It’s time to start planting and harvesting!
by Teresa Gale
Spring is a busy time in the garden. Cool- season plantings such as peas and salad greens are coming along and might even be ready to harvest. In May, the weather is finally stable enough to plant hot season favorites like tomatoes and basil.
Harvesting cool crops
It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! Pull your peas from the vine, and don’t be shy about popping them straight into your mouth. Savoring your first harvest of the season is one of the most deeply connected and blissful moments a food gardener can experience.
It’s best to pick veggies just prior to eating them so they’ll be at their peak freshness and nutrition. If your schedule doesn’t permit this, then try to harvest in the early morning or evening when plant stress levels are low. For small root crops such as radishes, carefully pull from the soil by hand. Peas can be harvested with one hand holding the vine and the other gently pinching off the pod. Pick peas at least every other day, as frequent picking will help increase yields.
Leaf crops like lettuce or parsley can be snipped with scissors or pinched off by hand. Trim just the outer leaves to promote continued growth of the plant. If you have several varieties, you can take a few leaves from each plant for a mix of flavors. Many greens are sensitive to heat and can wilt quickly after they’ve been picked, so try not to harvest during peak heat of the day and promptly take them indoors to cooler temperatures.
Greens are best stored unwashed in a plastic bag in your crisper drawer (38 degrees is ideal if you can control the temperature). Put a small paper towel in the bag to absorb extra moisture and help them stay fresh longer. If you have apples in your fridge, keep them separate from greens, since apples emit a gas that accelerates the spoiling of greens.
What to look for when plant shopping
As temperatures rise and remain steady, plant the heat-loving superstars—tomatoes, peppers and beans—if nothing else. They’re superior in taste and quality than supermarket veggies, and their high yields make them a cost- effective and satisfying choice.
Review seed-to-harvest times when deciding which crops to plant from seeds and which to plant from seedlings or “transplants.” Allow ample time for plants to mature before the season winds down. Fast-growers, like summer squash, beans and cucumbers, can usually be planted from seed. Crops that take longer to mature, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, are better off started from seedlings.
Hot season transplants should be latecomers in your garden, as they’re highly susceptible to injuries from frost. We suggest planting them no earlier than May 15, or around Mother’s Day. Tomatoes, in particular, won’t set fruit in temperatures below 58 degrees. So while you might be eager to get them into the ground, it’s best to wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently in the mid- to high-50s.
When shopping for seedlings, check for healthy foliage and new growth. Avoid anything that looks diseased or poorly maintained. Young plants sold in four-packs are more affordable than a single plant, but will be a few weeks less mature. A single plant will cost a couple dollars more, but likely will buy you an earlier and longer harvest. If you have no choice but a multi-pack and don’t have space for all the plants (one zucchini plant can go a long way in a small garden), give the extras to a neighbor or friend, or consider donating them to a community garden or school gardening program.
Heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular in recent years—and for good reason. They taste much better than what you buy at the supermarket. Commercially grown tomatoes are bred to maintain a long shelf life and withstand shipping, often at the expense of flavor. Heirloom varieties also offer distinct colors and shapes—beyond the typical red and round—not found outside of home gardens.
These heirloom tomatoes grow well in the Chicago area: