ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARGO RIVERA-WEISS
Is it ripe? Is it ready? Will this one taste better than that one? What’s the best way to enjoy it? How do I grow it?
Whether you’re in your garden or at the market, there are always these questions . . .
Last fall we shared insight on this subject from two intrepid young farmers. Now they are back, this time discussing a different season of crops. Join us as we re-meet these nurturers of our bodies, generous stewards of the land, and the hardest darn workers I know. And pay special attention for a lesson on farmers’ market etiquette included in the peaches section for your edification.
June through October
You know it’s summer when you see Chris Hay at his Oakland Grand Lake Farmers’ Market booth on a Saturday morning chomping on a raw ear of corn with a wide grin on his face.
Chris owns and operates Say Hay Farms in Woodland, raising certified-organic vegetables, melons, and eggs in an ecologically sustainable manner. He feels that integrating plants and animals in his farm’s ecology results in higher-quality products as well as better land and water stewardship.
“We grow a large variety of crops for several reasons,” says Chris. “We love them all, our CSA customers appreciate the diversity, and growing so many different crops acts as a biological hedge bet against pest and disease pressure. If an infestation occurs, we simply move on to the next crop instead of spraying a regimen of organic pesticides and fungicides.”
Ask that guy with the wide grin about corn, and he’ll give you this advice: “Sweet corn begins to lose its sugars within hours of harvest, so it is best to grow it yourself and harvest to eat.” He might add that you will want to buy it shortly after it’s been picked and keep it on ice until you’re ready to eat it.
Farmers know it’s time to pick when they see the corn silk drying out, but Chris has another way: “Squeeze the ear through the husk and you can get a good idea of how mature the kernels are inside. Marking the calendar with the seed’s days to maturity from planting time is also a good idea for corn. If it’s almost time, the best way to find out is to peel them open and have a taste! If you let corn go too long, it can become mealy and starchy.”
He adds two gardeners’ notes: Corn is a heavy feeder and needs plenty of water and fertilizer early in the season. Chicken manure is an excellent source of balanced fertilizer with calcium, which your corn crop will thank you for. Tapering off irrigation near crop maturity will help ensure a sweet crop, although variety selection has the most influence on sweetness.
Regarding those corn earworms that bore into the ear tips, Chris says not to worry. “They are easily spotted and usually don’t travel far. Simply cut them off and enjoy the rest of the ear.”
Note: Chris also sells at the Sunday Stonestown (San Francisco) market, and through his Say Hay Farm CSA program.
late May through October
Welling Tom works his family’s Brookside Farm in Brentwood almost singlehandedly. Along with tending row crops, he manages the diverse orchards, where you can find ripe fruit of one kind or another ready to be harvested from late spring through the winter.
Welling sells his produce at the Sunday Montclair Farmers’ Market in Oakland and the Wednesday market in San Francisco’s Upper Haight. Stop by, and if the season is right, take home some of his Japanese cucumbers, a cuke variety not many farmers offer. Welling grows them because he loves to eat them, and he especially likes them as thin slices layered into a sandwich. “No lettuce is necessary,” he says.
Welling harvests these fragile cucumbers young, when they are about an inch in diameter, dark green, and covered with pointy bumps. “A smooth skin will indicate that the cucumbers are past their prime, when their consistency will be more pithy than crunchy, and seeds will have formed,” he says.
Hot sunny weather, well-drained soil, and plenty of water will ensure a bounty of refreshing fruits, and Welling suggests trellising. “It’s very important, as the vines are very long and covered with scratchy bristles, and excessive entanglements can cause the fast-growing cucumbers to be scarred and misshapen.” Check the plants often and keep the fruits picked to ensure a long harvest season.
Welling advises refrigerating these thin-skinned cucumbers in an airtight container right after harvest. “They are about as prone to wilting as leafy greens are. If they already seem a bit wilted, soak them in cold water for a few minutes before drying them with a clean paper towel and refrigerating them.”
July through October
Chris Hay praises the potato as a relatively easy crop to grow, and one that produces a rewarding bounty. “You can even plant sprouted potatoes from your kitchen,” he says, adding that you’ll want organically grown or at least untreated potatoes for that use, since many commercial crops are sprayed with growth inhibitors to prolong shelf life.
“New potatoes are fantastic boiled and mashed or roasted, and their delicate skin need not be peeled,” says Chris, explaining that new potatoes are harvested after the plant flowers but before the above-ground portion has died. New potatoes are best consumed within one or two weeks of harvest.
If you intend to grow potatoes for storage, Chris advises cutting the tops of the plants and leaving the tubers underground for a couple weeks to thicken their skin, which will help protect them during storage. “Storage potatoes, if properly cured, should be kept at 40 degrees and in high humidity, like in a vented plastic bag.”
Chris adds additional tips for growers: “Hill, or move soil on top of your potatoes shortly after they emerge, and again another two to three weeks later. This helps to prevent the sun from reaching the tubers, which produces solanine, a toxic compound that is responsible for the green spots on potatoes. Limit irrigations prior to harvest to help prevent rot.”
Spring through late June
“You really can’t be too early with garlic if you’re going to eat it fresh,” Chris says. “Green garlic is fantastic!”
Chris loves garlic for the great taste it lends to food but says there’s another reason to have it in your diet: “It has powerful antibiotic properties that can be useful in fortifying your immune system against colds and illness. The enzyme that has been most studied to be healthful is released when garlic is exposed to oxygen, so chop it or press it onto your cutting board and wait 10 to 15 minutes before incorporating raw into salad dressings or salsas.”
Garlic, a hardy crop, doesn’t demand much feeding, irrigation, or good soil. But it does require cultivation. Chris cites an old saying: “You either grow garlic or you grow weeds, but not both.” He explains that fall plantings will give you small bulbs by around late March and full-size bulbs sometime in June. “Limit irrigations prior to harvest. Wait too long and you may lose bulbs to rot or fungus.”
To cure your harvested garlic, leave it in a shady, well-ventilated place for a couple weeks to harden the skin. It should hold up for months at room temperature.
July through October
In summer the Say Hay Farm market booth displays a beautiful tableau of peppers. “They add depth to almost any summertime dish,” Chris says. “On the farm, we preserve our hot peppers in cider vinegar and our sweet peppers in oil.”
For cooler East Bay gardens, Chris recommends planting jalapeño or other short-season hot peppers. Most peppers start green and over time ripen to their final color. Jalapeños are often picked green and plump. “The stress marks or cracks are a good sign of a hot jalapeño,” says Chris. “If you let them turn red, they have an added sweetness.”
Sweet bell peppers take three to four months to turn from green to red, yellow, or orange and may need hotter weather and consistent, deep irrigation to reach full size. “Commercial pepper growers may lose up to 50 percent of their crop to cosmetic sunburn,” says Chris, who advises providing plenty of fertilizer early in the plant’s growth to establish a large leaf canopy that will protect the peppers from sunburn.
June through September
Flavorful and flat, Romano beans are a favorite crop at Brookside Farm, where Welling likes to sauté them with garlic and olive oil. If not eaten right away, they should be wrapped and refrigerated, he says, or for longer storage, frozen or pickled.
While the beans can be harvested very young, Welling feels the flavor is best when they are more developed—about the width of an index finger. “The pods should be solid, not puffy, which would indicate that the shells are separating from the seeds and growing tough.”
Gardeners should provide the plants with a warm spot in rich, well-drained soil. Drip irrigation and constant harvesting encourage the plants to keep producing throughout the season. Welling suggests training pole varieties as soon as the vines are long enough to wrap around the poles. “Narrow poles work the best, as they allow the vines to wrap tightly and securely.”
June through August
“The flavor of a good peach is one of the best things about summer,” says Welling, who raises three varieties at Brookside Farm. Galaxy, the first to ripen, is picked from mid-June through July. Strawberry peaches come along in July, followed by Gene Elberta in late July through August.
How to pick the perfect peach at the market? Welling has a lot to say.
“First of all, do not squeeze the fruit at the farmers’ market! This is tantamount to vandalism! This is not as innocuous as kicking the tires of cars at the dealer. It’s more like kicking the windows, scratching the paint, and denting the fenders! It causes irreparable damage. Even if you buy every fruit you squeeze, you are going to have badly bruised and prematurely rotten fruit at home. It is a horrible act of disrespect to squeeze fruit at the farmers’ market and walk away.”
Thus chastened, how can we tell when a peach is ripe by looking, not touching? Here is Welling’s primer to choosing the best peaches to fulfill that summer longing.
Most varieties of peaches—although not all—will show deeper color as they ripen.
With white-flesh peaches, look for a reddish blush. Some may appear a bit greenish, but as long as the blush shows a deep hue, the fruit will be ripe. The greenish ones will have a firmer consistency. If you must have soft white-flesh peaches, look for the ones that do not show any greenish hue at all, but understand that they will be extremely fragile. White peaches do not get any riper after they are picked. They only degrade, and rather quickly. They usually cannot be stored for more than a week, even in refrigeration.
Yellow peaches will be completely devoid of any green color when ripe. Some, such as Sun Crest, will show little reddish blush, but will be a nice yellow when ripe. Yellow peaches will ripen a bit if stored at room temperature.
The shape also indicates a lot about how good and juicy any peach will be. There should be fatness about its proportions. A donut-shape peach, such as the Galaxy, should not be a thin disk like a space-saver spare tire. It should resemble an inflated river raft. A round type of peach should resemble the face of a well-fed baby, rather than that of a gaunt supermodel.
Welling suggests storing peaches stem-end down on a flat, soft, padded surface, so the pressure of the fruit’s weight will be better distributed. If you are inclined to refrigerate them, keep in mind that much of a peach’s flavor is in the aroma, which can dissipate or blend with other smells when the fruit is refrigerated too long. Bagging might reduce the infusion of odors and dissipation of aroma from the fruit, but condensation of moisture in the plastic enclosure may cause rapid growth of mold. Also, it is important not to keep fruit piled up, even in cold storage.
Thinking of planting a peach tree? Welling says you’ll need rich soil with good drainage, and plenty of water. “Hot, sunny, dry weather is important in the months leading up to the time of harvest. Actually, peaches—like all annual tree fruits—are the product of a whole year of weather patterns. A cold winter, followed by a mild spring and a hot summer, will produce the best peaches.”
Learn to prune your trees and identify peach tree pests and diseases including the devastating peach leaf curl, which Welling says is inevitable without human intervention. He also cautions about the twig borer insect. “It not only mars the fruit, but can also kill the trees.”
June through July
Welling grows three varieties of apricots at Brookside Farm, harvesting Robada in June, Orange Red in late June, and Blenheim on into July. He says that most varieties will show a generally orange color with a blush on one side when ripe. Robada’s blush may look purplish, while the Blenheim’s may appear orange even as the other side shows a light green. Don’t squeeze them, and refrigerate as soon as possible.
For home orchardists, Welling says cultural requirements are about the same as for peaches. “Proper pruning is essential. Brown rot—a fungal infection that begins at the blossoms—damages the fruit, and effectively kills the fruiting spurs of the trees.”
Drying, canning, and freezing are all possible ways to preserve peaches and apricots.
So, now it’s time to get out into your garden to harvest or take some time to talk to the folks at the farmers’ markets. Farmers are always happy to share their knowledge and encourage you to perfect your practice of picking quality produce.