Harvesting Techniques

Let's start with the root crops. Have two pails close at hand, filled with clean water. Make sure your hose is turned on and you have a shut-off at the hose end where you're working. Get down on your knees and start down the path. Using two hands, pull whatever is ready till you have five in each hand. Combine them, then dunk and wash them in one bucket until they're fairly clean. Pick off all dead or yellow leaves and cull out any undersized vegetables. Rinse them in the second bucket. Count and place them in the flat next to you. Repeat, but keep the count and add to it only after you wash and rinse. We've tried counting ten and placing one in a box to represent those ten, or counting by ones as each ten are picked or washed, but in the long run it's much less confusing tosimply say what you have as you place it in the flat: "10-20-30." By combining both bunches of five in one hand, you can rub, scrub with a brush, and pick off dead leaves with the other.

As soon as your rinse water gets dirty, change your buckets. How can you do that and cut your bucket-filling in half? By using the rinse water bucket as the next wash water bucket. Empty the original wash water bucket and fill it with clean water. It becomes the new rinse bucket. Don't spill the wash water into the paths (your knees will get soaked) or the beds you're still working in. Water the tomatoes and cucumbers where you have dug deep watering troughs. Then you won't wash away any tender plants and you won't waste time slowly emptying the bucket.

Pull Everything in Sight

With somevegetables you may find it easier to harvest everything and throw away those that are too small rather than taking the time to pull the foliage aside, inspect the root crown, and decide whether to pull or spare the plant. Radishes are a good example. Since they only take three to four weeks, they all mature fairly close together. If the restaurant doesn't mind, give them small, medium, and large — unsorted, if possible. Tell them you'll throw in the smallest ones at no cost so they don't think they're beingcheated. Or pick them all and sort them into small, medium, and large for delivery. This will take more time, but they'll look much better that way.

Don't let the tops of root vegetables get tangled so you have to pull and separate each one. Like combing long hair after it's been washed and is all knotted together, this is very time-consuming.

Another thing to consider is how many undersized plants you must leave in the ground to justify the use of that land for another week. If you have another crop to put in, it might pay to pull everything, sort it, and sell the small plants for half price (or use them at your table) and go on to the next crop.

Cut the Tops?

Before delivering, should you break the tops off? The advantages of removing them are that you can use the tops for mulch and much-needed organic matter in your compost pile, and that the harvest now takes up half the room it did before, which facilitates delivery and storage.

The disadvantage is that you've lost that home-grown look. Your beets, stripped of their colorful tops, look naked and forlorn, and your delivery now looks just like any other tub of beets: no class, no color, no pizzazz. So leave the tops on. In fact, do everything you can to make that harvest look as if it belongs at the county fair with a blue ribbon on it. That's salesmanship. That's one of the things you need to learn to insure a successful business.

It would also take more of your time to trim the tops off, and the restaurant may want to use those tops. Beet tops, at least, are edible, and the smaller leaves are delicious either raw in salads, cooked as greens, or in soups or stews for flavor and color.

Compost Pile Matter

What's more, those tops are not necessarily lost to you even if they're delivered to the restaurant. Usually a restaurant prepares its vegetables in a separate room, or at least in a separate sink. Why not ask the chef if you can remove all his vegetable leavings each time you deliver? He might even offer to pay you to take them away. But if you volunteer to do it free of charge, how can he turn you down? It's hard to find such high-quality organic matter, so look at those peelings and tops as gold to be added to your soil.

The only drawback is the polluting matter, which the workers may throw in, such as cigarette butts, styrofoam cups, and plastic wrappers. If you doarrange to haul this material away, tell the help how important it is to keep the trimmings clean. Ask them to throw all trimmings in a separate box or can, which you can provide. Label it with a sign: VEGETABLE MATTER ONLY

You might also provide a sign that says: MAN-MADE

TRASH

for the regular can to avoid confusion.

Leaf Crops

Our next category is leaf crops— including lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard. Since you can offer varieties that farmers and suppliers can't, you should grow a lot of greens, especially the leaf and fancy types of lettuce. Most restaurants like a wide variety for a mixed green salad. Your growing plan should take this into account so you have a good variety to harvest each week.

A very efficient way to harvest leaf crops is to cut the entire head. Some plants, like Swiss chard and parsley, will start growing again. To get maximum use of your garden space, cut every other head.

Another advantage is that you can plant fairly close together because you can harvest every other plant in a checkerboard pattern. This leaves room for the remaining plants to mature. By the time this happens, your first set of plants has grown back halfway. Now, when you harvest the second set, the first set has room to finish growing without crowding. This method works so well on Swiss chard and parsley that you'll never have to replant all year. Your bed will just keep producing crop after crop, sometimes up to four or six cuttings a season.

Use a serrated knife when harvesting lettuce. Cut it as close to the ground as possible. Leave the stump and root, and avoid getting dirt on the lettuce. Remove the roots later when preparing the bed for a new crop.

An inexpensive serrated steak knife is the handiest tool for cutting the heads. Some like to use strong grass shears or a pair of clippers that opens wide. As with your root crops, keep two buckets close by for washing and rinsing, and keep all tools and equipment beside or behind you in the path. Pick off any yellow or dead leaves and drop them into a bucket or box to be thrown on the mulch pile, or leave them in the bed to be turned under. (Leaving them in the path to decompose gives the garden a messy appearance.) Since they might contain slugs, sowbugs, or other pests, I like to remove them to the mulch pile. It's a little more work, but it's worthwhile and it keeps the garden looking neat.

Steak Knife Handy

Have your washing and rinsing buckets handy when you harvest root and salad crops.

Keep count as you rinse and pack the heads in the flat. Some ask whether a crate can be used (the kind with thin wood joined by wire). You certainly can pack more into a crate, but it doesn't look as good and you're bound to crush some of your tender crop, so I like to use wooden flats. Wash them after each use.

Bugs a Problem?

If you suspect any bugs in your lettuce heads, wash them thoroughly. Nothing will kill a sale quicker than the owner (or, heaven forbid, a diner) finding a worm or slug in your produce. The commercial growers are way ahead of you in this respect because they use so much insecticide. They have to, in order to produce a bug-free harvest. You have to produce the same clean harvest, but since most of you will be growing organically or using limited insecticides due to their cost, you must spend extra time searching for bugs.

Some books suggest dunking the produce in a strong salt water solution; this supposedly loosens the bugs'grip and makes them fall off. Rinse carefully in clean water.

If your produce is infested with bugs, don't deliver it. Either use it yourself or send it to the mulch pile, but don't take a chance on sending it to a restaurant. The only other alternative, and it's a time-consuming one, is to take the heads apart and inspect each leaf as you wash it. Since this is what the restaurant is going to do, maybe you can strike up a deal whereby you furnish the salad ingredients to them cleaned an'd sorted. They might even allow you to do it in their preparation room with sinks and lots of running water.

Vine Crops

Time to learn how to pick tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. It's a good idea to cut the stem rather than trying to pull or twist the fruit off. Keep your clippers handy. In fact, one good idea is to sew a holder onto all your jeans or overalls. It's like having a holster for your six-shooter. You can whip out those clippers whenever you need them. You can even add a decorative touch by doing a little embroidery or needlepoint on the patch, such as your initials or a carrot in bright colors.

A patch sewn on your trousers makes a handy pocket for your clippers.

Back to your vine crops. Pick only the red ripe tomatoes and the medium-sized cucumbers and squash; wash them and lay them carefully in the flats. You must be very careful in handling these vegetables so they aren't bruised. Don't fill a flat halfway and then pick it upso they all roll about, bumping into each other. You're not harvesting pool balls, you know. One easy solution is to place crumpled newspaper in the bottom of each flat. These crops shouldn't be stacked more than two deep. Arrange them so they look good, with your best on top. You can sort them into small, medium, and large boxes, but if they look too uniform, the restaurant may confuse them with a commercial shipment.

There's no bending over when you harvest most vertical crops.

A lot of you will question handling the produce so carefully. If the commercial grower can pick by machine, send tomatoes rolling down a ramp, and drop them into a pile two feet below, then sort them by dropping them another two feet through various size holes, why can't you? I think you know the answer. Their tomatoes are bred to withstand tough treatment; they're also picked while still green and hard. Why do you think supermarket tomatoes taste the way they do? You're producing something special, so treat it as such.

Cucumbers and squash have to be picked at least twice a week or they'll get too big while you're not looking. In fact, you'll always come across one or two that you missed during the last picking and now are too big. Don't be tempted to include them in your harvest. I know they weigh a lot more and would be very profitable, but you've promised to deliver choice produce — something no one else can do — so stick to that promise. Throw the excess in the compost pile or use it on your table. You wouldn't give an oversized, bitter, pithy cucumber to your best friend, would you? Well, do thesame in your business. Only the best for your restaurant. Let them know it, too. They're paying for it and they deserve to be reminded in a nice way that they're getting only the very best.

Bush Crops

You can classify peas and string beans, or snap beans as they're called nowadays, as either vine or bush crops depending on the variety, but you pick them the same way. With your basket ready (a wooden mushroom basket is a good size), and clippers drawn, snip off all beans of medium size and drop them into the basket or a harvest apron if you have one. There are many harvesting devices on the market these days, from pails and baskets that you can strap on to bags that fit on your hand like a glove. They're all useful and you might decide to invest in one or more if your volume warrants the expense.

The same caution applies to oversized beans as well as cucumbers: don't include them in your harvest. Why spoil a nice basket of string beans with a few large, bulging pods? Eggplant and peppers are next. Use your clippers and handle the fruit carefully. Get everything out of the sun as soon as possible.

By the way, that applies to you also. On a hot, sunny day, wear a hat to keep your head shaded. You're just like those vegetables (I don't mean an eggplant) that wilt in the sun after an hour or so. You both need a little water and lots of shade while you're waiting to go to the restaurant.

Cabbage Family

This is harvested in the same way as the leaf family: for broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage, cut one head at a time, taking lots of leaves with each head (they look great that way). Check for worms, wash in salt water if necessary, and pack in flats.

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