To reach this stage of the season, gardeners have been working hard since around Patriots’ Day. We’ve been diligently preparing the soil, planting, fertilizing, weeding and watering.

Now, for a week or two, it’s time to relax and enjoy the fruits – and vegetables and flowers – of our labor.

That does not mean you can’t do some work – gardening is fun, after all. But it’s also time to celebrate Independence Day, and this year, as the pandemic recedes, you can do so with friends and family. In our family, a big part of the celebration is eating food we harvest from our own gardens.

Peas are a Fourth of July tradition in Maine, of course. To get them by the summer’s most important holiday, you have to plant them by Patriots’ Day. We are growing three kinds of shelling peas this summer, two kinds of snap peas and one snow pea. We ate some of the snow peas on June 13 – a super-early harvest.

When to pick peas is a matter of debate. A neighbor of my wife Nancy’s grandmother wouldn’t eat peas unless they were barely developed, about the size of BBs. He’d stalk farm markets for the youngest peas. Yes, they were tender, but to my mind those peas had yet to develop enough sweetness.

Peas growing in columnist Tom Atwell’s garden. You should be harvesting them right about now. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

I like to pick shelling peas when the pods are still a bright green and smooth; the peas inside the pods are also bright green with no cracking in the skin and absolutely sweet. I remember to pick the first ones of the season at that point, but too often later on, I get busy and forget. Then, the pods turn lighter green and bumpy and the peas themselves get starchy. I vow this year to pick all the peas at the perfect time and to give them away if we can’t eat them all ourselves. I’ve made the same vow in the past, though, and failed; we’ll see how it goes.

Snap peas are forgiving. Pick the pods early to use in stir fries and salads. If they get a little plumper, with the skin smooth and a bright green, eat them as intended: sweet, edible-pod peas, raw, lightly steamed or grilled. If they get too large, shell the peas (it’s a bit more difficult than with shelling peas) and eat them as you would traditional English peas.

Peas aren’t the only things that are early this year. Frankly, I’m worried about our strawberries.

We did our first picking, only a pint, but enough for the next day’s breakfast cereal, on June 7. We grow Sparkle, a tradition in Nancy’s family, which is an early variety. Usually we get our first picking about June 20. Next year, we may have to plant a late variety, especially if the Sparkles have finished producing by the Fourth. Strawberry shortcake, after all, is another July 4 Maine tradition. Planting a later variety won’t help for a while, though, because you can’t pick strawberries from seedlings until three years after you’ve planted them.

Sure they look adorable, but watch out. Chipmunks can wreck havoc with your strawberries. John Ewing/Staff photographer

Harvesting our strawberries has gotten a bit tricky, mostly because chipmunks have taken over our yard. I pick strawberries every evening, taking berries that are at least half red. If I leave the berries to ripen fully on the plant, the chipmunks wander through the patch and take a single bite out of every ripe strawberry. Are they just being spiteful? I’d be less upset if they ate the whole thing, but they seem bent on damaging as much of the crop as they can.

Over the 24 hours after picking, most of the strawberries will ripen in a box in the garage. I can’t explain this; scientifically, I’ve read that strawberries won’t ripen off the vine. But from personal experience, I’ve found if a strawberry is at least half red, it will in a day turn fully red.

Spring salad is another vegetable option for your July 4 table. We’ve been eating our own lettuce for months because we planted it in a cold frame (a mini-greenhouse) in March.

We plant leaf lettuce, not head lettuce, cut-and-come-again varieties like Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, Red Sails and Trout Back. We also planted some cut-and-come-again mixes. We plant the seeds closely together because we know that in late April, we will be lusting after any fresh vegetable and we’ll be happy to have the excess. To harvest the lettuce, even though it may be just 2 inches tall, we’ll cut all the leaves of several plants down to ground level. The lettuces growing beside these cut stems will continue growing, while the lettuces we cut will, as the season progresses, replenish themselves and produce more lettuce.

In theory, the March planting should last through the entire growing season, but in my own experience, I’ve found the bed gets tired in late July, so I do a second planting of lettuce in early June. It needs regular watering and does not produce as lushly as the early planting, but it gets us through fall.

These radishes came from a local farmers market. If you’re growing your own, they are probably ready to pick now. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Lettuce alone does not a salad make. While salad staples like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers aren’t ready yet, items you can harvest now, in late June, include radishes, tiny carrots (which I prefer to big ones), onion tops, garlic scapes and snow peas. Throw a few strawberries into your salad, too, for sweetness and color.

About now is also when you can start enjoying new potatoes with your meals. Fingerling potatoes are a favorite variety for early potatoes. We usually boil or steam them, but you can also cook them on a grill, tossing them with a little oil, herbs and/or spices, and grilling them in an aluminum pie plate. Our favorite early potato is Red Thumb from Fedco, but any new potato – the term for potatoes dug before they are fully developed – is wonderful in early summer.

To find small potatoes without hurting the main crop, you can use a trowel to dig into the side of the hill. I’ve done it with some success. Dig at the side of a potato row, gently, until you find small potatoes at the edge. It seems like it takes forever and it’s a little complicated, but I like the results.

But there’s an easier method. Each fall while digging potatoes, I accidentally leave some in the soil. They sprout the following summer, producing a perfectly healthy potato plant – just not where we intended to plant them. We leave them alone until about now, at which point I dig up entire plants until I have enough for a meal. (Be careful when weeding that you don’t mistakenly pull these potatoes out.)

You can also continue harvesting perennial vegetables, like asparagus and rhubarb. Asparagus is my favorite vegetable, and we started eating it in early May this year – I hesitate to call that climate change, but certainly everything is early. The key to perennial vegetables is not to harvest too much because the plants need the leaves to feed the roots, to stock up energy for the next year. You can’t harvest every stalk and expect the plants to live through the winter. Stop regularly harvesting asparagus and rhubarb about now, leaving at least one third of the plants.

At this time of year a few years ago, my friend and high school classmate Lee Cox Graham told me she actually has to leave the asparagus farm in Woodstock that she’d started for retirement income. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to resist harvesting the tasty spears. But, she said, if you have at least three tall asparagus plants feeding the roots and you find spears sprouting late in the summer, you can cut enough spears for an asparagus feast, your last until the following spring.

When poets and novelists write about harvest time, they want you to think of harvest in conjunction with shortening days, cooler temperatures and end-of-year bounty in crops like corn and winter squash.

I’m not a poet, just a gardener who happens to write (maybe a reporter who happens to garden), but I know that harvest time began a few weeks ago.

I am thankful for that.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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