Question: In seed catalogs, when you see days to harvest (for example Days to harvest: 45), is this date calculated from the moment we sow the vegetable?
Answer: It’s a bit more complicated than that.
You often see this kind of mention (days to harvest, days to maturity or simply “xx days”) in virtual and printed seed catalogs and on seed packets. Days to harvest is actually more appropriate than days to maturity, as we actually pick most of our vegetables before they reach full maturity. (We harvest wax beans, cucumbers, summer squash, etc. long before they mature, most leaf vegetables while they’re still “young and tender” and root vegetables the first year although they’re biennials and actually “mature” in year 2.)
At any rate, the terms apply to vegetables… and have two different meanings.
Case 1: If the vegetable in question is one supposed to be sown directly in the garden, such as carrots, beans or peas, days to harvest means pretty much what you’d think it would mean: the vegetable will be ready to harvest in the number of days indicated.
Case 2: If it’s a vegetable normally started indoors, such as a pepper, a tomato or eggplant, the days to harvest starts ticking from the moment when we transplant the vegetable into the garden. So a “67-day” tomato will actually need about 6 to 8 weeks of indoor growing and 67 days of additional growing in the garden before the first harvest.
Not 100% Exact
In addition, it’s best to use “days to harvest” as a guide rather than a certainty.
When conditions are good (usually when the season is relatively warm and sunny and it rains regularly, but not excessively), a 58-day vegetable will be ready to harvest in … 58 days! On the other hand, if it’s unusually cool or cloudy, if the soil is soggy or, on the contrary, if it’s excessively hot and dry, the crop will be delayed for a few days, even a week or more.
Also, the definition of “maturity” varies from one individual to another. Maybe you like your carrots small? If so, you can decide to harvest the carrot X at 52 days, even if the label says 63 days. Or, possibly your goal is to harvest large carrots for winter storage and if so, you like to leave them in the ground until late fall, say 102 days, rather than the 63 days cited.
How to Use The Information
Given that days to harvest are not completely reliable, why do seed companies even bother printing them?
First, to give the gardener a basic idea of the situation. If you want to make ratatouille, you’ll need to guesstimate plantings so the different vegetables mature at the same time. Or maybe you want to time your vegetables so they ripen after you get back from your summer vacation?
Even more important to many gardeners is that you can use days to harvest to compare different varieties. Do you want a beet that matures early, for summer eating, or late, for winter storage?
Maybe you want two crops of the same vegetable to spread the harvest over as much of the summer as possible? If so, choose a variety that matures quickly and another much slower to produce and sow both at the same time for a long, long harvest window.
Gardeners in colder regions are the ones most needy of days to harvest information. You need to make sure the plant will even have time to reach harvesting size. I live in a colder region than most gardeners and, for that reason, wouldn’t even consider sowing corn (maize) with 90 or 110 days to harvest: it’s too risky. 70-day corn is usually the best I dare trust and, even so, I prefer varieties with about 60 days to harvest!
What About Flowers?
The same information applies to flowers, especially annuals, except the usual term is “days to bloom” or “days to flower” (or yet again just “xx days”). Theoretically, the same rules apply. If the flower is supposed to be sown directly outdoors, such as cornflowers or sunflowers, the days begin to count from the time they are sown in the garden. If the flower is normally sown indoors several weeks ahead (petunias, begonias, impatiens, etc.), the count starts at the moment of planting out.
That said, many catalogs and seed packets don’t indicate the number of days to bloom, but instead provide the blooming period, say “July to September” or “early to late summer.” I find that unfortunate, because it doesn’t really give clear picture of the situation. It’s just so very useful to know how long it would take between the time you sow the seed and the beginning of flowering that I tend not to buy seeds that don’t give me that information.
Days to harvest or days to bloom: information worth looking for when you choose seed … once you understand what they mean!