It’s tomato season, and all the planning and planting, careful thinning and staking should be paying off now. The trusses of red, juicy tomatoes are ready to pick. Choose the reddest ones that give just a little when gently squeezed. The colorful new or heirloom varieties in shades of yellow, pink, or striped red and green must be judged by the depth of their color, whatever it is, and again the gentle squeeze to determine their ripeness. All should come off the plant easily, their stems separating at the first joint. Get them into the kitchen for salsas, salads, and more, but they are nearly irresistible warm and juicy in the garden before they even make it to the pantry.
Commercially grown tomatoes are the ultimate taste disappointment. So it’s no wonder that they are the most popular vegetable for home gardens. If you’ve ever had a good tomato, you won’t ever want a mediocre one again. It’s not too late to plant tomato plants, and you will find a wider selection of varieties than you will ever see at the supermarket. Many nurseries and home gardening centers have plants in bloom and even in fruit to pop into your garden. Summer lasts well into September, and some years even later, giving tomatoes at least three months to deliver up their heavenly bounty.
The second treats of summer are the peppers. Either mild or hot, picked green or mature and red, the number of pepper varieties rivals that of tomatoes. Some of the more interesting and flavorful varieties are not available in stores. One tip for a long and delicious harvest is to pick them often and leave only the most promising to reach full maturity. This clues the plant to continue to bloom and ultimately produce a larger crop. By leaving them all on, the flowering cycle is shortened as all the energies of the plant go into ripening the seeds (that’s its purpose in life, after all).
Second best to harvesting a few steps from the garden is a trip to the farmers markets. A wide variety of tomatoes and peppers are well-represented at the markets. Tasty peppers, from bells of all colors to hot and spicy jalapeños, habaneros, and serranos, are on display, too.
Most gardens don’t have enough room for a summer’s worth of sweet corn. Buying ears of this last treat at the farmers market ensures they will make it to the pot or grill before their natural sugars have been converted to starch. Luckily, recently developed cultivars delay the inevitable loss of sweetness for days at a time, so rushing the ears from the stalk to the pot in minutes can be prolonged by a day or two. The husks should be fresh and the silk brown, but not shriveled.
Shop at the farmers markets for freshness and flavor, but take some time to meet the farmers themselves and ask questions about which varieties they grow and where they are growing them. They are knowledgeable and friendly, so don’t be afraid to engage them. Enjoy the greatest tastes of summer by keeping it local.