Garden to plate can be a waiting game

According to Albert Einstein, time is relative. I once saw a TV interview in which he said, by way of explanation, that time passes more quickly when you spend it with a beautiful woman.

As we all know, time nearly stands still when you are waiting to find out when your delayed plane will take off, or wondering when your peppers are ever going to get ripe.

Seed companies assign “days to harvest” figures to the vegetable varieties they sell, but these are often so speculative that we think of them as abstract concepts, not indicators of when you will actually have a bright red pepper or tomato. Has a tomato ever ripened right on the dot of 64 days or 78 days or whatever magic number was attached to it? Not for me. Even the worst-run airline is more reliable in its posting of arrival times.

But we love numbers, and these particular ones are quite useful when you’re deciding what to grow. You might be able to harvest French breakfast radishes or baby arugula 21 days after sowing it, but a crop of properly matured bottle gourds will take 125. The numbers are fine for gardening in an Einsteinian universe, because they do give you an idea of one plant’s rate of growth and ripening relative to another’s, especially when you are comparing different tomato varieties for instance. If you live in a short season area, you’d look in the catalog for those with low numbers after them.

Of course the term “short season” also has its relativity quotient. It could mean that you live in a cold climate where there are not enough warm days to ripen a long-season tomato. Or a rainy, foggy or cloudy one without enough sun. It might mean that you have delayed sending away for your seeds, or not gotten around to sowing them on time, hence your season is short. Or you might just be someone who is short on patience and unable to postpone gratification.

So many variables come into play. Unusually cold, hot, rainy or dry weather can skew the results. Too much nitrogen in your soil could make your tomatoes run to leaf rather than fruit. Crops sown early often take their time (especially if they’ve been set out in cold soil), whereas late-sown ones get anxious about the approaching fall and rush to make seed. Ever notice how pigweed in early summer might get 5 feet tall before blooming, but a 2-inch plant in September can have seedheads on it? Or how your carefully staggered broccoli plantings are all heading up in October?

“Early” isn’t always what you want, of course. Would you prefer a Brussels sprout variety you can harvest in 90 days or a late one that will hold a long time for early winter picking? It depends. Perhaps you’ll have room for both. And with many leaf or root crops, maturity dates don’t matter much. Mature kale might take 90 days, but it’s edible at 30. If you crave fresh beets or carrots, you may pull them young even if they’re the storage type. It’s only the fruiting crops where that magic date denotes a perfect moment.

But exactly how does this designation work? There is a lot of confusion about vegetable math. Do you count days to harvest from the time the seed was sown? Answer: yes. What if it’s sown indoors and set out as a transplant? Do you still count from the sowing date? Answer: no. You start from the transplant date. Then how do you interpret the number if it’s a crop that can be started either way, such as broccoli or melons? Answer: by guessing.

Just out of curiosity, I phoned 12 seed companies at random and asked whoever answered “How do you count days to harvest when it’s a transplanted crop?” Four of them said to count from sowing, the rest said from the time of transplanting.

A few companies make a point of explaining the matter in their catalogs. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in its melon section, says, “Days to Maturity: From transplanting; add about 10 days if direct-seeded.” Pinetree Garden Seeds says that its dates are from transplanting, where applicable, and are “based on our experience growing the plants in our Trial Gardens here in Maine.” It notes that as a result, these may differ from what the grower might actually experience, and from dates given in other catalogs.

For my part, I plan to keep following the Damrosch Uncertainty Principle — “Who knows when a vegetable will ripen?” — as well as its two corollaries, “Even if a crop takes too long, try it anyway” and “If picking and tasting vegetables produces a positive result, bring them into the kitchen and eat them.” It’s worked so far.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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