

The situation we’re facing is only a taste of what other parts of the world currently experience. California, a breadbasket of North America and the source of much of B.C.’s produce, is in the throes of a long-term drought. With the threat of rising food prices and limited availability, growing more of our own food, and supporting local farmers, starts to seriously make sense.

Which brings me to harvesting.

If you want to grow your own food, you have to eat it. And that can be hard for new gardeners. Earlier this year, I led an urban gardening program for a group of ten eager students. We made mini wine box planters, filled them with soil and seeds, and watched the magic unfold over the course of four weeks.The seeds grew into healthy young plants, and the class soaked up knowledge and excitement. Everything went very well.

Until I told them that it was time to thin and harvest their seedlings.

My students actually protested against me. The little plants looked so perfect, and they had worked hard to get them to this point. The idea of ripping them out of the ground was almost painful. It took some negotiation to convince everyone to go through with the thinning and harvesting process. In the end, we all enjoyed delicious baby greens and had improved the health of our planters.

I call this fear of pulling your plants ‘harvest-phobia’, and it’s very common. After all the effort of caring for your garden, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of removing perfectly healthy plants. Walk around your average community garden, and you’ll see what I mean: radishes, arugula and lettuces going to flower, peas that are drying up, and un-trained tomatoes that have stopped producing fruit. Unless you’re a serious seed-saver, it’s counterproductive to allow your plants to get to that point.

Save water by harvesting smart.
Save water by washing your harvest out in the field.

Good harvesting techniques go hand-in hand with food security and water savings. Here are my recommendations for how to harvest vegetables like a pro:

1. HARVEST WHEN THINGS LOOK THEIR BEST
For most crops, when they’re looking perfect, that’s the time to harvest them. This is especially true with leafy vegetables like lettuce, mustards and spinach, which can suddenly start to “bolt” during long hot days.

Keep calm and remember that harvesting is the whole point of growing vegetables. Learn to recognize the early signs of bolting in leaf-crops, such as the centres of lettuce heads looking tight, or arugula starting to get tall.

2. HARVEST IN THE MORNING
Plants that are harvested in the early morning, when there’s more moisture in the air, will actually last longer in the fridge and taste better.

3. USE THE CUT-AND-COME-AGAIN TECHNIQUE
Nearly all leafy greens can be harvested using the cut-and-come-again technique: instead of pulling the plant out, give it a “buzz cut” with scissors as shown in the video below, and within a week or two, the plant will grow back for a second or even third harvest. In the meantime, plant some seeds in small pots to be ready for transplanting when things finally peter out. The established roots of cut-and-come-again crops need relatively little water to regrow.

4. WASH YOUR HARVEST IN THE FIELD
In the video above, I demonstrate how to wash your veggies outdoors and put all of the water right back into your beds. This saves water in both your garden and in the kitchen.

5. PLANT CROPS WITH A LONG HARVEST WINDOW
I’m in love with chard and kale these days. Of all my greens, they hold up the best in heat and can get by with reduced watering. As biennials, these sturdy plants won’t bolt until they’ve survived a winter, making them the perfect choice for harvest-phobes. You can pick individual leaves as needed and leave the rest of the plant for subsequent harvests.

6. USE LEFTOVER STEMS AS A MULCH
Harvesting often produces large amounts of compost: all the stems, roots and inedible parts of our crops. Last week, I pulled out my spring pea plants. I was going to put them into the compost bin, but then, in a stroke of brilliance, I decided instead to cut the vines into small pieces and spread them around my squash. Mulching is one of the best ways to save water, but in an urban environment, it can be difficult to obtain straw and other traditional materials. Note: only do this with healthy, non-weedy plants.

Save water by harvesting smart. Chard is a great summer green with a long harvest window.
Chard is a great summer green with a long harvest window
Do you suffer from 'harvest-phobia'? Learn how to harvest greens from your garden... and save water too!

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