The Summer Garden Harvest Revs Up

Tomatoes and toaster
Tomatoes are in full swing by late summer. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

As summer starts to wind down, the harvest revs up. August finds many gardeners harvesting daily, as the hard work of spring and early summer is transformed into bountiful crops. Vegetables, fruits, and herbs hover at the peak of ripeness, almost crying out to be picked. Flowers can be dried for winter arrangements and next year’s garden waits in the wings in the form of seeds ready for collection. In the midst of all that abundance, the biggest challenge maybe finding time to capture and process the plentiful harvest while keeping the garden productive well into fall.

Vegetable Harvest

Tomatoes, squashes, eggplant, peppers, beans, cucumbers, broccoli and a host of other summer vegetables require regular harvesting to keep plants productive. Earlier generations of gardeners spent late summer afternoons, evenings and weekends canning or drying the surplus produce. These techniques, plus freezing, are still an option, but so is donating extras to local food pantries or soup kitchens. Non-gardening neighbors may appreciate gifts of fresh produce as well.

Basket of fresh herbs and vegetables
A basket of fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden.

In between harvesting sessions, keep production high by enriching the soil around plants such as cucumber, squash, and broccoli with fertilizers like Fafard Garden Manure Blend or Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost Blend. After mid-August, gardeners in northern areas with short fall growing seasons should remove excessive bushy growth and flowers from tomato plants, so the plants’ energies go into enlarging and ripening existing fruits before frost.

Herb Harvest

Harvest herbs, especially vigorous types, like basil, regularly, to ensure a continuing supply of young leaves. Cut off any flower stalks as soon as they appear, because the flowering process gives herbs a bitter taste. If plants have become leggy or unwieldy, cut them back by about one third, to stimulate bushy new growth.

Harvest herbs in the early morning, after the dew has dried. The easiest way to dry parsley, sage, rosemary, lavender, and other herbs that are shrubby or have a relatively low moisture content, is to hang cut stems upside down in a warm dry place. Basil and other mint family members with higher moisture levels dry best when the leaves are separated from the stems and arranged on trays to dry. All herbs are ready to store when the leaves can be crumbled easily.

Oakleaf Hydrangea
The aging blooms of oakleaf hydrangea turn pink as they dry and are great for cutting.

Fruit Harvest

August is the time to harvest figs, some melon varieties, late-bearing blueberries, everbearing strawberries, plums and even the last of the cane fruits, like raspberries and blackberries. During the harvest period, use netting to protect ripening fruits from hungry birds. After the fruit has been gathered, prune back fruiting canes and check near the soil line for signs of cane borers. Remove and discard any infested wood.

Flower Harvest

Many varieties of flowers, grasses and seed heads are ready to be harvested and preserved for crafts and indoor arrangements. As with herbs, the most popular preservation method is air drying, which works best for flowers like strawflower, yarrow and globe amaranth that contain relatively little moisture. Flowers with higher moisture content can be submerged in a granular desiccant compound, pressed between layers of absorbent paper, or preserved using a glycerin solution.

Harvest flowers just as they open, choosing unblemished specimens that feature graceful forms and growth habits. Strip off all leaves before tying and hanging flowers for air drying. Hydrangeas, especially “peegee” (Hydrangea paniculata), oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), and mophead (Hydrangea macrophylla) types, may also be ready for August harvest. Choose flower panicles that have already begun to dry on the plant, with petal edges that are somewhat crisp to the touch. In the case of white-flowered peegee and oakleaf types, the flower panicles will have turned pink. Many mophead hydrangeas will display greenish petals.

Seed Harvest

Beginning in August, save seeds of heirloom or unusual varieties of edible and ornamental plants. Some seeds can be harvested “dry” by simply removing dried seed pods or receptacles from stems and shaking or blowing out seeds. Others, like tomato seeds, must be gathered “wet” and soaked in water, along with some attached plant material. During the soaking process, seeds tend to collect in the bottom of the soaking vessel, while other plant debris floats to the top. Wet-gathered seeds are then air dried. All seeds should be stored in cool, dry, dark conditions and labeled according to seed type and date of collection.

August marks the beginning of the harvest cycle that brings the growing season full circle. The month’s “to do” list may be long, but for most gardeners, the end result makes the labor worthwhile.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg

Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

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