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Thursday, July 24, 2003 02:20 pm

Bigger doesn’t mean better veggies

Most vegetable gardeners would agree with my four-year-old son: the most fun is planting the seeds and then eating the produce. We gardeners persevere through weeding, watering, and pest management, dreaming of our first tomato slice or the taste of fresh zucchini. One advantage of a home vegetable garden is that you can pick the produce at the moment of ripeness and eat it immediately. The real test is knowing when to reap what you've sown.

For peak flavor and nutrition it's critical to harvest produce at the proper maturity. Keep in mind that this usually is not when a vegetable is at its largest size. Produce picked too soon or too late will lack full flavor.

For the best flavor and storage capability, pick produce in the morning after the dew evaporates. Use a little TLC. Avoid bruising or damaging the vegetables--decay may result--and stepping on vines or breaking stems creates openings through which diseases and insects can enter.

Check for ripeness daily. Quality won't improve after harvest. And when harvesting, always use a sharp knife or kitchen shears for a clean cut off the plant.

Tomatoes. Caged or staked tomatoes are best picked when they are firm and have reached full color (not all tomatoes are red). If you don't stake your tomatoes, pick them just before they are fully ripe, or they will fall and rot on the ground. Avoid squeezing the fruit since bruising will result.

Peppers. While firmly holding the plant, cut peppers at the stem. Peppers ripen to different colors--green, yellow, red, chocolate, or purple--depending on the variety. The most common color is green to vibrant red.

Zucchini. Assuming that you aren't growing Eight Ball zucchini, harvest the straightneck or crookneck varieties when they are six to eight inches long. At this size, their skin should be smooth and glossy, and seeds are small, soft, and edible. Eight Ball zucchini is round and mature when it's the size of a billiard ball.

Cucumbers. Harvest slicing cucumbers when six to eight inches long, bright green, and firm. Leave a small piece of stem attached. Picklers should be harvested at three to four inches long. Avoid stepping on or pulling the vines.

Snap Beans. Harvest when pods are young and smooth, before the seeds begin
to bulge. Beans should be pliable and snap easily. Leave stem ends attached (trim stems off when preparing to cook).

Wash vegetables just prior to preparation. For more information on the growing, harvesting, and storage of vegetables, visit the University of Illinois Extension's "Watch Your Garden Grow" Web site at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/. To see prize-winning veggies at the Illinois State Fair, check out the Hobbies Arts and Crafts Building (it's air-conditioned).

Critter of the week
Japanese beetles are here! Adult beetles have a shiny green head, copper-colored wing covers, and white tufts along their sides. They are one-quarter-inch to one-half-inch long. They feed on a wide variety of plants, including roses, grapes, and linden trees. They skeletonize leaves, eating the tissue and leaving the veins.

There are several options to control these pests. You can pick them off plants by hand in early morning. Hold a bucket of soapy water or rubbing alcohol under the infested leaves, shake the plant stems, and the beetles will drop into the bucket. Or kill the beetles by squashing them. This is an activity that most children will enjoy, especially stomping on the bugs. Some birds feed on the beetles, and there are a couple of predator insects. Use minimal amounts of pesticide so you don't discourage these natural enemies. Pesticide sprays of cabaryl (Sevin) and synthetic pyrethroids, such as cyfluthrin, will control adult beetles. Read and follow the label directions. To view a photo and get more information on Japanese beetles, visit www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/bugreview/japanesebeetle.html.

What to do with surplus produce
Plant a Row for the Hungry is a program designed to help feed the homeless and less fortunate. Launched in 1995, this national movement encourages gardeners to grow a little extra and donate the surplus to local agencies that serve people in need. Locally the campaign is sponsored by the master gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension.

Last year, area gardeners donated more than 17,000 pounds of home-grown produce to the Central Illinois Foodbank, which annually distributes more than 6,000,000 pounds of donated food to more than 240 food pantries, soup kitchens, and residential-meal and after-school programs in 21 counties.

The master gardeners are asking that fresh, firm fruits and durable vegetables, herbs, and flowers be dropped off at the Central Illinois Foodbank, 2000 E. Moffat, in Springfield, or at your local food pantry, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. To arrange for produce pick-ups and to discuss other collection options, call the Central Illinois Foodbank at 217-522-4022. Harvest gifts are tax-deductible and receipts will be provided upon request.

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