URBAN GARDENING: Save water by harvesting smart, even if it hurts

If you balk at the idea of removing perfectly healthy plants you've got 'harvestphobia' but the smart gardener will get over it.

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Chard is a great summer green with a long harvest window. Photo by Rebecca CuttlChard is a great summer green with a long harvest window. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

Good harvesting techniques go hand-in hand with food security and water savings. Here are my recommendations:

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 below, 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. 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.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.

See video

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