[NOTE: This article is presented in its original unedited version; however, in the years since its first publication there have been studies conducted which call into question the effects of "rinsing" or "flusing" techniques on the quality of the final product.]
When To Chop
When is a crop ready for harvest? That question can only be answered through experience and deep observation. Start your research by checking websites for similar plants, and consult other growers who have worked with the same cultivar. Temperatures, nutrients, and plant health can all effect the harvest schedule, so timing may vary by a few days from one harvest to the next.
Once you have worked with the same strain for three or more harvests, you will be able to recognize color and fragrances that indicate ripeness. Even plants that stay green through harvest will change color slightly. Green Zebra tomatoes start out green and are harvested after that have matured to a slightly different green. Growers familiar with this strain can see the change from green to bright green, because experience has been their teacher. Use a loupe or microscope to view subtle changes in color. Harvest one third of your garden, while the rest grows for three more days. Harvest another third, and let the last few plants grow for another three days. Now you have three different harvest times to compare, so you can know when to harvest the next crop.
Stop feeding your plants for one to two weeks before harvest. Keep watering, but omit the nutrients. Plants store fertilizers before converting them into biomass. If you keep feeding in the days before harvest, the stored fertilizers will still be in the plant when you consume it. This will drastically reduce quality. Highly inoculated, low NPK compost tea is a great addition to the rinse cycle. Use a tea with high levels of beneficial microorganisms, but minuscule levels of nutrients (example: NPK 0.03 - 0.03 - 0.03). Beneficial bacteria and fungi will break down nutrients in the root zone so leftover plant food can be rinsed away.
Chelating agents put a non-stick coating on fertilizer salts. When chelates are used in the rinse week, salts become loosey-goosey instead of stuck to roots or soil. Those salts can now be rinsed away with water. Ask your local hydro shop for their best rinsing agent. These chelate blends are tailor-made for removing unwanted salts from your garden. Filtered water should be used over chlorine-rich tap water. Chlorine can diminish yield and quality.
Use these products in succession for the best possible result. On day one of your rinse cycle, give your garden twice the normal amount of water combined with compost tea. On day two, give them water. Begin using the rinsing supplement (chelate blend) on the third day. This step should be done with at least twice the required amount of water, for encapsulation and removal of unwanted elements. After introducing the chelates, simply rinse the growing medium with filtered water for the next five or more days. Each time you water, use the same amount as your containers. For instance, a garden with ten five-gallon buckets requires 50 gallons of water each day. For hydro systems, simply empty the reservoir and refill it with water daily. This rinse plan will give you the cleanest tasting harvest you have ever experienced!
Many culinary gardeners enjoy dried herbs. For the best possible taste, these herbs must be thoroughly dried. You may think your sage is dry after three days, but the stems are holding moisture that your fingers cannot detect. Let it dry another three to four days before storing it in a clean mason jar. Air, light, and bacteria are the enemies of dried herbs. Seal your herbs in glass jars with airtight lids, and keep them tucked away. Bacterial damage is the result of moisture, and it smells terrible! Thoroughly dry the plant matter and periodically check stored herbs for dampness.
Often the best flavor and potency is achieved after a harvest has been on the shelf for a few weeks or months. Some growers will consume a harvest before it can achieve the complex aromas and flavors that come with age. Try to store some samples for two months, six months, and nine months. With experimentation you can isolate the ideal age for your particular variety of herbs.