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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 18, 2023

Their house, my garden: When and how to harvest 

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

This week on Their house, my garden, it’s harvest time. Harvesting properly can mean more to eat and happier plants, so here’s how to do it well.

An all-too-observant friend has pointed out my tendency to get attached to inanimate things and easily feel heartbroken for them. I don’t like thinning seedlings, unravelling knitting, or even giving up on a bad book, in case its feelings get hurt. But this week, I’ve been mean. A beanie knitted about a quarter too small has been brutally unravelled. Weeds have been murdered (pulled out). Books have been sold for $3 at a market. And now, the first zucchini will be separated from its mother and much of the silverbeet will be taken in one fell swoop.

Traditionally, I have always waited too long to harvest, because it felt like maiming or killing the plants I had so lovingly watched grow. But recently I’ve been swallowing my heartbreak and enjoying the results when my partner chops almost all my spinach at once for a spanakopita. (My heart is more inclined to eat just a couple of leaves at a time.)

Last week, we bought 2kg of feta for $10 from Why Knot Outlet Shop. This morning, my partner declared that tonight is the night we’ll use the rest of it up in a leaf pie (recipe below) because the silverbeet is looking lush. The babies can’t stay in the garden forever; they must be eaten. 

But don’t just pull the tasty bits out any which way. Do it in a way which serves you and the plant. Here’s how. 

Understand the benefits of harvesting well

Harvesting doesn’t mean simply razing your plants to the ground. If you harvest correctly, the plant should live and keep making you more food. It can even mean your plant produces more, as it fights to survive or reproduce (its entire reason for producing fruits or vegetables). I came across these concepts by accident years ago in a copy of Stone Soup magazine, back when it was printed and dotted around the trendy cafes. 

At the time I was not harvesting much from my garden, instead preferring for it to look “full” and “healthy”. What happened is the greens were stringy by the time I ate them; beans and peas were tough and the plants didn’t grow many; and the basil went to seed and tasted bitter by the time it was on my plate. Worse, though, is that I tore things off with my fingers, maiming the plants. Which leads me to my next point…

Harvest sharply

When plants have long stems they are referred to as ‘leggy’. It can mean they’re not getting enough sunlight, in my case probably because they are planted too close together.

When harvesting, think of it as wounding. A wound will heal better if it’s clean and tidy, which is why surgeons use sharp little scalpels and you should use the next best thing. This is not your fingers or a serrated knife; it’s sharp scissors, or if you have them, secateurs. When the leaves are as big as they’re going to get, cut them from the bottom of the stem. For greens like silverbeet, kale, spinach and lettuce, you will find that the biggest leaves are on the outside. Each plant should have at least five leaves left after your harvesting.

With most herbs, it’s the exact opposite. Harvest the growing tips; this will encourage them to branch out and get bushy. If you just want a little, you can pluck individual leaves.

If you’re bold, a lettuce can be harvested all at once, and maybe live again. Grab the lettuce leaves at the top, bunching them together tightly. Then, with a really sharp knife, cut them all about a centimetre from the base. Hopefully some baby leaves in the centre will be left behind to grow. 

If you discover any leaves that are yuck, cut them off. It’s healthy for the plants.

Be regular

Before and after a restrained harvest.

Think about it – if you cut the big leaf off, the little leaf is going to have more sunlight and space to grow. When they’re thriving, you will be able to harvest from your greens twice a week.

Beans and peas should also be harvested regularly. Once you collect them, the plant will put energy into growing more. Zucchini and cucumbers should be collected once they’re an average size. Big is not always good: when left on the plant, zucchini will turn into marrows, which are edible but kind of hard, gross and seedy. Also, the plant will have put all its energy into producing those seeds, likely shortening its own life. We want to nip the reproduction process in the tender fruiting stage, to keep the plants away from death. 

If you don’t harvest tomatoes as soon as they’re mostly red, the birds will eat them. Leave them on a sunny windowsill to fully blush.

The morning is the gardener’s delight

Just like it’s best to water your garden early in the morning, it’s best to harvest in the morning too. At the beginning of the day, everything should be at its juiciest. If you’ve slept in, the evening is OK too – just try to avoid harvesting when it’s sunny and hot, because everything will be sad and droopy.

Wash

You should always wash vegetables from the garden, regardless of whether you are using Blitzem, sprays or nothing at all. Humans should not eat dirt or cat piss.

Cook

At the time of writing, the only thing ready to harvest in our garden was the silverbeet. Below is the leaf pie we made. My partner makes variations whenever any leaf is plentiful in the garden, whether that’s mustard greens, spinach, silverbeet or kale. He also includes a handful of zingy leaves like rocket or parsley for flavour. I slip in otherwise wasted leaves, like the ones on broccoli, because I’m resourceful.

Garden leaf pie, which I mostly watch being made, then eat three helpings.

Top tip: Vegetables are best when young and tender, and before the birds and insects get to them. Oh, and harvest time should be an outrageous party, not an overly sensitive lady tearing up.

Task for the week: Eat some leaves, have a party.

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Garden leaf pie

  • 1 onion
  • olive oil
  • 0-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • a big bowl of leaves from your garden (we used silverbeet, parsley, oregano)
  • 5 eggs
  • enough sheets of thawed puff or filo pastry for your oven dish (or see below for my great aunt’s simple pastry recipe)
  • feta (as much as you can afford)

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Roughly chop onion, then fry in olive oil over medium heat.

Chop the stems off the silverbeet, then chop them small and stir into the frying onions.

Add the garlic, turn the heat down to low. When the onions are translucent, roughly the chop leaves and place them on top to wilt.

Grease a baking dish with olive oil, then line with pastry. Stir everything in the frying pan. “It’s pretty hard to fuck this up,” my partner said while stirring.

When all the greens are wilted and soft and excess juices have evaporated, transfer everything into a bowl. Add feta to the bowl. Leave to cool for five minutes.

Add a dollop of olive oil, an “Ottolenghi-style grind” of pepper, and just a pinch of salt. Add 4-5 eggs to the bowl and loosely mix in with a fork.

Pour the mixture into the pastry-lined dish, cover the top if you have leftover pastry, and brush with olive oil.

Bake “until you think it’s ready”. Or until the filling is solid. 

Simple pastry from scratch

In truth, this pastry is intended for tarts more than it is pies, but if you find yourself in a pickle because Edmonds has stopped producing pastry sheets and there’s none in your freezer, it works OK. My great aunt calls it “comida de pueblo”, meaning it comes from peasants who work the land and live modestly. 

  • 2 cups self-raising flour
  • ½ cup cold tap water
  • ½ cup sunflower oil
  • pinch of salt

Mix all the ingredients together with your hands. Rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Roll out the pastry and line your baking dish. Add topping/filler and bake.

My aunt always keeps a little bit to add a design to the top of the tart. She might do your initials with a heart if you’re coming over for dinner.

Keep going!